Thursday, December 26, 2013


The reason I go on and on about sensorium and structure is that for me it has a lot to do with writing.  When I taught high school English (’61- '66), I used a series called “Enjoying English” which I now realize must have been chosen by Phil Ward, who was our superintendent but had previously taught English. I see there are used copies on Amazon. One of the consultants was Wallace Stegner.  

In those days the preoccupation was with the “c’s.”  Conformity, completeness, correctness, clarity, cleanliness -- the kind of thing that makes good secretaries.  Creativity was just beginning to come into the picture.  Economy of language was big, because of Hemingway and Steinbeck, but in my circles Faulkner was beyond the pale.  His subjects were depraved, his sentences were too long, and anyway he was a drunk.  We still worked to improve our handwriting.

But there was a brilliant approach to writing in this EE series, which was about what I’m now calling the sensorium.  It addressed preparation for writing.  With my own “Method acting” interpretation, my standard operation was to think up an evocative topic -- summer or horses -- and assign it but not let the kids write for about ten minutes until they had sat silently thinking about it, not writing.  Then they were to write a list of three examples related to the topic for each of the five senses.  It was easy for the high-functioning students, esp. the ones who tried to be shocking.  The low-functioners struggled.  This is the sensorium step and my theory was and is that these kids were shutting themselves away from ordinary life, trying not to feel, sliding along.  If any of them was using drugs other than alcohol, I didn’t know it.  There was no television.  Their occupation of choice was basketball, not the game but the repetitious moves.  They were exposed to a lot of abuse and violence.  I was very impressed by Sylvia Ashton-Warner and would not have minded if they wrote about darkness, but they were pretty covert, didn't attend much anyway.

When they got their list made, their assignment was to choose the best of the three examples of each sense: a smell, a taste, a sight, a sound, a sensation on the skin, and organize them into a paragraph according to some principle: time, first to last; space, back to front or the opposite; etc.  Then write the paragraph a second time correcting all misspellings, bad usage, etc..  At this point they could ask a neighbor or me for help. The result was usually pretty respectable.

At the same time the kids were doing this stuff, I was enrolled in the Famous Writers correspondence course which was eventually closed down for being a scam, a con, a hustle.  I had perfect faith that it would launch my career as a famous writer.  The first assignment was something sensible.  I did it.  The second one was a little fancier and I flexed my high school muscle.  WHAM!  Went down like a hog-tied calf.  Never recovered.  That was the scam: get the money, then insult the student so thoroughly -- which wasn’t hard since ego was involved -- that they never wrote again but it was all their own fault.  If they didn’t do the assignments, the school could hardly be blamed.

When I first began to blog, comments were often like those of the FW teachers: put-downs, sarcasms, snarky sophomore stuff.  Then that became politically incorrect but no one can figure out what IS politically correct so they stopped saying anything except to correct facts, which I appreciate.  But I gag at social media:  all the little positive sayings, the candified encouragements, the quasi-religion with bows on top.

In my youth “good” writing was that which fit the Harold Bloom canon, often pretentious and not exactly suitable for ordinary people.  Then there was the book-of-the-month stream which was popular and immersive.  And another stream was pre-television and often sprang from GI Joe reading on his bunk.  Mostly action and crime, incl. porn.  About the time I hit college there was a new stream, a why-not realm of possibility full of wild images, defiance, and total disregard of the rules of intelligibility which turned out not to be that useful anyway.  Could anything be any more baffling than Ezra Pound cantos?  A lot of this was in the rainy Northwest, possibly because people were indoors a lot.  Similar to Ireland but with less peat smoke.

All through high school I was in “enriched” classes which meant that we’d already mastered good grammar and usage, generally because we came from families who spoke well.  When reading literature, familiarity counted more than analysis, but for me to find modern poetry was to fall in love, a revelation about what words could do: fling open the sensorium.  My teachers were weaker on structure, but so was modern poetry.  In previous posts I’ve told how I signed up for writing class at NU and was taunted, mostly for not fitting the stereotype of the brilliant young man, which meant I put my energy into theatre instead.

A part of the biggest of the Scriver dioramas -- about prairie.

And I’ve also described what became the keystone of my writing since then, but maybe it bears repeating.  Bob Scriver was just creating a room of miniature dioramas of the major game animals of Montana and we needed captions.  I struggled to write a paragraph that would fit on the space, that would teach something about the animals, simple enough for kids to read but evocative enough to interest adults.  I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote again, while far less educated people whipped out a few direct sentences a lot better than mine.  The light came on.

Subject matter after that was going to be natural history and I started a column in the Glacier Reporter, the local weekly paper.  Somehow it drifted into politics and in a year or so I was fired.  “The Merry Scribbler.”  I never learned my lesson in that regard.  Ten years of preaching didn’t discourage me, though writing for an audience that sits there looking at you is VERY educational.

So what’s my advice?  Remember that buffalo jump pattern I wrote about earlier?  The broad field of grazing and accumulating, the pinch point that must be done exactly right so that the prey instead of the predator goes over the cliff, and then the hard work of parting-out, boiling-down, curing.  At 75 that’s what I spend my time doing nowadays, kindly supported by SSI.  All my life I looked forward to this time.  I don’t give a damn whether it sells, though it would be nice if it did.  I do care about whether people see something they value.  Sometimes it’s just information.  I try not to be boring.

Most people do not understand writers.  I mean, they understand the “type” as portrayed in the media, but they do not have any idea what goes on IN the writer.  It’s not necessarily something that can be taught, although the Enjoying English stuff about concrete detail, conciseness, completeness, and so on can probably be taught.  On the other hand, I’ve never mastered cleanliness.  My printouts are always smudged.  I blame it on the cats.  

My advice is the same as for everything:  take a close look, grow your brain around it, chose your pinch point and jump.  Then sort the debris.  Don’t let anyone stop you.  Just do it.

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