Mar 202013

manuscript pixA few weeks ago I read Nick Flynn’s memoirs, first The Ticking Is the Bomb and then Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The Ticking stayed in my bag at least a week before I opened it. A friend had given it to me, Nick Flynn was coming to read in our program. The day before the event, she reminded it to me: “did you read the book? I think you would really be interested by the way he weaves together the idea of torture, the impending birth of his daughter and memories of his childhood.” That night, guiltily, I started reading. And, as predicted by my friend, I was taken by the storie(s), but I was even more fascinated by the structure of the text. At first I had doubts: for sure I was going to be lost in the chronological abysses existing between the chapters, unable to retain the names of so many people, names thrown at me as if they were old acquaintances. And where were we? Texas, Boston, New York, Istanbul, Brooklyn?

Soon it did not matter. I was caught in the maze of Flynn’s brain, putting together the piece of this complex puzzle with ease and cautiousness, feeling that it might explode before it was time, before the last word, feeling the ticking of this bomb-text. And increasingly intrigued: how did he transform this string of fragments into something which meaning went beyond the sum of its pieces? Part of the answer I found on page 123, in a chapter titled “the invisible city”,  where Flynn describes how he put together his previous memoir - Another Bullshit Night: 

At one point I laid each chapter out on the terrazzo floor, eighty-three in all, arranged them like the map of an imaginary city. Some of the piles of paper, I imagined, were freestanding buildings, some were clustered into neighborhoods, and some were open space. On the outskirts of course, were the tenements – abandoned, ramshackled. The spaces between the piles were the roads, the alleyways, the footpaths, the rivers. The bridges to other neighborhoods, the bridges out. I’d walk along them, naming each building (tower of man-pretending-not-to-be-homeless), each neighborhood (the heights, the lowlands, the valley of lost names), each passageway (path of those-claiming-happy-childhood). In this way I could get a sense if one could find their way through the book, if the map I was creating made sense, if it was a place one would want to spend some time in. If one could wander there, if one could get lost.

We often talk about the relationship between writing and place, but I had never yet encountered such a powerful evocation of the manuscript as a place, as one of these “invisible cities” originally created by Italo Calvino. In a previous post, I talked about the line, the main road on which a writer – in that case Cheryl Strayed – had hang the different pieces of her life, of her journey. Just like with Strayed on the trail, one could get lost in the narrow streets of Flynn’s city, but it would be worth the journey.

[picture: mapping out Metamorphoses of Palm Trees (Mindmade Books, 2011) ]

Feb 192011

This summer, thanks to another blog, I discovered Wordle. This online program allows us to create “word clouds” from a list pasted into the generator’s window: once the cloud is generated one can apply different fonts, layouts, color scheme, and tweak it until satisfaction, and then the image can be saved as a pdf, printed, etc.. I did it with a list of words I created when starting to work on one of the projects that occupies my time right now. Why this list? Because I wanted to have an idea of the vocabulary used in a series of poems I was studying, envisioning that I could add as a constrain on my own creation the sole use of those words. I dropped that idea, keeping only the form as a working tool, but I kept the list, as it drew a world in which I had to try to imagine living. Hence my enthusiasm when I discovered Wordle, a way to visualize the words, to play with chance (we do not have any control on the way the words are arranged, nor on the size of the font for each one), and to have in front of me (literally propped up on my desk) the roots of my work. Because, if I am not going to use these words specifically, the world they point to is the one I want to decipher, and bring to verse, the visual is here a strong support to focus and think. I have to admit that I have always be fascinated by the visual representation of ideas, and always dreamed of using programs such as Mindmanager to map out my work. Unfortunately, I was never able to make it work for the kind of writing I do, and kept jotting down notes on pieces of papers strategically placed around my computer… Today I found another word cloud generator, Tagxedo, a bit more complex than Wordle but with more options to compose the cloud, and maybe more importantly more options to save it (from Wordle you can only create a pdf or print) : the image you see here was created with Tagxedo and saved as a JPG. Go ahead, try it, and create your own mental maps…