In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, bestselling horror writer Stephen King offers advice that anyone—and especially dissertation students—can take to heart. He advocates an escape from the soul-destroying interminable rewriting of the first paragraph of the introduction that plagues many of us in academe–and that can crush many a novelist as well. The tendency to re-re-re-write has certainly hobbled me in my previous writing. Stephen King advocates a very different approach. He calls it the “Crummy First Draft” (CFD).
King actually uses a harsher word. (Use your imagination, folks! The word is not the point.) His book walks you through some exercises and examples. His main idea is that, when we start a book, there is often a moment of exciting clarity. And if we begin to revise at that point, we can kill that clarity. He advocates trying to capture the whole big idea (or, for fiction, the plot) in one rush, and then returning later to fill in, revise, add side thoughts, fill in data or research, work in what you forgot in your rush to capture that insight of the first, fresh, original inspiration.
He breaks apart the CFD process: it’s rather like those Renaissance painters who began with a very simple under-sketch, laying out the entire composition on the canvas, providing a structure and a support for all the layers and layers of paint to come later. In a CFD, you write in broad strokes. You write like the wind, without a pause, while you are excited by your own idea (not sick to death of it), while you are so on fire with your insight that nothing, absolutely nothing, can stop you—not even your own persnickety futzing with this or that qualifying adjective and adverb.
King suggests you remove yourself from your everyday life for a short, specified time–and just write, without pause. Don’t worry about anything that will make you tarry. Don’t know a fact? Leave a place holder [“FIND AND FILL IN FACT HERE”]. You need to do some archival research? [“ARCHIVE”]. Don’t obsess over a word—save semiotic and semantic niceties for the second, third, and fourth drafts when you already have the arc of your argument firmly drawn. If you know you need to pay attention later signal it with “WORD CHOICE “ or something else that will attract your attention later
A CFD should feel like an adventure—it is almost automatic writing. Let yourself enjoy the process, let yourself be as free and imaginative as you can be. You can pull it all back and harness it all in later. Have fun with it. Go wild! But, because you might have a serious thought or two you want to follow up on later, be kind: leave yourself notes that will help you do that revision work later. You don’t want to get lost in the woods during the CFD; you want to leave markings along the trail. Don’t stop too long . . . but leave notes to yourself every step of the way.
Here’s a tactic I’ve developed (even before this CFD actually): If I find a website or a blog or article that I like, something I wish to spend time with later, or even a Tweet or Facebook post or something else in social media, it’s very easy to lose it or to forget why I saved it in the first place. Even using bookmarks and other tools, I can sometimes come back later and have no idea what struck me as interesting before. So I’ve developed the habit of cutting and pasting something relevant that I find on line right into the place where it seems to fit, as is, with some kind of annotation about its ultimate, potential usefulness. But, it’s scary to think one can inadvertently plagiarize. It has happened to many famous scholars. So my best trick is to cut and paste these into my own work not only with quotation marks (which can easily get lost) but also in an outrageous color (I like to use fuchsia) or in a goofy font I’d never use for my own drafts (such as sans serif). That way, if there is a mishap and the citation is lost, I know at a glance the text is someone else’s. This technique, which is so easy I don’t even have to think about it, is a great reminder, later, to double check. (I also last week asked my research assistant to run a few pages I didn’t remember writing through a plagiarism detector to make sure they were mine. They were! I didn’t remember them. Better safe than sorry. With a CFD you write so fast you sometimes don’t remember, at least not until the second or third or fourth draft.).
You don’t produce a CFD to save time. You do it to write the very best, most passionate, most clear-sighted book you possibly can–and with the least amount of unproductive anguish. A CFD lets you tell your whole story when it is freshest and when you are freshest.
Having the CFD done before the anguish of revising begins is a tension and stress reliever. Just to see 250 or 300 pages, however crude they may be, sitting there in a box is a wonder. You can edit, you can revise, you can storyboard and move things around later. But you’ve got this. You’ve got the assembly, as they would say in film world. You have the rough cut.
Later, you can fiddle that first paragraph into stupor. You can futz until you no longer remember why you wanted to write a book or a dissertation or an article or a chapter in the first place. You can feel ready to bang your head against the wall: why did you ever think you wanted to write this book? why did you want to be a writer? why did you think you wanted this profession? Why? Why? When you reach that inevitable place in the writing process (who hasn’t?), your own CFD is there to rescue you: you have the 250 other pages of the CFD to reassure you that there is really a book there. (How many writers have convinced themselves there isn’t a book, after spending a week revising one paragraph?)
You can lose yourself in the weeds of your own revisions. A CFD lets you move out of the weeds, it lets you fly. And then when revising has you back in the weeds again, you can read to another part of your very own CFD and inspire yourself all over again. That’s the key. You—you and only you—wrote the CFP.
You flew once.
You will fly again.
The Gift of an Artist/Writer’s Residency
To reiterate: I’ve never used the Stephen King-approved CFD method before. I should also mention that I’m a scaredy cat so I’ve never read a Stephen King novel. But I am grateful for much of the advice in On Writing. He even ends the book by showing two versions of a story, an early draft and a later one, to show what a difference his own editing process makes. It’s fascinating, and few writers are so generous with their process.
I tried the CFD method this month because I was given a glorious opportunity: for 33 astonishing days I was a Fellow at the Liguria Study Center, of the Bogliasco Foundation. You can write a CFD in much less luxurious circumstances, I hasten to add. I happened to have been given the gift of a lifetime and didn’t want to squander it. So the rest of this blog post is about this wonderful Foundation, what it offers to writers and artists and scholars, and it is a tribute to the particularly talented, dedicated group of artists with whom I had the pleasure to spend a month. Their commitment to their craft, often against great odds, was certainly part of what made me want to write a great book that is partly about the absolute centrality of the arts and humanities to a world of technology and to higher education.
There is no question that part of my investment in starting over, in beginning my book from page 1 and with new passion, was because of how much I admire what these artists represent, who they are, and what good they accomplish in the world. I aspire to write a book as inspiring as the Bogliasco Foundation and the artists it supports.
I am determined to help reverse the dismal process of higher education defunding happening everywhere: of arts and humanities disregard throughout education (Kindergarten through professional school and worldwide); of my own despair that so many secure and established professors lament neoliberalism but refuse themselves to disrupt their own status quo (so fully grounded in Taylorist principles and so much based on income inequality that is increased, not decreased, by what Lani Guinier calls the “tyranny of meritocracy”); of my distress at the thirty-year process of defunding public higher education as a public good; and of my equal distress at the “education deformers”–pundits, politicians, and technology entrepreneurs–who are often motivated by prejudice, ideology, or profit, not by what students today need to thrive, by what society today needs to be more humane. In other words, I aspire to write a complex book that works in two directions at once: critique of the present academy and critique of the critique!
But who wants more droning on about what’s wrong with (you fill in the blank: society, youth, technology, education, etc . . . ) today? What can we do to make it better? What are better models? Better examples? What can we learn from? Who inspires us? These artists are makers. They are doers. They are creators. I started from page 1 to write a book–a CFD–with passion and commitment. I had the great good fortunate to be surrounded by artists who embody that passion and commitment: Alberto Caruso, Dina Nayeri, Ramona Diaz, Helen Lochhead, Kia Corthron, Julia Jacquette, and Renata Sheppard.
I stayed in Villa dei Pini, with six windows looking out onto the Italian Riviera, and also had a studio of my own, almost as big as my NYC apartment where I could spread out all my notes and where I could story board my ideas. My partner Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director at Duke University Press, was able to work remotely for the month. We were able to live in the company of eight exquisitely gifted, hardworking, and genuinely lovely artists who had their own living and working spaces. We came together three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were not required to present our work, although most of us ended up sharing work, either by email or in a presentation after dinner or at the artist’s or dance studios.
Sometimes people would wake up very early or stay up late and then go off on an excursion to a museum or to a special city together. There was an architectural tour of Genoa that some Fellows went on together. At other times, there might be an art opening or an opera or a musical performance. This is a quiet, lesser known part of Italy, along the Italian Riviera, south of Genoa, astonishingly beautiful and without many tourists.
To make it all perfect, the administrators at Bogliasco Foundation ensure that everything runs seemingly effortlessly and the staff keeps the villa immaculate, the food delicious and nutritious, and the gardens gorgeous. A stream of notable curators, architects, and intellectuals joins in dinners at Villa dei Pini making it a feast for the mind and the imagination as well as for the body day in and day out.
This would not have happened without the astonishing Bogliasco Foundation and I thank Director of the Bogliasco Study Center Ivana Folle for her tireless care and commitment and fellow administrators Alessandra Natale and Valeria Soave. Their kindness and attention, day in and day out, make everyday life not anything at all like everyday life in the real world.
This is also true of all of those who keep the three villas running so perfectly–the care and attention such buildings need on a volatile coastline is almost unimaginable. And of course President Laura Harrison and Program Director Arielle Moreau, back in New York, keep the Foundation running–no small task in these equally volatile and challenging economic times.
A Month Inspired By Inspiring Artists
A residency is a bit of a crap shoot. You have no idea with whom you will be living for the next month, in close quarters, sharing meals, at every dinner hour, day in and day out. Ken and I said, practically every day, that we could not have asked for or imagined a lovelier group of companions–generous and thoughtful people, full of equal measures seriousness and good cheer, and all–every one (this almost never happens) producing the highest caliber work and with commitment, passion, focus, and intensity that should fill anyone who has had a career that comes with a consistent paycheck (a day job) with admiration.
To have lived a life committed to one’s craft against the odds of the world we live in is a kind of heroism. I’m not being sentimental here. This is a higher calling than most people hear. The remainder of this blog is a tribute to these new friends who inspired me during our residency, and who will inspire me for a lifetime.
There was the night the brilliant playwright Kia Corthron came down from her studio up the hillside to find the Fed Ex package holding the galleys from her remarkable first novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter (Seven Stories Press, forthcoming January 2016), 800 pages of wonder. Her delight was unforgettable, a reminder of the beauty and joy of creation, productivity, and completion. When she gave a reading from her novel, I realized I was hearing a new voice, a new language. I immediately thought: Faulkner. Morrison. Ismael Reed. I cannot wait to read this novel. In the reading she gave, the violence of racism was processed, understood, slowly absorbed and taken in and translated through the consciousness of a young person, as raw as a paper cut or a razor across the throat. Breathtaking. As we know from her plays, Kia is a major talent. Kia inspired me to take my CFD to a new level of conviction, passion, power, poetry. Thank you, Kia.
Renata Sheppard took us into her studio one night and taught us about Laban movement technique and bodily reaction to sound. In her studio, she had suspended exquisite headdresses she had made from Korean handmade paper, helmet-like masks through which we could see light but not much else. It was beautiful, as were so many of the events Renata put on during our month together.
One of those very special Renata days happened on the day of the Villa dei Pini garden party and tour, when the soprano sang in one of Renata’s paper dresses and Renata wore one herself. Renata danced through the garden on the tour led by architect and Bogliasco Foundation benefactor, the incomparable Gianni Biaggi de Blasys. (I said the month was magical—Gianni is perhaps the most magical of all Bogliasco’s presiding spiritsl: so many sprites in the Villa dei Pini garden!)
On one of our last nights, Renata previewed a new piece in which the audio of her 92-year-old grandmother, a British stage actress, yearns for her granddaughter, the dancer. The voice is still young and beautiful, but the words veer between clarity and the confusion of Alzheimer’s. Renata dances among the suspended headdresses, suddenly alive with the symbolism of disembodiment in a new way, sometimes the light up when she interacts with them, sometimes they do not. Eventually the piece will include the actual video interview with this beautiful grandmother.
Renata is a brilliant designer of movement, dresses, sound, light, and technology. She is also a teacher, and runs an incredible festival each summer, Experimental Film Virginia: http://www.experimentalfilmvirginia.com/
In the blue light of Renate’s studio, I snapped a photograph of painter Julia Jacquette.
Julia’s beautiful hair, ironically, looked like her fabulous, sensuous paintings of beautiful hair in her iconic series, Water Liquor Hair (You can see much of Julia’s wittily sophisticated work on her beautiful website: http://www.juliajacquette.net/water-liquor-hair/. Many of Julia’s paintings are both lushly sumptuous and at the same time commentaries on the unrealistic, soul-killing desires advertising feed in us. She provides incisive feminist critiques of such desires for a perfection no one can achieve. (Actually, that night, bathed in the theatrical light in Renate’s studio, Julia’s hair looked as magical as the ads promising women everything for the price of a bottle of shampoo.) It was so exciting to see the new work she is preparing for an upcoming Solo show at Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College in February 2017.
One night, architect Helen Lochhead showed us a slide presentation of her imaginative, creative, socially engaged, and environmentally sound work connecting people and places all over Sydney Harbor. We all felt awe for her creativity and the vast scope of her work. One astonishing work was a circular pathway, high above what had been a stone quarry, that now included a protected species of wild life. It had been turned into a passage way from one key point to another, a historical and artistic exhibition, a park-in-the-sky, and an installation public “arts work,” almost as if the Highline in New York had been crossed with a giant Ferris Wheel turned on its side. Stunning, practical, efficient, beautiful–and even fun!
And yet the presentation also made us sad and angry. The Australian government agency that has done so much to create, archive, and coordinate one of the world’s most famous and important harbors in the world, Sydney Harbor, is about to be dismantled and “privatized.” A core, coordinated planning for this astonishing harbor will no longer exist in the future. This is a process we are seeing worldwide—it is what I’m fighting against too in my Educating Higher.
World-wide, so much of the public and civic goods we fought for throughout the twentieth century are being divvied up and given over to corporations for their own profits not for the well being of the public. In the name of efficiency? Some would call it public theft. I fear the next generation will hate us for selling off their future—and ours, of course. Many of us will outlive the foolhardiness of these very bad policy decisions; many of us will see the costs in our own lives.
In Italy, already, we were hearing of the unfair exchange rates of the Eurozone, the terrible unemployment of college age youth, and the EU’s stringent rules for “sanitation” that were increasingly putting local wines and cheeses, perfumes and creameries out of business due to regulations that favored over-manufactured products over the local.
At dinner, we heard Dina Nayeri talk about her novel and her stories, both the fictions and the stories of her life that she turns into such luminous fiction. We learned of her harrowing time escaping from revolutionary Iran, time spent in refugee camps, and then growing up as the only Iranian in her school in a suburb outside of Oklahoma City. A 2015 winner of the O.Henry Prize, and author of the powerful novel A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, Dine spent her month at the Bogliasco Foundation writing a memoir about her mother, the remarkable woman who took Dina and her younger brother out of Iran, raised them and then, once they were on their own, went off and joined the Peace Corps and, improbably, went to Thailand.
Also in residence was the dazzling documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz. As soon as we met, I realized I had seen one of Ramona’s films one night a few years ago when I was in a hotel room on an author tour. I had been channel searching and was suddenly watching an utterly captivating, unforgettable documentary about the band Journey, a band in which I had absolutely no prior interest. It turned out Julia and her husband Dan had also watched it by chance–despite their lack of interest in Journey. Ramona had focused on the band’s search for a new lead singer to be part of their reunion tours in “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” The documentary focuses on Arnel Pineda, the formerly homeless young Filipino singer the band discovers on YouTube and who fills in despite being from a different country, a different generation–and speaking virtually no English! At Bogliasco Foundation, we all watched Ramona’s remarkable political documentary Imelda–a patient movie that damns by waiting and watching, and kept reminding me, in its epic scope of The Fog of War. We also were lucky enough to be able to watch an advance trailer for Ramona’s latest film, the one on which she and her editor were working long-distance during the residency. It was was a film about the social life and human conditions within the what is the busiest maternity hospital in Asia, perhaps in the world, and one of the poorest. Located in Manila, the hospital is a site of drama and love (there is no other word for it), sharing and caring, a professionalism of an overworked staff that left us all in awe. It is one of the most beautiful, poignant, thrilling pieces of cinema verite I’ve seen, paced like a narrative film.
(l-r” Helen Lochhead, Dina Nayeri, Ramona Diaz, Cathy Davidson, penultimate day in residence, on day trip to Cinque Terre)
There was only one male Fellow in our group, and he inspired in two ways. Composer Alberto Caruso was writing the music and orchestrating an opera based The Master by Colm Tóibín, inspired by the life of Henry James: http://www.colmtoibin.com/content/staged-performance-second-half-master-alberto-caruso. In an astonishing preview from the opera that Alberto put on for us one night, Kia played the part of Henry James, reading to music Alberto composed for the Prologue to his new opera. The music was beautiful, and Kia’s reading was dramatic. Alberto then regaled us with the very sad story of James’s relationship with writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, her suicide, and the incredible scene of James returning to Venice after her death, destroying letters and personal effects, and even going out into the lagoon with a gondoliere to drop her dresses into the water. The dresses refused to sink but, instead, kept ballooning to the surface like so many ghosts, billowing as Alberto’s music soars. Now that’s opera!
(Side note: I was also charmed by Alberto and Kia learning languages each night on DuoLingo. Alberto, whose English is excellent and who still writes in Kanji to his colleagues in Japan (where his opera of The Little Prince has been performed in Japanese), was learning French in preparation for an upcoming collaboration with a French writer and a new opera he’ll be working on with him this year. We learned a lot about the various rewards Kia and Alberto were earning as they mastered their languages. Given that DuoLingo Luis Von Ahn was one of the Duke student advisors who worked with us to create our pioneering Information Science + Information Studies program in 1998 and that the Digital Media and Learning Initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation and that HASTAC has been part of has been working on badging and other reward systems for online learning, this was an unexpected connection between my various worlds. The photo below is Alberto proudly showing his Duo Lingo owl clothed with points he’s earned from his mastery of French.)
Ken Wissoker was the only “full time” resident partner in the group. Ken not only worked his full time Editorial Director Duke University Press job, typically going from our doppio espressos after dinner each night to work the rest of the US business day (that ended around 1:30 am Italian time) but he also wrote an essay during his stay at Bogliasco Foundation. He contributes a regular column to the Japanese international journal of arts and culture edited by Shin Mizukoshi, Five. Appropriately, his essay this month is on the new Whitney Museum in New York and on the Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor.
Two other partners–singer-song writer and videographer Dan Carlson and sound designer Paolo Armao–dropped in for weekend visits and we were able to watch their fabulously creative, inspiring music videos and animated shorts too.
It simply could not have been a more creative time.
(Ken Wissoker and Cathy Davidson in Renate Sheppard’s Dance Studio)
Learning, writing, making art, composing, dancing, editing, writing: to be in the presence of so much creativity, in such a setting. In some ways, my Bogliasco Month was the ideal university—a world of ideas, inspiring one another, each person sharing their creativity and ambitions in order that everyone worked even harder, aspired even higher.
Towards a Final Draft
On an index card above my desk, I keep an account of a famous story of Adlai Stevenson introducing John F. Kennedy in 1960. He said: “Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke’ but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march’”?
I left Bogliasco Foundation with the Crummy First Draft of a book and, in the next year, hope very much to polish it into a final draft that will have the power to inspire Americans to say, “Let us march!” The cause: to reinvest in a higher education we can believe in, one that will truly prepare the next generation for a challenging world. But the challenges are not just technological. Yes, the robots are coming. But so are the regulations–European Union regulations that (we learned in Italy) are putting local cheese and wine artisans out of business, after having perfected their craft for generations, replacing their livelihood and their artistry with mass produced productions made by machines and seemingly for the taste buds of machines. Even more tragically, there is no alternative vision of a livelihood of the descendants of those once-proud artisans.
“Globalization” without appreciation for the local–for the textures of history and place, of time and space, of art and music, of traditions and architecture, of landscape and custom and more–can only lead to tragedy. History teaches us. We’ve seen the tragedy of homogenization before.
To educate for the future means to educate for a wise vision of prosperity that is globally expansive, inclusive, generous, diverse, and appreciative of local differences and complexities. It requires an ear and an eye as well as technical mastery and managerial skill. It is not old school general education–but it is new school general education. A start-up curriculum for global citizenship.
We live in an era when radical new technologies have rearranged our lives, our conditions of labor, and the connections between traditional areas of knowledge. Tragically, at present, when we need education most, the university itself is in crisis. For decades now, the drivers of educational change have been externals: fiscal cutbacks, political attacks, and for-profit venture capitalists looking at higher learning as a cash cow not a collective good. What happened to the ethos of the GI Bill where education was an investment in the future, for the good of society as a whole? Educating Higher argues that, rather than being irrelevant, humanists and artists are central to reimagining the world we live in and redesigning education for the next generation of leaders of this fragile, complicated, interconnected world.
My CFD will go through many revisions before it will be a book but it will always have, at its core, the spirit of the wonderful artists and the staff with whom I shared 33 glistening days at Villa dei Pini at the Bogliasco Foundation, with its own proud, admirable, and courageous history and its remarkable commitment to the present and the future.
Thank you, dear new friends.
Thank you, beautiful Liguria and the city of Bogliasco.
Thank you, most of all, Bogliasco Foundation, for making all of this possible.