Publications
The Social Author #1: Writing Seen, Writing Spoken Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

8688336885 7abbfe624d z(Guernica August 26, 2013)

Marshall McLuhan, in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, explored how electronic media, especially television (a prototype of the computer), would push literature away from the linearity of print and return it to spoken and interactive forms. His famous line—“We shape the tools and the tools, in turn, shape us”—noted that any language is dependent on the medium of its expression, a medium that, invariably, the message must adapt to. In the age of digital authorship, this reads like a prophecy.

The work of the writer, published and engaged, is morphing from a self-conscious, learned, literary style to one performative, shared, everyday, heard, and instant—the speaker the equivalent of the writer. What I will examine, in this series of essays, is who and what is lifting writing off the page and making it auditory and multimedial, where this out-loud movement originated, how its performative character is developing, and to what end.

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College? No Thanks. Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20130814(San Diego Reader August 14, 2013)

Student Loan Basics

At TED talks, the most viewed video—now surpassing 14 million hits—is "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" by England's Sir Ken Robinson. Not long into the 18-minute lecture, Robinson answers his query: yes, schools do kill creativity. "I believe this passionately: that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it." And, says the consultant, who helps European and American educators reform their entrenched systems (in 2003 he was knighted for "his service to the arts"), such a tendency "is profoundly mistaken" these days with "the whole world engulfed in a [digital] revolution." His advocacy has sparked debate over the purpose and applicability of education, ever the same bored kids and boring teachers.

You would think America's schools would cave under all the criticism they receive. What's distressful is that the critique is withering from both ends. Take job and career prep. Robinson tells his audience, "You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid—things you liked—on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that: 'Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician.'" At least, not a money-making one. The reality is, however, there's hardly any way into the arts that doesn't involve waiting tables. What's more, not everyone is artistic. Kids need training, especially the talent-less. Where else will they get it but in school?

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No Absence Like Water's Absence Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

artwork images 424158133 615452 maggie-taylor(Catamaran Literary Reader June 2013)

Sometimes in winter, if we're lucky, a brawling Pacific storm swoops down on Southern California. Its sudden fury—night winds, roof leaks, street-flooding—masks its belated arrival. Where's this much moisture been? Why so long getting here?

Every winter, I worry the rains won't fall. Another year added to the droughts of the aughts, no doubt. Confirming climate change, each decade ticks into the eon, coming and here, twice at once. At least that's how it felt during a walk I took one August day up a virtually dry mountain riverbed.

I begin in Idyllwild, above Palm Springs and below the San Jacinto Mountains. From a ridge southwest of town I hike down to Strawberry Creek, fast-trodding a mile's descent in ten minutes flat, down a path barely visible beneath blister-leaved poison oak, through scarlet-barked manzanita. My heart pulses in my blood-heavy hands.

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Stress Echo Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

3513174235 2a8a31be88(Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, June 27, 2013)

In San Diego, at the hospital, I, a three-heart-attack patient, lie down for my annual check-up, an echocardiogram, a two-stage procedure. My shirt’s off, my chest’s swabbed, the electrodes are attached. First, the echo technologist goops a wand with gel and rolls it across my chest, my heart at rest. She takes four ultrasound videos, close-ups of the four chambers. Next, I walk for twelve minutes on a speed-and-incline-raising treadmill. My heart pumps madly, I stride and push, grasp the bar, a sailboat rail in rough seas. I lie down, and she ultrasounds the organ again. (I’ve pushed my resting rate from 69 beats per minute to an agitated 151.) The moving images record what’s termed “wall-motion abnormality,” that is, my heart-attack-weakened muscle cannot respond with full vigor as it once did.

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Review: Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee Print E-mail
Criticism

cotton tenants(Los Angeles Review of Books June 2, 2013)

Lives Nurtured in Disadvantage

If the contemporary reader of nonfiction knows anything about the universe of American literature — or just its prose galaxies — she knows that James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is our greatest nonfictional failure and the finest book-length lyric essay ever written. Five years in the making, Agee’s book was published by Houghton Mifflin (after Harper’s dumped it as unwieldy) to scorn, praise, and sales of 600 copies before it went out of print. (Agee didn’t endure well, either. He died in 1955 of a heart attack in a New York taxicab after three marriages, alcoholism, chain-smoking, a self-acknowledged crappy diet, and brilliant forays into nearly every form of writing he tackled. He was 45.)

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The Psychopaths Among Us: A Three-Act Essay Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

ben-thomas-1(AWP Talk, Boston, March 2013; First Published TriQuarterly May 31, 2013)

Time: Late August
Place: Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
Event: A weeklong workshop in “writing the memoir”
Players: Seven writers and me, the teacher

     Act I

A woman writer in her sixties is the last of seven students to share her work. Her title: “The Psychopaths Among Us: A Case Study.”

I present her writing here in the style she adopted, a very clipped textbook shorthand, articles dropped from nouns, and minimal development. I can’t imitate her reading voice, but its tone, hectoring and shrill, is somewhere between Donald Trump and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher.

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How I Want To Be in That Number Print E-mail
Articles

big chief costume(Oxford American May 20, 2013)

Friday: It's the Mud

Ah, New Orleans in early May. You might think 90 degrees, fly-trap stickiness, magnolias, and post-Mardi Gras contrition. You'd be half right. This year's 44th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at least the second of two weekends I attended, was so rain-sodden I almost cried. Some five hundred acts performed during the seven-day festival, and I figured I could get to twenty-five or thirty if I kept motoring. A night of downpour turned the fairgrounds' paths into cold mud, an all-day toe-squishing trudge: tire-tread sand, horse-track slick, grassy sludge, ankle-deep ooze, pig-sty slop. It was fifty degrees, and most of us half-dressed fans were wearing straw fedoras, cut-offs, and plastic-wrapped tennis shoes. We teetered through the mud at a woozy half-time to the music, balancing inebriation and chagrin.

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