Who am I in the 21st Century?

“Don’t let your struggle become your identity.”

All semester I have been exploring my identity and the identities of all writers in the 21st century. But what does that make those who, like me, are not quite ready for the technological age?

I suppose we have our places, too. I suppose we slowly integrate into the unknown, virtual world and find our corners to hide in, to people watch. Instead of coffee shops, we stalk our subjects on Twitter and Facebook. Instead of notebooks we use the notes app on our iPhones. Instead of writing in lamp light, we sit in the dark with our laptops or iPads or desktops and bleed on to the keys like those before us did with a typewriter. But when we go out, we carry our notebooks and our pencils. We sketch next to our notes and keep our secrets tucked away. We carefully plan out what we say online, rather than just ranting to the void. Yes, I suppose we, too, have our places in this new age.

I will always prefer the notebook to the laptop, the candle to the lamp, and the pencil to the keys. But, the technology of this age offers opportunities for literature that I never imagined possible. It offers a new way to look and experience stories, a new way to tell them through media other than text. I will say, it is much harder to show something in words than to hyperlink or paste a picture, but there is an art to digital writing that has its place in the writing community, just as those traditionalists in the writing community have their places in it.

I identify as one of those traditionalists, I suppose, but I have come to appreciate more than before the complexities of the digital age and the world inside my computer. I’ve come to understand why people blog and scream in public. I’ve come to accept the evolution of a once simplistic system, of a once gentile world. I have found my corner in the laptop. I have found my space in the digital universe.

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Writing About Death in the 21st Century

“Goodbyes hurt the most when the story was not finished…”

On April 7th at 7:30 in the morning, I found out one of my best friend’s father passed away the night before, suddenly, unexpectedly, and inexplicably until the autopsy. He was my neighbor for almost nine years, drove me to school with my friend, and was a major part of my every day life in the neighborhood. At first, I was shocked. I didn’t know how to react – how are you supposed to react to finding out someone, a middle age man with no known health problems, died.

He was gone. And how was I supposed to feel about that?

I’ve written about death many times – I even won an award for a poem personifying the Grim Reaper – but it is easy to think about mortality and demise when it is not real, when you can portray it through fictional characters and fictional situations. It is easy to be cynical, to be apathetic, when you’re killing off a character or ruminating in your own fleeting life, but it is much more difficult to come to terms with the harsh reality when someone you know is put into the ground.

Movies, media, and contemporary novels glorify war, violence, and death. They talk about honor associated with dying and murder and put a spotlight on those who execute orders or tortures on the guilty. But what is dying, really, in this odd 21st century world? Is it glory? Is it sad? Is it predictable? Perhaps it is all of these things. Scientifically, logically, reasonably, we all know we are going to die. We all know our time is limited. And yet, we are all surprised when someone dies. It comes as a harsh shock to our system.

How do we write about something so paradoxical?

As I said, I write about it often, especially in the contexts of the mentally ill and suicide. I write about the painful end, or the relief of a slowly stopping heart. Sometimes, I write about it cynically. But none of this seems completely honest or sincere. Perhaps it is too difficult to write about something that is painful in an honest way, and that’s why contemporary media portrays it so unrealistically, so embellished.

People don’t want to – no matter how much they preach the contrary – admit that life is fleeting, that they will die, and everyone they love will die, and everything they know will die. And it’s difficult to write honestly about something that, subconsciously, we are all fighting to avoid.

In loving memory of Ken Rohrer

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May he rest in peace

Writers and 21st Century Technology

“Technology is a useful servant, but a dangerous master.”

On April 2nd, Pitt-Johnstown hosted the Western Pennsylvania Undergraduate Literature Conference, at which I presented my fictional story “The Old Bell.” During the Q and A portion, after every award-winning/award-nominated writer read their pieces, a professor from St. Francis University asked myself and a nonfiction author why we used cell phones as a plot device.

I was caught off guard by this question, as cell phones are a large part of my generation – and the world in general. I hadn’t thought about the cell phone as an actual plot device, though it did propel the story forward and allow a motive for the main character’s drunken binge.

This incident, along with a slew of lectures concerning utopia and man’s relationship with machines, made me wonder how much writing (not only in its medium but in its creation) is influenced by technology.

Cultural context is paramount to understanding a story and its meaning. Cell phones, for instance, wouldn’t be found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or even Huxley’s Brave New World because, though some fantastical technology/automobiles were used, cell phones weren’t invented, and thus, were not a part of the author’s life/influences. I hadn’t consciously decided to use a cell phone in the story, but after studying abroad in London (where the story was set), I realized how important it was to have a mobile communication and internet-capable device at all times in a strange city. It also connected me to America and my friends and family back home, as it did with the protagonist.

Today, you would be hard pressed to find a contemporary novel without a car or phone or air conditioning (even if the point is to say that they didn’t have them or ignored them on some kind of principle). Technology, and how it affects our life, influences the way we write stories and portray our characters, how we propel the story forward or conclude it. Without understanding the importance of technology in our lives, we cannot truly understand the context and deeper importance of the story.

Writing Code is Not a Writer’s Job

“Give me a <br/>”

As previously stated, I am a writing major with an aversion to technology – even just writing a blog is outside of my comfort zone. However, for a recent project for Writing for Digital Media, I had to experiment with coding…

You can guess how well that went.

It took me three days (probably a total of 5 or 6 hours) just to figure out how to write the code without breaking it. One punctuation off and the entire thing shuts down. Once I got it though, I watched my code – a generative narrative using forest and night time imagery, titled “Walking in Moonlight” – write itself, constantly changing and shifting into new narratives. This is one of the major reasons I wanted to tackle this subject/project because I thought it would be interesting to create a sort of living narrative. Like reading a book (although, much more literal), no one would experience the same narrative.

As I was pondering my living story, my mind wandered back to writing the code. Most of it was already written; I had to tweek very few lines, but still, I found myself breaking it. One letter or comma or period out of place will destroy the whole thing, and I think that applies to writing traditional narratives as well. Because I am a grammar natzi, I fixate on misspelled or mispunctuated sentences, especially if I’m reading anything that is published. It brings me out of the story and is, quite frankly, a bit disappointing.

Just like coders need to be careful – meticulous – with their coding, writers must be just as perfect in their creation, or risk the reader breaking out of the story.

Walking in Moonlight: A Generative Narrative

“Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”

I must say that I am not technologically sound, nor do I really like technology other than for its convenience. HTML – what is that? Who thought to put numbers and random punctuation and symbols together with words? Who came up with the brilliant system to make those long streams of chaos into a usable, presentable webpage?

For my Generative Project, I took the HTML code from “Taroko Gorge” and changed the words, colors, and title to create “Walking in Moonlight.” It took roughly three days (probably 5 to 6 hours total – yes, I am that incapable) to figure out how to do this and a good thirty minutes crying to my friend (a computer science major) about the trouble getting it hosted on a website, but now that it’s done, I feel quite accomplished. I was inspired to make this narrative, with darker, creepier words, because the generative narratives are always changing, like the twists and turns one can talk while walking through a forest at night – there are so many paths, so many creatures and plants; which way will they go? Who will they find? What will they do? With this narrative, it will never be the same story, but every story, no matter how ridiculous, will become a reality in some small part. I like the idea, though, that no one, not even myself, will be able to see every story generated by the code. Each person, then, has a unique experience with the narrative, which gives the idea of literary interpretation a new level to stand on.

I hope you enjoy my living narrative.

Generative Exercises: From Analog to Digital

“Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing!” – Ben Franklin

For these generative exercises, I decided to use a short story I wrote called “The Old Bell” because I am presenting it at the Undergraduate Literature Conference and have been reading it non-stop in the last week to make sure I don’t fumble on stage. After looking at the same words so often, I thought it would be fun to move them around and create something new. Below are the exercises using words from that story:

 

I wrote a love letter to London, where I found the Old Bell and an adventurous part of myself over the last summer. I don’t use many adverbs in my writing (because “adverbs pave the road to Hell”); however, I did find a few I was able to use for the adlib below.

Dear London,

You are my best summer. My dark eyes gently stroked your exaggerated art.

You are my fourth pint. My British beer quietly sipped your fine Camden. 

You are my quiet city. My American girl suddenly watching your interesting show. 

Yours, Pathetic Jaclyn Reed

 

After creating my adlib, I cut up the first two pages of the story and created the quip pictured below. I like how the sentence creates a creepy image, much different from the pathetic break up story depicted in the actual story.

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In my high school creative writing class, we were given pouches of random words and had to create poems and stories using them, much like the exercise above, and my boyfriend and I very much enjoy adlibs, especially when they are ridiculous. I think writing this way, though it is not done often, can be very liberating. It makes you think creativity and innovatively to make something that makes sense but also evokes an emotion true to its creator – for instance, mine was dark, creepy, and unusual.

Today, people rarely cut up stories anymore, but they do create codes that generate random words for them. This is using technology and creativity to make something new and inventive. I am not technologically inclined, but I hope to follow this model in my own generative project.

Though it has been giving me trouble, I’d like to use the model “Taroko Gorge” to make my project. I have been playing with the HTML code to make a story called “Walking in Moonlight” using words like forest, moon, trees, river, monster, demon, man, nightmare, howl, hum, dream, and castle. Hopefully, I will be able to make it work for me so that I can generate my own continuous story; if my inability to use machines gets in the way, I want to make a Twitter bot that will identify hashtags about Doctor Who, Marvel, and DC. I suppose we’ll see how that all goes.

Reading One Word at a Time: What are Documents Really About?

“Just because kids know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, doesn’t mean they know how to use technology to enhance their learning.”

The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown welcomes a new major: Multimedia and Digital Culture. To staff this position, Marissa Landrigan’s Writing for Digital Media class “interviewed” two candidates for the job by participating in their teaching demonstrations. The second candidate taught the class and guests how to use Voyant, a program that analyzes and counts the words used in particular issues of magazines, blogs, etc.

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My partner and I explored The New Freewoman, a magazine printed in London from July to December 1913. Editor Dora Marsden founded this publication to succeed The Freewoman, and it later became The Egoist. Marsden and her staff supported homosexuality and free-love, though those specific words were each only used once. According to Voyant, the most common words throughout the editions were “new,” “man,” “mr,” “men,” and “life.” Sex also appears for the first time in this publication.

Most Frequently Used Words in The New Freewoman

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Words have power, and sometimes, as authors, we may choose words subconsciously that convey a different meaning than we originally intend. To see my own blog run through Voyant was both a surprise and a rather comforting picture. “Writing” was my most used word, followed by “major,” “change,” and “commenting.” Honestly, I was relieved they weren’t “like” or “as” or “the.”

Most Frequently Used Words in “Ravings of a Writing Major”

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 What changes when you can see the word used most in the course of a story/essay? Does it change the meaning of the text? Does it help us see more clearly what it’s really about? Or is it irrelevant? I suppose it matters what a reader wants to get from a story and what those words mean to them.