Category Archives: Art

And by “You” I mean “I” (or “Me”)

round1To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Personal essays require believing you’re a valuable subject. The principle justification for writing about yourself comes from the granddaddy of personal essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who said individual experience is never purely individual. He believed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” And—if you accept his premise—the particular, paradoxically, illuminates the universal.

Philip Lopate goes further in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by urging confession. Confession garners trust because, “The spectacle of baring the naked soul,” he says, “is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” In indicting yourself, the thinking goes, you must be honest.

If you’re sincere, your “indictment” might include confusion and the hopelessness of ever deciding anything definitively. Admitting you don’t (and maybe can’t) understand could be part of every essay, especially if you undertake issues or questions hoping to resolve them. Montaigne said, “Anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.” He also says, “There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.” Yet confusion will likely frustrate your reader as much as you. Sympathy has limits. You’re supposed to say something worthy or why write? Expressing your finite intelligence isn’t helpful or winning or impressive.

What is? You can’t be sure. Personal essays involve inventing a tolerant audience willing to sympathize with tortuous, circular, and equivocal ruminations, fellow feeling that maybe might occur if your thoughts are new, relevant, incisive, clever, amusing. You could be the worst judge though, and not know it. Just as the tone deaf are least qualified to assess the quality of their own voices, you may sing on, missing cues signaling how discordant or flat you are. And any response, even the most muted and mixed, could produce disproportionate effects. Someone smiles or smirks, and you think, “Ah. I’ve said something. I’m communicating. An ear is listening at the other end of this line, after all.”

The high-wire risk of personal essays is faith. You pray you’re perching on insight. Keep going, write enough, and you’re sure to… you think. Life is finite, you think. One life may be different, you think, but, if you try hard enough or long enough, you’ll reach some truth, minor and irrelevant as it might be. Sure, quantity can be the enemy of impact, yet—you think—you’re an exception.

So you tread on. You reach your foot forward praying for something like solid ground or a great uplift of wind to keep you from falling.

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A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (8-15)

flyer03A4_291x400The second part of a lyric essay started on Saturday, 10/11

8.

Franklin P. Adams said, “I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way.”

9.

Where anything might have a form (the noun) and anything might, naturally or unnaturally form (the verb), a heavier shadow stretches from the adjective “formal.”

Its connotations seem revealing. Whether you enjoy gowns and jackets with tails or not, whether you respond to a slight with a demand for a written apology or not, you have to recognize the effort in being formal. It holds an elevated status, occupies a plane higher than necessity. It’s neater, more definitive, pure.

But there’s another form, the sort you fill-out for Human Resources or in a doctor’s waiting room. All those blanks direct you through specific requests, and, when you finish, you fulfill what that page (or pages) meant to do. Its emptiness and completion are equally neat and equally formal.

9.

I have a friend who loathes the sort of essay you’re reading now. She finds these “lyric essays” loose, too easy because they favor association over logic and glorify evasiveness. To her, their hints only seem functional; really they’re an excuse not to focus your thinking or to lead anyone anywhere good.

She may be right, and she’s certainly identified what I enjoy about them.

10.

“It is a very sad thing,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “nowadays there’s so little useless information.”

11.

I have a crazy rereading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to offer, one that likely has nothing to do with the story’s actual purpose. Everyone knows the hero is the child who points out the naked Emperor. The innocent is saner and wiser than those seduced by pretense, those duped into denial because they fear standing alone. We know what it’s about.

But what if we revise it? The special state of believing a fiction may be just as impressive—maybe more?—than acknowledging plain truth. And what’s so terrible about nudity? Couldn’t clothing be more ridiculous than being our raw selves? What if the Emperor’s bare bottom is only an issue because it’s identified as bare? Is our adherence to the child’s view just as conformist as our going along with the royal tailor?

The mystery and messiness of the situation reaches a clear resolution when the child points and laughs, but the author could easily choose to leave that moment out. Then the fiction might speak to our daily uncertainty about what we’re supposed to know and do. The tale might be more interesting for eluding its obvious and commonplace function.

12.

I attended a lecture where Robert Creeley said Louis Sullivan’s “Form ever follows function” might be exactly wrong. Every poem chooses its own form—you know what you can and can’t do—and, in living with and/or strategically violating those rules, you determine what your work will and won’t be. Selection, he suggested, focuses a poem’s effect.

His theory echoed one of the most popular metaphors in my MFA classes, the poem as a machine, one with cooperative parts producing a collective effect. Discussing machine-poems sometimes confused me, however. I was unsure if I should gather fan belts and pulleys and wheels and cogs and carburetors and wings to fashion an engine or if a blueprint sent me searching for those parts. Neither process seemed particularly accurate, as my poems often felt equal parts destination and deviation. Some poems seemed to have one wing. Others were a slice of obsidian.

13.

Last night’s dream:

A regular and prolonged drone makes conversation almost impossible with my eighth grade gym coach, but that doesn’t matter too much because we are only trying to identify the sound which, come to think of it, seems evident only in our discussion and not something I’m experiencing firsthand. “He’s always like this,” I think, without examining what “like this” or “always” might mean, and, in any case, he says he has to go, and my next appointment will be arriving shortly. If it’s arriving. I may be the one traveling to meet someone for an appointment elsewhere. Coach is no help. The helicopter is driving him crazy, and he has to get out of there. No time for an answer.

Shall I interpret? Have I interpreted?

14.

“Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps sub-consciousness,” Aaron Copeland said, “I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.”

15.

I do believe a thesis is the backbone of every essay, even this one. I’m just not sure how much that means.

A thesis can be as rigorous as an argument with your lifelong friend or as diffuse and nonspecific as the persistent whisper three tables away. It can insist, and it can flash and fade like sunlight in a partly cloudy sky.

Someone might want me to say more, and, usually, I do too.

The compulsion to express yourself neatly, however, is hard to read. You may be getting yourself out of trouble or into it. Sometimes only the slanted truth presents itself and straightening it out feels like a violation. Other times you want that jacket with tails, the spats, top hat, and cane. The form may already exist… or it may be invented altogether.

Other people know which. I’m trying to be content not knowing.

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Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (1-7)

Louis+Sullivan+CarsonThe other parts will appear here on Tuesday, 10/14…

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless,” John Steinbeck

1.

Near here, at the back of a liquor superstore, is the section where the fussy drinkers shop, and amid the calibrated jiggers, cherry swords, and seasonal bottle stoppers, are molds for making exciting ice cubes. The forms they create—spheres, giant and perfect cubes, bars, lips, dollar signs, and zeroes—are really only frozen water, as all ice is, but these vessels sculpt what flows from the tap into something more special than industrial cubes from my freezer.

They make ice notable again, give the commonplace shape, render it visible.

2.

A certain kind of artist distrusts form. If you mean to write from a true place, they argue, you cannot impose or superimpose on expression. You cannot restrict or constrict. Once you do, you court artifice, and anything that arises from artifice will be false. Worse still is working to fill a frame or template, which is absolute chicanery.

I won’t reenter this debate because I’ve said enough already, but I think about a still life. Even the most photorealistic communicates choice. You arranged the objects as you did. You lit them as you did. You placed the edges of the painting, the proportion of its focus, your angle of attention, determined how you will represent texture, color, and shade.

Whether these decisions were conscious or not, what is art without them? When do these choices shift from representation to imposition? When is form absent? How can it be right or wrong if it is inevitable?

3.

The quotation, “Form follows function” derives from Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect. In 1896, in An Autobiography of an Idea, he said:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

The quotation has always bothered me for philosophical reasons. It assumes utility is the highest standard, that each function suggests one proper form that only needs to be discovered, that only the essential belongs in any design, that surplus is never an option. I could go on.

As a Chicagoan, I’ve seen a lot of Sullivan’s work and certainly understand the statement as it applies to skyscrapers and the steel beams that simplified their form and permitted their skyward stretch. Yet the statement makes less sense when you consider Sullivan’s ironwork, especially the elaborately tangled, storms of shapes I see as I walk in the city. They seem to have no function other than ornamentation, and it’s their excess—albeit geometric, neatly symmetrical and controlled excess—that makes them impressive.

Were I channeling Sullivan, I might say arresting a viewer’s attention is their function, and something simple might not achieve it as well. Perhaps these baroque, proliferating, woven, fever-dream effusions of dramatic contours are a type of utilitarianism too, but I’d rather they weren’t. I’d rather they were born of their own necessity, reflective of Sullivan’s mind unwound, taking a form that brings his soul to light.

4.

As is often the case with creation myths, the Mayan story of the first humans is a complicated affair. It involves twins seeking to rescue their father’s severed head from the underworld and, after their success, their ascension to the heavens to become the sun and moon. Only then can men be properly formed.

What’s intriguing to me, though, are all the failures in the account. Once the gods decided they needed someone to worship them and be “keepers of the days,” they tried to shape humans from mud. These mud creatures, however, wouldn’t hold souls, and soon the gods sent a great flood to wash them away. Then the gods tried wood, which didn’t work either, though these wooden beings became monkeys.

Finally, in defeating the gods in an underworld ball game, liberating their father’s noggin, and rising to illuminate everything, the miraculous twins permitted humans’ true form. Men were made of white and yellow corn.

Which says something about corn’s importance in Mayan culture but also begs the question “Why corn?” If the Mayan gods sought a race to be “keepers of the days,” maybe organisms that germinated, grew, and died marked time in ways gods could not. Maybe the gods sought something that would rely on light, moisture, and soil to echo humans’ dependence on them. Maybe corn is more sturdy than mud and more pliable than wood.

5.

“We need poetry because names die,” John Vernon says, “because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”

6.

My daughter told me a version of the Mayan creation myth as interesting as the original. The way she remembered the story, the gods first tried water (which wouldn’t hold together), then stone (which could not move), and then turned to corn.

I still wonder, “Why corn?” but more important is the linearity of her description. In offering a cleaner plot, her revision presents each stage as an important step toward the ultimate ideal, as if the earlier forms weren’t properly “mistakes” at all because they led the Mayan gods to the answer. Each had utility.

That’s very different from the narrative I’ve learned since, which bends into odd, dream-like curlicues and rises in smoke. I like my daughter’s story. I like the Mayans’ more.

7.

My son took me to a bar that served cocktails containing exotic ice. His drink arrived with a single cube so large it barely found room to move in the glass, and mine included an equally large sphere that, every time I tried to imbibe, avalanched onto my nose.

We laughed about how challenging the experience was, speculated that the bartender was playing some whimsical trick on us. But the jester bartender didn’t stop us from drinking. Or ordering another.

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Blogging’s Faint Stamp of Approval

imagesMy wife and I sat at a picnic table, and next to us were three strangers eating in advance of the same outdoor Shakespeare performance we were attending.

One of them asked the other about a daughter who recently graduated from college, and she answered, “My daughter wants to be a writer.”

“Has she published anything?” the first said.

“No. Right now, she has a blog.”

I tried not to spy but didn’t need to look over to hear the message behind the answer—embarrassment, putting a positive face on the only response possible. She might have substituted, “No, not yet… but, you know, she’s pretending.”

That’s the trouble with blogging. Anything in magazines, journals, newspapers, books, or even commercial promotions comes with verification. Some authority says this writing deserves notice. In contrast, posts only require clicking “publish,” a faint stamp of approval that—most people assume—comes too readily. Based on this overheard conversation, the writer-daughter takes herself seriously, maybe thinks a great deal of her own work. The rest is up for grabs.

Any blogger’s vindication of blogs sounds like rationalization, further effort to gild the author’s own work. I felt for this girl’s mother. Naturally, a mom wants to believe, and, though blogging is hardly the same as appearing in The New Yorker or even the local paper, her daughter means to ply her craft, to pursue a dream, to practice by taking baby steps toward something brag-worthy. More than that, she may want to be read, and creating a blog assures a voice and audience… albeit a limited, often intimate audience. Which, she may think, isn’t so bad and certainly better than no readers. She might even like blogging and regard it as a distinct form with idiosyncratic challenges and potential.

Eavesdropping, I couldn’t help thinking about this blog as it approaches its 500th post. Am I still, after all this time, practicing for something real? Am I more proud (and appreciative) than I ought to be of my tiny audience? Am I alone in valuing my labor while real writers snicker? Have I, all along, been deluding myself to avoid actual evaluation and accomplishment? Does self-expression only count when someone else says it does?

This week a colleague posted on Facebook, “I’m writing everywhere else but on my blog, which means I’m finally working. I won’t be stopped.” In no way did he mean to direct the comment at me, but my spirit sunk nonetheless. My inner Rodney Dangerfield started muttering, “I get no respect. I get no respect at all.”

He meant, I’m sure, to say his blog has faded as more public writing projects took precedence, but the assumption seemed to be—or my defensiveness heard—you can’t be serious and simply blog. Blogging is what you do while waiting for anything better. In itself, as a writing genre (if it is), it sometimes seems the equivalent of copy printed on grocery-brand macaroni and cheese. Though cute, it hardly counts.

A fury of counterarguments rears: if you’re not a published writer does it mean more or less that people choose to read you (based necessarily on content rather than name, reputation or designation by Important People)? What sort of motive to write takes precedence when fame and remuneration are unlikely? Do readers from the Philippines, India, Botswana, and Latvia counterbalance having a small audience? What does it say when readers feel compelled to comment fresh from encountering ideas—can that be bad?

But those are framed questions, as all my questions are. They dig the hole (from which I shout) deeper. They evoke that unfortunate parent proffering her daughter’s blog as proof she’s a writer.

Perhaps there’s no satisfactory vindication or apology. As seriously and carefully as bloggers compose, the possibility lurks they have no place else to be writers and their only claim to the title is one they’ve asserted themselves.

Although, to me, these essays, stories, poems, and haiku feel quite real.

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Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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So Creative…

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1In a writing workshop, one of my classmates called my poem “creative,” and my teacher held up his hands and shrugged.

“What’s creative,” he asked, “what does that word even mean?”

My answer finds trouble at each turn:

1. To be creative is to, well, make something, but making something new isn’t enough. If creativity and novelty were perfect synonyms, art would be easy. Recombining letters and words—or notes or pigments or movements or gestures—would suffice. But artists seek a different sort of novelty mixing the strange and familiar to find truth. Sometimes we call “creative” what we should have noticed or known but didn’t. “Creative” isn’t the same as “odd”… though that could be what my classmate meant.

2. And can something be creative only once? Is a cliché a cliché only if you’ve heard it? Which standard of freshness shall we apply—the absolute or personal? What’s more stultifying than absolute? What’s more finite than personal?

3. New and right to me may not be, and no assay or measure will establish what “creative” means definitively and universally. Its elusiveness is welcome magic.

4. For the artist, creativity consumes itself. Art loses heat the instant of completion. The object signals creation’s (and imagination’s) end. Though audiences warm their minds on the ashes, they examine artifacts of an artist’s experience and thus reassemble. Interpretations add perspective. Yet, from the artist’s outlook, they stir spent coals.

5. Creativity is more pursuit than achievement, never accomplished finally or entirely. Its only purpose may be prompting more of itself.

6. Some creativity arrives only when exhaustion looms and nothing remains. What once appeared creative proves an earlier stage.

7. Genes, circumstance, sensory equipment, or disposition fence artists. Makers want to leave themselves and be creative but find an unexamined patch of their own yard instead.

8. Maybe some artists are demi-gods, just naturally original, endowed with genius and a special touch, but, if so, their attributes won’t sustain them. Exercising your voice until it’s worn out isn’t creative. Art requires subverting, rejecting, and redefining all you think you know, continually.

Which is what I’m guessing my teacher was trying to say. His patience ran out. He wanted us to stop talking about what was or wasn’t creative and get to work.

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