Published on October 14th, 2012 | by Thompson3
The Floydian Text
“It is music which can invade and rule the human psyche with a penetrative strength comparable, it may be, only to that of narcotics or of the trance” (Steiner et. al Elbow, 652). I, for one, subscribe to this idea. Music is the only “text” I can think of that can get you out of a slump in life. Scientific studies suggest that music can enhance physical recovery from illness and injury. (I once cut my leg from my knee to my left butt cheek on a concrete median travelling 80 mph on my crotch-rocket and recovered faster than anyone my doctor had ever seen. When he asked me what I did, I said “ I’ve been walking since you discharged me from the hospital, and I’ve been listening to a lot of 2Pac.) There are a few films that hold the same power over me, but music certainly has therapeutic properties just as writing does, so why is it we can’t organize our academic writing to the beat of Pink Floyd, or The Cure…or The Menzingers for that matter? Again, it seems, Peter Elbow has won me over. Not because he reaffirmed his love and affection for freewriting, but because his “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing” actually makes me question my own organization of writing. I’d like to think some of my best writing could have musical, or dynamic, organization, but even if it doesn’t adhere to Elbow’s standards, just thinking of writing being formed “musically” is so damn romantic…much more romantic than Thoreau and his pencils. Though I enjoyed Denis Baron’s historic revelation of the early pencil industry in his “From Pencils to Pixels,” and I like the idea of Thoreau being “an engineer and marketing expert,” I couldn’t help but feel that I was repeatedly being reminded that writing with pencil is technological, and needless to say, I needn’t be reminded. Perhaps his essay lacked a “temporal dimension” Stanley Fish and Peter Elbow envisioned. The essay is a good source of historic information, information of a time or era, but I don’t think it is representative of a time or era, which I think is what Elbow is after. “Music tends to bring us to a state of final satisfaction by way of a journey through nonsatisfactions, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions: degrees of yearning and relief – itch and scratch” (Elbow, 623). The song I think most embodies Elbow’s notion of music, a constant yearning for relief from an itch, is below. It’s over 24 minutes long and continues to urge the “reader” along by providing multiple itches and minimal scratching. It also has a catchy, bluesy hook, which I was surprised Elbow didn’t mention in his essay. “Skilled writers have always known about the value of starting with a problem of hooking readers with an itch or dilemma. The term hook has become a cliché in journalism – which is where it probably starter – and also in writing classes. But it’s usually applied to personal, informal essays” (639). It’s also a musical reference to part of a song that catches the listeners’ ears or sparks interest. It’s most apparent in popular music, but I’m sure even classical music has its hooks. Though music is a great example of how we should try to reshape our writing, I think there are genres in which this sort of organization is already in use. I was hoping Elbow would focus more on cinematic approaches to writing because I feel they have the best chance of providing his temporal dimension, but since he didn’t I guess I’ll let Manovich. “If we believe the word cinematograph, which means ‘writing movement,’ the essence of cinema is recording and storing visible data in a material form” (24). Writers of screenplays must consider time when writing, not just because of expected length, but to keep the text moving. This movement aspect of screenplay writing forces a writer to think in what we call “beats,” particular moments of either plot change or emotionality. “[W]riters, like musicians, often set up expectations in order to foil them – whether it’s an unexpected turn of syntax or turn of plot” (626). A screenplay is a constant struggle not just between writer and text, but between writer and reader. If the writer can’t hold the reader’s attention, the reader walks out of the theater or turns off the television. There are distinct disadvantages of not considering the temporal space in cinema, and I think these disadvantages are more apparent than in our alphabetic texts. If the writer throws off the beat of his movie or episode the reader is lost and cannot be brought back. Consider an Adam Sandler comedy that wasn’t funny (any of them will do). The worst thing about writing a comedy: if you can’t get a laugh almost every three minutes for 90 minutes, the comedy is doomed because the beat is absent, so a writer has to go into a mindset of getting that laugh so the reader wants to continue reading, and with technological advancements allowing for more information to be shared, the attention span of our readers are on the decline. As Richard Lanham states in “The Implications of Electronic Information for the Sociology of Knowledge,” “To change the time-scale of humanistic knowledge affects its essence, not only its pace” (155). If the writer isn’t devoted to providing an itch every so often or scratching an itch every so often, the show won’t go on. The “IText” writers define rhetorical theory as “the idea that audience determines the appropriateness and success of communication” (271), and it’s no different in the movie business. “[W]e need to understand users as active and…a text is an ongoing, negotiated process, a use rather than a reception” (279). The audience is the boss, despite blockbuster budgets and digital effects. “The reader thus becomes an author. Author and authority are both transformed” (Lanham, 155). This idea that “the critic can become the creator” (159) has always been the case in my mind. Economics can be an example of this dynamic. When a company makes a product that the public hates, demand for that product falls (i.e. the Pearl Harbor film), and those critics can effectively control what is created by not going to shitty movies. Though I think Lanham is speaking of the most literal, in-the-moment critic creating, I think our critics create all the time. That’s why companies spend so much damn money on marketing so they know what their critics want before they create. “Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately” (Manovich, 42). So how do we determine what the audience needs to hear? Screenwriters tend to write via outline. It is essential. Without it plot and character arc tend to go out the window. I know from experience. “Writing develops not linearly but recursively, in large loops that eventually spiral upward toward more complex ways of signifying meaning” (275). It’s difficult to set out a path and have the characters walk it, but it makes for a better path. If writing did develop linearly, I doubt there would be much use for the outline. I’ve written without an outline before, and without the map the characters become lost, and then the reader becomes lost. Coincidentally, my outlines tend to take the form of Elbow’s “dynamic outlines,” which is why I think this “dynamic organization” of his is already being done by some screenwriters (see Christopher Nolan). Lanham notes, “At the deepest level, humanistic expression, and the means which disseminate it, have moved from a static to a dynamic medium” (158). Is it not time for more writers to organize their writing dynamically then?