43.2 Feature: Craft Essay by James A.H. White
James A.H. White is the author of hiku [pull], a chapbook (Porkbelly Press, 2016). Winner of an AWP Intro Journals Project award for poetry, his work has appeared or is forthcoming with Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Nimrod International Journal, Passages North, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and DIAGRAM, among others. James currently teaches as a Visiting Instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing.
The Twilight Zone: On Experimental Writing
by James A.H. White
While in line with a few friends to clench my way through Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios’ The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a ride that mimics the (repeated) plummeting of a 13-story service elevator, I eavesdropped on the young boy and girl waiting behind me as they asked their father what exactly it was they were about to experience. I suspect they had finally taken a moment to observe their surroundings, aka. the ride’s loading dock, which is styled as a 1930’s-era hotel boiler room complete with furnaces, chains, and attendants dressed in gold-buttoned crimson garb. To my simultaneous shock, disappointment, and amusement, their father replied to the inquiry with: “It’s like the Toy Story ride.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the “Toy Story ride”—known formally as Toy Story Mania!—is as comparable to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror as a wine spritzer sipped poolside is to a chugged boot of absinthe.
To “experiment” is to test, to challenge, to discover, and with testing comes inevitable successes and failures, however significant or insignificant. Assuming the kids’ father was not under the false impression that the ride he and his family were queuing for was not in fact “like the Toy Story ride,” the father of those poor children, whose stoic faces I later admired on one of the gift shop’s on-ride photo screens, was perhaps ‘experimenting’. He may have believed his children would only enjoy the thrill ride if they initially understood it as something other than a materialized nightmare. So, he tested his theory by challenging their budding anxiety and fear in order to willingly discover the potentially disastrous result that his children will hate the ride they were about to get on and never trust him again (cross their heart and hope to die!).
Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers” can be considered experimental because its abecedarian (alphabetized) form challenges the traditional appearance (and template, to offer a stronger word) of prose. For Moore, his essay’s list-like form may not be inviting its readers to “discover” anything more about its content, but for his readers, it’s discovering the land beyond literary normality. In an interview with Neil Stern for Another Chicago Magazine, Moore says he originally intended to use his fragmented material for a book chapter before finally, after multiple revisits, finding a form that felt right. On being asked whether his form influences his content or vice versa, he said:
I begin a project thinking it’s about something. That dictates the form, and at a certain point my idea of what I thought I was writing about changes, and I have to change the form to go along with it. Or I start a project, and I think I know what I’m writing about and what the form is going to be and some time along the way I realize that the form I chose is stagnating, it’s just not adding anything to this, so I start playing with the form, and all of a sudden I realize that changes my idea of what the content should be. (Stern)
Most of us—poets in particular, who I’ll claim tinker with form more often than prose writers—probably share Moore’s sentiment that a writing’s form ‘adds something’ to its content. Concrete and shaped poems perhaps demonstrate this thought best. To take this thought one step further though, John Hollander’s poem “Swan And Shadow,” for example, isn’t in the shape of a swan and its shadow simply because that’s what the poem is about, the white space between the swan’s neck and body offers a necessary separation of a question (ex. “What” or “When”) and answer (“A pale signal will appear” and “Soon before its shadow fades,” respectively). Run a Google search for “experimental writing” and you may find essays designed to look like tests (I’m a sucker for reader participation), poems designed to look like mad libs (again… sucker), and novels that use line breaks (Ellen Hopkins’ Crank is one such work, and, to my delight, a text that many of my students say they had to read in high school).
I confess though, I’ve come across a number of experimental texts and thought of their author’s formatting choices as superficial—whether it to be cool, appear fresh, slap an artistic label on just another any-old bottle of water. After a year editing for a literary journal, I’ve developed something of a distrust of works that are liberal with their indentations, a “but what is space?” tossed to the right-hand margin, a “my happiness” followed three lines down by a centered and capitalized “BRO|KEN,” and so on. Using white space can be a wonderful method of building tension. It forces readers to fall down the page not gently but jostled, butted, manhandled by wayward text more similar to a side-swept sky diver tumbling through branches than Alice sifted gently past rocking chairs and arcing stacks of chinaware.
My essay here in Black Warrior Review, titled “How We Became American: A Visual Guide to Immigrant Fingerprint Analysis,” doesn’t use sentences. It could have. I could also have tried to make the “fingerprints” look more like actual fingerprints, but in doing so, I would have dishonored my intentions (I won’t taint the piece by explaining them here) in constructing the essay. Its form was set from the start—it didn’t “spin along,” as Moore describes in thought of form continuing to reflect a work’s content during the writing process, but that is rare for me, and rare for most writers I assume because we rarely know how any piece of writing will look or feel in the end, so how could we possibly anticipate its final form?
I’m unsure who first said “Life has no plot, so why should writing?” (or something similar—I like to insert “form” beside “plot” when I think of this phrase. Perhaps “plot” already suggests “form,” but screw it, sometimes less isn’t more), or “Write to discover,” but they’re sentiments I pass on to my writing students in the chance that they might ‘find their voice’ in a disorder rather than order of language, a state of disarray they’ve been taught for many years of schooling to associate with incorrectness. I stewed my essay’s textual ‘disorder’ not to reject formal correctness but to do quite the opposite—it is in each box’s standard frame, each request for a finger to be placed inside, each skeletal image inside, that I hope to imprint the truth. To call for order in our current world’s courtroom of immigrant vs. night & day. To find what has been lost, somewhere deep within our homes. This is not like the Toy Story ride. Sit with me?