A graduate writing course discussion on Italo Calvino and his fabulist novel Invisible Cities

My IDS graduate course in advanced writing at Northwestern U is well underway and we (my students and I) are at the end of our first week. Such fun times! Working out a few kinks though with Canvas and time zone differences for assignment submissions, as I have students attending from other parts of the US. We're reading Calvino and engaging in some healthy discussions about fabulism and prose poetry, the author's format for the work. He recently passed away this year, leaving a good legacy of writing behind that instructs and inspires us, as I know it has for me. May his soul rest in peace and find great and endless pleasure in those fantastical boundaries and cities, which he has penned.
Book Cover

Book Cover "Invisible Cities" by Calvino (Wiki)

Some of my initial thoughts on our discussions for the first 5 chapters of Invisible Cities for this week: I said that we see the interchange taking place between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as a certain kind of inter-dependency between them. By this I mean that the Venetian traveler does not wish to displease or upset the emperor, and at the same time Khan himself leans on Marco Polo in a way as to learn and interpret the nature of his vast empire through Marco's eyes (Isn't the emperor bored by his other advisers?). I align with a student's view of Kublai Khan's vision and how he sets out to "instruct Polo to find his dreams for him" (JB). And hence, Calvino's brilliant and fantastical essence of the novel. JB offered another interesting view: "Polo wanted to open Khan's mind to the possibilities for his city, but to not look at the surface of the structure, but the means in which it is built." I agree with her view here and added that Marco Polo can offer Kublai Khan no empirical consolation except to make the ruler see a good measure of the effects of his own power, which is the one absolute thing, while everything else—the cities and their forms, their inhabitants—are just memories shimmering and moving in our imagination which their symbolism engenders. I did wonder though if Calvino was actually performing a kind of self-examination of his present-day Italy, of Venice. 

Calvino provokes an incredible aura of mystery. JB, my student, said that the author wants us to "complete the journeys and spaces" in his novel. We do, and cannot help doing so as readers, even if the descriptions of his countless cities read as sentimental artifacts of an imagined and invented past, a past that exceeds our own imaginations but now becoming more real to us through the conversations taking place between the emperor and Marco Polo. Calvino's brevity of poetic prose is like a restless Solar Flare, fit to burst out into the boundless spaces of our minds with its creative energy and intensity. JB mentioned in particular her liking for the city of Armilla, which happens to also be a favorite city of mine, among many others in the book. Surely Calvino must have dug deeper into the Romans' pragmatic methods for capturing and controlling water, and their empire has left us an incredible legacy of plumbing and water management, which we depend on and improve today. And yet I want to insist that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE) invented plumbing a few thousand years before the creativity and practicality evident in ancient Rome (509 BC).


Fiction Writing, Research, and Lighthouses

Working on lighthouse research for my graduate fiction thesis work has led me directly to the Sable Points Light Keepers Association in Ludington, Michigan (www.splka.org). I am now officially a light keeper at Little Sable Point Light and will be serving in June and September. What a rich history! Somebody give me a uniform and cap for the glory; the risk and pleasure is all mine. ~Ignatius

Creative Writing, the MFA, and Northwestern University

Circular logo mark of Northwestern UniversityThere is excitement in the air. I am now an MFA Creative Writing candidate at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies. Early this summer, a thought planted itself in my head, prompting me to think about graduate school and how that could help change things around here; the thought soon became a dogged notion, unflinching in its persistence, and I could not get it out of my mind, because I knew how difficult the journey would be financially if I got accepted. I am not without reason or common sense, although historically I should be cemented in craving and impulsiveness, just as my father and mother also behaved with the dexterity of pundits. I am grateful. And yet I could not let go. I could not erase the many prompts that drilled themselves deeper and deeper into my conscience like an augur. And so I began the process. I asked my undergrad professors for recommendations and help. One ignored my request altogether (What had I done? Furthermore, had I said something awkward in a text, email, or social networking context?). But that doesn't matter now; it's in the past. I moved on and started writing then editing, and writing then editing some more, until I could check off each requirement one by one until I was done. Application submitted, and then came the long wait. I stayed busy, a good solution. The summer brought anticipation and loads of quiet nervousness, that I might fall under the axe and roll toward an inconceivable darkness filled with doubt and the prolongation of seeming emptiness that threatened at the edges, always from the edges like a wildfire or hungered prairie dog. All along I trusted my words and did not digress from their power to influence and move the soul, because this is all I had besides my trust in the mysterious and benign workings of the universe. And so I am here, a new path, a new life, a renewed journey that had hit an oily immigrant's patch for decades. This is all I have to add: <write-or-perish!> ~Ignatius

Yahoos, and why a writer needs them (thoughts about “Comb”)

The responses to my prose poem Comb have been truly remarkable and moving (read the poem at http://www.dailylove.net/2012/04/41512.html). I received a flurry of compliments from friends on Facebook, from subscribers to Daily Love, and from my fellow members in the Internet Writing Workshop (IWW), most of whom far exceed my capability and proficiency as a published author, I'll admit. I have so much to learn from all of them, including the matter of yahoos and why yahoos are essential to any writer. Comb made its debut on April 15, 2012 on Daily Love, a fact I considered exceptionally beneficial to me as an author, because I had not seen my words in print or online for a while. In fact, I began to think that I might never get published, although I managed a diligent and prolific discipline of writing every day, performing full rewrites and tight edits of two finished novels mostly (I'm still working on them); as well, I started writing short stories, which I tried to glean from these two novels (a task more difficult than I imagined). The essential problem with my writing—and doing nothing else but that—is the pure and ecstatic isolation that kept me from showing my face to the world, of making my work more visible to others, simply because I could not put out words I thought incomplete or worthy enough to release. Perhaps, this sense is not exclusive to me, I'm sure; every writer will have these feelings to some degree. But Comb emerged with a single thought and with effulgence, and I imagined its form and function as a prose poem about love and death from the moment I began keystroking the first words; and once I started, I paid close attention to the purpose and relevance of each word, which drew me deeper and deeper into a place of ethereal grace, until I finished the poem without interruption and with complete and total introspection, returning once more to the brittleness of the day only after I felt satisfied with what I had written. Following that, my edits helped to make the work crisper and more meaningful, a slow and careful process at best. I did not know how my prose poem would be received by the editor, E.S. Wynn, at Daily Love, just as any writer will never know how a work is going to be received and perceived by the editor(s) of a publication once a work has been submitted. So the response came almost immediately and, with that, my yahoo and gratitude to E.S. Wynn for recognizing the value in Comb and for giving it a venue on Daily Love's home page on April 15. The love keeps pouring, and may it be so for you as well. ~Ignatius

Writing with deadlines

Boloblog: Did the completion of your novel occur within a set of deadlines or do deadlines not matter in the way you work as a creative writer? In your opinion, are deadlines important to an author? Ignatius: Oh, yes, deadlines are important to writing just as the right amount of sleep is vital to the body. I don't think I could have finished my novel in the way that I did had I not set a goal for myself to finish it within a given time frame. I think it's important to have a goal in writing, an end in sight, whether it's writing fiction or otherwise, just as we do in our jobs. Nothing can ever get accomplished in life if we don't place goalposts along the way. Most of us do this subconsciously and get away with it somehow (laughs). Truth is, journalists know well how to meet deadlines, and not being one, I realize that I needed something to remind me of what it is I wished to achieve on a daily basis and, hence, throughout the whole process of the novel. For this story I insisted that, once I started, I would write at least four pages on the minimum each day. Now this may not sound like much, but it is. Sometimes it would take me two hours or so to do this and other times it would take me six or more, depending on what I knew or had to seek out. For me, fiction in its process is invisible like air. As a writer I know the kernel of the story persists in an indefinite way, bleeding and breathing through the pores of my awareness, but I still have to invite the right words, plot, character, and structure into my system. Some parts are clearer than others. And some days are more difficult than others, because I have no idea what's around the corner until I get there and reach for it. This is how I face each day when I write. But one thing I know: I want to finish the work within a few months, not years. I get bored easily and lose my momentum if I cannot finish what I've started. I tend to lose focus and my place in the work. Keeping a reasonable deadline for the first draft is important to me, because it compels me to take a look at the big picture while not losing sight of the details. Boloblog: So were you able to meet your own deadlines with this novel? Ignatius: I'd hoped to finish the first draft by the end of the year, having started in the middle of August. But the end of 2009 brought new distractions. I traveled to India for my niece's wedding around Christmas, and then went to visit my mother and brother in Kerala, in January of 2010. I didn't write during this time and even wondered if I would be able to take up the work in the same way that I'd left it before departing the US. In the end I wound up taking a few more weeks than I'd originally hoped and got to complete the manuscript in the middle of February. So, if I were a journalist given a writing assignment, I would have flunked the test and distressed my editors (laughs). But I was relieved to get to the end in the way that I wanted. Boloblog: That's a tight deadline to write a good novel in, isn't it? Ignatius: Yes, I would think so. Four months is putting too much pressure, but if I hadn't done that I might have dragged the process through the winter or even beyond it, and I couldn't live with that. I usually get into low spirits in the winter, so having such a tight deadline kept my mind off the freezing temperatures and snow. I still had to go out and shovel though (laughs). Still, given the right environment and situation or the right challenge, a writer can complete a novel in a month. But that's just not for me. Boloblog: Why is that you think? Why wouldn't you want that tight a deadline for yourself? Ignatius: I have the unconscious habit of rewriting as I write, not at the same time but the next day, when I resume from the last few lines of the day before. So it prolongs everything I do. I'll go and read everything I've written and do this as a way to be drawn right into the story once more and tweak and tweak, so that I'm happy with what I've written. Then the rest of what's to come can flow naturally without my having to beat it out of me. I hate doing that. There's no fun in being the olive in an olive press (more laughs). Don't get me wrong, I love olive oil, but...you know what I'm getting at. Well, anyway, writing fiction is all of these things. There is no one magic rule or method; it can be easy at times but, for the most part, it's hard, hard work. If it was easy; if that were so, I wouldn't do it. There's something to be said about finding yourself behind the wheel in a freeway fog that hangs low to the asphalt--there's uncertainty but also the impending thrill of going through it and discovering what's ahead of you.

Editor’s Eye, asleep now.

So, I've put my novel manuscript down and decided to wait a couple of weeks before I began editing it. The problem is that I've waited so long. A month has gone by and I've done no edits nor have I written anything to keep up my writing skill. I'm sensing a slight trauma coming on and the fear that I'm giving myself permission to turn away from the written page from day to day. What's wrong with me? Perhaps, my writing muse is hibernating for the winter, or so I'd like to believe. But I know that I'm only fooling myself. I've got to get back to writing and to editing a long literary novel that begs for my editor's eye. To all aspiring writers of the long novel form (and also for non-fiction): I think it's alright to wait a couple of weeks before you return to editing the work you've just finished. Just don't do what I've done here and wait so long that you get the essence of the work completely out of your mind and body. Maybe that's a good thing; maybe it's alright if you see your own writing again with the freshest eye, like that of a new reader unaccustomed to your words, voice and style. As for me, I prefer to always maintain an emotional link to the work after the initial manuscript is finished, even if I've decided to stay away for a little while. Seize the day! ~Ignatius Valentine Aloysius

What is boloblog?

Boloblog: Define for your reader what boloblog is exactly. Ignatius: You mean it isn’t self-evident? I haven’t been thorough then. Boloblog: I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of this (laughs). So tell us what boloblog means and what do you hope to accomplish here? Ignatius: You’ve used the operative word here: tell. The intransitive use of a verb. Tell, tell you, tell me, tell you what I know, speak, say, express, talk, ask me what you want to know. The word bolo is any or all of these in the Indian vernacular and primarily mouthed in Hindi, India’s unifying language aside from English. Boloblog is an incarnation of my history and creative development. I'm trying to rescue positivity in a negative culture, meaning that I’m working real hard to see the good in things, their qualities and values rather than their anti-charges or absence that can be so harmful to the heart and mind. You know, the glass is half empty, etc. I don’t consider myself a crusader, armed with wisdom or words that will change the world. There are gifted writers already doing that in their work. All I want is to share my thoughts with anyone who’s interested in them. The further away the apple falls from the tree the better actually. Perhaps, there’s a consequential aura of my doing or saying something that’s good for someone else out there. Boloblog: The Internet has grown into a gigantic and far-reaching produce tree, hasn’t it? Ignatius: It has, on the visible exterior and far below the surface. It’s changed our lives. I know computers have changed mine dramatically. Boloblog: Care to explain? Ignatius: Well, I began my career in art and design in the most traditional way—using exacto knives, t-squares, rubylith friskets, presstype, waxers, rubber cement, benzene, and plastic drawing templates, you name it, just to name a few traditional creative tools. Funny, how I use the word “traditional” to describe them now. But writing, too, on paper—odds and ends, and songs and poems that amounted to nothing actually and that even seemed immature and trite in their early stages. But that’s how I worked, until the late 1980s and early 1990s when I got involved in the personal computer. I learned to think and re-act differently. Initially, I struggled with the transformation and, by the end of the decade, had improved my understanding of it in a profound way so that I was even able to help others, my wife, too. I have to say that I came into it at a good time, the right time. The transition was vital and gave me a sense and value of both worlds--the traditional and digital. Boloblog: So it’s all been good for you then? Ignatius: I have to agree. I was able to catch up with an accelerating world. Would that be centrifugal or centripetal? I’m not sure, but this rock’s moving at a pretty fast pace, really, and in a very short time by the natural history of our emergence and growth.

Yes, hello world!

Boloblog: It’s taken you a while to start blogging which, in many ways, would appear to be a natural extension for a writer to do ever since blogging started ten years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What has kept you from participating in this unique web community until now? Ignatius: I’m actually not clear of my holding pattern. It’s as if my life’s transformations have lifted me away from actual, direct participation in the world and made me look at myself, like a bird would do as it hovers and contemplates its next actions. I know that makes me sound selfish, but I’m just the opposite. Maybe that’s just me, and I think this kind of holding pattern isn’t happening to anyone else at all, just to me. So I’ve been doing it for about ten years, and during that time I’m writing, writing all the while—memoir and fiction to be exact, and returning to college for an education in creative writing while trying to sort through all my personal issues of family and self. But I haven’t been removed from everything either, if you know what I mean. Boloblog: Yes. Certainly. Ignatius: I’ve been engaged in a deep dialog with my alter ego during the last fifteen years or so—not in a crazy or self-involved way, but more reflectively—and took refuge in my writing. It was necessary, just as it’s necessary now for my mental health. Creative writing is bliss. It’s probably the only time in any given day when I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with my life, not to say that work or engagement with people around me or helping others improve their lives isn’t rewarding or worthwhile, because that’s the natural part of what I do, only that I do all of it automatically. You don’t need a reason to help someone if you are able. You just do. With writing, I’m always watching what I put on paper and on the screen and how I’m doing that. Reason being, because words are powerful and carry more responsibility in them. There's an element of finality in their being said or expressed. I respect that, although I do get careless at times. Sorry, I’ve digressed. Boloblog: No, actually, you haven’t. You’ve helped to answer some of it. Ignatius: Sure, just some of it (laughs). But to return to your question about blogging, I’d always wanted to participate and knew that I’d do so eventually, just not when or how blogging would make itself known to me. Boloblog: And here you are. Ignatius: Yes.