I’m taking a class, Writing the Other: The Power of the Profile, through the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Studies. Fiction and nonfiction classes at the Graham School are workshops, or what you’d expect if you were getting an MFA. I’ve taken a couple other classes at the Graham School and they’ve been OK. I’ve viewed it more as a way to expose my work to a different audience, and earlier this week certainly proved the point.
It being only the second week of class, and being first for workshop, is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing as there is little of writing the profile that has been discussed so far, so I’m not constrained by rules. I get to make it up, and revise once the rules are taught. It’s a curse though, for me, as I don’t have a profile ready to review nor an idea of one. I took an exercise from class, listing 10 knowns and 10 unknowns of a person, and turned it on myself, reasoning that if I cannot ask and answer hard questions myself, I cannot expect to do the same to someone else.
We had a limit of 2-3 pages, double-spaced. This is the result:
Looking at me, you notice I am plain. Ordinary. I keep my hair short, the highlights are recent and I wear a ring, a watch and a necklace. My clothes are unassuming but dark in color. Depending on the light, the clothes will look navy, black or brown. If you are of the discerning kind, you notice I have a widow’s peak, my ring is my high school class ring and the necklace is my birth stone. If you know stones, you know the month I was born. The watch is simple, elegant and draws little attention like the rest of what you see. Your eye may linger over my left wrist, recognizing the object but taking a moment to realize it is a FitBit.
A FitBit is what is called wearable technology. It is composed of four parts: the tracker, the wristband, the wireless sync dongle and a charging cable. The tracker, a small gadget no bigger than your thumb, carries sensors and circuits beneath its exterior. It fits within the wristband, which attaches to your wrist like a watch. As long as the tracker is charged, it monitors a number of data points, including movement, speed, duration, even when you are asleep, restless or awake. The data collected is transmitted through wireless technology to a special application and website where you can view the data points in graphical form, from charts to images to badges for accomplishments. Over time, as data accumulates, you can spot trends. The more data you record, in a notebook for example, on what happened that day, and match it up against the data from FitBit, the more complete picture you receive of your life.
Looking at me, you do not know I collect and sift data points of my life, looking for patterns that reveal poor choices, and thus need to be adjusted, debugged and reprogrammed for improvement. Patterns that lead to success, and thus must be reverse engineered to learn its secrets in order to be accurately replicated.
Looking at me, you do not know I track thought patterns, too. The pathways of commentary that run through my brain, carving logic and reason from emotion. Thought patterns that produce a series of choices, a series of choices that in the moment are neither poor nor accomplished, but none-the-less dictate an outcome. Tracking thought patterns begins to produce sets of patterns, coupled with the scenario at the time and factoring in all but the mundane, these patterns can be destructive, or beneficial.
Looking at me, you do not know you are part of replication, a real experiment that is testing and adjusting data sets in order to understand these patterns, patterns that defy logic, reason and emotion.
The feedback was useful, entertaining and amusing. They all liked the piece. The first paragraph drew everyone in, got them curious so they kept reading. A few commented on the progression of detail, the word choice (“discerning type”) and how they got a vivid picture of the narrator. The second paragraph was a bit technical for some, while others drew comparisons to wider themes, pointing out that a FitBit, to be useful, must be charged. Everyone suggested including examples of “patterns that reveal poor choices,” and even before we work-shopped my piece, people were referring to things as “data points.” The ending they found enjoyably jarring.
It was interesting to hear who assumed it was me, and who tried to adhere to workshop protocol and think of it as “The Narrator.” There were some unexpected, deep comments about the narrator, and how the voice of the piece is cold. Robotic. Mechanical. Someone suggested that was deliberate because it is satire.
Truth be told, I have no idea. The morning it was due, I had 20 minutes to write something before my day started. I wrote it, sent it and went on with my day, and the week.
During workshop, it dawned on me that I conveyed more than ran through my head. One comment in particular stated that the narrator has a strong core of emotions that she/he is trying to figure out, and measuring is a way to deal. Collecting and measuring “makes them step back, and be able to parse their life.” That brings back the comment of the narrator’s voice being cold, robotic, mechanical.
I find that fascinating. There is a switch in my brain that flips when I write first drafts, it seems, because they all come out cold, robotic and mechanical, yet rich with detail. That detail gets refined through subsequent drafts, emotion is introduced at some point which adds another layer to the piece, an additional layer of richness sometimes. The end result, so far, has turned into decent pieces. Decent pieces by my standards, but to others it is good enough to be one of 12, selected from 20, for a Memoir in a Year class.
One other thing the U of C workshop demonstrated, or perhaps illuminated again as it was revealed in the 4 Ways StoryStudio class: I get technical. At StoryStudio, it was the use and references to If This Then That (IFTTT), a really cool automation tool by the way, that also served as a metaphor for the thought processes and actions of a particular character. My first drafts of big data articles often came back with similar feedback, but once I broke it down and added examples, like Pop-Tarts, it clicked with people. A subsequent draft fleshed out IFTTT, and made the connection between it and recipes tighter, and thus more compelling. In first drafts I seem to operate on an assumption level, or think the particular details of a piece of technology are irrelevant. The self-profile being a first draft, I see now, is a twist on that pattern. There is now too much detail on the FitBit, giving it a larger role from the beginning, and while they get the concept and its thematic relationship, the description is too technical. I’d wager too wordy as well.
Something to keep in mind during these classes.