Seminar in Composition
Text: “Our Time,” from John Edgar Wideman’s memoir Brothers and Keepers (excerpted in Ways of Reading)
In many ways, John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time” can be seen as an experiment in composing conversation—between divergent lives and conflicting memories; between Wideman-the-writer and Wideman-the-brother; between what is, what once was, and what could have been. This is not just Robby’s life story; it is also a story about the often unspoken complexities of family relationships; about the social and racial landscape of a Pittsburgh neighborhood; and about the emotional and ethical challenges of storytelling itself—of representing the experiences and lived realities of others. As Wideman struggles to take on the complexities that this project presents, he constructs a narrative that challenges our expectations for what a story should look and sound like, as well as for the kinds of critical work that a piece of creative writing can accomplish.
This assignment is an invitation to undertake your own experiment in conversational storytelling, drawing upon Wideman’s creative-critical methods and adapting them to the affordances of audio composing. For this project, you will connect with an individual with whom you would like to have a “conversation” about an experience in his or her life or your shared lives—a conversation that you will record, reflect upon, and remix into a multilayered 3- to 5-minute audio essay. The experience you discuss can be anything you choose—ordinary or extraordinary, tragic, jubilant, or mundane—as long as it is something that you both find challenging and are comfortable sharing. Like Wideman, you might consider taking up a topic that you don’t fully understand or that you and this individual both remember, in a sense, but “remember differently” (Wideman 712).
Because the material you assemble for this project—the recorded “conversation,” your own audio commentary and self-reflection, and any additional music or sound you collect and repurpose—will far outstretch the boundaries of the 3- to 5-minute format, your challenge is to make careful decisions about how best to edit, layer, and recombine this material to construct and communicate your experimental narrative. Your final audio essay should reflect conscious attention to questions of arrangement, voice, and self-reflexivity and draw upon specific strategies from Wideman’s prose and the audio essay we work with in class.
Preparatory / follow-up work for this assignment included the following:
Genre Analysis: The Audio Essay (Discussion Board Post)
Posted in the “assignments” section of Courseweb, you’ll find a sample audio essay (approx. 25 minutes) excerpted from “Say Anything,” a recent episode of This American Life. Listen carefully to the mp3 and takes notes on what you hear. Then write a brief reflection in which you consider the following: In what ways is the form (not content) of this piece similar to Wideman’s project? In what ways is it different? Based on this example, what do you see as some of the key components of the audio essay genre more generally? How is it constructed? What are its affordances? And its limitations?
Prep – Part 1: A Letter-in-Sound (Due Thursday 3/31 – 7pm digital dropbox)
In the dedication of his first book in the Homewood series, John Edgar Wideman writes, “Stories are letters. Letters sent to anybody or everybody. But the best kinds are meant to be read by a specific somebody. When you read that kind you know you are eavesdropping. You know a real person somewhere will read the same words you are reading and the story is that person’s business and you are a ghost listening in” (680).
To prepare for your Wideman-inspired audio essay,* compose a “letter-in-sound” (1 min. +) addressed either to the individual with whom you plan to speak with for your project or to yourself as a writer/composer. In this “letter,” take up the following questions:
What specific life experience or topic would you like to have a conversation with this individual about? What is—in your own words and from your own perspective—your present understanding or memory of this experience? Why are you interested in speaking and “writing” about it? What do you hope to learn or accomplish? What challenges do you anticipate? How do you feel about taking on this project?
The language you use in composing this “letter” should (1) draw upon in-class discussions of strategies for “writing for the ear” and (2) reflect a conscious attention to issues of voice.
It is entirely up to you whether or not to share this recording with the individual you are planning to speak with and, if you decide to do so, when. It might be something you would like to share with the person as an introduction to your project before you have your “conversation.” You may prefer to give it to the person after you talk—or even after you have produced your audio essay—to provide context for the piece you are composing. In any case, consider it as an integral starting point in your process—an opportunity to reflect upon and make a record of the way in which you are approaching the conversation and the story that you are going to represent.
* Please note: because some portion of the material from this “letter-in-sound” should appear in your final audio essay, you should pay close attention to sound quality and clarity in recording.
Prep – Part 2: A Conversation
Raw recording (in mp3 format) of your “conversation”
If you are concerned about your raw conversation being used for an in-class audio workshop, please indicate this fact.
Think back to the work you did in editing, arranging, and remixing your audio and create an illustration or diagram that represents it shape, rhythm, and structure. Then write a brief reflection in which you discuss the choices you made, the risks you took, and the challenges you confronted in constructing your final composition. What specific compositional strategies did you employ in your composing process? What do you consider to be the greatest success of this experimental essay? Where does it fall short of achieving the effect/affect you were aiming for? And if you were to revise this piece in the future, what might you do differently?