Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dec 6, Sarah Minor: Recovering from Descent

Over the past six years I’ve met many folkswriters, and the other kind of personwho I call beloved dissenters

At least one of them has shared the table in each of my seminars. Others have sat across sweating beers, scrunched a warm shoulder against mine on a connecting flight, or stood beside me, a little dehydrated, facing the endless margins of a gallery wall in Cleveland, Ohio, where I now live. Visual writing is my jam and they don’t like it.

What beloved dissenters also share is that most have become cherished friends and allies, meaning they’ve provided me with the circumstance to think about where and how visual texts are received and when they might be doing it right.

My beloved dissenters tell me that good essays should “stand alone.” They argue that visual media makes a text pretty for no reason. For them, the visual stuff is trying to do what language could achieve in the hands of a better writer. Text is text, and writing… writing. Anything else is lacquer on a cracked table.

This fall, in Cleveland, I began teaching nonfiction to students of Art and Design, and I was startled to find more beloved dissenters among them who had the same concerns but the opposite argument. My graphic designers said visual essays have too much text. My painters said duh—shape makes meaning, and everyone said an image can’t be pretty without reason.

On this advent, I give you, my beloved dissenters, Jennifer Wortman’s “Worst Case Scenario." It’s an essay that is accessible and, I'll even say, intuitive to viewers who read in many ways. It's a visual text that's doing much more for its audience than acting pretty, and worth a quick read to avoid the spoilers ahead.

“Worst Case Scenario” is what I’d call a concrete essay following in the lineage of concrete poets, except that it achieves much of what they did not. In the essay, Wortman describes the time her husband fell thirty-five feet down a large gap while rock climbing. Because he had carefully studied worst-case scenarios from a handbook entitled the same, he survived the fall by turning his body “into the shape of a V” and landing on his sacrum, though he doesn’t remember doing this.

Before falling, Wortman’s husband says that after death he would like to return as a bird: “He’d always wanted to fly.” A human body falling through the air in the shape of a V, sacrum-down, makes the shape of a bird in flight the way a child would draw it, the most basic bird we recognize—the shape of his afterlife. 

The text of Wortman’s essay makes the shape of two tall rocks, with the word “C a s e” suspended upright between them, perhaps “falling” the way her husband did. But if we imagine that Wortman’s title is the body passing between rocks—a husband’s body—then that body is falling in the wrong way. It is experiencing the worst-case scenario and not contorting itself according to the handbook—not taking the shape of a V. 

Wortman could have designed this title to say “body,” or “fall” or even “husband,” but she designed it to say “case,” as if she is imagining what would have happened had her husband fallen upright. So Wortman’s concrete image is in fact delivering the opposite narrative than her text does. It suspends the tension of the essay visually, and asks us to consider the deeper implication that her husband should not have survived.

Early concrete poets like Lewis Carroll and Stéphane Mallarmé often titled their work after the shape of their designs like in “A Mouse’s Tale” or “La Cravate" (The Tie). 

Wortman's essay pays homage to this tradition, but complicates the craft of concrete texts through the way her shapes convey their own meaning. In “Worst Case Scenario,” the connection between title and design is not so immediate. Instead, Wortman’s text works together with her design to extend the tension of a scenario in a way that neither image nor text could alone.   

Each time I come to the end of this essay, I read the last line. And then I re-read it again: “Lying beside him, I laughed.”

Here, I think, what kind of lie? I wonder what Wortman is keeping behind her laugh. Her deft use of space has me attentive to her details—the way this word might be signaling a kind of doubling that makes meaning by extension (Tail/Tale) but in the manner that Wortman's text and design shift our experience of a narrative when they work together.

"Worst Case Scenario" is worthy of recovering not simply because of how often visual writing gets passed over in magazines and anthologies where our best essays are celebrated, but because through it Wortman is recovering a long tradition by asking it to work harder.

By now you know that Sarah Minor is a pusher of visual writing. She's also an Assistant Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. 

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