01 August 2019

Commonplace Books, Compost, and Art of Story Crafting: an Afternoon at Benzonia Public Library

An 86 degree day in Northern Michigan, china markers, Virginia Woolf, and a cow named Mr. Tomkin. A list of words with seemingly nothing in common, that is, until you add children and compost and a plan to write a story. 

Reader, are you curious? Good. Now relax and enjoy a story all about what can happen on any given day at a public library… 
I think it’s really important for a writer to have a compost heap. Everything you read, things that you write, things that you listen to, people you encounter, they can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them grow beautiful stories.”
In his MasterClass Neil Gaiman encourages writers to create “compost heaps” and we like to keep our constantly growing compost pile in a Commonplace Book. A Commonplace Book, according to a definition we’ve conjured, "is a record of a curious person’s observations, correlations, inspirations, creations, and fascinations; utilizing the written word and drawings, clippings and copies, quotes and marginalia". 

Commonplace Books have been around for hundreds of years, used by everyone from philosopher John Locke, who wrote “A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books” in 1685, to author Virginia Woolf, whose diaries document myriad moments, from her thoughts on poetry; to her questions on life: is it “very solid or very shifting?”; to her dinner, just days before her death. 

Commonplace Books could be compared with our modern day internet browsing history, mixed in with thoughts and ideas and our own narrations. Keeping a Commonplace Book gives us a map of our lives and thoughts and experiences to reference and be inspired by and use as “compost” for crafting stories or just to fine tune our memories and intellect.

On the 25th of July, Look Wonder Discover shared Commonplace Books and the Art of Story Crafting with a glorious group of Summer Reading Program participants. 

"Reader stretches" aka opening and closing the book.

Before we began, all took part in “reader stretches”: stretching our arms open and closed like books. And once all were adequately "stretched out” (and calmed down) the group nestled down and leaned in.

We began with a big stack of books (for inspiration), and some tools (pencils, a giant pad of paper, and china markers) and together, on that very hot day (have you ever noticed that when you fill a room with bodies, the air-conditioning seems to disappear?), we created a story.

We asked, "Why do people make up stories?” One child responded quickly, with a hint of amused exasperation, “because it’s fun.” Oh yes, this bright young mind was hooked.

And so, we crafted a giant compost heap (one that Neil Gaiman would be proud of). Filling giant sheets of paper with the enthusiastic ideas of our audience as quickly as we could, it was joyfully challenging to keep up with the young minds and all of their ideas! And as the sheets of paper filled we found ourselves nearly ready to begin crafting the story.

But we needed a beginning, we needed a hook, to catch our reader and pull them in.
With this, a hand in the front row shot up with conviction, exclaiming “Once upon a time!” And then we were off: lead into imaginations made concrete on giant pages as our china marker attempted to write as fast as arms were flying up with suggestions from our compost heap and ideas pulled instantly from inspiration. Together we were swirled into a story made up of our time together. In a matter of minutes, we shared the experience of creating a story, that most of us in the room will never forget.

And this is the story we crafted together:
Once upon a time Mr. Tompkin, the cow, went fishing. But he had a problem, the worm fell off the hook of his fishing line.  
Just then, he looked up from the ocean and found himself flying into a cloud. But of course the cloud wasn’t strong enough to hold a cow, so he fell back down to earth and into the ocean.
Where sadly, Mr. Tomkin didn't enjoy his swim because a whale passing by decided to swallow him “gulp, gulp, gulp”. But the whale didn't eat cows, so it spit him out into a boat, so he could safely find his way home... 
Just then, a lion roared, shaking Virginia, the camel, from sleep and she realized she had been dreaming. “Holy, moly, guacamole! What a dream,” she said, stretching and reaching for her swimming clothes. 
"What a lovely day for a swim, I can't wait to tell Mr. Tompkin about my dream," she thought as she walked to the beach to meet her friend. 

A story like this should not go untitled, but we were out of time, the only suggestion being, “Linda Rocket Ship” by a young gent in the front row. The others scooted closer with ideas too, but alas, we were out of time. And so we'll leave this with... the end.
Stay tuned, we’ll have more about Commonplace Books soon, including how to get your hands on LWD Commonplace Books!

15 March 2019

Discover: Chimpanzees, Humans, Animal Culture

CognEYEzant day 262, Ed Yong
The genetic connections between humans and chimpanzees, whether they be our approximately 99% shared DNA or through our culture, remind me that some of the most human traits we possess are also some of our most animalistic.

At first, humans set ourselves apart from other animals by claiming we were the only creatures to use tools: chimps, among others, share this behavior. Us humans have led ourselves to believe that our culture sets us apart from the animal kingdom. But as Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes, writes in his The Atlantic article Chimpanzees Are Going Through a Tragic Loss, “many scientists have come to accept the existence of animal cultures”.

In a chimpanzee community —a group of adult males, females, and the young— chimps observe each other and by doing so, learn new skills and behaviors. Each chimp contributes unique skills, dare I say perspectives, to their community, the elders serving as history museums. Spanning across equatorial Africa, chimpanzee behavior varies by differing skills and practices, not just by ecological variances. In other words, chimpanzees problem solve, they adapt and have practices, they remember and learn— chimpanzees have culture.
CognEYEzant day 262

Our human perspectives all too often are unaware of, or disregard, the culture and nuances of others, whether they be humans or other animals. From my experience, especially with art, I’ve learned to crave the documentation and conservation of the thoughts and creations our culture produces. Yet as Yong puts it,

“We care about the loss of our own cultures. We work to document languages that are going extinct. We store old art in museums. […] It seems shortsighted—unimaginative, even—to be so concerned with our own traditions, but so blasé about those of our closest cousins, especially when we’ve only just started to appreciate how rich their cultural landscape can be.”

Take five minutes: broaden your perspective on animal culture by reading Ed Young’s article.

Take five weeks: learn about the nuances of chimpanzee behavior, and how we can conserve them as a species and a culture, by taking Duke University’s free MOOC (massive online open course) Chimpanzee Behavior and Conservation on Coursera. Join me, I’m currently taking it. 

This article originally appeared as Day 262 on BFWP's Sister Project CognEYEzant*. CognEYEzant is a 365-day art project Nadia aka The Thinker thought up. Every day for a year she creates a piece of art that represents an eye, much of the art is accompanied by articles like this one. Check out the project here. You can follow CognEYEzant by subscribing by email on the website and/or following CognEYEzant's Instagram @cogneyezant