Personal Statement: Manifesto

(For my first post, I give you a personal statement that I submitted to MFA programs in dramatic writing. Person, from the Latin persona, meaning ‘a mask, or a character in a play.’ Below, I perform as MFA Applicant, a role I find especially fulfilling.)

“I want to be a screenwriter. I wish there were an equivalent word to playwright for film. A writer of plays is a play + wright, not a play + writer; not a mere scribbler, but a maker, a builder. As I write, I want to fashion films, not just script dialogue; I want to be a carpenter, constructing the framework, laying down the first, fundamental, load-bearing boards. Maybe filmwright is the word.

I revel in words, in the intricacies of woven text, but images—not evoked, not described, but let be, in all their forceful presence—cannot be ignored. Our culture is primarily visual. We live in the Image Age; the Information Age was a text-based myth. Images constitute our popular culture; they determine our politics; they make terrorism possible and war immediate. Visual literacy has become as important as textual literacy. The emergence of photography followed by the ascendancy of film began the shift, and now, in our digital world, with the Internet, TV, iPods, and cell phones, images self-replicate in a way that makes Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “mechanical reproduction” of film seem quaint in comparison. The power of dramatic writing is multiplied immeasurably by this culture of images; it is the form of literature that has evolved most successfully in the face of the new environment.”

The final half of the final sentence of the above paragraph I do not believe and never did. If I didn’t write it, though, the question would inevitably be asked: well, then why are you applying to programs that focus so intensely on writing? Why not a more standard film school? The real answer is far more complicated and contingent than I would want to dwell upon in a personal statement for graduate school. Better the smooth and concise transition than real honesty.

“When I arrived at Harvard, I had plans of becoming a theoretical physicist, but I changed my mind, or my mind changed, and I ended up concentrating in English. In my coursework, I read everything from Beowulf to King Lear to Gravity’s Rainbow through my recently-acquired analytic goggles and simultaneously began exercising my fiction-writing/evaluating muscles (complimentary muscles, somewhat like the bicep/triceps) more vigorously by working with campus magazines and taking writing workshops. I became interested in film as an outgrowth of my involvement with literature. I went outside of the English department and took two years of intensive filmmaking classes and became hopelessly, happily entangled. I spent hundreds of hours in the tiny closets in a basement in Harvard Yard, cutting and splicing, arranging and rearranging: constructing sentences out of pictures: inventing a new grammar for myself.

Fiction writing, whether prose or drama, is empathy amplified. To me, writing is an exploratory act; I think of it less as an attempt at “expressing myself” and more as an opportunity to learn about things that are strange or fundamentally different from me. The ideal is imaginative ecstasy, literally being outside oneself, inhabiting, in the process of creative work, some particular other. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writing for the screen and stage: self-erasure, or at least the illusion thereof, is much more naturally obtained in theater, in dramatic film, in the television time-slot. Am I some latter-day l’art pour l’art hanger-on? Yes. No. Art for itself, of course, always, but not because it is artificial, not because is it better or higher than the true, but because of its refining nature, its subtle but pervasive moral imperative: at their best, the fictionary arts, both in production and in consumption, lead one to a grounded respect for alterity, a respect I feel is supremely important.”

I go on to discuss the particulars of my candidacy and the reasons for my interest in the program. I’ll leave most of that out.

“The program would provide the space in which to light my writing on fire—burn it into film, put it into motion on stage, encode it in video; in short, let the text melt away and reveal what remains, what withstands the test. I want to focus on basics, isolate and work on them individually: dialogue in theater, plot in TV, image in film, everything in everything. Carpentry. Metalworking. Shop class. Most of all I need to write, write, write.”

Right. So I’ve started a blog, a bit of digital space to prop open with, I hope, virtually volumes of words.


At 3:38 PM, Blogger ErrantDigeratus said...

First: "If I didn’t write it, though, the question would inevitably be asked: well, then why aren’t you applying to programs that focus so intensely on writing?": I don't understand the reasoning here. You seem to argue first that words are great but images are just as important and, in the context of the cultural milieu you describe (whether accurately or not), are more relevant. Dramatic writing trades in these images more explicitly than other forms of writing and so borrows from their cultural immediacy (haha). Doesn't that explain why you would apply to programs that focus both on dramatic writing and production? Because it's only from the marriage of the two that the former derives its especial prominence?

Or is there a typo? I know which programs you applied to, but I don't know if they're focused intensely on writing. Do you need that second half of the sentence to bring yourself back to the textual (read: words) component of dramatic writing?

Please explain. Inquiring minds and all that.

Also: information versus image. Ever the anti-reductionist, I'm loath to argue that images are equivalent to information (in the bit-wise sense), because there's a clear emergence in play (the semniotics of an image cannot be reduced to the semniotics of the binary string in which the image is encoded). But I don't buy the idea that the Information Age is a text-based myth, because I think the kind of information we talk about when we say capital-eye-Information is as semniotically disconnected from textual meaning as it is from imagistic meaning. That is, words and the structures built on them are emergent from binary encodings as vessels of meaning in the same way that images are. I think the reason we talk of the Information Age is because we've (universally: textually, visually, audially, etc.) abstracted the standard meaning-objects into a machine-readable meta-representation.

As a final note (this is cool) Richard Powers (who I hate) points out in The Goldbug Variations (which I really hate) that any piece of information (any image, any person's genetic structure, any novel, any neural network representing a person's understanding of a novel, etc.) can be encoded by a single notch on a stick, in the following way: anything we can represent can be represented, in turn, by a binary string. Any binary string, in turn, can be written out, beginning of file to end of file, as a single number, which, in turn, has a finite decimal representation. If we put a decimal place at the front of the very long number we get by this method, we end up with a rational (since the long number is finite) fraction of one. Defining your (arbitrary) stick as having length one, you can then make a notch in the stick that fraction of the way along (Powers doesn't consider this (part of why he sucks), but to make the system consistent, you have to introduce a dummy placeholder at the very end of you number, or else there's no way to distinguish between, say, .2 and .2000, which would correspond to 2 and 2000, and are very different binary numbers. So, add a non-zero number to the end of your decimal representation, to be dropped in interpretation). For example, in ASCII, the letter a is encoded by on-off bits represented by the binary number 1100001. This is equivalent to the number 97, which we translate to .97, add a dummy number (say 1), then mark a notch 971/100 of the way down. Note that, with a sharp enough knife and a long enough stick, this notch could encode, say, the complete works of the New York Public Library or particle-by-particle history of the universe. Cool, huh?

At 7:17 PM, Blogger hanged lone loon said...

First, Mr. Digeratus, that was a typo; the new version of the sentence now appears, with a bit of clarification, in the post. I did need the second half of the sentence to return to the textual, but that turn was disingenuous in the original personal statement.

At 9:33 PM, Blogger hanged lone loon said...

I think of the term "Information Age" being applied with much less theoretical rigor than what you ascribe to it. The general intent behind the phrase, as used by the majority, would focus more on the instant accessibility of information (weather reports, sports scores, Aunt Susan's middle name) and less on Information Theory. Think about high school computer labs, Google, Wikipedia, etc. Analogies to the invention of the printing press are apt and point to the source; the revolution in universal access is what engendered the name, and the access itself is generally considered as access to text, or was initially.

Following the argument you put forth, I would concede that Information subsumes text, image, and noise, as each and all can be encoded, but I don't think "Information Age" refers to this encoding. Maybe I should. Our differences, I believe, come down to this triviality.

As for the sticks: wicked cool. But I feel like picking at nits. In order to really store the information, wouldn't the stick also need to encode the concept of, say, base-ten numbers? Or decimals? Am I totally off? Also, I think there would have to be a dot at one end of the stick to indicate which end you read from. So, properly, at least you need a dot and a scratch.

Really, I'm just imagining a scene: post-apocalyptic, roaming band comes upon a library; they've been planet-hopping for thousands of years looking for the legendary Library of Babel. They've finally found it. At first they are laughing, shouting, but as they enter, all grow quiet. They climb great marble stairs to a domed hall. There's nothing there but a single pedestal, and on the pedestal, a rod of platinum, and on the rod, a single scratch.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger ErrantDigeratus said...

As for the decimal encoding and the dot: most of our encodings are already convention based. We could just agree in advance to start with the thick end of the stick or something like that. But point taken, we do need to indicate zero. And yes: the babel scene is cool. Unfortunately, I think it would make a kitschy story.

And, that makes sense about Information Age. I've always read it in terms of information theory because anything else, I've felt, doesn't make sense (is open to exactly the criticism that you posed: we're decreasingly text-based).

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