Stories are informed by our senses. We create stories by re-imagining a narrative from sights, sounds, images, words, and smells. These stories are imaginary, real, or a combination of both. What was so compelling and transformative about our visit to the Tenement Museum was the palpable sense of history. One could touch the original banister that had been installed when the tenement was built, feel how tight the quarters would be (with a class of 17 crammed into an apartment), and see how these families lived. It was the place and the objects themselves that invited us to construct our own narratives. Interpret the space. Imagine. For Ryan and I, the tour really piqued our interest but we wanted to know more. What did it feel like to walk in the streets of the Lower East Side? What did it smell like? What did they eat? Since we haven’t figured out how to get Arduino to transport us back in time… we decided to go on a neighborhood exploration. We set out the South Asian section of Jackson Heights, part of an incredibly diverse neighborhood in Queens. Here’s a slideshow of our visit:
This was my second visit to the Tenement Museum. I went for the first time about five or six years ago. I barely remember the tour; save for the theatricality of the guide. I recall him being quite animated and enthusiastic which really stood out for me given the more subdued nature of our guide last week.
The guide’s approach to the tour was less historical and information-driven than what I had expected. I wouldn’t have minded if there was a bit more historical background but that’s just a personal preference. Her approach was to briefly introduce a space, show us a photo and then ask us to imagine what it would be like: to work in this apartment as a tailor’s assistant? To walk outside among the teeming crowds or share a bathroom with several families? While this may be useful and insightful for some, this tool for storytelling (teaching) didn’t work for me in this particular instance. Although, I could see it being quite effective for elementary and middle school students. It can be more engaging to a student to learn and understand a part of history by placing yourself literally and figuratively in it. I’m sure it’s a welcome departure from reading a textbook and listening to your teacher regurgitate points from a lesson plan. However, I felt like the tour guide relied a little too much on activating our imaginations. There are many spaces in which we can fill in the blanks, create our own ideas or understanding but I felt we needed a few more guiding points say beyond “imagine” in order to construct our own individual narratives.
The museum itself is a remarkable place. The fact that its so well-preserved is in itself an astounding feat. Visitors can experience first-hand the power of “place,” one can really feel the history there. It’s in the banister that supports you as you ascend the stairs, it’s in the walls and artifacts displayed. I’m impressed by the museum’s staging of the apartments, I think they succeeded in recreating a distinct historical milieu which provides a rather compelling narrative.
I purposefully chose Saturday to do the hourly comic exercise. I had plans beyond going to school. It seemed so promising. What I hadn’t anticipated were the variety of conditions in which I would have to draw. I didn’t have a problem in the morning at brunch – but I did encounter some difficulties while in the barely lit wine bar I went to for a farewell party. I made quick sketches from that point going forward and I would expand upon it the following day (breaking the rules, of course).
I played around with format. What worked best? 1 frame? 3? 6? In the end, I went with 1 frame but I don’t think it works. Is there any story? What am I trying to share with the reader? Is it at all interesting? Maybe if I added text it would be successful – I could rely on words to build out the story. I’m sure that there’s some reluctance on my part to rely solely on the visual given the lack of confidence I have in my drawing skills. Reading Will Eisner’s chapter on Writing & Sequential Art was essential to me understanding where deficiencies may lie in my work and more broadly, what makes a comic or sequential art work successful. I found this exercise useful for a number of reasons:
1.) Audience. How I address and engage the audience is paramount to the success of a project. If I don’t find my comic particularly interesting or informative than how would someone that doesn’t know me enjoy it?
2.) Incorporate action. Instead of relying on words to move a story forward, use illustrations. But it’s important that the illustrations are actions, not just scenery. Sequences of 3-6 frames would be particularly useful here (although I’m sure I could capture action within 1 frame as well).
3.) Size. I like to work small, very small and encountered issues of scale when I decided to go with the single frame. I didn’t know how to fill in the negative space. How can one use that most effectively? When does it work and when does it not?
400 words or less:
I could hear his fingers jostling the loose change in his pocket. Rotating the coins around in no particular rhythm. I didn’t think much of it, really. I probably thought it was annoying. In the same way I find people that chew gum with their mouths open annoying. Only in retrospect, did I understand why he – perhaps – nervous with anticipation chose to preoccupy himself with such a mindless task.
It happened quick. The pain shot sharply across my shoulder as he tore the bag off my arm. I began to scream. Down the block as I chased him. The quiet block. The block that I had just moved to the week before. A few neighbors came to their doors to see the commotion. I punched the air. One, two, three times. Contact. He faltered. But it wasn’t enough.
Someone yelled from the street, asked me a question. “Is that your bag?” I imagined. I probably nodded. Or perhaps, my voice hoarse from screaming, choked out “Yes!” I stopped. Looking up, I watched as the man from the street jumped up onto the curb on his bicycle and nearly collided with the thief. He let go.
My bag lay on the ground. The phone scattered in pieces. He watched as I picked up the pieces, examined the broken strap. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“On your bike?” I laughed incredulously. No, no – in a car. He lives just a few blocks that way. Under any other circumstances I wouldn’t accept such an offer but I thought given the circumstances I should trust him. He dismounted his bike and we walked side by side on the narrow, uneven sidewalk.
I met his parents. His mother safety pinned the broken strap back onto the body of the bag. His father rubbed my shoulder reassuringly. Once in the car, he popped in a cassette tape of Fugazi. We started talking excitedly about music – then film, and comics. I thought (and maybe he too), what great providence! How serendipitous! The cosmos bringing us together on this fateful Friday night on a street in Northeast DC.
I offered to buy him a beer. He asked for a raincheck, it was his father’s birthday. He had to head back to have cake. I met my friends. I thought how great this story would be to tell my grandchildren. If only.
It happened quick. The pain shot sharply across my shoulder as he tore the bag off my arm. I screamed as I chased him down the block. The quiet block. I punched the air. One, two, three times. Contact. He faltered. But it wasn’t enough.
(here I cheated by providing a title to add more context)
A Story for the Grandchildren (If Only)
Bag recovered, could have been love.
Why I want to be in this class:
I’d like to explore more deeply narrative form and its various permutations, how it functions within our lives – as a (the??) structure or lens to understand the world, to interact, participate, relate to others. There are many ways to play around with narrative, challenge the idea of what “makes” a story. I’d like the space to experiment with different forms and see what’s possible. Also, I’m very interested in the almost unconscious act of narrativizing anything and everything. Why does this happen? How can an author or an artist both capitalize on a viewers’ preconceived notions of a story and guide them down say a particular path? Where is the power? The control? Are those qualities necessary or inherent to the success of a story?
The contents of my bag scattered across the sidewalk. He watched as I gathered everything up, paused to examine the broken strap. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
For this assignment, I wanted to start with the 400 word constraint and then whittle the story down to 55, 25, and finally 6. I began writing and realized I had a problem when I reached 500 words and still hadn’t reached the conclusion. I was nowhere near it, actually. I struggled with how to end the story and didn’t want to sacrifice any other part of the story to afford myself more words. I didn’t want to end the story so abruptly either – I felt I had a responsibility to the reader to provide an ending. Also for selfish reasons, I wanted to share how it ended because I think its a great story. I managed to edit the story down to 400 words but felt unsatisfied. I also realized that I found the story much more compelling when orally recounted. The performative aspect allows me to exert more control over the story and more easily self edit given the cues from the audience.
For the 55 and 25 word limit format, I chose parts of the story to highlight – what I thought could stand alone. It’s interesting though that I chose to share the 25 word format which ends with a question (and those many possibilities / directions for the story to continue) and feel more comfortable with that open-endedness than in the 400 word limit. Perhaps it’s because I think it assumes a more poetic quality with that short format. Or it could be that since I know the full story, I find it carries more weight in those few words than in the more fleshed out telling.