About “Portraits and Conversations”




Beginning with the assumption that storyworlds—textual or actual—are made up of words, “Portraits and Conversations,” my collection of short prose pieces, investigates and raises questions regarding the ways in which written language constitute such worlds. These pieces are, if I were to give them a name, fictional essays or sketches. Or, to name them less metaphorically, compilations of verbal signs that function as fiction generators. While the term “fictional essay” will be, for many, oxymoronic, given that essays are generally and generically considered non-fiction and fictions are generally and generically considered fiction, I am, in this collection, focusing on the meaning of the term essay as a verb.  Read as a verb, to essay is a trying or a working out of something, and these pieces are all investigations of the processes involved in the construction of fictions. Furthermore, each refers to and describes not an actual world, but a fictional one.*

Composed over the last several years and arranged in roughly reverse chronological order, the pieces continue the exploration of written language as a generative medium addressed by many writers, both past and present, in particular Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Nathalie Sarraute.  Seeking to create narratives that avoid conventional notions of temporal and structural progression, limit authorial intention, and place in question the expressive and descriptive functions of verbal language, I employed three different types of constraints in the composition of these verbal assemblages. The first involves the incorporation of found text, which was taken from overheard conversations, in-flight magazines and catalogs, and various books from the Brooklyn Public library, including foreign language study guides, travel books, and philosophical treatises. The second constraint employed involves the adaptation and use of the poetic form of the sestina.  To apply the sestina form to prose narratives, I adapted the rules of the sestina form for the poetic line to the sentence either by employing the same end word in rotation for each of the six sentences in each paragraph, or by reordering the six sentences of a paragraph to create a narrative with six paragraphs, each beginning with a different sentence. The third constraint applied involves the application of an algorithmic function to randomly sort and combine the verbal signs, i.e., words and sentences, that, once collected, facilitate the creation of a fictional world and the character or characters in it. These include descriptions of the character by a narrator, another character or the character him or herself; statements made by the character and recorded as dialogue; thoughts that occur, or could occur, to a character; descriptions of the objects, both real and imagined, that a character sees and is placed amongst.   Serving to enable the creation of multiple versions of a narrative based on differences in the placement and sequencing of the statements in it, this constraint was applied by importing the sentences of a narrative into Microsoft Excel and using an algorithmic function in Excel to assign a “random” number** to each “statement,” or string of verbal signifiers. By sorting and resorting the statements based on these values, the order and progression of them are determined by chance rather than by intention.

Serving to alter the relationships and dynamics amongst writer, character, text, and reader by introducing the possibility that each composition can be read only as a provisional one, the constraints draw explicit attention to the dynamics and functions existing in every act of reading and writing to enable a a reader’s investigation of these as s/he reads.  While we all know that what a writer writes can only ever be understood by a reader as what he/she reads and is necessarily some approximation of a writer’s intentional and unintentional meanings, the fact that what is on the page (the “said”) and what is understood in the mind of the reader (the “meant”) exist in some relationship to one another is usually assumed to be sufficiently similar for an approximate normative meaning to be created, i.e., what is “meant” by the writer in the “said” will be received by the reader in an identical or similar manner.  In fact, this assumption of an approximate normative meaning that will be created by what is on the page and what is comprehended by a reader is only a tacit agreement. A reader could, for instance, decide to read what is on a page either somewhat or radically differently because of various assumptions, generic or otherwise, that he or she brings to the text. In those cases, the “said” and the “meant” represent not identical, or even similar, but widely different meanings. Such an event is usually described colloquially as a “misunderstanding.” However, a misunderstanding can only be said to occur in texts approached with the belief that the reconstruction of a writer’s messages (both intended and unintended) are more important than the reader’s comprehension and interpretation of those messages.  With more “open” texts, like the ones in this collection, the signifying events that take place in each may relate to but can never equate with the writer’s intentions since these intentions were originally diffuse and since whatever was intentionally written is always placed alongside non-intentional meanings created through the arbitrary ordering, placement, and juxtaposition of statements. For instance, in the case of the pieces incorporating found text or composed using the sestina form, the subject matter of each narrative could be altered by swapping out the found text or the end words used. In the case of the pieces composed through the recombination of sentences, each could begin or end anywhere and could, in fact, exist in many other configurations than the one presented on the page. As a result, the reader becomes more self-consciously aware that what exists on the page is only one of many possible versions of a narrative, each of which is made up of pieces of information that must be processed by the reader in order for a story to be constructed. The repetition and recombination of statements in a given piece also raise a reader’s awareness of the variability of the meaning of a statement depending on whom the reader attributes the statement to (a narrator or a specific character) and on what discursive function the reader assigns the statement (free indirect discourse, implied dialogue, actual dialogue, etc.).  As an active participant in the composition process, a reader may also become aware of the peculiar existential status of characters, who have been selected by the writer to be represented, but who are subjects that are never completely described or contained by a narrative. The lives and opinions of a character extend beyond the pages of a text, with the words attributed to them functioning at one and the same time as clues to possible and past actions and thoughts, as well as descriptions of thoughts and actions that take place at one specific time.

Like every collection of fictions, this one presents claims about what fiction is.  However, whatever claims may be being made in this one are phrased more as questions being posed to the reader rather than as statements in order to highlight the interactivity involved in every act of reading and writing.  My work is and has been for some time, by design, interactive and dialogic, meaning it explicitly and actively inscribes a place for the reader, who must engage with the work in order for it to be complete. Some of the issues on my mind when I was creating these pieces included: how to limit the role of intentionality in the creation of texts; the immersiveness or lack thereof of specific types of fictional storyworlds; and what constitutes realism in writing.  In retrospect, I now see that all of these issues relate to my interest in writing as a medium of representation and the sometimes shared and sometimes entirely unique characteristics and attributes of this medium compared to others, in particular painting, photography, and film.

The title of the collection comes from the two categories that most of the pieces fall into: portraits or conversations.  One thing that I find interesting about portraits as a genre of painting is that they are most often considered to be a unique combination of an objective documentation of an individual and the painter’s subjective description of the same individual; another unique attribute of many portraits is that they are assumed to serve as representations of both the physical and psychological characteristics of the individual being portrayed.  The extent to which a specific portrait is interpreted by a viewer to be primarily an objective or subjective description varies depending on a number of factors: the context in which the portrait is presented, the biographies of the artist and sitter, the media selected for the portrait, and the artist’s use of that media. Whether photographic portraits exist in the same way is open to question since the photograph is usually perceived to have a different relationship to objects and their potentially objective representation than a drawing or painting or verbal description.  Conversations are likewise a unique meeting place of subjective and objective interpretations. Depending on the perspective from which one hears or overhears a conversation, the meanings of the verbal statements made will be highly variable. “To say nothing of her” is, for instance, an utterance that can be interpreted in many different ways depending on how, why, and in what context it is received.



After entitling this collection “Portraits and Conversations,” I learned of a collection of short prose pieces entitled “Portraits and Observations” by Truman Capote. Misremembering this title as “Portraits and Conversations,” I thought for some time that my title was identical to Capote’s. It is not, but it is, of course, related. Titles are not copyrightable, which is one of the more curious facts of copyright law. As a result, I did not need to worry about rights to this title had it been Capote’s. However, I did have to worry about what might be implied by my use of this title regarding connections to be made between my work and Capote’s. I have read very little Capote, but I have become an admirer of his essays compiled in this early collection “Portraits and Observations.” All of these words are, of course, connected, or can be connected by a reader who carries around with him or her a collection of books and words. While I was in no way making an explicit reference to Capote or his work with this title, given the fact that this collection is very much about textual references and their functions and dynamics, it seems fitting that the title, which I had intended to be an original one, is only, as most titles are, somewhat original since they are always operating as a reference to an already existing actual or imagined text.


* Regarding the relationships between fiction and non-fiction, or, as I like to refer to the problem, between fiction and fact, I distinguish fictional stories from nonfictional essays based on whether the words contained in them refer to invented or actual things.  The referent of a story and any object or character in it can be fictional or factual or some combination of the two. If the storyworld is called fictional, it is deemed to have been invented. It does not exist in any tangible form that can be experienced. It is created via description for the purpose of the invention of a textual world, not textual documentation of an actual world and a writer’s perceptions, descriptions, and interpretations of that world.  As a result, the intention of the words on the page is distinct in what we call fiction and what we call nonfiction. While the antonym of fiction may not be, technically, “fact,” I like to use this term anyway because, in using it, I am making a little joke. To me, all representations are fictions. However, I understand the socio-cultural and economic necessities involved in distinguishing fiction from nonfiction.


**Because Excel uses an algorithm to assign numbers, these numbers are technically not “random,” but “pseudo-random” numbers. However, for the purposes of altering the order and sequencing of sentences so no two combinations in any given paragraph are identical, the appearance of randomness created by the assignation and recombination of pseudo-random numbers is virtually identical to the appearance of randomness created through the use of random numbers.


***Regarding what constitutes realism in writing, my answer is and and like and as.

What to Read and Teach Next (June, 2018)


What to Teach Next: #openaccess literature, culture, and #technologies readings published by http://www.datasociety.net:

Re: Imagining the near future of race and biology: “Ferguson is the Future” by Ruha Benjamin

Re: Global politics, indigenous cultures, and mining: “The Irradiated International” by Lou Cormun

Re: Envision (and participate narratively in) the future of aging and elder care : “Welcome to Vanguard Estates” by Rose Eveleth

Describing Bed-Stuy: A Community-Based Archival Project


Describing Bed-Stuy: A Community-Based Archival Project

When: Saturday, June 2, 2018 (2-3:30? pm)

Where: Macon Street Branch, Brooklyn Public Library, Lewis Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

About the “Describing Bed-Stuy” Project:

Written descriptions provide a highly personalized and in-depth record of the built and human environments that make Bed-Stuy unique.  We are interested in your stories and your perspectives on your particular experience of living in Bed-Stuy. These descriptions will be collected and archived as part of an ongoing project to document the history and present of our vibrant neighborhood.

About the Workshop Facilitator:

Johannah Rodgers is a resident of (Eastern) Bed-Stuy (845 Hancock Street @ Ralph and Howard Avenues) and a writer, artist, and educator whose work is concerned with technologies, environmental sustainability, and the preservation and definition of humans and human-built structures, rituals, and artifacts.  She has been teaching writing for over twenty years and is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books and projects, including Technology: A Reader for Writers,  DNA: A Digital Fiction Project (dnanovel.com), digitalcomposition.org: an open access, i.e., freely accessible, web site about writing, writing education, and things people do with writing.

About “Description 1: 11233”:

In late 2015, the poet and critic Albert Mobilio invited me and Donald Breckenridge to participate in Double Take, a reading series that he has curated over the last nine years at the Apex Art gallery in Manhattan. The reading series is organized around a constraint: two writers trade takes on a shared experience. Donald and I talked about several possibilities for the project that we would collaborate on, deciding finally that a description of our neighborhood park, Saratoga Park, where we walk together at least once a week would be a fitting subject for our shared project. No description of anything is ever exhaustive. As a result, some of the questions that we considered in this project and that I’d like you to consider today are: What does it mean to describe a place? What does it mean to see something? What do you see? How do you see? How does what you see differ from what I see? “Describing Bed-Stuy” is, in part, a continuation of this project that will document other shared spaces in the 11233 zip code.

Writing as a Medium for
Documenting Spaces and Places

Writing is highly personalized

Writing is uniquely impressionistic

Writing combines perceptions from all of your senses

Writing is informed by your experiences across time and encompasses a unique history of you and your family and your heritage

Writing is highly transportable

Writing is, or can be, comparatively inexpensive as a medium of documentation

Writing is also, unfortunately, somewhat stigmatized because it is not, like talking, used on a daily basis

Some Guidelines for Today’s Workshop
Re: Writing

We will not be concerned with writing as a “code” that is supposed to be used in specific ways and according to strict rules of usage as defined by the guidelines of Standard Written English.

Instead, we will use writing as a means of transcription to document our unique and personalized accounts of what we have seen in our neighborhoods or what stories we have to tell about our neighborhoods. We will write in whatever way and in whatever dialect (formal, informal) we are most comfortable with. We will not be concerned with conventions of punctuation or word choice. We will pretend we are talkng to another person using writing to convey what it is we have to say. We may draw pictures to describe things we are talking about. We may make up words to describe things that we have seen or want documented. We will think about not only what words we might use to describe our neighborhood but what words come to mind when we think of our neighborhood and are often in our minds when we are in our neighborhood.

Some Prompts or Possible Beginnings

  • What does your block look like?
  • What makes your block unique?
  • How has your block changed over the last week, month, year, decade?
  • Who lives on your block?
  • If you had to choose one word to describe your block, what would it be? Why did you choose that word?
  • If you were to tell one story about your block, which story would you tell? Why?
  • Describe a typical or single day on your block.
  • Write a letter to future residents of your block about what you would like them to know about your block.




On Reading


November, 2012

On Reading

Johannah Rodgers

I have been thinking a lot lately about reading:  about how much I love reading and how pleasurable it is, not just as a pasttime or for entertainment–though these are important parts of it as well–but as something more significant and ultimately more important than entertainment.  You must read with desire, I’ve written, as has Roland Barthes long before me.  I keep turning to Barthes in my quest to understand more about reading, why it is so important to me, and how I might share this desire, this pleasure with my students.  I have not yet located any one piece of writing by Barthes that succinctly communicates this, which is part of the reason that I am writing this now.  


In an age of widespread access to information, we are all reading a lot.  But we are reading differently.  We are also experiencing time differently.  I think about myself and all of the time I once had to read.  Do people have that kind of time anymore?  They could, in theory, but perhaps they simply don’t.  I still have the time, but I use it differently.  I can now look at twenty books at a time in the space of an afternoon on Google Books.  Reading technologies are not new, of course, and it is worth thinking about the bookwheel and the reading easel as some examples of reading technologies from another time.  (Perhaps just as much as time and space are essential to understanding novels, the time and space of reading itself is important.  Many literary theorists have written about the time of reading and its relationships with narrative time, but we are still figuring out how the time and space of reading change with changes in actual time.)    


In my studies of reading and in my thinking about teaching writing, I’ve come to learn that writing well really is–at least in part–a question of reading well.  It is also about reading a lot.  It is about developing a fluency in reading.  It is internalizing a textual language.  To become comfortable with writing is, in some ways, to learn a new language.  


There are a lot of steps involved in this metaphor I’ve thrown out there, and I hope at some point to break them all down.  For now, what I want to focus on is this question of technology and reading.  Each generation grows up with its own technologies of reading. I am very much a product of my own generational reading technologies.  My mother’s generation was slightly different from mine.  But the technology we shared was the printed book.  Mine may have been paperbacks and hers hardcovers, mine may have had different covers and included more graphics and colors than hers, but she and I both sat with a bound codex in our laps or on our desks to learn things.  The printed codex will not be the technology of reading for the next generation.  It will be something else.  Although I am not the best person to explain how this next generation’s reading technologies will function, I can act as an intermediary and as a witness to the pleasures of my generation’s reading technologies.  


Back to Barthes, who has always been interested most in writing and–he claims–only secondarily in reading.  Are we writing and reading in new ways now?  Is this an age of a new kind of concision in communication, as well as one of collaboration in composition?  


My sense is that all that anyone needs to get started with reading is a door.  But what does that door look like for this generation?  My door looked like this:  some small books that my mother told me were must reads:  Kafka, ee cummings’ six non-lectures, some poems by Yeats.  This door opened a bit more in high school when I was introduced to various French existentialist writers.  This door was then blown off its hinges when I took a class on Proust in college, and it has been wide open ever since.  But if, for my generation, the clues were in footnotes and references and bibliographies, where are they for this generation?

Adapted from What Is Writing?: An Introduction to Writing as an Act and Medium of Communication (2015).

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Engineering Language: Writing Machines, Labor, and Writing Instruction in the U.S. 1860-2010


Engineering Language is the title of a research project that I am currently working on that investigates the interconnections amongst the history and development of information and communications technologies, linguistic and literary critical definitions of language, writing instruction in public higher education, and commercial publishing in order to better understand the  definitions, roles and functions of verbal language in twenty-first century media economies.

Since the widespread adoption of the printing press, we have been writing with and for machines.  However, the ways in which and the extent to which machines could participate in acts of writing have changed over time.  We have now reached a point where machines play an active role not only in the reproduction and distribution of writing, but in its production and, even, at times, in its creation and composition.  As we find ourselves increasingly writing with and for machines, there is the possibility that functions once assigned uniquely to humans can be automated.  In this project, I am exploring the interconnections amongst the history and development of information and communications technologies, linguistic and literary critical definitions of language, writing instruction in public higher education, and commercial textbook publishing in order to better understand the production and functions of verbal language, or what was once referred to as “writing,” in twentieth and twenty-first century media economies.