Pie Charts and Butterflies:
A Story about Composing a Story about Composing

As a graduate student at Michigan State in the late 90s, I worked for several years in the Writing Center, which had begun to support composers as they worked on digital and multimodal projects. Those of us who provided this support called ourselves Digital Writing Consultants (DWCs). I worked closely with two undergraduate DWCs who were more advanced new media composers than I was. The three of us would mess around with the tools and toys the Center made available—scanners, digital cameras, the latest version of Photoshop.

This is an animated GIF that presents the quote from photographer C. J. Vergara: "The powerful spell of this magnificent city by the river forces us to go beyond the issues of blame, anger and hopelessness."
It looks dated now, but at the time I was thrilled with animated gifs like these, made frame by frame in Photoshop and compiled in GIFBuilder. This was intended for a website focused on the city of Detroit.

One of the DWCs showed me how to make animated GIFs using a free, simple application called GIFBuilder. I was smitten. It was liberating to make something that moved (animate = bring to life). I would spend hours designing individual frames in Photoshop, then compile them in GIFBuilder, creating what I fancied were micro art films. Inexplicably, I loved making words dissolve using Photoshop's smudge tool.

• • •

I currently teach in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH), a relatively new living-learning program at Michigan State University. Many of the students in this program are attracted to its interdisciplinary approach—a chance to explore a wide range of cultural forms in the context of a larger critical framework and a commitment to civic engagement.

A key component of this program is the RCAH 291 Arts Workshop. As a workshop, this course asks students to make things—photographs, books, murals, songs, ceramic sculptures, and more. The focus changes from section to section, semester to semester. I regularly teach an Arts Workshop focused on digital media; my students explore the expressive potential of graphic design, photography, illustration, video, and sound, as these things are encountered in digital environments of making and distributing.

In the Fall 2013 iteration of this course, when we got to the unit on video production, I changed the parameters of the assignment slightly from previous years. Whatever the final product was, it needed to tell a story.

While this is not a particularly original angle to take, it seemed like an important move within the RCAH because it shifted students away from what has become a fairly common format: the short, interview-based documentary. Interview-based projects are widely integrated across our curriculum, and their visual grammar is familiar: shot of person talking; cut to B-roll; cut back to person talking. Interview-based documentary is a powerful and flexible genre, and I continue to ask students to compose in this mode.

However, I wanted my RCAH 291 students to look at multimodal composing using a different framework. I wanted them to think more carefully about the way the grammar of film can be employed for narrative purposes. I wanted them to consider the way image and sound transform the craft of storytelling.

I hoped students would see this as an invitation to be experimental, playful—to step outside familiar frames. To my mind, one strength of an interdisciplinary curriculum is the opportunity to make connections across fields of practice. What kind of projects would students generate if they thought of storytelling as something that could pull together the various strains of our curriculum—music performance and book arts, ceramics and vector illustration, dance and screen printing?

As a class, we looked at many different examples of new media compositions, beginning with John Branch's (2012) New York Times piece "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek," which seamlessly weaved together alphabetic text, photographs, animations, and interviews into an account that is at once informative and harrowing. To very different effect, Edson Oda's (2013) short film Malaria combined music and live-action video with elements borrowed from comic books, paper art, and crankies. Alan Becker's (2006) Animator vs. Animation series offered playful, metafictional stories in which an animated character takes on a life of his own and resists his animator; these shorts take place within and make clever use of the Flash interface. Illustrating the social power of new media, in To This Day Shane Koyczan (2013) melded spoken word performance with segments of animation—over eighty segments in all, each one by a different artist with a distinct visual style. The relentlessly eclectic nature of the project itself functions as a Borgesian catalogue of visual possibilities.

I hoped these examples would evoke in my students a sense of what my friend Jason Wirtz (2012), following the poet Bill Olsen, called "creative impatience" (p. 42). Creative impatience happens when reading becomes a strategy for invention; we immerse ourselves in the compositions of others, and we become eager to compose something ourselves. (Curious what my students made? Take a look at Emily Chen's (2013) project Don't Go, which placed in the Young Michigan Filmmakers Festival.)

• • •

Animations have always fascinated me. I frequently become creatively impatient when I watch animations. When I watch a Warner Brothers cartoon (Hanna-Barbera, DC Comics, & Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2014) or Wes Anderson's (2009) Fantastic Mr. Fox or the amazing sand animations of Corrie Francis Parks (2013), I find myself longing to make something. But I can't draw very well. Usually I just wait for the feeling to go away.

While teaching RCAH 291 that fall in 2013, I upgraded to Photoshop CS6, which has more robust tools for creating animations. I've been a Photoshop dabbler for a long time. Could I make something interesting? My students were launching into creative storytelling experiments. I wanted to experiment as well.

Watching Becker's (2006) Animator vs. Animation series and similar compositions, I got this idea for an animated story set in the interface of PowerPoint (PPT). I liked the creative tension that might emerge between the rigidity of PPT (with its sterile flowchart icons and cheap clip art) and the more complex textures of Photoshop (with its smudge tool and oil paint filter). Years ago, David Byrne (2003) had put PPT's simplistic visuals to good artistic use in Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information.

I had this notion that the PPT interface could be imagined to contain hidden complexities. Perhaps the centerpiece of the interface—the large white slide itself—was made of snow. I pictured a character building a snow fort that was only visible when colored by a paintbrush stolen from the format button on PPT's toolbar. I envisioned bright colors that would slowly suffuse the snow, like flavored dyes being absorbed into a snowcone. I wasn't sure how I would accomplish this in Photoshop, but I felt confident that I would be able to execute something truly striking.

Having been warned by no less than J. R. R. Tolkien (1964), I have mixed feelings about relying on a dream as a narrative device. But in this case, a dream was the most efficient excuse to productively violate standard ways of interacting with PPT's interface. Dream logic would allow me to inhabit the world of the application, to move around in it, to touch it.

• • •

When I first started teaching in the early 90s, my mentors told me that it is good practice to compose along with your students. I suspect they were echoing people like Donald Graves (1993), who pointed out the value of a classroom in which teachers and students are co-strugglers, facing writerly challenges together.

I think co-struggling is doubly important when it comes to technology-intensive projects. As Daniel Anderson (2008) observed, it is problematic to assert that "students benefit from technical challenges and unfamiliarity without allowing that instructors, too, require skill challenges and will benefit from an ability to experiment with new technologies" (p. 43).

I often find myself encouraging my students to adopt high production values. As time goes on, I am less patient with run-of-the-mill nuisances that mark multimodal compositions as amateurish: backlit subjects, camera shake, wind noise. I find myself preaching about the need to white balance cameras before shooting.

But every ambitious attempt to do better introduces new sets of problems. In a previous class, for instance, a group of students had to re-shoot an interview because a pronounced buzz had infected their soundtrack—the result of using an external mic that was not properly connected it to the camera. Had they simply used the built-in mic, the sound would certainly have been usable, even if it had fallen short of professional quality.

I know that the process of composing an alphabetic text has much in common with the process of composing a multimodal work. Processes of invention, of audience assessment, of rhetorical goal-setting are common to both. At the same time, when I create a multimodal composition, my struggle with technologies is much more salient than when I write a short story or journal article. To get the vision in my head onto the screen, I am forced to navigate—to fight with—a constellation of cameras, lights, microphones, chords, and software interfaces. I compose with/through/against what Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, & Jeffrey Grabill (2005) called the "infrastructure" of composing. My vision is transformed at every step—sometimes for better, sometimes not.

I never was able to achieve the snow cone effect I had originally envisioned. No amount of tinkering with filters and texture brushes achieved the delicate and striking result I sought. As often happens, I compensated for this technical failure by revising the narrative itself. In Click to Add Ideas, my stand-in tries to fashion a house out of the pliable material he discovers in PPT's interface. He fails to make precisely what I failed to make.

Many of the segments contained in Click had to be re-done multiple times because of conceptual or technical flaws that crept into the process. For instance, the original stills for one of the stop-motion sequences were improperly lit, resulting in loss of detail. I labored for hours in Photoshop, trying to salvage them through post-production tinkering. In the end, I had to re-shoot everything.

Although in many ways I am happy with the final product, I can spot compromises in every frame, discrepancies between what I wanted to achieve and what I ultimately was able to achieve.

I believe that going through this process of idea generation and implementation—the continual struggle to achieve a particular compositional vision by means of complex chains of technologies—makes me a better teacher. It allows me to better understand my students' struggles and better positions me to support them in these struggles. It helps me calibrate my expectations for what is achievable in different developmental contexts (a video by students in first-year writing compared to one by students in an advanced media workshop). High production values? Easy for me to say, right?

• • •

The RCAH is a living-learning community: the Snyder-Phillips Residential Complex where RCAH students live for at least their first year also contains faculty offices, classrooms, an art gallery, an art studio, a theater, and a technology-rich informal learning space called the Language and Media Center (LMC), which I direct. Modeled after a writing center or multiliteracy center, the LMC is staffed by knowledgeable peer consultants (see, for instance, Lee & Carpenter, 2013 and Sheridan &Inman, 2010). Elsewhere, I (in press) have written about the way the RCAH can be seen as a learning ecology, with the LMC functioning as a hub that nurtures this ecology.

Working alongside my students allows me to switch roles in a productive way, from teacher-administrator to composer-user. I become dependent on the LMC and the learning ecology. I borrow the LMC's cameras, microphones, and lights. I seek support from the student consultants and from colleagues as I encounter technical challenges. I ask them to look at drafts and make suggestions for revision. (When I screened a draft of Click at an LMC staff meeting, a number of consultants were quick to point out the spots that the story gets slow, prompting me to edit more tightly and add new visual content.)

Any successes achieved by Click result from working within this nurturing environment. Because of the collocation of people, spaces, and technologies, I was able to cycle through the composing process fairly quickly and fluidly, generating and sharing ideas, creating designs, getting feedback, and revising.

• • •

Click is, of course, the kind of story a writer/writing teacher/writing scholar would tell: the familiar tale of the vagaries of the writing process. I'm not entirely certain that the piece contains no inadvertent references to Linda Flower and John Hayes (1981) or Peter Elbow (1973). On some level, PPT's textboxes—those narrowly defined spaces for composing, circumscribed with a black line—became allied, in my mind, with the "rigid rules" that Mike Rose (1980) famously critiqued his analysis of writer's block. In the face of arrows and bullets and cheesy, canned transitions, we long for something more generative, more lyrical.

Click is about the opposite of creative impatience: not an eagerness to compose, but the impulse to run from the burden of composing, having too-quickly exhausted all available heuristics of invention. This is the tired story of confronting, for the millionth time, the blank page, which is never really blank. It's about the need to render an idea in some medium or other—some combination of words, images, and sounds. It is about the inadequacy of all such renderings, the way compositions seem to always slip beyond our control, taking on a life of their own, manipulating us as much as we manipulate them. Our storehouses of words are always threatening to dissolve into nonsense; pie charts will turn into butterflies and fly away. It can be frustrating at times, but also fun in its own way.

David M. Sheridan
Michigan State University