Monday, August 27, 2012

Found Texts

For the past ten weeks, I’ve spent time with a dozen writers in a virtual classroom, exploring “found texts”—what they are, where they may be found, and how they may be used in writing. This week, my students are turning in their final projects, a stunning mélange of fiction and nonfiction that incorporates lists, recipes, emails, PowerPoint presentations, photographs, maps, diaries, text messages, letters, consumer surveys, instruction manuals, scientific research, questionnaires, genealogical research, historical research, and a number of other found texts. Together, we have built lists of types of found texts that can be incorporated in our writing as well as examples of published writers who use found texts. Even though the class is drawing to a close, I know I’ll be ruminating over everything that we’ve covered for a long time to come. (I think I may have learned more from my students than I taught them, but don’t tell them.)

I also spent most of the month of August—while teaching the class—in Southern California, where I went on several hikes in the San Gorgonio Wilderness of the San Bernardino Mountains. So when I wasn’t thinking about found texts, I was walking in the mountains.


And yet even in the mountains I seek out texts. Ascending the final steps to the top of a ten thousand-foot peak, I begin to look for the battered ammunition case chained to a rock that holds the peak’s register. After hours on foot, at the top of Grinnell or Zahniser or Mt. San Gorgonio (at 11,500 feet, the tallest peak in Southern California), people scrawl their messages in registers—small notebooks often stashed in plastic sandwich bags inside the metal containers. They record their names, their time to the summit, their total number of ascents, their routes and destinations, their hometowns, sometimes their ages, the lyrics to a favorite song, a beloved quotation, a small sketch, a dedication.


Some of these registers—especially ones in the Sierra Nevada—are historical documents in their own right, recording the first ascents of famous mountaineers dating back a hundred years or more. The registers I’ve seen in the San Bernardino Mountains are more recent—some going back to the 1970s, complete with mentions of Led Zeppelin—but others are not more than a couple of years old. Some purists argue that the registers are trash, clutter, eyesores in the pristine wilderness, and yet I am drawn to them—to learn who has come before me, to feel the presence of others who have stood on that peak. Looking out over the landscape from a high point, I am separated by those others who came before and the others who will follow only by the thin fabric of time.


On Charlton Peak, at 10,806 feet, the register is a new spiral-bound pocket notebook, begun just last month on 7/19/2012. The entries take up just a couple of pages. I read through them, thinking of found texts, thinking of my students, thinking of that other life down the mountain. And then I fish the stub of a pencil out of the ammo case and add my own words for someone else to find.