"On Collaboration, VII: Courtney Eldridge and the Saccades Project"
by WIlliam Walsh for The Kenyon Review, December 10, 2010
A saccade, according to Wikipedia, is a quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes in the same direction. The word appears to have been coined in the 1880s by French ophthalmologist Émile Javal, who used a mirror on one side of a page to observe eye movement in silent reading, and found that it involves a succession of discontinuous individual movements.
The Saccades Project is an open studio for Courtney Eldridge’s novel-in-progress. Courtney issued an open invitation to anyone with an Internet connection to view the process of her writing, to contribute, collaborate, and engage in the writing process through their photographs, videos, and music. Courtney is sharing the inspiration material submitted by her young collaborators via Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
The novel is about a fifteen-year-old girl named Thea Denny, who lives in an unnamed town in upstate New York. Beyond her sixth-period art classes, Thea hates every minute of school. She’s madly in love with her boyfriend, Cam, the first boyfriend she’s ever had. He’s eighteen and a math/computer dynamo who feels that geeks shall inherit the earth.
Saccades—what’s the meaning and significance of the title? How does it relate to the characters in the novel that you’re working on?
I was living in Argentina, and English-language novels are prized possessions down there. Moving apartments, I inherited a copy of Mark Haddon’ great novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s such a smart, pleasurable read, the story of this fifteen-year-old English boy with Asperger’s who’s looking for the killer of a neighbor’s dog. Reminded me of how much I enjoyed Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I have a weakness for characters with strong voices, so I was completely engaged from the first sentence. I’d written one teenage character in my first novel, and the intensity of that age, how it produces such a richness of voice was something I wanted to return to.
In any case, that’s where I came across the definition of saccades, which I’d never heard of before, and for some reason, I was so fascinated, I went back and reread the passage a couple times. The first thing that came to mind was how saccades relate to narrative, the visual mapping and picture building of sentences, basically.
Then I started playing around with this idea of physiological phenomenon that involves both frequency and image. So that’s where I got the idea that that the best way to learn about this young character, fifteen-year-old Thea Denny, would be through those two channels, excuse the pun. That is, through sound and image, the things I’d pick up along the way, moving around online, would be the best way to imagine her story.
Then again, you know, I have to say it was more intuitive, more personal than that, though. Because I always write to music, and I’m pretty hooked on collecting imagery, myself, every day. Seriously, I go through jpeg DTs, like I got to kick whenever I step away from my computer for more than a day or two, at most. Which really hasn’t happened all year, since I started the project, but still. On that level, alone, I thought I had a chance of relating to a teenage girl today, attempting a YA novel, which is entirely new to me.
There was also a practicality to working with sound and image that way. First and foremost, I can’t think of being a teenager without remembering, quite emotionally, too, even now, those earliest hormonally fueled obsessions with new bands and new artists. To listen to music so much that you wear down the technology involved—records, tapes, CDs, breaking your iPod, whatever. The same difference—this was my hunch, at least—is that that Mutt and Jeff routine you play with rock & roll at that age—boy and girls, equally—hasn’t changed since I was a teenager, or since my mother was a teenager, for that matter. That discovery of music and art has tremendous lifelong significance. And to think how much more, infinitely more a teenager can learn today, all on their own, on the Internet now.
So I just started cruising around, surfing for cool music and artists, almost like an egg hunt. I hadn’t really done that consciously before, and at times, it felt a bit like taking the character shopping on the Web. Looking around, wondering, what does this character wear? What sites would she be following? What would she be listening to? What artists inspire her? And then, holding up some song or artist, and asking myself, Would Thea like this? That’s how I approached her backstory, and I have to say, it was a lot of fun, working that way.
What prompted you to produce Saccades as a collaborative project?
I couldn’t think of a better way of researching this character, piecing her together, literally, figuratively and/or technologically, than asking the experts. Asking teenagers what teenagers really are experiencing today. Likewise, I couldn’t think of a better way to unravel and reconstruct those experiences than by sharing music and artwork teenagers are producing.
Also, I’ve only written two books, but time-wise, by that point in time, I’d worked alone for more than ten years. My first novel, The Generosity of Women, from start to publication, took three-and-a-half years, and that’s not slow, really. Most of that time, though, about two-thirds, you’re on your own, as you know. And, then, added to that, the market collapse of October 2008, and given the upheaval in the publishing world, when I started conceiving Saccades Project, it seemed the perfect time to try something new.
I have an art background, always wanted to work with artists. And because no one knows what’s going to happen to the novel, why not try for one book? One book written in one year, see what happens.
Again, to be in Argentina, I was so dependent on the Internet, and when I started thinking about who would be most receptive to the idea, teens seemed my best hope for collaboration.
What was it like to open your project to unknown collaborators?
Terrifying. Mostly, it was terrifying, yes. Especially when the work would arrive—each artist sent eight photos and eight-song playlists—I’d open their files and just be so blown away. Then, almost immediately, I’d panic. It’s a pretty phenomenal responsibility to be entrusted with these images, having assured each artist that I’d keep up my end of the agreement. Which was to post something every day in response to their work.
It’s hard to juggle the desire to please the artist/collaborator with what’s required of the character and your own writing—to directly involve them, and then have to directly ignore them, you know? In the end, I decided that I couldn’t please anyone, really, but the greatest respect I could show their artwork was in hard work, hour per hour. To get up, every day, with the goal of producing a thousand to two thousand words, using one picture and one song.
Waking up every morning, having no idea what I was going to do was fine when it was me, but with others possibly expecting to stop by and see what I’d done that day? Then again, that degree of improvisation was good for me. Knowing the writing would be seen, made public, I mean. Then again, fear can be extremely motivating. It certainly was for me in this case.
How far has this collaboration extended your personal aesthetic?
Flexibility. In the last nine months, I’ve really come to see how rigid I am in the way I work, or, more specifically, in the way I think. Mixed blessing of working alone. Since last October, I’ve become far more flexible in terms of rolling with things and seeing, day in, day out, that that’s usually what works best, regardless.
You’re working with young collaborators from around the world. What are you learning from them about the characters you created? How do you reconcile so much input with your own ideas–how do you make that input part of your process?
Two thoughts. First, that kids today collaborate all the time. That’s the greatest power of the Internet. And one of the issues I knew I wanted to figure out, from the start, seeing as the main character, Thea, and her boyfriend, Cam, collaborate and communicate and improvise in these virtual ways. This double-life they lead, in a sense.
Of course approaching young artists about this project has been interesting. Because in many ways, it’s preaching to the choir. Except the choir is far more technically savvy than you are, or rather, than I am, and could definitely give pointers on web design and blogging. Initially, the greatest problem was that I couldn’t fully communicate how I would play with their work seeing as I’d never done it before, myself. I had hunches, and I made up a structure that was mostly about how I’d approach the daily work. And I did—I showed up for work every day of a collaboration, which went back-to-back-to-back for several months—December through March.
There was no one way, no one rule in terms of working with all these different people than to sit and listen and look at what they sent me. And then questions, thoughts, associations, different ideas came to mind. I told everyone that the daily posts were just sketches, that I would be working out sketches for scenes. Because I’m not sure how many people really have any idea how much editing goes into that writing long after the first pass. These were first passes, written mostly inside an hour or two every morning. And it’s crude, very crude, but it’s real. That’s where the story begins, and I think there’s value in people seeing that stage of the process.
Most of all, I’ve been completely blown away by how brave these kids are, putting their work out to the whole world. I was so shy at that age, and I imagine there are just as many shy kids today, who don’t. But the sheer number of those who do put themselves out. Teen photo pools/groups with 25,000 or more members is incredible. That discovery is what led me to the question that’s really at the heart of this project: What if God was a teenage girl?
You see your main character, Thea, as “exist(ing) digitally first and foremost.” Can you describe how a digital virtual life differs from a fictional character’s virtual life on the page? Are the characters in Saccades developing differently than characters in your previous stories and novel?
To put raw work, as it were—to self-publish from inception—in a public space after ten years of being hermetically-sealed with my writing. That’s radically different. For me, I don’t talk about work and I never show it to anyone—story, novel, any work in progress—until it’s through a first draft. Up until now, I didn’t and wouldn’t talk about new work, either. I just needed to keep quiet. This was a complete one-eighty for me.
Now, though, I don’t think of anything other than the work. You have good days, bad days, and then, interestingly, sometimes the posts that get the most positive response don’t come from the days you considered good.
The greatest benefit for me, personally and creatively, is how much energy these young artists have brought me every single day for the past year. Even with the project’s Facebook page, just knowing that one of them might be watching, that’s kept me honest in a way I’ve never known before.
I was thinking of your project and this Roland Barthes quote: “The photographic image . . . is a message without a code.” Can you talk about the “messages” in the photography that you’re curating for the Saccades Project? As a fiction writer, how do you define big terms like “message” and “code”?
To be honest—and I so appreciate your question, thank you, but still. I’ve never been big on theory. For me, theory starts where guts stop. Though I do appreciate its work in cleaning up the mess, theory simply has no appeal to me, whatsoever, and has never once come to mind in this undertaking.
The curating is very simple. I spend many, many hours on Flickr, taking visual Sunday drives, sometimes speeding, sometimes not, and anything, any image that stops me, I invite to the group. And then, if the artist is kind enough to share their work with us, I write them to ask permission to share it. I write and ask every artist whose work is exhibited on Facebook; I credit and link every artist shown, because one of the aspects of the Internet that I really despise is the lack of proper credit. Teach by example, right? That’s all you can do.
In any case, it’s that intuitive I was talking about, the screeching halt of my imagination, where I have to back it up, stop and really look.
Teens today have a visual and technical sophistication that’s ten to fifteen years ahead of the curve of any other generation. I see fifteen-year-olds producing work on the level of what I saw in art school in the nineties, produced by people in their mid-twenties—graduate level, seriously. But what’s most interesting to me is the tension in that these teens, who are so savvy on that level, and yet, mired in hormones. The universal coming-of-age muck that can so easily undermine the most talented and sophisticated artist. At its best, though, when those two forces work together, creativity and raw emotion, as I see happen every day I’m on Flickr, it’s a true force of nature. Virtual or not.
Finally, as for what that means, the Barthes quote, I have no clue. If I had to give it some personal interpretation, I’d say that the message is the intuitive, and the code is the cerebral, the rational, the attempt to justify and explain exactly what cannot be explained. In that way, I can appreciate the comment, because I’m interested in the intuitive, the break from the cerebral, the very defiance.
Also, can you talk more about the music of Saccades Project (the playlists)?
In terms of the collaborations, I needed more than visual information. My mind travels best and furthest with music playing, so there’s almost always music playing when I work. That said, when I’m working, I often avoid lyrics, I tend toward jazz, classical, dub, and so on. Because I’ll pick up on lyrics, and not even realize how much they’ve influenced what I’m writing at the moment.
So. In this case, rather than avoid them, I wanted those lyrics to play into the writing because I know the artists are inspired by the lyrics, equally.
The partnership of the daily images and the song created a mood for me to work with that would not have been possible, otherwise. The idea, though, was not only that the playlists are an octave of sorts, eight notes in a story, but that they all begin with an original song and end with a cover of that original song. Because it’s about being influenced, openly, whole-heartedly; it’s about embracing reinterpretation, the whole idea that anyone creates anything original in a vacuum is rubbish, excuse the pun.
And—do I understand you correctly below—that you are changing the name of the novel that you’re writing within the Saccades Project? Do you want to talk about it?
Yes, I am changing the name of the book, at least, if not the project as a whole. For the most practical purpose in the world: pronunciation. I mean, I loved—and still love—the look and meaning and concept of “saccade.” Unfortunately, I’ve simply had one too many people ask me, shyly, “How do you pronounce that?” (It’s pronounced “suh-KAWD.”) To challenge is one thing, but a title needs to be more accessible, and really, this whole project is about accessibility. I don’t want anyone to feel left out in the cold for any reason. Ever.
Courtney Eldridge is the author of Unkempt, a collection of short stories, and The Generosity of Women, a novel. She has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Ucross Foundation. In 2006, she was awarded the Prix du Marais for Record à battre, the French translation of her novella, The Former World Record Holder Settles Down. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications and magazines, including The Mississippi Review, McSweeney’s, Post Road, BOMB, and the New York Times Magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.
I asked a few of Courtney’s many Saccades collaborators to talk a bit about their experience working on this project. Here’s what they said:
With my generation, it feels like everyone is secretly competing to see who is better. In the art world this idea has stuck with a lot of people. The Sacccades project allows artists of all ages to comes together to inspire, create and collaborate on a story and that really breaks that invisible wall of competition, it’s pure art. Everyone takes something from it. I loved being able to read a piece of her writing and transform it into a photo shoot, then go and see what other artists had created. It was exciting!
I was focused a lot of the innocence of a teenage romance. The relationship between her characters Thea and Cam was very strong in her writing, I wanted to take that idea and bring it into a photo-shoot in it’s simplest form. Some people say that teenage relationships are pointless because they don’t know what love really is, but I think for a lot of people, that first love is the one they remember the most.
Courtney is certainly a visionary; she has an idea and she goes for it. Her motivation spreads like a virus and you end up just as excited as her. She is one the brightest and kindest people I have ever worked with. It was refreshing to write to her because you knew she would always have ideas and a voice. It was without a doubt one of my favorite collaborations
Firstly-I think the Saccades Project interested me because of its strength of concept-I found the idea of the non-linear narrative really interesting. Also, the way Courtney had interpreted the story was something I hadn’t seen done before. The idea of using people from all over the world to contribute and shape the narrative was, I think, the inherent strength of the Saccades Project. The story seemed fairly universal, and Courtney made it even more so by going about writing it the way she did. (Incorporating teens from all over.)
For the project, I was asked to take a series of 8 images and provide a playlist. This would serve as Courtney’s ‘inspiration’ for that particular day-she would look at the image, listen to the song and write. Her writing, the photograph, and the song would then post on the Saccades blog. This made it easy to follow along and see how Courtney was interpreting my take on the Sacccades Project. The strongest conceptual element that guided my photographic interpretation of the work was the word ‘saccades’ itself (literally meaning ‘the rapid movement of the eye’ when taking in ones surroundings or reacting to a situation). I became fascinated with the concept of sight and how easily one thing could be seen and another missed, and the gap between something’s existence in your mind and its existence in reality. This linked to the story as well- the protagonist, Thea, often imagined that she could see her missing boyfriend, or things pertaining to him. There was always an uneasiness in the narrative that suggested the protagonist was never fully grounded in reality. I took this concept and ran with it.
Working with Courtney was actually really rewarding. It was interesting to see how a writer would interpret my work. As our collaboration wore on, I was more and more surprised at how accurately Courtney interpreted my images. The general mood I was going for was equally (or more) present in her writing. I looked forward to seeing what she would write each day. Saccades was exciting and inspiring-something I would not hesitate to do again. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out!
I loved the fact that it seemed to be very different from anything I’d seen before, very open to creativity, and I must say I was intrigued to see what Courtney would do with my pictures – where they would lead her.
I contributed with a series film photographs inspired by the story’s main character—I wanted to do a play on dreams and the distortion of the character’s reality, so I used a blythe doll and a teenage girl that both represent her (or rather the way she sees herself)
Working with Courtney was a delight! She let me free to do whatever I wanted and was very supportive thorough the whole process.
What attracted me to The Saccades Project was the fresh idea of an author wanting a book based on collaborative works of different individuals around the world, that in some way all of the individual’s thoughts would collectively be a part of something great as a whole.
Courtney asked of me to submit my photographs of what I believed to portray the story of Saccades well, not to mention select some music that I felt was relatable to the story of Saccades. What I liked most about this was that Courtney gave us so little to know about the story, thus leaving different contributors to give different interpretations of what they would of thought The Saccades Project to be about.
Working with Courtney was oh so very cooperative. I was very happy to be working with someone that was kind, polite, and patient. In the patient aspect, I remember Courtney would always want me to take my time, and encourage me that I didn’t have to think any of my submissions were bad or not suit Saccades. There isn’t a moment I can recall Courtney being any different than what I described. I wish her the best of luck with this project.
— Alex Simms
I was really intrigued by the idea of a collaboration between a writer and artists. I’m a writer myself and often find that the two mediums tie together more than most people realize.
The idea that she was to pick teenage artists, who have firsthand experience with adolescence, to create art inspired by her book-in-the-works (which of course is focused on two teenage characters) I found to be quite innovative. It was something I’d never seen before and I was fascinated. Also, she’d already collaborated with a few of my friends who double as huge inspirations for me, I was honored to have been chosen for the project!
I contributed photography, a collage, and a playlist. I created new digital photographs and also mixed in some of my other recent digital and film photographs that I thought worked well for the project.
I made a mixed-media collage, using photos cut out from magazines, small objects, and my own personal drawings. The playlist drew together some of my favorite songs that I thought fit well together in the context of the book.
It was a wonderful experience. I’d create my photographs and art and then dash to the Saccades Project site to see what she’d create in response to my work. She’s a phenomenal human being, extremely modest, open-minded and very talented. I’m so happy I got a chance to work with her, and happier too that she’s choosing to work with me again in December on another project of hers.
In photography, I used self-portraiture as a way to transform myself into the main female character of the novel, who I connected to. I took into account her personality, her thought process, and her potential mannerisms (if she’d been a real person of flesh and blood as opposed to a fictional character). This is an idea I’ve explored a lot in photography-using myself as the subject but becoming someone other than myself, rather a character I’ve created or who already exists. I also really enjoy exploring the relationship between people and their surroundings, which is why I incorporated that into the photographs.
I often hope to inject my photographs with a cinematic sensibility, and so I continued that tradition with Saccades Project. Somehow, black and white causes photographs to already take on a somewhat narrative and cinematic feel, no matter the content, which is why I choose to use it over color at times. As for the collage, I imagined that I was the character and that it was a page of my diary, a mélange of my thoughts, dreams, and fears.
— Tara Niami
I heard about Saccades through a friend on Flickr and was immediately drawn to Courtney’s unique approach to writing a novel. The fact that anyone from around the world could participate in the creation of Saccades makes this project the perfect example of artistic collaboration. It was also Courtney’s conversational style of writing that attracted me; I felt a certain wittiness, a Holden Caulfield vibe, when reading every one of her excerpts. And the themes behind Saccades—the constant struggle to stay true to oneself, teen angst-induced perceptions of sexuality, having faith during rough times – are relatable not only for young adults but for anyone who loves to read, think, and explore.
Courtney asked me to participate in her Flickr Favorites Week project (part of Saccades), which integrated different contributors and their work over the course of eight days. I provided Courtney with one of my self-portraits, and she wrote a chapter of a novel based off of it called “The Shadow of Her Ghost.” She also asked to compile a playlist of about eight songs to go along with my photograph.
Honestly, it wasn’t until Courtney wrote a part of the novel inspired by my photograph did I realize that my art could work within Saccades. I noticed how Courtney subtly used my photograph as a temporary focal point in the chapter to show the relationship between Thea, the main character, and her friend Melody. In the excerpt, the two girls get into an argument after Thea shows Melody a picture of a girl (my photo) looking at her shadow cast on the wall. Melody, while looking at the photograph, comments on how beautiful the curve of the girl’s back is and begins to develop feelings of self-pity for her wheelchair-bound existence. This quarrel leads Thea to think about their friendship and what it means to have a best friend. Mutual understanding between friends plays an important role in this chapter, and I think Courtney did a fantastic job conveying this.
Courtney is one of the most wonderful and creative people I have ever gotten to know in my life. I first talked to Courtney when I was just starting to get serious about photography, and her kindness and support has encouraged me to continue to pursue what I love. She just radiates passion about Saccades and about art in general that it’s impossible to feel uninspired when working with her. I am very honored she chose me along with other young artists to participate in Saccades and in some of her other creative projects.
— Valerie Chiang