What We Think About When We Think About Thinking: A Tribute to Lydia Davis
by Rachel Kessler
Lydia Davis, a master of the essayistic prose poem, which she seems to have invented, came to visit a 9th
grade class at Ballard High School, where I am a writer-in-residence. To prepare, we studied her piece “The Fish Tank.” The students and I mapped this very short piece so it was broken down into a series of lists observing one object very closely from different perspectives. The students noted Davis’ emotionally flattened tone was produced by sticking to the facts, but using these facts to make some startlingly observations. We wrote our own “Fish Tank” together, out loud:
by Ms. Coe’s 3rd Period L.A. Class
The pen is grey with a little bit of blue. It makes a clicky sound when she presses her thumb to retract the writing end. When she presses it to the paper it wiggles and moves. That is writing. We are all staring at this pen. One boy says he feels confused, another says he has writer’s block. She stares at the pen up close. Staring at a pen up close like that makes her cross-eyed. One boy, a real joker, says looking at the pen makes him drooly. What is it like to be you, pen? Does it hurt when you are used? We stare at you and imagine that you don’t feel safe, all of us in class watching you, waiting for words.
Then each student wrote her own “Fish Tank” by first making a list of three details about her object, then three details about herself observing this object, and finally three details about the object observing her. I was so impressed by these intense and insightful pieces observing sneakers, worms, erasers and raccoons that I made a small book of our imitation fish tanks, What We Think About When We Think About Thinking, which we presented to Ms. Davis on her visit to Ballard High School She insisted on first hearing 9th graders read their pieces before she read her own. Her thoughtful feedback on each piece, taking the students seriously as writers, encouraged this group to experiment with different styles and voices. We learn by imitation.
The W.I.N.G.S. Poster
I am sitting in class staring at a Michael Jordan poster. I am thinking that he is holding a basketball, he is not smiling and he is very masculine. Then I am wondering what I look like as I am looking at this poster. I am staring, my eyes are moving a lot, and I look inspired. Then I think, what does Michael think about me? He wonders why I am staring. He thinks I look tired and that he enjoys himself. He thinks: He doesn’t know what he is doing.
My Nikes are size 9 ½ . They are blue, white, and gold. They look comfy. Their tongues pop out from white laces. They’re staring back at me wondering why I am looking at them. So intimate. Why are you critiquing me so much they’re thinking. Two shoes are better than one.
I am staring at the long fat slimy worm in the grass in my backyard. His brownish color turns to a dark grey when my shadow hovers over him. He is thinking, Wow, it was just warm and sunny; now it is cold and dark. This is what it feels like to be a worm: a giant staring at you; you wondering if he is hungry.
My hand has writing on it. The creases in it are long. I can see my veins. I am looking at it so closely when it is probably looking at me. I am not looking away. My eyes are big looking at the hand. When it is looking at me it is saying why do you move me like this?