Writing Process and Ephemeral Art

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As my eight-month leave of absence began to wane, I wondered about what processes from my own writing practice might be useful for students. Then, a week before the beginning of school, I made ephemeral art.

Ephemeral art does not last a long time and disappears shortly after the artist creates it. The best definition I found online was from the Tate Modern website, “a work that occurs only once…and cannot be embodied in a museum or gallery.”

Recently I took a sculpture class offered for free in a joint project with our local center for older adults and a nearby museum. We worked with clay and plaster, but one of the most memorable activities was the day we were introduced to ephemeral art. 

First, our group looked at ephemeral art in the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden. It was raining hard, and the group looked at the garden through the windows. The teaching artist invited the group to reflect on changes in the weather and the cycle of season might create changes in the garden, and to especially consider the ephemerality of shadow and light provided by the trees, their leaves growing and shedding. 

Nothing lasts forever, and the trees serve as a reminder of ephemerality and transformation. At times, the changes are subtle and barely perceptible; in other moments, the changes can be dramatic and even frightening, like a tree split by a tornado.  

To practice ephemeral art, our group worked with calligraphy practice paper, black bottled ink, and calligraphy brushes. Shortly after we made our pictures, the pictures began to fade away.

At 1:31 pm, I made a short video of the process of painting the word “trees” (see link). When I watch the video now, I can see that my brush was saturated with ink. As a result, I was constantly revising how I painted the letters, especially the two “e”s.

By 1:34 pm, the least saturated parts of the letters were beginning to disappear.

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The word “trees” painted on gray calligraphy practice paper with black ink. The top of the T, the top of the second E, and the  top of the S are beginning to fade away.

Photo by Susan Bernstein, January 19, 2023.

I was fascinated by the disappearing ink. Creating ephemeral art felt so much like the writing process: I write a lot, but not all of the drafts survive, and pieces of the draft are deleted and disappear into the ether. 

Less than a month later, I was reading exit slips on the homebound train and it seemed that the opportunity to teach ephemerality had arrived. While ephemeral art seemed more about the process than the product, the students were rightly concerned about the product. The exit slips mentioned the need for soft deadlines and sample student papers. These tools were buried in the original slideshow explaining the assignment for Writing Project 1. I knew that I would need to condense the slideshow so that these tools would be more accessible for the students.

I also considered how the class could spend more time freewriting about the reading for the first writing project. If writing is a recursive process, so is, according to two CCCC position statements, the process of reading and “the process of acquiring academic literacies” for second language and multilingual writers. Nevertheless, often these processes are presented as linear steps to be completed one at a time. I had tried to do this with the assignment, and soon realized the problem. The steps themselves were overlapping. Students would need to reread the material and respond to questions in their journals not just once or twice, but throughout the process of creating Writing Project 1. How to explain this?

I assumed that students asked for steps because the linear process was familiar, and I respect the students’ comfort with familiarity. The issue was how to offer students more ephemeral experiences with writing, to create writing they might or might not include in completed writing projects. I suspected that freewriting on questions generated in class would help, and that creating an opening to move off-topic also would help. Going off-topic is the ephemeral art of the writing process. It allows for imagination even if writers don’t end up saving what they write.

At the same time, I needed to know if students were okay with in-class freewriting as a means of approaching the writing process for WP 1. I invited students to participate in a Google doc anonymous Q&A to respond to the following question:

What do you think about doing so much free writing and journaling before beginning rough drafts? Before discussing Introduction/body/conclusion? Does it make sense to do it this way? Why or why not? Another way to frame this question is– why you think I might be approaching this writing process this way?

Using the immediate feedback from the Q&A, I responded to questions about going off-topic and using creativity as part of freewriting. I said, “Imagination is important, and necessary outside this classroom. If you are an engineer or a computer scientist, what happens if you follow the usual steps of a process, but the process stops working? Do you still follow the same steps? Or do you think outside the box to solve the problem?”

I, too, need to think outside the box to figure out what steps are no longer relevant, and to work with students to address their needs. This process is both the challenge and the benefit of coming back to in-person classes. The work is constantly changing because nothing lasts forever. At times the changes are imperceptible, and at other times are as dramatic as returning to a classroom in the wake of a global pandemic and pushing through the discomforts of anxiety.

Because of these never-ending transformations, teaching and learning remain the most ephemeral of arts.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.