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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Pillow in the Cloud: the #SEIitagain Project

Over 1,000 years ago, in Japan’s Heian (which translates to “peace and tranquility”) Court, a lady-in-waiting to the retired Empress received a gift of paper…

The story goes that the Empress had no need of this “bundle of notebooks” and asked this lady-in-waiting what she should do with them. Her response?

“This should be a pillow, then…”

Historians have dismissed literal translations of “makura” as “pillow” – at least in the way we know a pillow to be. But Japanese head rests at the time were more of a solid support – some even featuring storage boxes that might possibly hold writing implements for nighttime musings. It could mean that this “pillow” meant that it was destined for intimate, bedside passages. We do know that paper was precious in this era, and Sei must have treasured the gift.

What happened next (most likely circa AD 994-997), was a stream of private jottings…a glimpse into the culture of the period but more importantly, into the mind of this poetically-thinking woman. There is some contention whether her claims as to never expecting her words to reach public view are legitimate, but the story goes that her volumes were nicked by a visiting Governor (Tsunefusa of Ise) and  passed around with glee.

What was the appeal?

Sei Shonagon’s prose is stemmed in an infatuation of poetry (a very important practice at the time!). It’s a mix of anecdotes and lists, heavily influenced by the author’s personal opinions. It’s quite impressionistic, as if she splashed her canvas with words rather than paint, creating vignettes and scenes. There’s wordplay and riddles, reminiscent of the Dadaists. While to the modern reader this seems essentially like a diary or blog, the introduction to the famous Ivan Morris translation speculates:

“yet much that might seem to us simply personal and individual in her writing is really the articulation of her world and  its values”

This brings me to my idea for a “Pillow in the Cloud” – a sort of collaborative creativity experiment along the lines of a Surrealist Exquisite Corpse.

I’ve recorded a list of Sei’s lists (164+ of them) – and plan to illustrate some of her responses. More significantly, I want to post her prompts as creative constraints (I’m a BIG believer in those!) on social media using the tag #SEIitagain (because Sei is pronouced “Say”) and crowdsource responses from around the globe.

I’m not quite sure what this will become. I’d love to make a sort of interactive diary with my visualizations and others’ responses, allowing for more participation from the reader. Also, I’d like to allow for responses that transcend text…such as animated gifs, drawings of all kinds, video, and photography.

I want to use the Cloud for my “Pillow”.

The most important motif in The Pillow Book is a concept called wokashi (modern: okashi). This translates to amusing…delightful…charming…lovely…something that entertains or beguiles. The introduction to the translation points out:

“Okashi …is in essence a kind of aesthetic response, one that can be cultivated and honed, which delights itself by its awareness of the frisson of pleasure that an object or moment produces, and whose pleasure is compounded by the knowledge that it would be shared by others of cultural sensibility”

Sei Shonagon, despite living centuries ago in an isolated environment, is universal. Some of her responses to prompts might come off as archaic and elitist, too be sure, but the prompts themselves are undeniably modern.

Some are mundane, like “Infuriating Things” or “Things Later Regretted” …and yet some are so poignant, like “Things with far to go”, or “Common things that suddenly sound special”. I hope that folks in my network participate in sharing their thoughts. This might be perfect for Language / Writing / Media classes as well.

I plan to post one daily on Instagram at and of course on Twitter (@amyburvall with the hashtag #SEIitagain) and Facebook. I might try a Flipgrid as well. Please let me know in the comments if you have other ideas.

#writing #lists #Japan #pillowbook #literature #creativity #crowdsourcedcreativity #Instagram #combinatorialcreativity #seishonagon #amyburvall #exquisitecorpse

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