In my creative writing classes last week we discussed a story by Oscar Casares, “Yolanda.” It’s a very fine, bittersweet coming-of-age story that features a narrative frame, where the present-day adult narrator sets up the narrative, then tells the story of what happened when he was 12 years old, then returns to the present and closes out, putting the action into perspective. It works really well. By coincidence, this week's Soundtrack Sunday story also has a frame—well, almost. Sort of.
When I began writing “Mexican Brick,” I planned to build a frame around it—Garza coming back to the apartment complex years after the action, seeing it much unchanged though now with different occupants…then falling back into the narrative of that celebrated youthful summer…then closing with—something. Some sort of contemporary action. I never figured out what—never had to—because as the narrative developed, with its cycle of violence and betrayal, it became apparent that the frame was unnecessary. The action from the past stood on its own and did not need mediation.
I wanted to write a ghost story, and this is what happened: the ghost flittered away, leaving behind a bunch of people sitting around an apartment complex during a humid drowsy Austin summer, and the complex itself in many ways became the most important character.
Our semester at Texas A&M begins tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to getting started and meeting all the new Young Scholars. These are the books we’ll be reading in class….
For my two sections of composition:§ Modern Language Association. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009.
§ Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006.
§ Miller, Char. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004.My experience as a composition student took place many years ago, but it continues to traumatize me. Our professor was an old fart whose pedagogy was based on reading the comp handbook out loud. Yeah. No kidding. Reading the handbook out loud. For the whole 50 minutes we would read aloud fascinating factoids about comma splices and sentence fragments. I hated that book, and I hated the class, and I hated the professor, and I go on hating them: every time I teach comp I have evil flashbacks, a sort of Post-Traumatic Comp Disorder. (I elaborated on this disaster of a class in an essay, “Comp: a Personal and Pedagogical Narrative,” which is scheduled to be published in an anthology at some point next year).
I guess that ancient class left me with some lingering disgust or distrust of composition books—I don’t even like thinking about them. Still, I’ve got to use something, I guess, and so I started looking around for a basic comp handbook. And then I was totally shocked and appalled—the prices! They’re ridiculous! I see no reason to force students to spend a fortune on a book that will be used as little more than a reference. (Really, does anyone actually buy these things for the exercises? Can’t you come up with your own?)
So I turned to the good ol’ MLA Handbook. It has most of the necessary information the Young Scholars need (anything else they can get off Purdue OWL), and at a more or less reasonable price.
My Freshman Year, by “Rebekah Nathan,” is a book I’m looking forward to teaching, even though I’ve never met anyone who actually likes it—including me. I read it through in pretty much a single sitting, and found it quite frustrating and annoying and depressing. At the same time I think the author does raise some interesting questions about the culture of students at a university, and I hope that the Scholars—who will probably dislike this book as much as me or anyone else—can use it as a starting point for reflecting on their own college experience. (Next semester I might add Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, another book I didn’t much care for, to the list to go along with Nathan. The YSs could then mount a defense of their generation and its use of technology).
We’ll also be using one book I like very much. Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, edited by Char Miller, is an excellent collection of well-written, short essays about the place we live. I always enjoy teaching this book, and it seems to go over pretty well.
For my multi-genre creative writing class, I chose the following books:
§ Addonizio, Kim. Ordinary Genius. New York: Norton, 2009.
§ Casares, Oscar. Brownsville. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2003.
§ Fountain, Carrie. Burn Lake. New York, Penguin, 2010.
§ Singleton, George. Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2009.
§ White, Lowell Mick. Long Time Ago Good. College Station: Slough Press, 2009.Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius does a terrific job of de-mystifying poetry. It’s great—a generous and open discussion of how poems get made. I talked a bit with Kim last spring at AWP, and told her how I used her book. “That’s what the book is for,” she said. Well, yeah! I use it in my prison classes, too…I think the world of this book.
Oscar Casares’s Brownsville is a wonderful story collection set in an area of our state—our nation—that is often overlooked. It’s great when I get a Young Scholar from the Valley who says, “I didn’t know you could write about Brownsville!” It’s almost even better when a YS from the suburbs of Dallas says the same thing. It’s a book full of revelations.
Last spring I had my book order almost ready to send out—had everything except the poetry selection—when I went to Carrie Fountain’s reading in Austin. By the second poem I knew I wanted to teach her book, Burn Lake—a collection of very tight, well-observed poems about New Mexico. This is going to be fun.
George Singleton’s Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds is a cool collection of aphorisms about the writing process. It’s funny, too, with charming little drawings to illustrate the points he makes. The advice is good, the presentation effective. I’ve listed this as “Recommended” in semesters past, and have now kicked it up to “Required.”
Oh. Yeah. And we’re covering one of my books, too, Long Time Ago Good. At first I worried a little about the morality of requiring my own book, but I came to the conclusion that it was more or less okay. This is the second semester I’ve used it. I try to walk the Scholars through the stories, pointing out the decisions I made at different stages of composition. It works, I think. Stuff to look for:Kim Addonizio’s website. Oscar Casares’s websiteGeorge Singleton’s website
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL)—a great resource for teachers and students Carrie Fountain’s website