My first copy of Gatsby...
I just finished going through The Great Gatsby with my “Craft of Fiction” class, and I’ve come to the conclusion—hey, call me a rebel, call me crazy—that it is the most perfectly punctuated book of all time. A few examples that I discussed in class yesterday….
“…They’re nice to have—a dog.” (27)
A bit of dialogue spoken by Myrtle Wilson. The em-dash there is heartbreaking, an indication of Myrtle’s selfishness and shallowness. The singular “dog” and plural “they’re” also give us a lot of information about Myrtle….
“I thought you inherited your money.”
“I did, old sport,” he said automatically, “but I lost most of it in the big panic—the panic of the war” (90)
Dialogue between Nick and Gatsby. The comma in “…did, old sport…” is perfect. But most of my students will not notice that. Very odd—students have tremendous difficulty punctuating dialogue, especially the comma after an introductory clause. Also the lovely “old sport,” which of course is totally pompous and condescending to whomever is being addressed.
“All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?”
“Now see here, Tom,” said Daisy, turning around from the mirror, “if you’re going to make personal remarks I won’t stay here a minute. Call up and order some ice for the mint julep.” (127)
Tom is addressing Gatsby, but Daisy intervenes. I suppose you could italicize the “old sport” here, but the single quotes work too and bring out an air of contempt in Tom’s question. Italics would have indicated greater contempt, more sneering, and might have been too much.
Nice comma before Tom, too. And Daisy’s use of “Tom” is interesting in itself. How many times do people actually use names when they address one another? Not too often, in my experience. Names in conversation are used to get the addressee’s attention and, sometimes, to assert control. That’s what’s happening here….
“Still—I was married in the middle of June,” Daisy remembered, “Louisville in June! Somebody fainted. Who was it fainted, Tom?” (127)
Nice use of the em-dash—a little lurch of speech. Then calling out Tom again….
“I know I’m not very popular. I don’t give big parties. I suppose you’ve got to make your house into a pigsty in order to have any friends—in the modern world.”
Angry as I was, as we all were, I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his mouth. The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.
“I’ve got something to tell you, old sport——” began Gatsby. But Daisy guessed at his intention.
“Please don’t!” she interrupted helplessly. “Please let’s all go home. Why don’t we all go home?” (130)
Tom, Nick, Gatsby. Daisy. Again the lurching em-dash in “friends—in the modern world.” Tom sounds confused and stressed. Grasping at priggish straws.
Then Gatsby speaks with an unusual double em-dash! “...old sport——“ Really helps show Daisy’s interruption—Gatsby is left gasping. Then, Daisy’s “Please don’t” should logically be “Please, don’t” but the missing comma imposes a feeling of urgency to her words. “Please, let’s all go home” is a gentle plea. “Please let’s all go home” is a desperate plea. And, I try to convince the students, it is a deliberate missing comma, not a missing comma of ignorance….
“I’m going to drain the pool to-day, Mr. Gatsby. Leaves’ll start falling pretty soon, and then there’s always trouble with the pipes.” (153)
Perhaps I obsess over properly-placed commas. But—I’ve read so many stories by beginning writers that I have become acutely aware of how hard it can be to see these things, how hard it is to read like a writer.
“Don’t do it to-day,” Gatsby answered. He turned to me apologetically. “You know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer?” (153)
The “old sport” thing again. But creating that last sentence in the form of a question? Changes everything.
“Have you got a church you go to sometimes, George? Maybe even if you haven’t been there for a long time? Maybe I could call up the church and get a priest to come over and he could talk to you, see?”
“Don’t belong to any.”
“You ought to have a church, George, for times like this. You must have gone to church once. Didn’t you get married in a church? Listen, George, listen to me. Didn’t you get married in a church?”
“That was a long time ago.” (157)
Michaelis is talking with George. No dialogue tags in this passage—we know who is speaking, and there’s no need for Fitzgerald to assert extra pacing. The constant use of “George” is there as Michaelis tries to get George’s attention is also very cool…..
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— (180)
A non-dialogue passage—a very famous passage, justly famous. But look look LOOK at that amazing double em-dash that leaves us dangling at the end of the book, setting us up for the beautiful last sentence! An ellipsis wouldn’t be as effective, nor a single em-dash. Doubling helps make this memorable and moving….
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which had supposedly been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies…In Montana, however, it didn’t have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass (162).
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
Last Tuesday I conducted a 22-Minute Draft in my general literature classes, as a warm-up for the upcoming midterm exam. I commented about my class on Facebook (you all need to friend me, you know? Then you'd know about this already), and several people asked what a 22-Minute Draft was/is…
So. The 22-Minute Draft is an exercise I came up with the first semester I taught composition at Texas A&M. I later wrote about it in an essay I wrote for a grad-school pedagogy class….
…The students I identified as resentful (and, really, I kind of identified with those students, too) seemed to be all hanging in there, and the more-willing participants actually seemed to be having fun, but still there was stress and anxiety over the upcoming major assignments. Students asked about them in class, and a few even came by my office, and the questions were all pretty much the same: “What should I write about? How should I get started?” Our required text had an elaborate series of steps students should take, a complicated process of pre-writing and outlining that to me seemed nothing more than absurd and obsessive. I couldn’t in good conscience tell them to look to the book. Nobody sane writes like that.
Robert Pirsig writes:
… (H)e became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation, because that’s the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look (156).
On a Sunday night I came up with an idea…I went into class the next day and told the students that they were going to write their paper in class-- right then. I told them to get out six sheets of paper. I had them ponder their topics for a couple of minutes. Then I set them to writing for twenty minutes straight. Every three or four minutes I had them turn the page and continue writing on a fresh, empty sheet of paper. The object was to get six pages of writing done in twenty minutes. I yelled at them if they slowed down. I told them to go faster, and faster. I told them that the object for them was not to think but to write.
The results of this were—and always have been—positive. About two-thirds of the students use what they produce in class as an elaborate outline for their formal papers. The other third seem to lose interest in their topics, and that’s a positive thing, too, I think: the students realize that their topic won’t hold up as the basis for a decent paper, and so they have to go looking for another, stronger topic. As this exercise evolved, I’ve expanded it from the original and totally arbitrary 20 minutes, to 22 minutes. I break it down to 5 minutes for the first and last pages—for the introduction and conclusion, and 3 minutes for each of the middle pages. (We take extra time later to go over citations and quotes and other necessities.) The basic thing this exercise stresses is to get words down on the page, words and ideas that can be happily jumbled and confused and completely ephemeral. Once there, the words can be mulled over and revised, and turned into something worthwhile.
My method has changed a little since I wrote that essay. I now run the exercise in 22 minutes and four pages--6 minutes for first and last, and 5 minutes for second and third.
And the thing is, it works. I’ve even started using it in my own nonfiction writing—I write for 20 or so minutes straight, then take a break for the rest of the hour, then write again. It works. The words come--still, often happily jumbled and confused. But still they come. The words won't desert you.
The prison where I teach has a program that trains guide dogs, and it’s a common sight to see inmates leading handsome labs or lab-mixes around from building to building. One of my students was recently promoted to dog-handler, and last night she brought her pup with her—Madrid, a pleasant young black lab.
The topics we worked on in class last night were gossip and news, and the similarities and differences between the two. About gossip, one student wrote, “If you want people to know something, tell a convict.” Other had been in the news when their indictments came down, and felt ill-used by the media….
It was a good class, and through it all, Madrid slept peacefully under a table while we wrote and discussed our writing, bringing a doggish sense of—what? Normality?—to the room. Critters can change an environment simply by being in it....
One of the things I’ve been doing recently—one of the many things I’ve been doing—as this semester winds down, and my time at Texas A&M winds down, is saying goodbye to the classrooms I’ve taught in over the years.
All these rooms have ghosts, right? Memories. These were rooms full of good students and rotten students, nice students and rude ones. Sometimes I did some good teaching. Many times education happened!
The first classroom I ever taught a class in was Blocker 105, and I’ve written elsewhere about that first day—how I stood there, going over the syllabus for my composition class, and I looked up and out at the back of the classroom, and there was this—stain—on the wall. Stains. Big damn grease stains from where the heads of bored, sleepy students had been bumping and staining the wall—for years. A feeling of futility filled me right there and then! All those generations of bored students! But as I thought about it, I decided to be a teacher whose students weren’t all bored and falling asleep. And I sort of think I have been….
At any rate, the Blocker 105 was remodeled a couple of years ago, and the grease stains were painted over—and now, I guess, the grease stains are ghosts, too.
During a break a student came up and asked for help with his novel. He was stuck. Of course. I’ve been expecting people to get stuck in their extended narratives. It’s a long semester, and I’m asking the students to do a lot of work. Everyone’s bound to get stuck at some point.
“But what can I do to get unstuck?” he asked.
“Weed!” a girl said.
“No,” I said. “Don’t tease. Be serious….”
“Jack Daniels!” she said.
“That won’t work, either,” the stuck student said. “I can’t have booze in the dorm….”
I was thinking—a laborious task for me, sometimes.
“Well,” I said, “there are several things you can try….”
And I told him a few things. Tricks, maybe.
Like having a door open and a new character come through it. What conflict will result from the new character?
Like skipping ahead in the outline to another scene, bypassing the resistance of the current stuck scene.
I’ve used both of those in my own writing. They can work. There’s no telling if they’ll work for my stuck student or not. I kept thinking. Came up with nothing immediately useful.
Then, on the way home, in a moment of academic esprit d’escalier, I thought of Robert Pirsig. He spends a lot of time discussing stuckness in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Chris brings out the paper again. "Now help me," he says.
"Okay," I say. I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.
"Like what things?" he asks.
"Well, what do you want to tell her?"
"About the trip."
"What things about the trip?"
He thinks for a while. "About the mountain we climbed."
"Okay, write that down," I say.
He does. Then I see him write down another item, then another, while I finish my cigarette and coffee. He goes through three sheets of paper, listing things he wants to say.
"Save those," I tell him, "and we’ll work on them later."
"I’ll never get all this into one letter," he says.
He sees me laugh and frowns. I say, "Just pick out the best things." Then we head outside and onto the motorcycle again.
So, basically, we’re back to the outline again—or, perhaps a new and updated outline. A list of places you might want to go—but not an itinerary, a list of places you have to be at a certain time—rather, a list of possibilities. A “list of all the things you want to say in any old order.”
And part of that, of course, could be having a new character walk in through an open door, or skipping ahead in the old outline.
The first [problem] is stuckness, a mental stuckness that accompanies the physical stuckness of whatever it is you’re working on. The same thing Chris was suffering from. A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly. You check the manual to see if there might be any special cause for this screw to come off so hard, but all it says is "Remove side cover plate" in that wonderful terse technical style that never tells you what you want to know. There’s no earlier procedure left undone that might cause the cover screws to stick.
If you’re experienced you’d probably apply a penetrating liquid and an impact driver at this point. But suppose you’re inexperienced and you attach a self-locking plier wrench to the shank of your screwdriver and really twist it hard, a procedure you’ve had success with in the past, but which this time succeeds only in tearing the slot of the screw.
Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn’t just irritating and minor. You’re stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It’s absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.
This isn’t a rare scene in science or technology. This is the commonest scene of all. Just plain stuck. In traditional maintenance this is the worst of all moments, so bad that you have avoided even thinking about it before you come to it.
The book’s no good to you now. Neither is scientific reason. You don’t need any scientific experiments to find out what’s wrong. It’s obvious what’s wrong. What you need is an hypothesis for how you’re going to get that slotless screw out of there and scientific method doesn’t provide any of these hypotheses. It operates only after they’re around.
This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.
It’s normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge if necessary. You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you’re inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off. It’s just outrageous that a tiny little slot of a screw can defeat you so totally.
What you’re up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses. Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination... "unstuckness," in other words...are completely outside its domain.
So: Don’t force yourself through the stuckness. Don’t think yourself through it, either. Instead, feel your way through it.
Feel. Okay. But—how…? And what?
Easier said than done, right?
ZMM had an incredible impact on me when I first read it as a morose 16 year-old, and then again when I was in graduate school and teaching composition for the first time (it’s often overlooked that the whole middle part of the book deals with teaching comp). I think Pirsig might have useful things to say about stuckness/unstuckness for our creative writing class, and perhaps we’ll explore that a bit next week and see what happens....
Things to look for: Someone put all (apparently) of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance online, here.
But you know what? It's always better to read the actual book! Buy it here....And here is a website devoted to Pirsig and his work....
At this point in the semester, we’re getting into the heart of the class—writing and workshopping.
At my university the creative writing classes are large—25 in the intro class, and 19 in the advanced class. This makes using the traditional workshop a bit difficult. Because of their numbers, students simply don’t get as much feedback as they would if they were in a smaller class—their work gets discussed twice a semester, if they’re lucky, and usually only once. And, in the classes I’ve observed, only a handful of students actually seem to do the reading and then participate in discussion.
Since I began teaching creative writing some five years ago, I’ve tried to work around the class size problem by having students work in small groups. It’s been pretty successful, I think. Students get into groups of three and each reads her or his work aloud to the others, who then comment.
Still, I’ve changed the workshops around a little this semester. The classrooms have projectors in them, so each week I take the work-in-progress of two students and put it up on the screen. The student reads their work aloud, and then talks about their intentions for the work, or problems they’ve been having, or anything else they want to talk about. Then the class comments, and then I say a few words. We do this on Monday in my intro classes, and on Wednesday in the advanced class (it’s a three-hour class).
Then in the next class session, students break up into their workshop groups and go over their work. I also then call up students for individual conferences. If my scheduling goes right, all the students will have their work discussed by the whole class at least once, and will meet with me individually at least once (of course, they can meet with me as often as they want during office hours or before or after class), and will discuss their work in groups about ten times.
So far—it’s working.
Below, Catherine Wright's novella-in-progress, "Deviant," up for discussion on the classroom projector....
In Week Three of the class, we began the reading presentations and talked a little about outlines.
I want to discuss as many texts as possible in the class, so I came up with a reading list of 20 books. Each student will read two books off the list, and will give an oral presentation on one book, and a written report on the other. Their task is to teach the other students what these books show us about writing.
14-Sep Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
14-Sep Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
21-Sep Sarah Bird, The Mommy Club
21-Sep Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
28-Sep Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
28-Sep James Hynes, Kings of Infinite Space
12-Oct Patti Smith, Just Kids
12-Oct Mary Karr, Cherry
19-Oct Patricia McConnel, Sing Soft Sing Loud
19-Oct Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow
26-Oct John Graves, Goodbye to a River
26-Oct Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
02-Nov Susan Collins, The Hunger Games
02-Nov Joyce Carol Oates, Black Water
09-Nov Lowell Mick White, That Demon Life
09-Nov John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
16-Nov Oscar Casares, Brownsville
16-Nov Tiffani Yanique, How to Escape from a Leper Colony
30-Nov Jim Harrison,Returning to Earth
30-Nov Percival Everett, Erasure
It’s not a perfect list. If I’d had a few days to think it over, some
different books might have made the cut. But as it is, I think it’s useful: I have a wide range of narrative types here—novels, novellas, composite novels, memoirs—horror, history, comedy, popular page-turners.
We began with Sandra Cisneros and Shirley Jackson. Erika Liesman and Austin Meek gave very fine presentations—informative, insightful, and enthusiastic.
Above, Erika discussing the way Sandra Cisneros uses dialogue in The House on Mango Street. Erika also used videos of Sandra talking about her writing process....
Above, Austin shows the creepy cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Austin gave us the plot highlights from the book, and discussed the advantages of having a protagonist who is kind of...bad....
This isn’t the first class I’ve taught where I have students write
extended narratives. When I was working on the creative part of my dissertation, I was writing a composite novel composed of three interlocking novellas. And since I was writing novellas, I thought I should perhaps teach novellas, and so I structured the prose part of my multi-genre into to creative writing class to accommodate long stories/novellas.
All the students got off to excellent starts, but then, after 15 or so pages, they stopped. They didn’t know what was supposed to happen next in their novella. The pages seemed to stretch out before them, endlessly, scarily. All of them recovered and completed their novellas, and some of them did truly fine, high-quality work, but there was a grim period there in the middle of the semester where the young writers were staring around glassy-eyed and stressed. It made me nervous—I’m sure it was worse for the students.
It occurred to me that a good outline might have prevented this
worrisome stall. So for my current class, I mandated that students produce an outline, and made it a graded assignment. They were due this week, and were interesting in their variety and conception. Some were very detailed, others more perfunctory—all of them, I think, will give the writers something to fall back on when they get stuck (and they will get stuck).
At the same time, I tried to emphasize that outlines are not
contracts—you don’t have to stick with them forever and ever. Indeed, as your extended narrative—your novel, novella, memoir—gets written, your conception of the project will change, and new ideas, relationships, and characters will emerge. The work-in-progress is necessarily plastic. I’m going to encourage the writers to keep their outlines plastic as well, and keep them updated as their narratives progress.
Here’s Jacquelyn Asiala’s outline, done in sticky notes….
I'm looking forward to reading everything.
Next week: more reading presentations, and the first workshops....
Though I will leave my memories of 9-11 for another anniversary, I will say that I was from the first very concerned with what it meant—how, beyond the immediate shock and sadness, it would change our lives in the US. I figured we’d have a war in Afghanistan, and I worried that
political opportunists might use the attack to turn Americans against each other. But I would never have guessed that 10 years later the wars would still be going on, seemingly endlessly, and I grossly under-estimated the political divisions that would emerge from the attack, and I never imagined the growth of the security state.
We’ve now had the 10-year anniversary, and I wondered what my students thought of everything that’s happened. So yesterday I asked them—what are the most important events of the last 25 years? (Most of the students are about 20 years old—I chose 25 years of recent history so that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 could be included; one student called it).
I was very surprised when no student included the 2000 Election! So I included it for them….
From left to right: 2000 Election; 9-11, with arrows to the Global War on Terror, the Iraq War, and the Afghan War; Technology; Katrina; Great Recession; Obama; Government Limitations; 1989/Berlin Wall; Climate Change; Pluto losing planet status.
Looking at this, I guess I have to see the 2000 Election as the seminal event of our time—if we can engage in counterfactual historical speculation, we can assume that Gore’s reaction to 9-11 would surely have been different than Bush’s, that the Iraq War at least would not have happened, that the huge tax cuts which contributed to the Great Recession and ongoing Government Limitations would not have occurred, and perhaps the flooding of New Orleans would have been better handled. But maybe not. Who knows?
At any rate, I urged the students to pay attention to all this, everything, to the world around them—to the tumult of the ongoing crises and also to the people going about their daily lives. I told them to use their awareness in their writing, of course, but to also pay close attention because their future grandchildren will want to know what life was like during this complex and confusing time….