Read and listen and learn and have at least a little fun....
Very early in the semester students become aware that I usually begin almost every class by saying something like:
“So—what’s going on today?”
I ask this question with the hope that a student will speak up and tell me something they have done since class last met. Maybe the student will have had an adventure—gotten arrested or fallen in love—or maybe they will have done something as mundane as taking out the trash. If no one volunteers a story I’ll usually ramble on with a story or three of my own.
Every semester there is a student or two who are very annoyed by this in-class storytelling. They really do get mad! I can see it in their eye-rolling in-class faces and I can really see it in their end-of-the-semester class evaluations.
I find their annoyance both amusing and sad.
I find it amusing because these students are apparently unaware that the class will last a mere 50 minutes no matter how many stories get told.
I find it sad because these students are apparently unaware that stories are at the very heart of what we do in class. Whether through poetry or prose, this class is devoted to increasing our individual and collective understanding of the world we live in. And stories are one of the most important ways we gain this understanding.
Remember this at all times: You have a voice. Your voice is unique. No one knows the stories you know.
Time is limited. Time is running out. Someday, sadly, you will be dead and your untold stories will die with you.
So: seize every chance you get to tell your story....
Interview with Slough Press….
SP: Let’s start at the beginning—before the beginning of the book, actually, to the dedication.
The book’s dedicated to your parents. How come?
Professed is a novel about higher education, and it was my parents who introduced me to this world. They were teachers, first in high schools, then in universities. I was conceived in Morgantown when my dad was in grad school at West Virginia University. I grew up in college towns in West Virginia and Nebraska and Minnesota and Texas. Actually, I’ve lived in college towns all my life.
Growing up in the Ivory Tower…
I don’t know about that. Few things annoy me more—or anger me more—than some idiot calling the non-academic world “the real world.”
All worlds are real worlds….
My parents got up every morning and went to work. They voted, they paid taxes. I do the same. Every academic I know does the same. Anybody who says that’s not the real world needs to be punched in the nose.
Maybe people look down on academics because they deal with ideas instead of—I don’t know, pipe fittings, or whatever….
Maybe. Though pipe fittings are based on ideas, too….
And books are objects….
Objects with a variety of meanings. The characters in Professed all get into academia because they love books—they love reading, they love the meanings that books contain, the meaning that books bring to their lives.
But there’s more to the academic world than books.
Of course. Academics work hard. There’s sadly little time for recreational reading. Anyone who teaches at a university is under tremendous pressure—pressure from students, from administrators, from colleagues, from the calendar, from their own idealized teaching self…and the university itself is under tremendous pressure from the contemporary culture at large, from the economy, from the politics. The business of education in the end has little to do with learning and a lot to do with business—and that’s not a good thing for professors or students.
Professed is set at a large unnamed university in Austin, Texas. Your other books are set in Austin, too.
I lived in Austin for a long, long time—I’m haunted by the place, perhaps. The delirious rate of change is sort of a constant—the old golden past is supplanted by a new golden past which is soon forgotten and replaced by another newer golden past, and meanwhile there’s this new new new city rising up around us and stretching out ahead into the future, and this new city is getting—newer. Bigger. Blander. Richer. Stranger. It’s interesting process to watch and to write about.
Your previous novel, That Demon Life, had a protagonist who was trying to isolate herself from the world around her. The characters in Professed are trying very hard to become part of the larger world.
And that world—the world of higher education—is pushing them away, right? In That Demon Life, Linda Smallwood wants to stay at home and watch TV, and her friends—I guess they’re her friends—keep dragging her out of the house and into extreme and ridiculous situations. The three main characters in Professed are forced by the university, by their desires to be a part of the university, into extreme and ridiculous situations—which makes sense, since higher education is itself extreme and ridiculous. And for a lot of people it’s tragic, too, a lot of the time.
But Professed seems to close on a hopeful note….
For an individual or two, sure. There’s always hope. That’s why we teach—that’s why I teach, at least. Education will find a way! We want to believe that. But I also think that if you look close enough, you’ll see that universities are full of broken dreams. And when I look at those broken dreams I find stories....
Seadrift was wonderful, the writers who participated were terrific--superlatives everywhere! I love the intensity and cameraderie of events like this, places where words and ideas flow together and become something new....
And we'll do it again next year. ABWW15--in New Orleans....
It's coming: Alamo Bay 2014, in Seadrift, Texas. May 30-June1, featuring instructors environmental activist/memoirist Diane Wilson, poet Lee Meitzen Grue, and myself.
There is still time to register: http://www.alamobaywritersworkshop.com
It's going to be a great event. I'll be talking about place, and how it affects writers and writing. Come to Seadrift and hang out with us!
When I teach flashbacks to my creative writing students, I usually use the flashback paradigm set forth in Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, where Butler asks writers to anchor their flashback scene—and he wants full scenes, not just imagistic memories—to the hard sensual physical world. An object often works as the anchor, and object that contains within it the representation of memory.
There are seven steps to Butler’s technique:
At any rate, I often use Tom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest” as an example of the Butlerian flashback paradigm:
The other day – Memorial Day, as it happened – I was cleaning some stuff out of the attic when I came upon my old dress-blue uniform. It’s a beautiful uniform, easily the most handsome worn by any of the U.S. armed forces. The rich color recalled Jorgeson’s eyes for me – not that the color matched, but in the sense that the color of each was so startling. The tunic does not have lapels, of course, but a high collar with red piping and the traditional golden eagle, globe, and anchor insignia on either side of the neck clasp. The tunic buttons are not brassy – although they are in fact made of brass – but are a delicate gold in color, like Florentine gold. On the sleeves of the tunic my staff sergeant’s chevrons are gold on red. High on the left breast is a rainbow display of fruit salad representing my various combat citations. Just below there are my marksmanship badges; I shot Expert in rifle as well as pistol.
Here the narrator’s rediscovery of his Marine Corps uniform is an anchor for the memory of being a Recon Marine that powers the flashback and at the same time gives forward momentum to the main narrative of the story.
And forward momentum is important. A story has to keep moving forward, even though any particular flashback scene loops the reader back into the past.
I have been thinking about this the past week while reading student stories. Most of them attempt flashbacks, and some of them write them very well. But many seem to end up focusing on the past—on the flashback, on the backstory—at the expense of the present story.
I tell these young writers—If the backstory is so important, write that. Forget the present. Make the flashback the story. But if you want your story to stay in the present, concentrate on moving forward.
And then I had a flashback myself last Tuesday while driving to town for Thanksgiving supplies. Driving along, thinking about stuff. About writing. About student writing. Crossed a pretty little river, thought about fly fishing. About my high school friend and fishing buddy, K. About how K was an athlete, a track guy, a long jumper, one of the best in the state. About how writing’s sort of like jumping, maybe. Maybe? Maybe not. Thought again about those students with their flashbacks. Then I had a strange unexpected shot of memory—the somersault long jump.
The somersault long jump was a technique that surfaced in the early/mid-1970s. The jumper would jump and simultaneously spin forward, spinning, and the spinning motion would give the jumper better distance. K told me he got an extra four to six inches using it—that’s a lot. But then sports officials banned the technique for safety reasons—jumpers would go spinning spinning out of control and bust their heads open.
Here’s what the somersault long jump looked like:
Get the connection? The flashback is the jumper’s spinning somersault, a spin into the past. Yet the jumper—the story—maintains forward motion. And the flashback can get you extra distance in your story. (Maybe).
You can do this. Just don't go spinning out of control and bust open your story's head.
You have to stop here and look at your phone.
Along with her homework assignment this week, a student in my fiction writing class asked what I did to overcome distractions....
Well. Huh. Well! I had to think--it's a distracting question. I checked Facebook. I looked at my phone. I pondered--distracted, yeah--and then I happened to put down my phone and pick up a collection of my boy Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings. And I saw that he had experienced the same problems.
Today, carpets; yesterday, the aunts; the day before, the funeral of poor S.; and every day, the remembrance in the library of the rope of work which I must spin;--in this way life is dragged down and confuted. We try to listen to the hymn of gods, and must needs hear this perpetual cock-a-doodle-doo, and har-tar-kut right under the library windows. They, the gods, ought to respect a life, you say, whose objects are their own. But steadily they throw mud and eggs at us, roll us in the dirt, and jump on us.
So what is my advice to the young writer? Pretty basic, I guess—do as I do. Write in short, intense bursts. Work from an outline of some sort so that, once distracted, you know where to start back up. Keep a towel handy to wipe the mud and egg from your face, and keep on trying…..
View from the venue: Sunset over Austin
It’s been a week now since Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop, and I’m going to brag: it was a total total smashing success!
The participants were skilled, learned, funny, articulate, cool, and possessed of touching poems and stories. Fellow instructors Diane Wilson, Larry Heinemann, and Lee Grue were terrific. Pam Booton's organizing skills were/are incredible. The venue was fantastic.
Everything was great. And next year will be even better.
This man has soft eyes. You need soft eyes, too.
The Wire gets my vote for the best show in TV history. It’s a brilliant work on so many, many levels, and it’s full of—yes, wisdom.
In the Season Four episode “Soft Eyes,” Bunk condescendingly lectures Kima on what to look for at a crime scene. He says she’s going to need soft eyes:
If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes—you staring at the same tree, missing the forest.
It’s a wonderful character line, full of wisdom that we writers can appropriate for our own use.
A writer needs soft eyes. Right? Right. Of course. A writer needs soft vision that that embraces the world, caresses the world, acknowledges all the pain and beauty and mystery and despair and loneliness and happiness that exists in the world. You’re a writer with hard eyes? Your vision is going to ricochet off whatever you might think you’re looking at—it’s going to bounce away, deflect, reflect—you might as well be blind. You’re not going to see with hard eyes. You’re not going to understand.
We have to work to develop soft eyes. For some people this is difficult, for some it is easy. But seeing softly is always a deliberate act. This is one of the things I’ll be talking about at Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop next week….
Alamo Bay is two weeks away right now and you all need to go to the website and register.
Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop: http://www.alamobaywritersworkshop.com/
It’s going to be really good—Environmental Activist Diane Wilson will be teaching a creative nonfiction session, National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann will lead a fiction session, NEA Fellow Lee Grue will teach poetry, and I’ll lead a fiction session. We’ll be in Austin, Texas July 19-21. Register--
Today I have been watching the people next door. It’s a long holiday weekend—and the neighbors are having fun! They were out on their boat all day, then came back and changed clothes and went out to dinner.
I’m an academic and a writer. Summer is a work time for me—I am revising one book and beginning two (!) others. I made corrections on the proof of Professed and I'm thinking of ways to promote it. Plus thinking about the classes I’ll teach in the fall at PSU—plus thinking about the session I’ll lead at ABWW.
But…all that’s fun, too. That's what summer is for.