I had terrific students in all four classes last fall--enthusiastic, lively, smart, and hard-working. Here are a few photos I took over the course of the semester....
Don't you wish you were in one of my classes?
In tomorrow's class, I'm going to be talking about the need for writers to have Soft Eyes, so I figured I might as well repost what I said about them a couple of years ago....
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....
Grading was an ordeal for me. Six sections of 25 students, more or less, each student spitting out four papers over the course of a semester—600 papers of an overall dismally low quality, 3000 pages or so of the same errors, same lame punctuation, same irrational arguments. My hand got tired writing in the margins
Sentence fragment, word choice, unclear. Over and over. What I wanted to write was
What the fuck or bullshit or boring or YOU ARE STUPID!
But I didn’t.
Everybody I know hates grading. Even the instructors and professors who claim to love their students—and who actually may love teaching, after all—even they hate grading. It’s tough to judge and asses people and then look them in the eye day after day. Beneath that is a cold lurking fear of getting a bad evaluation from an unhappy student, a bad evaluation that can doom your career. One or two bad evaluations from terrible students can get a non-tenured faculty member’s contract canceled, and the teacher can find her or his ass out on the street with no job, no job prospects, and $150,000 or so of student debt to pay off.
And still grading is worse than that, even—grading affects the health of teachers, too. Meet some afternoon with 14 or 18 students to discuss their terrible papers and you’ll be sick the next day—students are notoriously filthy vectors of cold and flu viruses—and you’ll be depressed, too, worried for the fate of the republic after you’ve read students who assert that their “mine is maid up” or that they are not taking something “for granite,” or who argue that Hitler did some good things, like build roads (and, anyway, “It was God that judged the Jews”), or who are just plain lazy (“Both of these stories that I am comparing have similarities that me as a reader will know about when I finish reading them”). And I’m not kidding about the depression. Grade 30 or 50 papers and you will feel low, sullen, tired--you will feel like a loser, like a horrible teacher, like a total failure. The good papers—and yes, there are some good papers always—won’t cheer you up because the bad papers are bad, bad, bad. They are terrible, and they’re terrible because you’re a terrible teacher. It’s depressing. A year ago here an adjunct jumped off the west side of the football stadium and killed himself. His suicide note even made the Chronicle of Higher Education: he blamed grading for his depression—not lousy adjunct pay or not having health insurance. Grading. It’s a killer.
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....
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 should read this book.
Today in the Fiction Writing class we read Jennifer Egan’s “Found Objects,” a story that first appeared in the New Yorker and is the lead narrative (chapter?) in her terrific novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ve loved this story from the first time I’ve read it.
One of the problems/annoyances I’ve encountered teaching fiction writing is that students very often want to write allegedly creepy and disturbing stories about violent…stuff. About serial killers, serial rapists, creepo stalkers, etc. I just get sick of reading them. They are never any good, they are always ill-imagined, and they never stop coming. One semester I had a class with 25 students, and 23 of them turned in stories about serial killers or rapists.
It was too much!
“What do you know about serial killers?” I asked the students. “Just what you see on TV, right? But I bet every single one of you knows a shoplifter—or is a shoplifter. So why don’t you write me a story about a shoplifter!”
And of course no one ever did, or has….
So, anyway, I bought Goon Squad just after it came out in paperback, and I carried it around for a year and a half before I actually got around to reading it. And of course I fell in love—it’s a wonderful, beautiful book. But I was especially thrilled by “Found Objects” —a story about a kleptomaniac, which is sort of like a shoplifter. Finally, I had a petty theft story to share with students.
And so I was rereading it this morning before class, and I came across a short sentence that I missed the first time I read it, a short sentence that sparked a shock of recognition in me
“It’s almost like she did it on purpose,” Alex said. “For attention or something.”
There is nowhere else.
Where had I read that before? That—or something similar?
In Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal. I watched a good-looking girl walk past the table and watched her go up the street and lost sight of her, and watched another, and then saw the first one coming back again. She went by once more and I caught her eye, and she came over and sat down at the table. The waiter came up.
Isn’t anywhere else!
Is this a deliberate allusion by Egan, or just a coincidental line of dialogue? If it is deliberate, why? Is there some connection--across time, across texts--between Sasha and the prostitute? I don’t really know. But it was fun to find this. We live in such a very mysterious world—and, just like the characters in Goon Squad are connected and networked and intertwined, so too are the products of our culture, our books, our music, our movies….
Sun sets on summer....
The summer is over! The harvest is ended! And it’s time to go back to school….
This fall I’m teaching two sections of Intro to Creative Writing, one section of Fiction Writing, and a section of Contemporary American Literature.
Going to be fun. Busy, too. And exciting—I grew up on college campuses and the start of school was for me always more exiting than stupid Christmas. As an adult—as a professor--it's of course different than it was when I was a kid, when I rode my bike around the quiet nearly-silent campus, watching students move into the dorms, fascinated by adulthood, while at home my parents did whatever they did to prepare for classes. Now I'm the one at home preparing, going through various frenetic activities....
But—as of now, my syllabi are posted to Canvas, my slides are ready to be loaded, and—and--
I guess I’m ready. Hope the Young Scholars are ready, too….