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....
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….
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.”
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?”
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.”
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?”
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).
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....