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2016

In the introductory creative writing course I teach, we spend the first half of the semester reading and writing fiction, and turn to poetry for the second half. This transition often provokes some anxiety. Many of my students have never written poetry before, and some have read very little—they come to the course with the assumption that poetry is highbrow and intimidating, and are cowed by the expectation that they will soon be writing their own.

 

I do several things to demystify poetry—insofar as it can and should be demystified!—early on. We read lots of contemporary poems, so that students can hear voices that echo their own with regard to syntax and diction. We talk about the lessons covered in the fiction unit that carry over into poetry, and into all creative writing, things they already know to do, and do well—striving for detail, imagery, and nuance, avoiding the heavy-handed ending, establishing a compelling voice, etc.  And we do daily writing exercises to keep the writing brain limber and to alleviate that initial fear that can come with staring at a blank page and knowing you’ve got to, somehow, put a poem on it. If we do small bits of writing every day, then that blank page becomes familiar—a friend, or at least an only-moderately-irritating acquaintance.

 

I kick off the poetry unit with one of my favorite exercises—it’s simple, but its simplicity is its key. I tell students that they’re going to be going outside for the next ten minutes. (I do this regardless of weather; some classes luck out with a 75 degree sun-filled day, but this fall found my students grumbling out into a chilly, heavy mist. I told them that great poems have been written about hardship.) While out there, they’re to do two tasks. First, I ask them to make note of three things they think no one else will notice—a line of ants streaming from a trashcan, a mismatched hubcap on a Honda in the nearby lot. And I ask them to write down the following beginnings of sentences:

 

The sky looks like:

The air feels like:

The day smells like:

 

Your task, I tell them, is to complete these sentences with something utterly true. Do not worry about being “poetic.” You’re not writing a poem; you’re just observing. Maybe the sky looks like a bag of dirty cotton balls. Not pretty, but accurate, and accuracy is your goal. Pay close attention and report back. Don’t be afraid to get a little weird—often the truest things are a little weird.

 

When the students come back in, I ask everyone to share what they’ve observed, and to read what they’ve written. The results are wonderfully specific and intriguing: I saw where a dog had left a paw print in wet cement. I saw a girl roll her eyes while talking on her phone. The air feels like a wet fur coat. The day smells like cigarettes and gingko berries. By being consciously observant, and by removing the pressure to Write a Poem, students hook into sharp details that are original and evocative. The exercise also helps students to let go of the urge to explain or editorialize their observations. Because the assignment is simply to notice and report, not to write a poem, no one is tempted to dilute a great image with commentary.

 

This exercise then leads us into a discussion of what subjects and words are suitable for poetry, how a strong image can usually stand on its own, and how cigarettes and asphalt and the leaf-clogged gutter—these specific, sensory, evocative, wonderfully common things—can be the most compelling parts of the world. The lesson I want them to take from the exercise and subsequent discussion is this: Don’t let the idea of writing a poem get in the way of writing a poem.

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 11/22/11.]]

Recently a former student of mine wrote me a nice thank you note in which she mentioned how she would never forget the moment I told the class that I averaged thirteen major drafts per story.  This—a casual remark I happened to drop in my lecture—was the most illuminating moment of the semester for her. I remember mentioning the number not because I find it revelatory, but because I find it amusing: Thirteen! So unlucky! And so weirdly consistent.  The remark certainly wasn’t written into my lesson plan, and it wasn’t one of the sound bites that I’m careful to repeat all semester. It was tossed off, the kind of thing I don’t usually say because it’s about me rather than them.  And yet, out of the whole semester, that was the lesson this student found most important.  Teaching is like that much of the time.  The off-the-cuff remarks, the of-the-moment lessons, the things you didn’t notice much are the things that strike chords with students.

 

I haven’t been a student since 1999, so this incident made me think: what things do I remember?

 

(I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I’m mentioning names.  I know I have been absurdly lucky to study with these masters, and I give thanks for it.)

 

Joyce Carol Oates: “This is a good sentence. You don’t usually write sentences like that.”  I actually remember the sentence, which was in a writing exercise, not a story, and was long, full of clauses, which I now know to call appositives, that went much further with description than I usually did.  I’m sure I remember her remark because of the backhanded nature of the compliment, but it was one of the most helpful things a teacher ever told me. It showed me where to go as opposed to where not to go.

 

Ron Carlson: “Make your dog a real dog.” When I first started writing fiction, I was really focused on character, and as a result, I sometimes had characters who felt real, but who existed in front of a fuzzy background.  In order to create the illusion of an entire world, you need to surround your characters with things (and animals) that also feel real.

 

Russell Banks: “You’re funny.”  One of the things about the faculty-student relationship is that you actually know little about who your students are outside of the classroom.  I like to think I’m funny, but there was no way for my professor to know that, and I was remarkably unfunny in class.  So when I finally relaxed a little in a story and showed that side of myself, he was surprised.  His surprise led me to realize that I wasn’t writing with my whole self.  I was writing as some serious student-self who I thought was more like a writer should be.

 

Alberto Rios: “Stay in the moment.”  It took me a long time to realize that not every scene in a story is equal, and that some moments that are over in an instant in life should take a long time on the page.  At first it seemed ironic that I learned this from a poet rather than a novelist, but now it makes sense to me.  Poets are masters of depicting the moment.

 

Stephen Wright: “There’s a voice here.” I have always resisted the idea that writers have to find “their voice.”  I have always wanted to be able to use different voices.  That small difference, that he said “a voice” rather than “your voice,” when talking about my story, was very reassuring to me.

 

So what’s the lesson for teachers? The obvious one is none of these are critical remarks—they are either descriptive, supportive, or generally applied; apparently whatever specific criticisms I got have long departed my memory. I also think there is a lesson related to being in the moment.  To have your plans, your go-to words of wisdom, but to be in a living, breathing conversation with your students. They’re listening, and you never really know what they’re going to remember…

 

[[This post originally appeared on September 11, 2012]]

 

[[This post originally appeared on September 27, 2012]]

 

Sometimes literary theory is pretty distant from the practical work of teaching. Think back to that time you brought your panopticon or your phallus (Lacan’s, I mean!) into the classroom, and to the moment in the middle of your excited explanation of the revolutionary ideas delivered to you across the Atlantic and through that one class in grad school when you realized it wasn’t helping  your students understand “A Rose for Emily.” The connections between the work with theory that we do in our training and our research often can seem part of another world than the one in which we teach.

 

I was reminded the other day—on the occasion of one of those curious confluences of events that happen when you’re doing a lot at once and all of the different things swim together in a river of caffeine—that this is not always the case. I’d just read D. T. Max’s new biography of the late David Foster Wallace, and in an interview I did with him (here) asked him about the revelation that Wallace had voted for Reagan. It seems to have been a surprise to many of his readers, who had come, through their reading of Wallace’s fiction and essays, to see him as squarely on the other end of the ideological spectrum. They thought they had a sense of the man from reading what he wrote, and this bit of news blurred the picture they’d constructed of him.

 

That same day the interview came out, I had a meeting of my course on the rock novel (fiction about, inspired by, and formally influenced by rock and roll, a course I’m teaching for the first time and not at all because I get to play a lot of loud music in class).  We were reading Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses, a little-known but interesting quasi-sci-fi novel about a man, Ray, who has an obsessive relation to the history of rock music, and many students, despite the course’s own obsessive concern with that history, were finding the main character’s behavior a bit much. Why was Ray driven to such lengths by his obsessions? One answer to this conundrum—which kept some students from identifying with Ray—was supplied by another student who raised the idea that Shiner, in his presentation of Ray, was actually critiquing the character. That is, maybe there was some ironic distance between Ray’s behavior and the author’s opinion about that behavior. With this issue raised, I played The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” a second time, because it’s awesome, and class was over.

 

One of the pitfalls of reading (and teaching) fiction is the temptation to think we know an author. Readers of Wallace think they know him, especially because some of his work seems intensely personal. Another pitfall is the tendency to conflate the main character in a story or novel with the author, especially in an autobiographical work like Shiner’s. Decades of literary theory have explored the relationship between author and work, arguing alternately that we must ignore the author, that he is dead, that he is a conduit for the knowledge available given the social structure of his time, etc. In fiction, narrative theory, narratology, and theory of the novel have kicked around different responses to the problem, from Wayne Booth’s idea of the implied author to John Brenkman’s rejection of that concept as, well, a fiction, and not a very helpful one. Similarly, theories of narrative and the novel have worked over the relation of character to text, none better than Lukacs, who understood the relation of the modern novel to its writer as one in which the writer divides his subjectivity between a main character who gets the world wrong and a story that refuses to tell us what right is.

 

We want our stories to hold together—those that we read and those that we construct about the world. Many of the best stories, however, admit a complexity that challenges their coherence. The picture we have of an author can’t really hold a book together, just as the belief that the author completely agrees with the main character—or completely doesn’t—can’t really hold a book together. Things are more complicated than that. One of the gifts of teaching fiction is the chance to help students see how, for all kinds of stories, complicated ≠ bad. One of the ways to help them see this is to bring in the literary theory that has helped us to see it.