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Lee Jacobus

Riders to the Sea

Posted by Lee Jacobus Expert Oct 26, 2016

One of the things that humanizes the classroom is storytelling. In their reviews of my teaching, my students have often mentioned that our drama classes were enlivened by some of the stories I told of my own experiences in the theater seeing plays. That surprised me, but on reflection I realize they were right.


For example, when I taught John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea I told my students about the first time I saw the play. It was 1957 in tiny Theater East when the Abbey Theatre brought its company to the United States for the first time since the war. Siobhan McKenna played Maurya.


I was brought there with a group from my undergraduate class, taught by the late David Krause, who was an Irish Studies expert and my drama teacher. I had no idea what to expect. We had not read the play in advance. It followed the performance of Synge’s one-act In the Shadow of the Glen and seemed to us a riveting drama.


But another drama intensified the experience for me. In the last moments of the play one of the actresses came onstage with her apron filled with glass milk bottles – Bartley’s body had been brought in and laid out and the women came in to mourn. The actress dropped her apron and the bottles broke on the floor. Everyone was barefoot, yet as the actresses came into the scene none looked down. Most of the glass was broomed into a pan. They walked across the remaining glass and seemed unhurt and unaware. At that moment they kneeled and began keening in what can only be described to someone who has not heard it as an unearthly wail of loss, pain, and sadness.


Amazingly, no one was hurt. The keening stopped when the play ended. There was total silence in the theater. The lights went down, the actors left the stage, the lights went up again and finally when the actors returned the audience—141 souls—broke into incredible applause.  Everyone knew this was a completely unforgettable experience in the theatre.


Have you had a similar experience? Have your students? How do you discuss performance and use storytelling in your classroom?


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 26, 2011.)

When I first started studying, writing, and teaching creative nonfiction, I generally found myself attracted to contemporary American authors—Tobias Wolff, Phillip Lopate, Joan Didion, and others.  They wrote in a language I immediately understood and made references to figures and events that were at least somewhat familiar.  Even if I didn’t actually watch The Mickey Mouse Club or had never lived in New York City, I was aware that such things existed, and they weren’t all that far away from me.  I had a little more trouble with older writers, because of that tired undergraduate complaint “I just couldn’t relate.”  Yes, dear reader, your humble blogger was once one of those students who felt like his inability to immediately “get it” was always the fault of the writer—that the reader had no obligation to do any work himself.


I’m much less stupid now, of course, and as a result, I’m now able to really enjoy the opportunity to teach William Hazlitt’s "On the Pleasure of Hating," an essay I just couldn’t appreciate the first time I read it in my early twenties, but find I enjoy—and “relate to”—more and more as I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, towards middle age.  And I’ve been developing ways to get my own students to appreciate—and perhaps even “relate to”—Hazlitt’s 19th century text.


First of all, what’s not to love about an essay called “On the Pleasures of Hating”?  As far as awesome titles go, this one’s only approached by Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre.”  As a reader, when you see a title like that, all you can really do is blink, raise your eyebrows quizzically, then shrug and say, “Well, okay.  I’m listening.”  It’s like if someone said to you, “You know what I hate?  Orgasms.”  You’re pretty sure you’ll disagree with this person, but you’re dying to hear the reasoning behind such an outrageous position.


People frequently don’t want to agree with Hazlitt’s contention that hating is a pleasurable act– particularly well-intentioned college students (and even their bleeding-heart professors).  Hatred is a scourge, after all.  It’s something we’re trying to eradicate.  “Some people might find pleasure in hating, but I—as a liberated, open-minded person—certainly do not, and I don’t think most other people do either.”


Yeah?  Then tell me, why are the Kardashian sisters famous? 


Think about it—Kim, Khloe, and the other one only exist in our culture so that we can hate them.  You know it.  I know it.  And our students know it too.  Oh, sure—many of us have probably decided that those girls shouldn’t be judged so harshly, and that there’s something a little creepy and misogynist about our culture’s fascination with—and condemnation of—the things that these attractive though rather vapid young women say.  But nevertheless, these reality stars—and others like them—are presented to us for our collective loathing.  And frequently, we oblige—even if it’s just by laughing when Joel McHale or Beavis and Butthead belittle them.


“Nature seems (the more we look into it),” Hazlitt writes, “made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men.”  We’d be the lotus-eaters without the awesome buzz.  Without something contemptible to react against, I tell my students, there would be no progress or productivity—we’d simply be filled with an unearned contentment.


One of the main objections some students—and even this professor, once upon a time– have to this essay is the knowledge (eloquently expressed by James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son”) that hatred consumes and destroys people.  “Sure, anger is useful and important,” these people can say, “but you have to guard against being hateful, otherwise you destroy yourself.”  I do believe that’s true, but I also don’t think that truth negates Hazlitt’s point that hating can feel quite good.  Because Hazlitt does not advocate being hateful, he’s advocating hating– in appropriate measure.  Hazlitt tells us:


The echoes of liberty had awakened once more in Spain, and the mornings of human hope dawned again: but that dawn has been overcast by the foul breath of bigotry, and those reviving sounds stifled by fresh cries from the time-rent towers of the Inquisition – man yielding (as it is fit he should) first to brute force, but more to the innate perversity and dastard spirit of his own nature which leaves no room for farther hope or disappointment.

The hatefulness he sees in other people is one more thing to hate.  So we understand that hatefulness is never to be understood as virtue.  But certain types of hatred—perhaps, say, a hatred of ignorance, or intolerance, or injustice– is proper, necessary, and– above all– pleasurable.


There is any number of directions to take a class after a discussion of Hazlitt.  We might have a group discussion about the things we hate, and note the enthusiasm and giddiness and pleasure that people exhibit as they say things like, “Yes!  I think Coldplay sucks too!” or “Man, those talking baby E-Trade commercials are annoying!”  Of course, this essay might lend itself to a cool writing assignment.  I have been thinking about asking students to write about the things they hate, but I’ve been a bit concerned that I would get a collection of essays expressing their authors’ contempt for racism or sexism or homophobia or hate crimes or the last season of Lost—you know, low-hanging fruit.  But recently—as a result of editing and revising this very blog post—a friend pointed out to me that an exercise devoted to writing about hating something everybody else loves might make for an insightful, reflective assignment.  I’m now brainstorming an idea for an essay about why Tom Hanks should have just called it quits right after Bachelor Party


How would you go about teaching Hazlitt?  Any thoughts on writing assignments his essay might inspire?  Most importantly, what do you hate that everyone else seems to just adore?

On the first day of every Introduction to Creative Writing class, I tell the students that for the course of the semester I want them to live like writers. It doesn’t matter, I say, if they want to be professional writers, or if they are taking the class for fun, or simply to fulfill a credit, I want them to live like writers. Then I make the requisite joke about how that does not mean staying up late with a glass of wine and a cigarette, nor does it mean attending bullfights, nor does it mean drugs. What it means, I tell them, is three things.


  1. Be observant
  2. Acknowledge complexity
  3. Pay attention to language


            I really believe those are three keys to strong writing. And I really believe those things don’t come to you when you sit down to write—you have to collect them as you go about your day.  But I’m also trying to get my intro students to write literary work—without telling them that they have to write literary work.  Because it’s writing literature—that which encourages reader and writer to engage with the world, not escape from it—that best serves my students as they strive to become better people (as we all strive, I think).


            Becoming a better writer involves becoming a better person. I really believe that. Sometimes I say it.


My graduate students, who all want to become professional writers, get a similar talk, phrased a little differently. Live in such a way that generates writing, I say. Live in a way that reminds you you’re a writer.


            And what does living like a writer mean for me?


I collect words, titles for stories to be named later, I collect sentence structures and rhythms and Mad-Lib-type endings to the phrase “_____ is the kind of person who ____.” I collect names to fill in that first blank. I have such a fondness for the names Fergus and Angus—haven’t found a place for them yet though.  I read so much that people who read a lot make fun of me. I make notes on who did what and how. I keep a list of favorite stories and novels in chronological order of my life. That is how I organize my life.  I live like a perpetual student. I research the sponge divers of Simi, the soft palate of the mouth, the flora and fauna of Southwestern Virginia, and the history of Armenia. I go to art museums and gardens and battlefields. I listen to live music, and live readings, and talks on who knows what. I ask everybody—everybody—have you read anything good lately? I kiss babies and hold hands; I hold babies and kiss hands. I drink coffee before writing but not before reading. I look for the second side, and the third, and the fourth. I acknowledge the complexities of life and still find most of life to be quite simple. I listen more than I talk, I throw away as much as I keep, I fail regularly, sometimes better, I quote Beckett, I quote Kafka, I quote Morrison, I take comfort where I find it, and I lie down on the floor a lot, sometimes to stretch my back and sometimes just because.


            I don’t get paid very much.


            But I wouldn’t want to live any other way.


            I suppose I want my students to know that too. Sometimes I say it. Though not usually on the first day.

Annalise Mabe

Going Small

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Oct 4, 2016

When I teach creative writing, especially creative nonfiction, most of my students want to go big, meaning that they are wanting to bring their readers on an emotional journey, pulling out the big stuff: their parents’ devastating divorce, the death of their favorite grandparent, their best friend from elementary school who they no longer speak to, or their first long distance romance that couldn’t bear the miles. These are all worthy topics to pursue, but a pitfall of trying to go big is not being able to cover the landscape of the event, to translate it the same way it happened.

            Many of my students look at their lives and think that nothing interesting has happened to them, that they haven’t done much, and so they scan their memories for the moments with the highest peaks, the most drama, and think they’ve found their story there. Author “Story Seminar” creator Robert McKee teaches that a trivial story well told is more powerful than a significant story poorly told. It doesn’t matter, I tell students, if you haven’t trained in the junior Olympics, haven’t fallen into movie-like love yet, or have only lived in Naples, Florida for all of your life—in fact, that’s better. Take your story to the park instead. Look around your hometown, in the antique store that’s always open that you never go in. What’s in there? What stories live there?

            To Go Small is to look closely at the practice of running, an old object in an antique store, a seemingly insignificant moment, like the walk you take after dinner around your apartment complex, and to ask those objects, moments, practices or memories questions. Borrowing from Lynda Barry’s book, What It Is, I ask my students to make a list of ten couches they’ve sat on in their lifetimes, then ask them to choose one. With that couch in mind, I ask them guiding questions borrowed from Barry’s book to help orient them in the moment they’ve chosen. Where are you? What are you doing? Who else is there? What time of day is it? How old are you? What does the couch look like? Whose house is it? What’s in front of you? What’s to your left? What’s to your right? What’s behind you? What’s below your feet?

            By answering these questions, students engage in pre-writing and are forced to Go Small, looking at the minute details of the memory, picking out carpet patterns, wall decorations, couch fabric, time of day, season, etc. And by picking out these significant, concrete details, their piece becomes much more alive as it’s coming from a real, specific place, and a vivid moment in time. I ask students to then begin writing the moment or the scene with the details they collected in mind.

            Haley Morton, a previous student of mine, practiced Going Small in her piece “Early October,” a fiction piece about a narrator who runs:

            “Sweat burns through my pores. Catching my blonde skin up in its path. Gathering itself   into lines of pearl and opal across my neck and forehead and heaving chest. It’s hard for me to think about nothing. Especially now. When my legs collide with the ground  without a hint of grace and my thumbs tuck into my balled-up, pumping fists. I try to linger in each step with purpose as I bob past the arching oaks and violent palms with their saw limbs, all rooted in a hostile soil that seems it would be home to nothing but tumbleweed.

            When the students share their post-exercise writing, it’s usually their best piece of writing so far in the semester. When they read out loud in class, it’s clear for the rest of us to see that they are somewhere else, back in time, and we get to see the inside of their childhood house: the fast food bag on the table their dad brought home, their mother’s pearl earrings she got from her grandmother, or the Last Supper picture their older brother found on the side of the street. Their pieces come to life, glowing with sensory details and specific images. From hearing themselves and their peers’ pieces, they start to see the importance, the poignancy, in a broken coffee cup, in a shiny trinket, as opposed to the topics that were just too big to pin down, too big to write well in a first draft.

            In Phillip Lopate’s book, To Show and To Tell, he writes that famed novelist Philip Roth would go to bed reminding himself, “Don’t invent, remember.” This is to say that oftentimes, when we imagine, we are actually more distant from accuracy than if we were to pull from what we see in our actual lives. To pull from our lives is to go over the mundane, to collect the seemingly insignificant, and to Go Small, finding a kernel, a part in the work that symbolizes or speaks to the bigger feeling, the bigger moment, we so often seek to convey.