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2017

Last month I shared the Point of View Menu, a tool I use to help students see the effects of their point of view and tense choices in a story. My students were floored by the possibilities, and they were particularly interested in learning more about second person point of view. Given the range second person point of view offers, I developed a tool to focus on three options of second person paired with the simple verb tenses past, present, and future. My students promptly dubbed this new tool the “Secret Menu.” (They then had to explain to me that a secret menu at a fast food restaurant is one customers can order off of, but only if they know it exists.) They were thrilled at the prospect of understanding a technique they had not deeply explored before.

 

To teach the “Secret Menu,” I review the indicators of each tense and some of the reasons why a writer would choose to write in each, as we discussed with the original menu. Past tense allows for reflection, present tense provides in-the-moment reaction, and future tense allows for prediction. We review the purposes of each point of view: first person gets us right into the speaker’s mind, third person gives us distance from the characters, and second person lands somewhere in between providing space between the reader and the characters.

 

The “Secret Menu” tool allows us to dissect this space second person offers. That space can shrink or grow, inviting the reader deeper into the story or putting up a wall, depending on the way the writer approaches the story. I then offer to my students three possible uses for second person.

 

Second person can be used as a masked first person, that is, the story is written with a “you” character as a protagonist that reads similarly to an “I” character. In this use of the second person readers can get almost as close the protagonist’s mind as in first person.

 

Second person can also be used to invite the reader into the story. The actions of a “you” might come across as if they are directed to the reader.

 

Finally, second person can be used to offer directions or suggestions.

 

Similarly to our first menu, I grid the three possibilities for second person and the simple tenses alongside each other. Again, as we fill out the resulting boxes, students see the many combinations of storytelling available to them. It’s important to note that many stories in second person fluctuate among these three uses, so I use dashed lines to indicate fluidity. A story might read as a masked first person and also read as a series of directions and suggestions.

 

 

Past—reflection

Present—reaction

Future—prediction

2.A—masked first = fairly up close and personal

Reflection fairly up close and personal

Reaction fairly up close and personal

Prediction fairly up close and personal

2.B—speak to the reader as a character = invitation

Reflection w/ invitation

Reaction w/ invitation

Prediction w/ invitation

2.C—directions and suggestions

Reflection w/ direction

Reaction w/ direction

Prediction w/direction

 

One of my favorite short stories to teach with the secret menu in mind is Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.” Together, students look at Moore’s technique at the sentence level and identify how the second person point of view might read different ways depending on readers’ interpretations.

 

After this discussion, I find students are eager to re-read other second person stories with attention to how they might pull off this tricky technique. I then challenge them to try writing their own stories in second person, experimenting with these possibilities, and the drafts they submit demonstrate thoughtfulness and confidence in the voices they choose.

William Bradley

Writing as Revenge

Posted by William Bradley Expert Oct 20, 2017

This post originally appeared on the blog on 2/10/12      

 

I read Lorraine Berry’s Salon article, “Dear Female Students: Stop Writing about Men,” with great interest.  She gives good advice that all college students ought to hear: You’re not defined by your relationships; you are more than who you choose to date; a breakup is not the most significant or interesting thing that has ever happened to you.  But I was surprised to see her focus her essay on female students, and to learn that, in her experience, “The females in the class tend to write about a romantic relationship, and the males do not.”  I have had almost the exact opposite experience.  I can only recall one female student ever writing about her own romantic troubles, but I’ve read—as either a student or a teacher—the “guy’s break-up narrative” easily a dozen times.

 

To be sure, I don’t think I’m talking about the male equivalent of the type of essay Berry is talking about.  She writes that “only once or twice in the nine years I’ve been teaching these courses has a guy expressed his need to understand why a relationship has fallen apart.”  I haven’t really read that essay either.  The type of relationship essay I’ve read from male writers tends—more often than not—to be more angry than reflective.

 

I first encountered this type of narrative during my senior year of college, in a workshop where a fellow student ended his own end-of-the-affair narrative with the triumphant line, “I was sick of playing that bitch’s games.”  Even typing that line now, fifteen years later, I cringe both for her and for him—she was, after all, a fellow student on a campus of just over two thousand, and he certainly had no idea how committing such a line to the page and handing out photocopies to the class made him seem… well, less than gentlemanly. 

 

This trend continued in grad school.   There was the guy from my M.A. program who gave a paragraph to each girlfriend in a five page essay, each paragraph devoted to chronicling the woman’s flaws. And I’ll never forget the guy from my Ph.D. years who described—in pornographic detail—the sex with his ex-girlfriend while Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” played on his stereo. 

 

The above examples come from former classmates, but I’ve occasionally received these types of essays from my own students, too, and it always seems to me that the men who write these narratives of the break-ups—with their unflattering descriptions and their potentially embarrassing sexual revelations—are writing not to reflect on “why a relationship has fallen apart,” the way some of the women Berry has taught do, but are instead writing as a form of revenge, an attempt to “get back” at those who either broke their hearts or somehow became a romantic disappointment.

 

I was talking about this phenomenon with my own nonfiction students last week—before I even read Berry’s article— as we were discussing Dinty W. Moore’s observation in his anthology/textbook The Truth of the Matter that “A helpful way to approach the question of memory in creative nonfiction is to occasionally investigate your own motives.  Are you remembering something a certain way in order to make yourself look more like the hero of the situation, or in order to cast your lazy brother-in-law in an even more unpleasant light?  If so, you are being dishonest.”   I would say the same thing is true when writing about relationships—in fact, I think it’s even more true.  It seems to me that a failed romance provides fertile ground for self-deception and self-serving excuses, which will inevitably lead to a dishonest essay or memoir.

 

I don’t want to tell my students not to write about things that make them angry, or that they have strong feelings about—such subjects might lead to brilliant insight, either in their writing or in their lives.  But I do caution them to ask themselves, honestly, if they’re ready to write about these subjects.  Can they reflect without being overwhelmed by their emotions?  Because if the answer is no, and the piece of writing lacks that critical, honest interrogation of the self, then the essay or memoir will ultimately be unsuccessful.  And above all else, I try to discuss with my students why we write what we write.  If a student is genuinely trying to come to an understanding of an experience, trying to figure out something about himself or an event or relationship he lived through, awesome.  That’s the point.  But, I caution my students, if the whole point is to vilify, degrade, or humiliate another person in front of a classroom full of people, then perhaps this is an essay that ought not be written.  Once it’s written down and submitted for workshop, it’s out there, and can’t be taken back.  And I doubt too many of us would want to be judged by the things we say—or write—in the heat of an angry or heartbroken moment. 

Samuel Cohen

Sports Pages

Posted by Samuel Cohen Expert Oct 5, 2017

For William Bradley

 

I’m not the sports fan I used to be. The combination of getting older and busier and moving away from the New York of my Knicks has turned me into the kind of fan who opens the sports pages and wonders what happened to all the players he used to know and who the hell these guys are. Outside of watching English soccer on weekend morning TV and traveling on the endless circuit of my sons’ soccer games (and writing some poems about youth soccer that accidentally got published), my interest in sports is not a rooting interest. What it has become is a cultural interest—an interest in what sports means to people and to the communities they live in.

 

So naturally I’m planning a new course for spring semester called “Sports/Writing.” It will be about sports in American culture and all kinds of writing about sports—fiction, poetry, essays, reporting. I’m also revising my literature textbook, Literature: The Human Experience, and am trying to put together a couple of clusters of selections on sports as, well, part of the human experience. This seems like a happy synergetic moment from which all sorts of reading selections should flow, and I’m gathering a giant pile of good ones, but it turns out I’m developing a case of syllabus/table of contents block.

 

I want to muster the usual suspects that I use as excuses for writer’s block, but I think there’s something more interesting going on. Next to the growing stack of possible selections, important sports-related events keep happening. Just this past week saw the explosion of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial inequality in policing and in American life into a multiple sideline, multiple player protest. This already knotty situation was then complicated by team owners responding to Donald Trump’s angry social media comments saying team owners should fire kneeling players by joining in a linked-arm gesture alleged to be about unity, a unity cynics might characterize as the response of rich white men to another rich white man telling them what to do with their property. A scandal involving sneaker companies, coaches, recruiters, and agent erupted in college basketball. Further evidence emerged of the seriousness of brain injury in football.

 

It seems like there’s no talking about sports these days without talking about money and race and politics. This should be a good thing—an embarrassment of riches for me, really—but it’s making it hard for me to put together a selection of works that I can imagine teaching.

 

I’m not a teacher who shies away from political and social issues in the classroom, and I’m not a teacher who pretends not to have opinions about these things; what I am is a teacher who makes it very clear that all I ever want from my students is that they think hard and that they form conclusions from evidence and solid arguments, and I have never had reason to believe that students felt seriously pressured to agree with me about anything.

 

But I do live in a Midwestern state (as some point out, a Southern Midwestern state) that was targeted by David Horowitz on his “intellectual diversity” tour of state houses a few years ago, a tour that resulted in the presence of a form on my university’s web site that students can use to report their professors for having opinions about these things. And I do teach at the university where in 2015 the football team threatened to sit out a game as part of a protest of the university’s handling of racial issues, a development that has cost the school funding from state legislators who cynics might characterize as white men telling other white men what to do with their property. These legislators also got a friend and colleague fired for her small involvement in this protest. So I’m always aware of how reports of my teaching would play on social media.

 

Similarly, I don’t shy away from including political works in LHE and 50 Essays, but I am aware of the reality that there are textbooks that don’t sell in Texas because of the kinds of things I select and, much more importantly, I’m aware that the instructors who use these books will have to deal with teaching selections that touch on issues that some readers will be sensitive about.

 

It turns out, knowing who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students and students who use my textbooks doesn’t make this any easier. The more I think about it this week, as I stare at my screens and watch America twist itself into knots over the posture of athletes whose games haven’t started yet, the more I’m coming to realize that what’s getting in my way is the same obstacle we all come up against when teaching literary works about any of the things that people love: when people are devoted to things, they don’t want to hear them criticized.

 

The word fan, of course, comes from the word fanatic, which means a person with excessive zeal—a zealot. A turn of phrase people use when they say they love someone or something: I’m crazy about it. This fanaticism, this craziness, is part of what makes sports so important in culture (in addition to economics, institutions, identity); it’s also what makes it hard to examine sports critically—that is, to not simply negatively but with an eye toward understanding that requires not unthinkingly accepting the common wisdom, the things people who work in and around sports says about sports. When we look at what people are worked up about this week in American sports, we see the intersection of two institutions that people love—sports and nation—and the inextricable presence of race and money. It’s hard, beyond the most innocuous of pieces of literature—“Casey at the Bat?”—to think of selections for teaching that don’t quickly become about more than the thrill of pure athletic competition.

 

The same is true when you teach works that brush up against ideas of America, of romantic love, of heroism. We are all attached to these things, and have strongly held and largely unexamined beliefs about them. When we ask our students to read works that reflect critically about them—asking them to think about darker moments in our national history, about how ideas about gender sexuality shape the way people are allowed to love each other, about what acts by which kinds of people get called heroic—we are encouraging them to do something that they don’t necessarily want to do. But the things we unquestionably love and hold dear might be the things—the institutions, the beliefs, the ideas—we most need to look at if we are to develop ourselves as thinking, contributing members of our communities. Which in one model of higher education is the goal of all of this.

 

In the end, if you value making your students think about the things they read and the world they live in more than you value protecting them from discomfort and the things they believe in from scrutiny, you assign reading that questions the things they love and believe in. You don’t force answers on them; you lead them to questions. And yes, I’m talking to myself.