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It is not always easy to distinguish between drama as literature and drama as theatre.  My view has always been that good drama is based on good literature, but having said that, we all know that there are moments in the theatre when the action moves far beyond the printed page and its stage directions.  Those are the moments when we realize that drama is theatre.

 

This meditation is a result of my having just seen a wild adaptation of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself directed and adapted by Christopher Bayes, whose roots are in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune.  Bayes tossed out the standard text and built a commedia dell’arte version on the comic bones that Molière had provided beneath the dialogue.

 

The result was dynamic, wildly comic, and enthralling to the audience.  And while the slapstick, the ham acting, the sometimes lewd jokes, the inappropriate, but funny, music, and all the  screaming, shouting, dancing and romping was over, we realized that the story line that Molière concocted as a way of ridiculing the current medical profession was in a bizarre way, still intact.

 

What I realized–and what delighted me–is that no printed version of this adaptation could ever have done justice to it.  And that goes for any version on YouTube or even the iPad or laptop–because much of the fun of seeing the play was in sharing the pleasure with a living audience.

 

In teaching I think it is important to try to talk about the aspects of the play that go beyond the printed page, but at the same time to make sure that the literary values are clear and that they remain the bones on which the production must be animated.

 

How do you teach students the difference between drama as theatre and drama as literature? What plays and/or performances have illuminated this difference for you and for your students?

 

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on December 21, 2011.]] 

In the small town where I live, one of our nicer restaurants often has their satellite radio tuned to a station that plays exclusively soft rock from the 80s and early 90s.  Air Supply.  Foreigner.  A little Journey or, if we’re really lucky, solo Steve Perry.  But there’s one song that seems to come on every time we eat there, one song that causes my wife to reach across the table, grab my hand and whisper, “Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  I mean it.”

 

The song I’m talking about is Chicago’s song “Look Away,” which a quick Internet search tells me was written by Diane “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” Warren.  I didn’t know this until just ten minutes ago, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  Like every other Diane Warren song I know, “Look Away” expresses its ideas about love in rather obvious, sentimental ways.  The song is written from the point of view of a young man whose ex-girlfriend—with whom he still has a friendship—calls to tell him about her new love.  In fact, the lead vocalist (whose name is not Peter Cetera) opens the song with the observation, “When you called me up this morning/ Told me about the new love you’d found/ I said I’m happy for you/ I’m really happy for you.”  Of course, things aren’t really that simple; as it turns out, our speaker is still in love with his former paramour/ current friend, but he can’t possibly act on those feelings.  For some reason.  So he assures her that he’s “fine,” but then admits that “sometimes [he] just pretend[s].”  In the chorus he tells her:  “If you see me walking by/ And the tears are in my eyes/ Look away, baby, look away… Don’t look at me/ I don’t want you to see me this way.”

 

This is not a particularly good song.  In fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all.  But I love it anyway, and feel the urge to sing along with not-Peter Cetera every time it comes on.  This desire has nothing to do with Diane Warren’s craft or not-Peter Cetera’s singing, and has everything to do with the memories this song evokes for me.

 

Imagine, if you will, your humble narrator as a 7th-grade boy.  In the dimly-lit gym, wearing his nicest slacks and a shirt with buttons, watching—sadly—as the love of his life smiled her metallic smile at or rested her permed head upon the shoulder of… well, that doofus she was in love with.  They slow-danced awkwardly, while the young me stood off to the side, heart breaking, while not-Peter Cetera assured his own love “I’m really happy for you” even though he was dying on the inside as surely as I was.  Yes, I thought, this song must have been written specifically for me.

I know that this sounds like a bad memory, but as a disciple of Joan Didion, I agree with her that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”  And the truth is, I kind of find that super-intense, comically angst-y  12-year-old good company.  I like that even now, after decades and other relationships have reshaped how I understand love and romance, I can still remember a time when I was innocent and naïve enough to believe that I could find a type of personal truth in such a cheesy song.

 

I’ve found that most people have such a song—a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives.  In fact, some of us have several.  So in my creative nonfiction classes, I begin the semester with something I call The Music and Memory Exercise.  First, I have them read Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us” and Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By a Song.” We discuss the way Edelman describes the Springsteen-dominated “soundtrack” of her late adolescence, and how Cowser finds solace at a difficult time through  the music that transports him back to a time of innocence and protection.  Then, I tell my own story about young Bill Bradley, alone at the dance in the gym, and how old William Bradley loves a song he doesn’t really like because of the way it tethers him to that sad little boy.

 

And then, of course, I ask the students to write the story of their own song and the memories it evokes in a mini-essay of 3-5 pages.  We usually read their essays out loud in class, a nice icebreaker for the beginning of the semester.  In the eight years I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction writing, I have never had a student find this exercise difficult to complete.  Even the concerned student who corners me at the end of the first day of class and admits in a panic, “There’s nothing interesting about me to write about” gets into this assignment.  It’s an enjoyable way to inspire reflection, and it assures the student that we all have experiences and a point of view worth expressing in essay and memoir writing.

 

So, anybody else have an interesting—or, preferably, embarrassing—song that inspires such reflection?  Leave a comment if you do, and I’ll tell you all about the “late 80s/early 90s rap and hip hop” playlist I have on my iPod (needless to say—yeah, I totally have Vanilla Ice’s song about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on there).

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on January 12, 2012.]]

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative writing is finding new ways to break students out of their routines, getting them to look at their world and describe it a little differently, a little slant. This semester, I gave my introductory students an assignment, based on an exercise of John Gardner’s, in which they wrote 250-word sentences that might appear in a story. The assignment, I hoped, would make unavoidable a deep consideration of details, clarity, pacing, and of course mechanics. It gave them fits, in the best sense—but in the end they cooked up some doozy prose, also in the best sense. In fact, some of the best writing all semester was contained in these long, long sentences. I suspect that’s because when building and wrestling a sentence of that length, students can’t help focusing on the parts and the whole simultaneously. They see that form is content, that punctuation carries meaning, and that this sentence (and, by extension, all sentences) demands nothing less than our most considered attention.

 

I’m going to use that assignment again.

 

Next semester, I also plan to spring a “radio drama” assignment on my upper-level fiction workshop. I’m thinking that students would work in pairs, create a drama that is five minutes long, with nothing but dialogue and sound effects. No voiceover. My hope is that the assignment will cause them to pay close attention to dialogue and narrative structure. It should also be fun. We’ll play the finished five-minute recordings in class, maybe burn CDs with everyone’s work—an audio anthology of radio dramas. Perfect for long car rides.

 

So my question, as this semester draws to a close, is this: What have you got up your sleeve for the spring?

 

[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on December 28, 2011.]]

On social media, every post is an impulse towards connection. Whether you’re seeking likes, sharing new information, or looking for a discussion, everything we do on social media is in conversation with the people logging in around us. Every part of our digital footprint is a micronarrative that could be explored more. The beginning of an idea. The tip of the iceberg.

 

Author Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2016 Best American Essays, questions the essay’s current existence in relation to social media: “Is the essay becoming an endangered species? Or is it a species that has so fully invaded the larger culture that it no longer needs its original niche?”

 

The long-form essay is endangered, competing with the 140-character flash narratives of our lives, brief blips that could be investigated, but are usually left to collect digital dust, to pile beneath the other posts that will push them further down into a void we’ll likely never see again.

 

But we need to explore these impulses, blips we send out from our radars, now more than ever. Anna Quindlen, New York Times columnist, says that “first person is the connective tissue, and we live in a world where there is too little genuine connective tissue.”

 

If the essay is a writer's mind grappling on the page with a question they cannot answer, we need the essay now more than ever to understand the world around us, and the people we interact with. If the essay encapsulates live moments, then we need to essay in-depth, at length, not write one-offs that sink to the bottom of the news feed.

 

It’s no surprise that we live partially online, most of us carrying around Smartphones in our pockets or purses, checking them over a hundred times a day. We are craving a connection we’re still missing out on.

 

And it’s no surprise to find that, like theorist Peter Brooks suggests, we live in “anticipation of retrospection,” where we are always looking forward to look back. Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation--the looking forward to look back: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, ‘We will have been here.’" It’s almost as if we are posting blurbs or curated snapshots of our lives with the sole purpose or intention of remembering all of this later, rather than to examine the present life we are living in more closely, and at greater length.

 

We look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos--of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky--so we will remember it later, and so others will know we were here. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, and free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.

 

Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over." The essay exists for many reasons, but one is to catch what’s happening in the present, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future, and to share this with readers who could make meaning, could relate, and could connect over this shared matter, the idea that’s been turned over and over in the writer’s mind.

 

David Eshelman

Local Theatre

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Nov 22, 2016

Although many do not recognize it, local theatre is the cornerstone of the dramatic arts. (By local theatre, I mean what people watch in their own towns.) While metropolitan centers like New York City exert influence, what really counts is the theatre that people see. A theatrical production is often unavailable either in print, film, or other media: it is experienced only by those who gather to see it; and, since most individuals stay close to home, close to home matters. While famous plays have impact, the effect is diffuse when compared to print-centered writing or to film. The effect of non-local theatre works only along the lines of a “trickle-down” influence, rather than the direct impact of other forms: people read a story, but read about a theatrical production.

 

Given the importance of local theatre, one would think that such performance would be thriving — unfortunately, it is not. This is especially true for local playwriting. Because local theatres have no obligation to present new, local work, they typically turn to renditions of familiar plays that audiences have seen before. While productions of such plays may be comfortable for audiences and for the theatre makers involved, they create minimal opportunities for local dramatists. Though most regions of the country — even far-out, rural places — have some local theatre, they do not often have local dramatic writing. Such a situation hurts local writers and theatre as a whole by inhibiting regional diversity in a form that, of necessity, must be regional.

 

For this reason, playwriting instructors must not only be writers, but also theatre artists. Specifically, they must act as producers, arranging shows and making them occur. It is not enough to ask students to stuff their plays into envelopes, send them to faraway theatres, and hope for the best: instead, the instructor must ensure local performance opportunities. Print publication is unlikely for beginning dramatists. Because of the pre-eminence of live production, playwrights have far fewer opportunities for print publication than do poets and other writers. Production at distant theatres is similarly unlikely. Most theatres that produce new work already have relationships with playwrights-in-residence and are unlikely to assist beginning authors who live far away. These theatres tend to prefer local writers because proximity makes for an easier working relationship. Instructors can collaborate with existing local theatre companies; but, most often, the instructor will have to run his or her own “production company” — whether it’s something as simple as a series of public readings or as innovative as a podcast/videocast theatre.

 

Plays must be performed — there is no other medium for them — and, like it or not, the playwriting instructor must be on the front lines of performance.

 

How do you incorporate performance/production in the playwriting classroom?

 

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on July 26, 2012.]] 

William Bradley

The Agony of Defeatism

Posted by William Bradley Expert Nov 16, 2016

Part of leading a discussion in a creative writing workshop involves encouraging students to give rigorous feedback and criticism to their classmates, while also fostering an atmosphere of respect and friendship.  Hank Devereaux Jr.—the narrator of Richard Russo’s academic satire Straight Man—observed that, in the creative writing classroom, “tough, rigorous criticism is predicated on good, not ill, will.” As teachers, it’s part of our job to create an environment where student writers feel comfortable receiving—and giving—detailed feedback and constructive criticism.  The workshop, after all, isn’t going to work if the only thing the student author hears is “great job” or “I really liked the words you used to convey your ideas.”

 

Creating an environment of friendly and well-intentioned critique is difficult in any creative writing classroom, but it’s particularly difficult in a creative nonfiction classroom.  As writers, we’re frequently defensive when it comes to our work, but as creative nonfiction writers, we sometimes wind up feeling defensive about our experiences and ideas as well.  Once, as a student in a workshop, I had to listen as a classmate explained that she didn’t like the piece I had written because the “narrator” was so whiney and self-absorbed.  And while I like to think that I have thick skin … come on.  That hurt.

 

I try to be particularly conscious of the student author’s feelings and protectiveness of her work even as I ask my students to talk specifically about what isn’t working in a piece.  Still, even with my attempts at sensitivity, some students are stressed out and even hurt by the entire workshop experience.  Who can blame them? They’ve just revealed themselves—exposed their realest, innermost selves—without the safety net of a fictional narrator or poetic speaker, and now they’re getting criticized for their efforts.  That can be disheartening, even infuriating.

 

A couple weeks ago, my book—this manuscript I’ve been working on, in various forms, for over five years now—was rejected by a publisher.  Again.  As most working writers know, rejection is just part of the process.  You read the nicely-phrased note, sigh to yourself, then get back on your laptop and find the next contest or university press to send the thing to.  You nod to yourself, silently wish the editors who rejected you good luck with their future endeavors, and then get back to work.

 

At least, that’s how I think it’s supposed to happen.  The truth is, that’s not how it works for me.  Instead, I give out this little gasp.  Then I pace around the room a little bit.  Then I announce—either to my wife or, if she’s not home, one of the cats—“I don’t know why I continue to operate under the delusion that I’m a writer.”  My wife, for her part, knows to let me say this out loud, to get it out of my system.  And the cats seem to know the same thing—they seldom interrupt my pity parties.

 

Keep in mind, I’m a fairly successful writer (“For the type of loser who doesn’t even have a book,” Mopey Me adds with a frown).  I’ve published over two dozen essays, reviews, and interviews in some of the best magazines and journals in my field.  I say this not to brag, but to point out that I have no reason to feel like a loser when something I write—from the shortest essay to the book manuscript itself—is not accepted for publication.  But I do.

 

Inevitably, I get over it.  I take a couple of days, but then return to the manuscript in order to decide, “Was it them, or is it me?”  Sometimes, I make changes.  Sometimes—like this most recent time—I conclude, “You know, I think this is ready as it is.”  And I send the thing back out again.  Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.  The point is, I essay.

 

But the larger point is that I understand personally the frustration and disappointment when a piece of writing is received less enthusiastically than its author might like.  My students’ sadness (or anger) at a workshop discussion may not be exactly the same as my own response to a rejection, but it’s darn close, I think.  That’s important to keep in mind—too often I get frustrated by my students’ frustration.  “I’m trying to help you!” I think to myself.  But it’s useful to remember that they’ve poured as much as themselves into their assignments as I have into my book.

 

Lately, I’ve taken to telling my students what I’m working on, and when the work gets rejected—or accepted.  I want them to understand that the occasional disappointment is inevitably part of this process, but that if they persevere, they might know the joy that comes with realizing they have succeeded in reaching—and moving—their audience.

 

Any other tips on how to deal with student frustrations in the writing workshop?  For that matter, any advice for me on how to deal with my own bouts of self-loathing that inevitably accompany rejection?

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 8/28/12]]

Michael Kardos

Thanksgiving Exercise

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Nov 10, 2016

No, I’m not talking about the calorie-burning exercises we feel we must do in the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Day of Carbs. Rather, I’m talking about a favorite, and seasonally appropriate, writing exercise.

 

The first story in Bill Roorbach’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Big Bend is titled “Thanksgiving.” The story begins with a phone call. Ted’s sister-in-law, Mary, is calling to convince him to come to Thanksgiving dinner this year. And because he has vowed to “become part of the family again,” he agrees to come—but he isn’t happy about it. By the end of the story, events have caused him, in a fury, to upend the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.

 

Roorbach’s story gives rise to a very straightforward writing assignment:

 

A character, in a fury, has upended the Thanksgiving Day table. Write the scene that causes him/her to do it.

 

What better tinderbox is there, emotionally speaking, than an entire family all gathered together for one night? I like this exercise because it isn’t quiet or subtle. There is no way to avoid conflict in a scene that ends with a flipped-over dinner table, especially on a holiday, especially the holiday during which we are supposed to give thanks.

 

Moreover, this exercise requires students to complete certain mini-exercises along the way, such as:

  • Writing a scene with multiple characters in it;
  • Creating a conflict that causes the climax provided in the prompt;
  • Providing sufficient detail so that we know exactly what is on that table prior to it being overturned.

 

I am thankful for this exercise, which students seem to have great fun doing. I am thankful for Thanksgiving for generating the sort of familial tensions that generate good fiction, and I am thankful that this is not the case in my family. And I am thankful for the leftovers in my refrigerator, which, I understand, really ought to bring about that other kind of exercise—the kind that doesn’t involve typing.

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/2/11.]] 

Essayist Dinty Moore says “the hand is connected to the arm which is connected to the heart” in an attempt to explain why writing by hand is instrumental in sewing the seedlings of great ideas that form and grow under the act of further writing and revision. When I first bring up hand-writing to my students, they often look skeptical, or wary to say the least. Some of them groan. Some of them say they will definitely handwrite at home. Most of them, though, do ask: “Why should we write by hand if we can type on a laptop?” And I have a few answers for them.

 

For one, writing by hand slows the writer down. While this may sound like a counter-intuitive hindrance to the writing process, it’s actually an element that makes for better writing, and a higher quality first draft. By sitting at the laptop or desktop computer, typing 40 words per minute allows you to write too quickly, moving forward and backward linearly, erasing any sign or record of your process, any change that you would be able to look over when writing with a pen on the page. By being forced to slow down, your brain has slightly more time to think about what it decides to pen. This allows for more real decision making compared to the writer at the computer whose hands type too quickly, perhaps glossing over a better idea that may have needed a few seconds more to percolate.

 

Another reason why hand-writing is paramount is that this approach creates room for risk and play, for less constraint. This is to say that there is something about a sprawling page and a pre-writing mindset that alleviates pressure for the writer, allowing them the space to try things on, to “just get the ideas down,” and worry about the meticulous details later. In Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, he emphasizes the importance of a writer’s journal, another arena where hand-writing takes place, arguing that it allows for the “freedom to try out things, to write clumsy sentences when no one is looking, to be prejudiced, even stupid. No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments.” Cartoonist Lynda Barry also supports hand-writing, explaining that students should write from their centers instead of their heads. Author and writing instructor Heather Sellers agrees that writing is a physical act, just like football, and so should be practiced physically with the same dedication and reverence that players hold for their sport.

 

As a writer who hand-writes herself, I can attest to a feeling that comes from the practice. It’s a feeling that comes after I’ve warmed up, after I’ve gotten a few paragraph down, and it comes when I’m hitting a stride, when I can feel my heart rate quickening, my writing becoming somewhat faster, when I know I’m on to something important. Though what I pen by hand is always a start and far from a finished, final draft, the ideas that come forward in the hand-writing stage I’ve come to realize are my better ones—the seedlings of greater things to come, planted by the pen in my hand.

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.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Listening In

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 27, 2016

Young writers often get the advice—and sometimes the assignment—to eavesdrop.  I’ve always found this a little funny, since after all, don’t most of us spend large portions of our lives in conversation?  Why do we need to listen in on somebody else’s conversation in order to learn about conversation?  I wasn’t sure of the particular value of being outside of the conversation.  So I decided to try it.

 

Like many a writer, I often find myself in coffee shops.   But I also happen to live in a town that is a prime destination for people in recovery programs, who also naturally find themselves in coffee shops.  And so one of the first things I heard was one highly caffeinated young guy saying to another, “It was a tell-tale sign when we did free hugs and Ted wouldn’t hug anybody.”

 

A few days later, walking out of the gym behind a young woman and her probably four-year-old son, I heard this exchange:

 

Toddler: I want a snack.

Mom: I have something in the car for you.

Toddler: What is it?

Mom: Juice.

Toddler: What kind of juice?

Mom: Orange juice.

Toddler, with outright exuberance: Hallelujah, baby!

 

Later, sitting in a Barnes and Noble café near the customer service counter, I heard this:

 

Female customer, probably sixty-something, brandishing the bondage bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey:  Do you think this would make a good gift?

Customer Service Rep: Well, I wouldn’t give it to someone you didn’t know well.

 

Next customer, a very thin woman around seventy in a denim mini skirt and high-heeled sandals: I need a ride home.

Customer Service Rep: But we’re a bookstore.

 

Meanwhile, someone I know posted on Facebook that he heard an old woman on the subway turn to the homeless guy next to her and say, “You smell like my husband.  He’s dead.”

 

The website Overheard in NY is full of such gems.  The truth, I guess, is that we’re a nation of eavesdroppers, whether we mean to be or not, and we find our fellow Americans pretty amusing.

 

There are lessons to be learned from these moments, sure.  The guys in recovery had a very particular vocabulary that they shared and used fluidly.  They were also way more intimate in the way they spoke to each other than most any other group of twenty-something males I have ever seen in conversation. And the child shouting Hallelujah for his juice was surely imitating adults he has heard.  Kid talk is often funny for the way they use words correctly but in slightly inappropriate contexts.  It was a touching scene, too, showing how well the mother knew her child, as well as how much he appreciated her knowledge.  And living here in South Florida, I’ve certainly observed the infinite variety of the elderly (some of the stereotypes are true—the driving is pretty terrifying), but as with any demographic, the individuals are many and they can be found everywhere, saying just about anything.

 

So a student given the assignment to eavesdrop certainly could learn this or that about the ways we speak to each other and who we are.  I might try an exercise where I have students copy down things they overhear over the course of a week, then share the best bits with the class so that the group can collectively determine what lessons can be learned from the snippets.  And I could see creating a writing exercise based on any of the snippets.  Part of what’s interesting about eavesdropping is how the absence of context sparks your imagination.  What kind of kid “Hallellujahs” orange juice rather than a bag of chips?  Who is Ted and why wouldn’t he participate in free hugs?  Did that lady ever get home from Barnes and Noble? (Last I saw she was talking to a very patient cop.)  And is that other lady pulling a “Rose for Emily” thing with her dead husband?

 

Eavesdropping works as an assignment because you can listen without the social obligation of participating in the conversation.  You can sit in on conversations by demographics of people you might not otherwise speak to (assuming those demographics speak to each other in public places).  But really I don’t know that it’s so important to go out and spy. Just now as I sit here writing, the guy fixing my air-conditioning said, “You can go ahead and close up the joint.”  My house has never been called a joint before, but I like it.

 

I suspect the real value in the eavesdropping assignment is not so much that it encourages students to be spies, but that it encourages them to be observant.  Go out into the world in your writerly identity, it says—and pay attention.  The writer’s life is one big eavesdropping exercise, though there are some problems inherent in that, as well.

 

Jane Smiley’s hilarious satire of academia Moo takes down the eavesdropping assignment pretty effectively.  One workshop student listens in on her roommate’s inane conversations and creates inane writing.  Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s novel Harriet the Spy also makes clear the hazards of eavesdropping on your close comrades.  They don’t care for it so much.  Especially not when they are twelve years old.

 

So what is the difference between overzealous, shameful Harriet-the-Spying and being a writer?  I guess in part it’s the dishonesty of it, of pretending not to be listening when you are listening, and it’s how you use the material you get hold of.  It seems safe to take a snippet of conversation from a context you don’t know and make it your own story,  less so to take your roommate’s private life and transcribe it.

 

But then again, I bet Harriet the Spy was a pretty great writer. What do you think? Is all material fair game?

 

[This post first appeared on LitBits on 7/5/12.] 

Several years ago, a student of mine (we’ll call him James) stuck around after my introductory fiction-writing class because something was on his mind. This was around week three of the semester. He’d seemed highly engaged in the course so far, but today he was being quiet.

We waited while everyone else cleared out. I smiled reassuringly. He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. When the room was empty except for us, I asked, “So what’s up?”

 

He told me that he would never be able to complete the exercise I’d assigned that day.

 

I had asked students to brainstorm some interesting details from their pasts, and to incorporate these details into a scene of fiction. The idea was to get students to use pre-existing knowledge as a way to give their work more authority.

 

I asked James what the trouble was.

 

He shrugged. “There’s nothing remotely interesting about any part of my life,” he said. Then, so I’d understand his dilemma, he elaborated. “I grew up on a farm, in a town of fifteen people, where everybody is related. The next largest town was ten miles away and there were only fifty or sixty people there.”

 

I told him that to me, a guy who grew up in densely populated New Jersey, his life sounded completely fascinating.

 

“No, it isn’t,” he said. And to prove his point, he started telling me about the various cows that his family owned.

 

“I’ve always wanted to milk a cow,” I told him.

 

He shook his head and tried not to laugh at me. “They weren’t milk cows.” Clearly, I should have known better, but my knowledge of cows is limited to Far Side cartoons and Chick-fil-A commercials.

 

It won’t surprise you to learn that James was able to use his knowledge of a) farming, and b) living in a very remote area, to create a scene that was fascinating and sophisticated.

 

Each of our students is an expert at something. Their knowledge and experience runs deep; often the trouble is that they believe their knowledge to be universal and their experience to be common or uninteresting—until told otherwise.

 

I’m not advocating that students only “write what they know.” I regularly steer students away from writing slightly fictionalized accounts of events in their own lives. Still, I’ve found that it can be very useful for them to put some of what they know—particularly, unusual things that they know really well—into the stories and poems they write. Doing so gives them confidence and their work a startling amount of authority.

 

[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on October 3, 2011.]] 

Joanne Diaz

Riding the Metro Haiku

Posted by Joanne Diaz Expert Sep 13, 2016

The undergraduate classroom might seem like the last place to introduce students to archival materials. We have so many other commitments—to coverage of historical periods, to literary interpretation and theory, to improving student writing—that it might seem like an extra activity that might simply take up too much class time. However, students can and should learn about the cultural conventions that affect the transmission of texts, and I would argue that their close readings of these texts is actually central to their understanding of what poems, plays, and short stories are and how they work. Reading various versions of a text can actually get undergraduates—and teachers—to work toward a clearer and more effective definition of close reading. The results of my students’ research consistently demonstrate that textual studies can actually inspire close reading and help students generate the questions that they can use in a variety of literature courses.

 

Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century. It also provides us with a short, easy way into discussing archival materials. This is how the poem appears in most literature:

 

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

 

Immediately, students are engaged with the poem. The title locates us in Paris in the early 1900s, when the Metro system was still a wonderful and terrifying new symbol of modernity. The students are haunted by the “apparition” of the faces, stuck underground like the ghosts of the dead. And they like the surprising comparison between these ghostly faces and the petals on a bough. They see the commentary on the alienation of the modern metropolis. Formally, they can recognize Ezra Pound’s debt to the Japanese haiku tradition (and, as Ezra Pound wrote in his essay titled “Vorticism,” this poem is indebted to the haiku tradition), and the poems mathematical precision: the equation between faces and petals, the loose iambic pentameter of each line.

 

In fact, this poem is so accessible—or at least it seems to be—that it’s easy to forget that it is the result of a variety of editorial decisions, and that the transmission of the text across time actually transformed the poem. This is how the poem looked when it was first published in 1913, in Poetrymagazine (To see the original 1913 publication of Pound’s poem, you can go to this link on the Poetry Foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/2/1#20569747):

 

IN A STATION OF THE METRO

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd  :

Petals       on a wet, black    bough  .

Ezra Pound

 

In this version, the title is boldly announced in all caps, the poet’s name appears just beneath the text, and the poem itself seems to be deeply concerned with innovations in typography and design. In this context, the words are transformed by the use of white space between them; and by the change from a semicolon to a colon. With a semicolon, Pound joins two independent ideas, but with this use of the colon, Pound suggests that the second line is an appositive, or description, of the first.

 

In class, we discuss the tiny differences between these two versions, and I ask students which version they like best—not which is best—and I don’t tell them which version has actually become the standard version that appears in literature anthologies until the very end of the class period. As they work through each version, they have to pay attention to the tiny, seemingly superficial choices in layout and punctuation that they might overlook in a reading of just one version in our anthology. In doing so, they are engaging in a critical discussion, even if they don’t know it yet. In recent years, bibliographical scholars have shown how such “accidentals” as punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and overall typographical design contribute to meaning in significant ways. In this example from Ezra Pound, students see that these choices in appearance are indeed substantive, even emotional.

 

[This post originally appeared on LitBits on November 2, 2011.]]