I am writing this late on Thursday night, having just gotten back from my ~2 hour commute from Rutgers. I’ve got my shoes off and have poured myself a big fat Jim & Ginger, a solitary if not precisely lonely celebration of the end of my teaching semester, my first one as an instructor of college-level creative writing. If this were an MFA program, I probably would have insisted we adjourn our session to a bar, but since about 3/4 of the students can’t (or can’t legally) drink in a bar, I brought a box of Oreos to class.
Some of those who had been following the CRW101 threads expressed disappointment when they stopped appearing, about a month ago. As I think I explained at the time, that was because we switched from close-reading literature-discussion mode into workshopping-student-work mode, and since I made a commitment at the outset of this series not to identify individual students or subject them to public scrutiny, that didn’t leave me with a whole lot to talk about.
Some people have asked me what happened to my CRW101 posts on this site. The answer is that I stopped writing them, because after we read Cymbeline, the nature of the class shifted and we went into workshop mode. Since we’re now reading student work and not publicly available work, it doesn’t leave me with a whole lot to share. But, before that change happened–or rather, I guess, on the cusp of it–I did something I almost never do in any class I teach: I prepared a lecture and then I delivered it. The lecture was on the nature of revision, and was helpfully entitled “Revision: An Almost Obscenely Brief Overview.” Increasingly I wonder about the necessity of that qualifier, “almost,” but as we approach the end of the semester, and the due date of their final, some of my students have asked if I would make the lecture available (possibly because I promised to do it at the time, then forgot to) and so I’ve decided to post it here. The “lecture,” such as it is, runs just about 2000 words, and it doesn’t attempt to be in any sense comprehensive. It is intended for an audience of beginning writing students, some of whom may be encountering the concepts of editing and revision for the first time. It is divided into two parts. The first part discusses how–and if–to develop material from in-class exercises (and/or free-writes) into workable and work-with-able drafts. The second part outlines two basic principles of editing–adding stuff, taking stuff away–and the advantages of reading your work aloud and editing by ear. The whole thing demonstrates a clear bias towards realist prose fiction–especially in its examples–but the attempt was made to be inclusive, and most of these notions should be adaptable for use by anyone.
Tuesday, 10/13. Shredded Text Day.
For Tuesday we read a few brief excerpts from Naked Lunch (Dr. Benway’s “aesthetic surgery,” and “have you seen Pantopon rose”) plus four selections from Gentle Reader! a collaborative book of poetry written by Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann and Matthew Rohrer. If you’ve never heard of this book, it’s because it was privately (or, if you want to be a dick about it, self-) published by the three poets, and hence is not generally available. (I cadged a copy from Rohrer.) The poems are not written collaboratively–I don’t think–but they’re all unsigned, so you have to guess who wrote what. Also, each poem is an erasure of a Romantic-era text. There’s a key at the back. Since I don’t have the materials ready-to-hand (I’m posting this from a writers’ retreat in Breckenridge, CO, where I’m serving as writer-in-residence for the weekend) I can’t tell you much about the poems, other than that the one called “I Was Alive” is an erasure of Frankenstein, and that it was written by Anthony McCann–both of which things I know because McCann first published the poem non-anonymously in the Agriculture Reader.
Anyway, we didn’t do a lot of textual analysis, and so you won’t be getting the usual slate of close readings. I was more interested in presenting a variety of non-narrative forms, and in talking about the technical aspects of the processes used to create the works. Then we busted out the scissors, Sharpies, and photocopies, and got down to the good work of fucking shit up.
(for previous installments in this series, click here)
WORK DISCUSSED THIS WEEK: “Ancestral Legacies,” “On the Subject of Fiction Based on Non-Ficton,” and “The Gun Lobby” – all by Jim Shepard.
My goal for this week was to give the class another sense of the scope of writerly possibility. This time, instead of pairing different mediums of writing or organizing some little squad of unrelated writers together around a common theme, I chose to showcase two very different works of fiction by the same writer. “Ancestral Legacies” is historical fiction, and follows two Nazis on a pseudo-scientific mission to Tibet. (Himmler has ordered them to trace the path of a legendary Aryan ur-language; believing Himmler’s claims to be nonsensical, but their own to be legitimate, they’ve taken his funding and are using it to conduct their own research into the existence of the yeti.) “The Gun Lobby” is about a suburban marriage falling apart–the wife has taken the husband hostage in their home.
The biggest surprise came first– large factions of the class didn’t like “Ancestral Legacies.” They thought it moved too slowly, and was “boring.” I couldn’t believe this. Nazis! Tibet! Yeti! And they were “bored…”
(for previous installments in this series, click here)
WORK DISCUSSED THIS WEEK: “Two Boys” by Lorrie Moore & “Water Liars by Barry Hannah
Tuesday, 9/29 – “Two Boys.” I’m not a huge Lorrie Moore fan. I don’t dislike her, but I’ve had Birds of America taught to me several times and it just never…grabs me. I think the best experience I’ve had reading Moore was in David Gates’s lit seminar at New School when I was an MFA student. And even at that, what I mostly remember is David’s enthusiasm for “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.” That, and a single line from the story that’s always struck me as incredibly beautiful and haunting. A blood clot discovered in a baby’s diaper is described as looking like “a tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” Beyond that, I’m content to know she’s out there in the world, making some people very happy. Good for her; good for them.
But a couple summers ago I was teaching a non-credit writing class at the Gotham Writers Workshop, and I was trying to find a way to spice things up.
[ WORK DISCUSSED: Tuesday (9/22) – Adrienne Rich, five poems and an essay. Thursday (9/24) – “New York” by Tony Towle; “Texas” by Padgett Powell; “Babalu-Aye” by Eva Talmadge;” writing exercise.]
I never know how to start the class off. Or anyway that’s how it feels. I usually arrive in the room a few minutes early, and start chatting with whoever else is already there. If there’s a conversation already in progress I’ll try to join it, and if they’re all just sitting around quietly I’ll pick someone and ask how his or her day is going, or how the weekend was. If they throw the question back at me (“and how about you?”) I’ll tell them. I try to take attendance right at the official start time, not so much to punish the stragglers as to reward those who got there early. I want them to see me seeing the effort they’ve made. So we do that, and it’s like–now what? “Okay,” I often find myself saying, “what did we read for today?” It’s not that I can’t remember what we read. It’s just that I think there’s something useful about saying it out loud. I asked the class if they preferred to talk about the poems or the essay first. A few people kind of said “poems,” so I said okay, but then there was another choice to be made–which poem? One of the pitfalls of my teaching style (which strives to be dynamic, responsive, and rigorously un-structured) is that it’s hard to get off the ground. It’s like an old prop plane, where you need to start the propellers spinning by hand and then sort of guide it down the runway and hope everything is timed just right and take-off actually happens. Sometimes this takes a few tries. Nobody seemed to care where we started, and consequently we weren’t starting at all.
For people who are following this series, I’m starting to think that it will make the most sense to post 1 per week, on Friday, which will cover both meetings of the class during that week (on Tues & Thurs nights). To come home and do the Tuesday post that same night or the next day would be too much, besides which if the class is actually checking in here, it might feel a little too rapid-response. I’d rather let the whole week play out, then do the post-game and give everyone (me, them, you) the weekend to mull it over and/or forget it ever happened. So that’s the new plan, and here we are with the field reports from 9/15 (Schutt & Dickinson) and 9/17 (more Berman, Percy Shelley, and a writing exercise). And for people who are just coming to the series now, the first two installments are here (1) and here (2). Everyone else, I’ll see you after the jump.
September 18th, 2009 / 1:30 pm
For Thursday (9/10) we read “My Dog is a Little Obese” by Ellen Kennedy, “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie” by Junot Diaz, and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. The theme was DIRECT ADDRESS and INSTRUCTION. As on Tuesday, we spent most of the time on the fiction piece. I think this is because fiction feels “easier” to talk about than poetry, like you’re not going to screw up the technical terms or something. And I think that having a teacher who is primarily a fiction writer contributes to this atmosphere, so I’m going to work harder in the future to check myself. But I think there’s a second reason as well, which is that a relatively straight prose narrative like the Diaz story (or Hemingway last week) yields itself to a kind of knee-jerk cultural studies reading, where the text is really just a pre-text for the themes and politics it evinces or brings to light. Especially with a piece like this one by Diaz, where the narrator is giving “you” instructions on how to re-arrange your apartment so you don’t look as poor as you are, and then impress the various girls you might have invited over, with particular race-based instructions for each one. I hate this way of reading.
This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate survey of creative writing at Rutgers. We’re two class meetings in, the students are all excited and smart and engaged. They’re making it a real pleasure to show up to class, which anyone who has ever taught before can tell you is not always the case. Because it’s a survey class, the idea is that we’ll look at the major forms of creative writing–fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction. Instead of doing “units” on each of these sections, my hope is to pair pieces from different forms, both oriented by a theme or element of craft, themselves relatable back to a writing exercise, and see what kind of glad serendipities result from the juxtapositions.
In the late 90s, I was obsessed with a television show on USA Network, La Femme Nikita,* which was vaguely based on the wonderful French movie La Femme Nikita and the horrible remake Point of No Return. The show centered around Nikita, a woman who was forced into being a government agent for a nefarious covert agency who often had to consider the greater good while doing bad things. There were all kinds of supporting characters like Michael, her love interest and the main who trained Nikita as an agent, Birkoff, the computer genius who helped run the covert operations from headquarters, Operations, the dastardly man in charge of Section (the covert agency), and Madeline, Operations’s sometimes lover and the second in command at Section, and also worked with Nikita who was the tormented emotional core of the show. The show was filled with angsty goodness in each episode as Nikita struggled with the life she was forced into, having to kill or be killed. She had freedom, but only so much. She had Michael, but only so much. It was romantic and agonizing and wonderful. Sometimes, I wanted more than what I could get from a one hour episode. That’s how I learned about fan fiction, where fans of the show wrote elaborate stories using the characters and the world built within the show as a starting point for telling new stories. There were hundreds and hundreds of stories that asked and answered the question, “What if?” posed in countless different ways. I could read stories about Nikita marrying Michael and having a child and negotiating their careers as spies, or Birkoff and Operations having an affair (SLASH), or Nikita and Operations having an affair, or Nikita escaping and starting over only to be caught, or Madeline taking over Section or Nikita going rogue. The permutations were endless and there was something terribly satisfying about seeing just what was possible within the Nikita universe when the characters were freed from their creators.