teaching, education

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

A creator’s credo

May 10, 2017 | 10 Comments

One day late in the semester just ended, I ran into Shelby Page, a former student. I was leaving Otterbein University’s Art and Communication Building, and Shelby was going in. When she was a freshman, I had taught her and 13 other whip-smart honors classmates in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” I hadn’t seen her since our class. She told me of her upcoming senior exhibit, which I’ve now attended. I was impressed by Shelby’s work and by her brief Artist’s Statement on the wall. Her thoughts on artmaking addressed her work as a visual artist, but they apply to writing and probably to making anything:

“Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece.”

There’s hard truth in Shelby’s insights here, and there’s hope. The truth is that what you envision in a flash hasn’t really been planned, though it may feel that way, and it sure isn’t done. What you sensed was glorious completion was pure possibility. Nothing more, nothing less. A glimmer. The first step is to act on it or to let it go. Let’s say you begin, fired with intention. As Shelby says, your intention quickly meets the reality of what’s emerging.

Art is a field of geniuses, but I presume that, like me, everyone gets humbled. In writing, no one is smart enough to foresee where actual words and sentences will send your notion. And of course the writer is struggling with what s/he’s capable of—at that moment, with that material—and so on into the future. But because art flares during creation, as Shelby says, also lends hope. Especially when, however cheerfully you began, you proceed in fear and trembling. What happened to my plan?

I’ve become a fan of prompts and borrowed structures for this reason—they thwart intention. By raising or lowering the stakes, they bleed off preexisting intention and some anxiety. When I write something with a fully realized intention, it risks being superficial, boring. Without friction, it isn’t deep enough: there hasn’t been enough discovery. I sense this sometimes in others’ work as well. For me, intention, in the sense of chasing a germinal idea or feeling, is vital—but not in the sense of hewing to a predetermined plan, of transcribing what you already “know.”

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Dusting off. Moving forward.

November 9, 2016 | 11 Comments

When Chris Offutt was ten, growing up in an Appalachian backwater, he asked a librarian for a book on baseball. She gave him J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a revelation, such writing that was “personal, told in an intimate way, about family issues of supreme importance.” He never read another book for juveniles, and he became a writer of short stories, novels, screenplays, and multiple memoirs. Back in May, I read Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.

This powerful story concerns his brilliant, driven, awful father. In part, My Father, the Pornographer is a portrait of Appalachian Kentucky. Offutt’s town had a toxic charcoal briquette factory and that was it. He was the smartest kid in school, sometimes beaten by teachers who resented him for that and for his quiet defiance of authority. His Kentuckian father, from a farm in the western part of the state, had picked the tiny company town in eastern Kentucky to be a big-fish insurance salesman. He was that, and increasingly a terrifying tyrant to his children. Especially when he quit his lucrative office work to become a freelance writer. Offutt, as his oldest child, got the job when he died of archiving the man’s ton published and unpublished science fiction, fantasy, and pornography. Literally a ton of novels, stories, and comics. Offutt pere could write a novel in three to seven days.

His secret, parallel 50-year project was the creation of extremely sadistic comics. Sometimes he wrote them for patrons, wealthy collectors. Other than a brief description of these comics, the memoir is not unduly graphic. But it’s sad and disquieting. What Offutt endured from his father and this environment turned him toward literature. But he grew up with the permanent wound of feeling unloved. Part of the book’s brilliance, saturating its deft syntax, content, and structure, is that it escapes self-pity while making you feel for Chris’s experiences and what seems his ongoing burden.

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Writing loss: God’s in the details

October 5, 2016 | 8 Comments

Writing about a dog’s death, or even a dead dog, risks sentimentality. I mean, the writer seeking from readers emotion he hasn’t earned. I must like the animal sub-genre of dog deaths, though, because I’ve read so many. And, as my previous posts have explained, I’ve just written an essay concerning my late Labrador, Tess. I realized, writing it, that I should take the advice I’ve given so many freshmen students trying to write about a recently dead grandparent.

“Show readers, in scenes and details, your grandparent,” I’ve told them. “You must convey in specifics what you lost to show the world what it lost.” The “world” is grand shorthand for unknown readers, of course. Which in those cases actually is always me and a few peers. We’re the kindly stand-ins for those uncaring readers whose armor the writer must crack. It’s best to think of readers as friends, actually.

But to have a chance of moving readers emotionally, the writer must recreate a singular, not a generic, beloved. The writer must not just summarize what s/he experienced but, as a rule, be specific regarding the remembered gifts of time, talk, and events. This can be hard with a dog, or at least with its middle years, just as with a person. We remember beginnings and endings. I’ve stolen this notion from Jill Christman’s spooky little essay, with an aside on that phenomenon, “Family Portrait: in Third Person,” in superstition [review].

Maybe we remember and can depict the start and end of something because we return so easily to those emotional states. As Virginia Woolf says in “A Sketch of the Past,” strong emotion must leave a trace. But long middle acts blur in literature as in life. Many situations, and therefore emotions, were in play. You remember the day you got the puppy, remember who you were. There’s a snapshot in your mind. In my case, of a bearded newspaper reporter with hair like Elvis, dashing hectically—and heroically, he thought—around at age 26,. And you remember the end of something, when time briefly stopped. In my case, as a book publisher and father of two, age 39 and bald, with a creaky back.

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My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

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The common touch

August 3, 2016 | 8 Comments

Ronnie Black is a real hothead—everyone knows it—and he’s unfaithful. When his estranged wife and three of her seven children die one night in a fire that engulfs their trailer home, suspicions point to Ronnie. The fire and a subsequent custody battle roil the small rural town, especially when the cause of the fire is ruled to be arson. Lee Martin’s new novel shines a light on human failings, such as gossip and lack of compassion, as well as on quiet daily heroism and the way mistakes and coincidences can combine to produce tragedy.

Reading Late One Night, I was struck by Martin’s compassion for his characters. Especially for those who, despite themselves, end up doing wrong. Having read his nonfiction, including his fine memoirs From Our House (reviewed) and Such a Life (reviewed) and his helpful ongoing craft blog, “The Least You Need to Know,” it’s clear he’s one of them. One of those farm and working folk from the hinterlands, from America’s faded provincial towns and threadbare rural backwaters.

One of them, that is, who left. Who took a different path, got out. Who got himself tons of education and made himself a writer, who turned himself into an artist. Whose subject, here, is so much them, those he left behind—yet hasn’t. The effect of Martin’s steady compassion grows throughout Late One Night until, as mysteries are revealed—as the true story of the fatal fire is finally told—the novel becomes deeply, surprisingly moving.

Maybe it’s that his characters, in turn, finally express compassion for each other. That rings true or at least possible. These are broken people, many of them, or guiltily carrying burdens, and their effort to forgive others in the face of their own failures feels heroic.

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Revise, he said

June 1, 2016 | 18 Comments

When you ask someone to read your work, I tell students, convey what concerns you have. Readers tend to report what they noted anyway, maybe errors underscoring their own expertise. Which often consists of the baggage they carry from past English teachers—rules of thumb enforced as rules. “I was taught never to use a sentence fragment!” “You can’t begin a sentence with and.” “Semicolons look too fussy.” So, I say to my classes, “Be sure to get your questions addressed.”

My students seem to receive their best advice from people who regularly write. In the college setting, this means other students. On average, any student writes much more than the typical American. Students in the same writing class tend to convey the sharpest insights, of course, since they also know that particular genre. People lacking confidence as readers usually don’t do much writing themselves—especially “creative” writing: any kind of essay, narrative or personal journalism, poems, stories. Which means, I think, they doubt their own experience of reading the work. Maybe they think it’s their fault when they trip over infelicities. Or they wonder about gaps or TMI but, unaware of how much rethinking writers do, assume content is fixed.

Historically, taste has been developed by steady, close reading of quality stories, poems, essays, and novels. Every reader helps, though. Suggesting one better word is huge. The most comprehensive reader of my work I’ve ever had was a fellow teacher. She taught literature and composition and also published scholarly essays. She read a lot of good books, both classics and current; she constantly graded and edited student essays; all the while, she worked to make her own writing clear, colloquial, trenchant. The judgment and technical expertise she brought to bear on my work was humbling. But one person, even if she’s a great editor, isn’t enough. Everyone catches something. At least three readers seems ideal.

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