teaching, education

Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable-but-ethically-problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this compelling narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s obviously genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll love. I also must admire them, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition. Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction.

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Thinking and feeling

March 23, 2016 | 12 Comments

“Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling!” enthused one of my students near the end of Spring term. This was at Virginia Tech, where I have been teaching in the Lifelong Learning Institute this academic year.

I’ll call her Helen. At the start of class, Helen had seemed confident of her thinking ability—she’d spent a distinguished career reasoning and writing. But she’d seemed not so sure she could emote for readers. Or ask them for an emotional response, let alone provoke it. Helen’s comment took me back to 2005, when I started writing my memoir. I enjoyed building that narrative, but it was work. Writing is concentrated thought, I marveled. That’s why it’s hard. Most of us seldom think about one thing for hours on end. But there’s a huge compensation, I came to see.

“I think what makes writing addictive is that it doesn’t just capture thought, it creates thought,” I told my class one afternoon. “You write a sentence, make a claim. And then you write another. And then you look at those two sentences and write down what you didn’t know you knew. Because you didn’t. Writing doesn’t only capture thought, it creates it.”

Now I didn’t pause to credit the sources who helped me describe this quality. So here I will. Surely writing theorist Peter Elbow influenced my thinking (See my post “Writing’s ‘dangerous method.’ ”) But Donald M. Murray, who nails writing’s rewards in The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition), lent me the words:
“It is thinking itself. . . . ”

This is what I found, and I think what Helen experienced.

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Sentence, substance & comma joy

February 24, 2016 | 7 Comments

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses.

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Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Way back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one to me involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused by me.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir: “He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.” Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life.

You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

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Practice, said the maestro

November 20, 2015 | 6 Comments

The classical pianist Seymour Bernstein says he didn’t feel comfortable on stage for most of his career. Terror and horror swept him, he fought blocks, felt inadequate. He increased his practicing from four hours daily to eight. This “integrated” him as a person and artist. As a result, at last he felt fine on stage, at age 50. He secretly arranged a farewell concert. Held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, his last concert was in 1969. It was hailed as a triumph, and he exited public performance for good. He kept playing, practicing, and teaching. He simply quit the strain of the stage, and poured himself into his students.

This is the paradox and the man, now in his late eighties, explored in actor Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. I streamed it on Netflix. In taking the title of a J.D. Salinger novella, Hawke alludes to Salinger’s decision to stop publishing, though Salinger lived on for fifty years as a recluse in a fenced compound. Bernstein has lived quietly but socially for 57 years in the same one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, sleeping in a hideaway bed. Like Salinger, Bernstein separates the practice of art from its public airing. There’s a lesson here for writers, loathe as most are to view any composition as mere practice or for its own sake. Publication is the thing!

Hawke, suffering a five-year bout of stage fright and a general artistic malaise, met Bernstein at a dinner party and adopted him as a mentor. “I have been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do,” Hawke explains. “I knew that the superficial things—material wealth, the world thinking you are a big-shot—I kind of knew that that was phony. That that was inauthentic to build a career on. But I didn’t know what was authentic.”

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Wrong word! 

August 19, 2015 | 12 Comments

I’ll never forget the day in high school when my English teacher accused me of plagiarism because of a word. I was 16 or 17 and had shown off by using “belies” in an essay. Since I was disrespectful to him, and acted like a simpering idiot in his class, he had good reason to suspect and dislike me. True to form, I laughed in his face. But that was long before the internet, which has made plagiarism—and catching it—easy. So he couldn’t do much except glare.

I’m sorry Mr. X!

I was just showing off, using a new word I’d learned. Partly I was flattered that he thought I had taken a professional’s work. Wow, though. Really just one word had tipped the balance. Diction does give us away. But I catch plagiarism these days because a student who slams together bald syntax suddenly turns in flowing, clause-laden, prose. Cheaters have the sense to change words they don’t understand.

Teachers’ and writers’ occasional admonitions against thesaurus use have always struck me as odd. They fear a student or rookie is going to use an overblown, polysyllabic word. One he doesn’t understand and that stands out from his mundane diction. I suppose that has happened once or twice. What using the thesaurus does for me, in contrast, is to remind me of old, plain, short words.

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A seer of art

August 13, 2015 | 8 Comments

Almost everyone consumes art in some form—it’s hard not to. Which means almost everyone has an opinion. Then there’s Sister Wendy. A nun who spends her days in silent, ego-less contemplation and prayer, the former English major emerges to take in the occasional art gallery. She has a gift, it turns out, for seeing deeply into paintings and their painters.

In the YouTube clip with this post, Wendy discusses “Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936. She comments that the woman’s hair is “unconvincing” though her pubic hair is “lovely and fluffy.” So the novelty effect here is high, but Wendy is no joke. She focuses on how “his art understands—he doesn’t understand,” and she leaves “Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, though I’m not sure why I should be.”

Wendy intuits and appreciates the artist’s effort. At the same time, she is so sensitive that she senses and analyzes where he may have in some way failed. She is positive even in this. What she is saying is Art is a handmade thing and never perfect. I think we love any work of art for its perfection but also for its heightened quality, its attempt at perfection. Art is handmade and there will be flaws. Perhaps the critic must help her audience see places that might be uneven, especially if they’re either a fault of soul or the dark side of a virtue.

I love sister Wendy, a seer of art. She shows how creative criticism can be. Her ability to receive and to feel is amazing and inspiring.

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