Content Tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem’

My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

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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Teaching memoir, ver. 3.0

March 11, 2015 | 14 Comments

I blogged last year about teaching memoir by emphasizing the essentials of persona, scene, and structure. Except now I list and teach scene first because students get the macro aspects of voice faster—essentially persona, the writer now, talking to us about the past—but many need help understanding how and why to dramatize, to make scenes. So SPS: scene, persona, structure. From the start, this gives us a shared vocabulary. To understand scene, you must understand summary—and often students who have written vivid summary think they’ve written scene.

That’s the thing about teaching writing: you must teach so much at once. You hope that by providing good models, students will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college juniors and seniors in “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” said they wished that I’d emphasized structures earlier. So this time I have.

Structure, the shaped mode of presentation, excites students. They see how it can help them crack open their material. They grasp that it can cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I’ve shown them: braiding; framing ; collage; and Hermit Crabs. Next we’ll look at segmentation.

Emphasizing essay structures has caused me to realize that I can organize my entire class by examining different writing structures.

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My top 10 essays of all time

September 14, 2013 | 11 Comments

Not that you asked. Yet who can resist such lists? Not me. Even if they are ridiculous. There are so many great essays, how can any reader limit himself to ten? Imagine doing that with short stories. But recently I got sucked into reading a list of others’ favorites, and so I made my own. Even as I wrote it, I began to disagree with it.

My top essays are listed in more or less chronological order—but also somewhat in rank order, only because an essay like “Never Thirteen,” a source for me of such delight and admiration, is so recent that no one else, to my knowledge, has ratified its greatness. So I am ahead of the curve—or just quirky. And seeing someone expose his peculiar taste is a good reason to read his list.

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‘Our Secret’ by Susan Griffin

February 15, 2012 | 10 Comments

Susan Griffin’s long essay “Our Secret,” a chapter in her book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, is about the hidden shame and pain humans carry and their consequences. It is an astonishing essay, a meditation on the soul-destroying price of conforming to false selves that have been brutalized by others, mentally or physically or both, or by themselves in committing acts of violence and emotional cruelty.

As an essay, it shows the power of a writer’s voice—the scenes are few and spare in its forty-eight pages—but it’s mesmerizing. “Our Secret” has joined my pantheon of all-time great essays, along with Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” Despite its innovative braided structure, Griffin’s essay is much like Baldwin’s in being a rather classical reflective essay, though Baldwin’s essay’s spine employs a more traditional framed structure (opening and closing in essentially the same scene). Somehow Griffin achieves narrative drive with her segmented approach, perhaps because of her interesting juxtapositions, intense focus, and the quiet power of her language as her family’s own story unfolds alongside those of war criminals and victims.

“Our Secret” is a hybrid of memoir, history, and journalism, and is built with these discrete strands: the Holocaust; women affected by World War II directly or indirectly in their treatment by husbands and fathers; the harsh, repressive boyhood of Heinrich Himmler, who grew up to command Nazi rocketry and became the key architect of Jewish genocide; the testimony of a man scarred by war; and Griffin’s own desperately unhappy family life and harsh, repressed girlhood.

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