Saturday, April 14, 2012

On Place and Space: The Vacuum

"As if the world were not what we make it, pulled by dogs down streets so dark, the sound of a river is almost a kind of light." I lifted this line from George Looney's Animals Housed in the Pleasures of the Flesh. And I wish I had written it before him. Let me be clear about two things: one, that's how I remember the line, and I'm pretty sure it's close, but it might be a paraphrase; two, I lifted this line eleven years ago, and I've been carrying it around with me ever since.

The sentiments in the line form currents, of course, in Scrap. Most notably: Nathan Daniels follows the rivers this way, at night, in his memory, the sound guiding him, such that he can see the world, see the trickle of water over pebbles, the splash of water against rock, the suck and silence of eddies, the gulp of a quick undertow.

He knows the river by smell, too, that spring-time shitty muck -- that new life that smells just this side of recent death -- which hangs in the thick night air. He could tell you in the darkest darkness how high French Creek is on a particular limestone boulder, how many paces of river rock are exposed between the tall grass and the water, by the smell and the sound of it all.

That is how we know the world, I'm certain of it, sensuously. That is why when Descartes tried to get at some kind of primary truth, he had to first deny access to his senses. He couldn't do it. We can't do it. We exist entirely in how we know the world, and, I'll say it again, we know the world in how we see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, and hear it.

*     *     *

Nature abhors a vacuum -- what a fun thing to say! Say it in front of a class and your students will think your intelligence has no limits -- Wow!, they'll think, this guy's deep. Say it at just the right moment during a cocktail party, and your spouse will drag you home and smother you in enduring caresses. "Nature abhors a vacuum," truly, a notion that is both a pleasure to think and a joy to say. The coupling of the long a and the long u. The soft rs. The simple cadence -- here is the kind of sentence I wish could be the title of my autobiography.

But it's not true, right? Part of the pleasure in saying it is the same pleasure in telling a small, meaningless lie, like when we, for no apparent reason, blurt out that we're allergic to cheese. "Oh," someone will surely say with raised eyebrows, and then we shrug, "Yep, can't eat cheese, though as a child it was my favorite thing . . . just the smell of it brings me such joy and revulsion . . ." well, it goes on from there.

Nature, in truth, is indifferent to a vacuum. If nature has a consciousness it is in the knowledge of its own cellular make-up, its quantum entanglements, its utter relationship to all things. Nature, that is, at a cellular level exists just the same in a vacuum or in a Cuisanart. Society, on the other hand, culture, that is, abhors a vacuum. The collective consciousness of humanity fears, hates, and dreads the absolute lack of all things.

Nothing is more terrifying to a small child than the notion of a black hole. Can you remember learning of a black hole for the first time? I can. An awful place whose gravity is so great even light can't escape, the end of heaven and humanity, for sure -- this awful emptiness that will someday consume us all, the utter lack of detail where one's notions of the world and a relevant afterlife no longer apply. What would that be like? We have no words to describe it. The most terrifying notion of all, the absolute lack of description.

So, yes, while nature is indifferent to such things, humans abhor a vacuum.

Mies Van Der Rohe was right, the modernist architect, of course, that "God is in the details." Great writers, as well as great builder -- artists of any ilk -- know this. And we hear it again and again from Flannery O'Connor to Anne Lamott to Stephen King. Some of whom I'm sure to come back to, but first the two things at play: the details and the utter lack of details.

I'm thinking here of The Neverending Story, and why it resonates so powerfully with children: the resonance, of course, begins with the unique details -- the playful and tender giant flying poodle, the racing snail and its rider's elegant burgundy riding suit, the dripping nostrils of the mountainous allergic turtle -- these details are grand and precise, scaly, caked with mud and dead sticks, but their beauty, their truth, is in how they are set up against the void. The Nothing.

The worst thing imaginable is not to be dead, but to have never existed, to be sucked into the nothingness of a black hole. God is in the details. The black hole is the place where no details exist, where no god exists -- it is The necessary Nothing, which threatens the imagination. As a child, imagining the end of all things is far worse than imagining our own inevitable death. Consciousness, language, we abhor a vacuum.

Meanwhile, we've all heard it said that a story that seems to take place nowhere, seems not to take place at all -- the floating head story of our intro to creative writing classes. And, even as we point out that a porch is not a place until we feel the dry sharp paint chips digging into our palms, until we see in the light of a globeless bulb the fluttering of spring's first moth, until we toe the cigarette butts across the cracked gravelly concrete with our sticky bare feet -- even as we mention this, our students say, "No, I'm not going to change that; the story's not about the porch; it's about vampires." Such young writers, who resist the sensuous, do not know their own world. They don't know the world they're writing, because they don't know the world in which they live. They see at what they're looking, as Gertrude Stein said of every artist except Picasso.

I said I've been reading Yi-Fu Tuan, and here he is (though he gets quickly enveloped by Niels Bohr): "What is place? What gives a place its identity, its aura? These questions occurred to the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg when they visited Kronberg Castle in Denmark. Bohr said to Heisenberg:
Isn't it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a quite different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness in the human soul, we hear hamlet's "To be or not to be." Yet all we really know about Hamlet is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove that he really lived, let alone that he lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depth he was made to reveal, and so he, too, had to be found a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us. (Tuan)
Tuan's perspective of experience is rooted, entirely, in place -- this passage occurs early in his text (page 4), and the idea continues throughout the text.. So it is with Bohr. So it is with our writing. Flannery O'Connor said something like "There are no things from ideas, only ideas from things." And that's what this is all about. How many times have we heard or read or thought the line, "To be or not to be?" And in hearing, how many of those times have we seen "The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church"? Probably never, right, or we see the director's interpretation if we're watching the line performed. But go to the place, go to Kronberg, look into the dark corners, listen to the walls and ramparts, and try not to hear "To be or not to be?" Only ideas from things. It cannot be the other way around.

So the young writer wants to write a story about sorority girls who are actually vampires, she doesn't want to describe the porch, because it's just a porch. Meanwhile, those vampires seem to exist nowhere and therefor seem not to exist. Nobody built a castle in Transylvania, because something terrifying existed there. Dracula exists because of the castle, because of the landscape, because of the rocks and the woods and the rivers that make up that world, and so writers must go on, "pulled by dogs down streets so dark . . ."

Friday, April 13, 2012

On Research-Based Creative Writing: The Bib

(As usual, I don't mean for any of this to sound instructive: this is not a how-to manual. Any advice I give, at this point, can be taken with an ocean.)

I have, by now, written closer to 200,000 words that have had at their heart the early days of the oil industry in Western Pennsylvania. The current incarnation of the project is called Pithole: The Wickedest City -- a novel about the five hundred days of an oil boom town of the same name. In early 1865, a couple fellas struck oil along an uninhabited stretch of Pit Hole Creek. A couple more fellas came there and started building a town. Over the next eight months, more than 20,000 people moved there: by September 1865, that is, the Pithole post office handled more mail than every other post office in the state, except for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. By June 1866, Pithole was a ghost town. Warped gray wood covered in a thick blanket of oil, scarred here and there by the dozens of fires that had burnt swaths of the town to the ground.

A newspaper writer of the time called Pithole "The Wickedest City East of the Mississippi." My annotated bibliography at this point is over 40 pages, single spaced -- including information from dozens of oil books, Walden, Emerson's journals, The Bible, The Origin of the Species, and an ancient manual about knots and related devices called "Tackle it Safely: Rigging Hand Book" -- and that phrase, specifically, "The wickedest city," has stuck with me more than any other. For all those phrases that have not stuck with me, I have my dear pal, annotated bib.

I can't remember who said, "All good novelists have bad memories."

That's a lie. It was Graham Greene, though, in my own defense, I have forgotten a great many other things: many of which are far more important than Greene's notions about memory.

Which is why I keep an annotated bibliography. I'll admit it: it's not in MLA format, but it does house hundreds of passages, biographical moments, contemporary philosophical inquiries, and other snippets that I return to from time to time to check myself against the past. And most of the citation information is accurate.

The bib, it turns out, has a life of its own. It is a project similar to, but independent from the historical novel: Pithole. The bibliography has been a place for me to keep a great deal of information, without, necessarily, committing it all to memory. Facts, dates, folk song lyrics -- I even have an attached glossary.

Still, liberating though the bibliography has been, I have at times also found it limiting. Let me turn to a pro -- in fact, the place where I first found the above Greene quote -- to help me explain. In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler claims:
What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. . . . Greene's compost of the imagination is the same as the dreamspace, the white-hot center of the unconscious. The point he's making is that not only is your mind the enemy, not only is your will, your rational thinking, your analytic thinking the enemy, but your literal memories are also the enemy.
When used appropriately, the annotated bibliography has allowed me to gather all of my research and compost it in a very real, visible, tangible form. When used poorly, the bibliography has been stifling, instructive, telling me, "No, no. That's not what really happened." When this occurs, when I become too reliant on the bibliography, the story that I'm writing, the fiction, the narrative, becomes entirely untrue. I lose the voice of the novel. I lose the narrative that has been roiling over and over inside me. I lose that great unconscious drive that creates.

I solidly believe that good literary writing comes from an undefinable place in the imagination, a place that an artist can access -- through the practice of a sustained, consistent effort -- but never truly know. This is why writers can be so frustrating to talk to when you ask them the very simple question: "Where did you get the idea for this story?" The idea for a story, for any kind of creative endeavor is something that comes to the piece in its own creation. Stories, that is, are not ideas in and of themselves. They are things. They are things made of things. Literary fiction arises out of the senses -- out of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell -- ideas, morals, motifs: they are the result of the details, not the source. The question -- Where did you get the idea for a story? -- can be most easily answered spiritually: the narrative is the world speaking through me, nature speaking through me, god speaking through me, society speaking through me. A creative narrative is the process of creating -- it is not fact gathering, journalism, reproduction.

My annotated bibliography works when I enter the information, dwell on it, ruminate over it, read it, reread it, and forget it. Set it aside. It works best when I copy a line from an existing text onto a blank computer screen and let that language carry me for hours at a time. Sometimes it takes two or three pages just to bury that line, to let it decompose into my own language and bring a new, different kind of life and language to the surface. This new life is voice. It is narrative. It is at the white-hot center (Butler's words) of literary fiction.

And, then, there's the one other thing, brought to us by Walt Whitman: "Walt, you know enough, why not let it out then?" I have too often, in the process of my research, denied myself access to my writing. I have, that is, privileged the research, and that has lead me, occasionally, to shame. If writing is the end game, sometimes we must allow our annotated bibliographies to suffer*.

So, long story short, Step 1 for a research-based creative writing project: track your research.

*No actual harm was done to an annotated bibliography in the writing of this post.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Out of the Forest

In many early fables, the troubled or desperate youth wanders or flees into the forest. The forest is usually a dark place, mysterious, threatening -- often magical, or deemed magical for lack of understanding. The forest is haunted, not often by mindless specters, hellbent on giving one the willies, but usually by a primordial knowledge of the past, or the deeply frustrating notion that the youth is not living up to her potential. When she emerges from the forest, she is changed. Though she might look around at the world and see it differently, the real, knowable difference is her application of what she learned in the forest. She is now magic, because she now understands what was so recently beyond comprehension.

Our contemporary versions of those stories has a fella falling into a uranium pit. Or getting infected with gene-altering chemicals. And rising out of that experience with some new knowledge, be it wisdom or some sort of physical know-how.

At any rate, I guess I'm hoping that I arise at this moment as some sort of writing Spiderman . . .

But, first, let me tell you about my forest. I applied for this post-doctoral fellowship, which I currently inhabit, about a year ago with the promise to speculate about research-based creative writing. I'd been working on a novel about the early days of the oil industry for over a year -- I'd even had a short historical story about Ida Tarbell published in a literary magazine.

I was awarded the fellowship about a week after receiving news that my novel deal had fallen through, and, well, best-laid plans go to shit. Still, while it's taken some time to recover, I have had research on my mind, and I have had Petrolia on my mind. As a result, I spent two weeks in March back in Western Pennsylvania, wandering through the libraries in Oil City and Franklin, digging through old manuscripts, scrolling through reams of microfilm.

In the meantime, I have been still hung up on some of the ideas from my most recent post -- from holy moly over a month ago -- about landscape and fiction. I found the lesson in a book about oil, but went on to read Place and Space: The Perspective of Experience by Yi-Fu Tuan. What a book! It really got my literary spidey-senses tingling.

The rub: I have split my attention over the past month between a contemplation of landscape in fiction and the practice of research. Over the next couple of weeks, this blog is going to be a place where I can explore those ideas a bit, see if I've learned anything. In the meantime, I'll continue working daily on Pithole, which should inform both the narrative of landscape and of research, while informing both things.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Found Lessons

There's no bad place to (re)learn a lesson about writing. The best thing I've learned today about writing came to me from a book about the early days of the oil industry. Petrolia, published by Brian Black in 2000, is a ruminative, often poetic, examination of 19th Northwest Pennsylvania. I thought I was reading the book to research historical events which are the basis for my own historical novel: Pithole: The Wickedest City. Turns out, today, I'm reading the book for a lesson on setting in fiction.

Two weeks ago, my introduction to fiction writing class discussed Janet Burroway's chapter on setting in her book Writing Fiction: "Far, Far Away." Great chapter. As always Burroway brings together the voices of many writers' fictions and many writers' notions about fiction writing. The element that my class struck on, perhaps the most important notion in the chapter (or even the whole book), is the simple statement: "Like dialogue, setting must do more than one thing at once" (173). A statement no less poignant for its simplicity. I would take it a step further even to say, "Every element of fiction must do more than one thing at once," but we'll take that up another time.

Today, I found this passage:

A landscape is constructed of geology, hydrology, and biology; yet it also includes the creations of the humans or other beings that inhabit and change the environment. Where nature and culture meet, they construct a landscape. This construction is most obvious in its physical manifestations, yet humans also determine its spiritual, social, and cultural meanings. Therefore, such a meeting between nature and culture may not always result in a physical creation. A vision of a place can also form within the mind, as humans reshape attitudes and values—thereby adding a mythic component to the meaning of an envisioned locale. In this fashion, a definition of place can be constructed externally by a larger culture. Occupants may still form their own ideas of a place, but an external construct based in ideals of the larger culture also encroaches on a place’s meaning. (Black 61)
Two weeks too late for the conversation about fictional place, proper, there is no bad time to learn a lesson about writing. 

Setting or place or landscape, I've found as a teacher of inexperienced writers, is often confused with background, and background in writing (as opposed to visual arts) is often confused with the blank white piece of paper on which one puts words describing a plot. This is problematic, of course, as Jerome Stern points out, because a story that seems to take place nowhere doesn't really take place [paraphrase]. I have, in fact, heard many experienced writers speak of setting in sad and general terms, almost as though creating any sort of place is a burden that a writer must deal with in order to get to the sexier things like characters and turmoil.

I was lucky enough to work with Ann Pancake as an undergrad. She taught me to see setting, not as something to be slogged through but as an integral experience that carries a weight equal to the greatest characters, the most poignant themes, the most descriptive detail. How did she teach me that? I would like to say, "She told me, and I listened, and I learned." But I'm not so easily convinced. Rather, she told me, and I shrugged and scrunched my face a bit, and said something like, "I don't think so." Such were my undergraduate retorts. So she told me again, and I shrugged and smoked cigarettes and stared off into the middle distance humming Lag Wagon lyrics -- I was a force!  And then she let me read her short story "Jolo" which begins:
Moving through air as sticky as the blood that moves inside her, same heat as the blood, the spit inside her, that moves inside, so that here in the dark she forgets where she ends, forgets where her skin stops, her skin does not stop, she is continuous. Moving through the weed smells, all the different green smells, single, then symphonic, single, then symphonic, the river low and mucky, a fertile rotty smell, low low dog days August smell. Not a bad smell, even though it is a just short of shit smell, but the river is not unloved for it, no, actually loved by Connie more tender for it, for its spoiledness, its helplessness, for how people have done it. Moving through the frog and bug burr, the chung, chung, chung, the tiny creature roar, layers of ankles and throats and wings, a sobbing mesh, the sound, too, an extension of her, the sex noise that shirrs the rind of her head, the kernel of her chest, again, Connie not knowing where her body ends, her not knowing again, and say it. Jolo. The name carries a kind of wet heat, a back of the mouth under the tongue, a you-know-what-I'm-saying-heat. You do. Carried in the syllables themselves. No, she wants to say to the cop, it's not like that, she tries to say. Fires are a dry heat, she says, and Jolo's wet, just say his name. Jolo.
More than one thing? How about a West Virginia dialect so thick the passage is hard to read out loud without a drawl? The language rises out of the landscape, pushes up through the mud and the muck; Connie's consciousness is the world around her -- this is not background; this is not burden; this is how we know we're human. How about a character who sees herself in terms of her environment:"the rind of her head, the kernel of her chest"? She sees herself (rind, kernel) as the product of her environment. Connie doesn't know where she ends and where the world begins . . . but none of us do. We are the union of the world we create and the world that is created for us. We are socially constructed as we socially construct each other. We rise out of the landscape and fall back into it, and, in the meantime, we are the rhythms of the world around us; for Connie, read it out loud, "Moving through the frog and bug burr, the chung, chung, chung, the tiny creature roar." Read the whole passage out loud if you have a moment, and you might just feel the river creeping between your toes.

Setting is not background. It is not generic. 

I'm no musician. A dear friend asked me to stop whistling one day because I was so far out of tune the noise was making her sad. Far far from a musician. And, yet, I try to imagine a world of music in which composers, song writers, or singers simply thought of the noise from the instruments as a generic blank backdrop, something that must be borne in order to rejoice in the lyrics. Now, I love lyrics, but without the noise from the instruments, mighten we just as well be talking? Of course, there are those six or seven singers throughout history whose voices are instrument enough (in similar fashion one could easily find oneself in the middle of a Donald Barthleme story with no desire to understand where it takes place), but most of us prefer accompaniment.

Well, shit, my hour's almost up, and I haven't even mentioned the passage I set out to discuss. Which is probably for the best. The passage struck me, it strikes me now, as something terribly important to the world, to my first-year composition classes, to my own writing, but I've had no time to compost it yet. I've had no time to let it live and breathe in me, such that I can practically apply it. Still, speaking of a pleasure to read out loud: "A landscape is constructed of geology, hydrology, and biology" -- a joy, in part, because of the internal rhyme, but also, let's face it, because most of us have never said the word "hydrology" out loud, and few of us (scientists aside) think hydrology when we think landscape. That is, the line is lovely, in part, because learning is fun.

Final writerly lesson from a book about early oildom? "A landscape is constructed" -- the invisible hand of god at play in the field of language. What we know about landscapes, this union of culture and nature, we know because we have consciousness, because we are thinking creatures. As writers, our words are our landscape. Writing, of course, is an artifice. Language is a construction, but it is a construction that rises organically out of the characters, the consciousnesses, the landscapes, even as it creates them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

There's No Good Way to Say This . . .

So I'm thinking about writing a book, which would share the title of this post, about the art of the query letter. The book would rise from my absolute inability to craft such a letter. Can it really be as hard as I'm making it? Shouldn't I just be able to reproduce my novel in one or two beautifully crafted sentences? Am I over thinking this whole mess?

I don't know. And I don't know if I want to be good at writing a query letter.

The book would be based also on watching my spouse go through the process of writing a query letter. I watched her spend a painstaking eight months crafting a beautiful literary page-turning novel about 1950s burlesque in New Orleans. Each day, she would read me her thousand words, and each night I would go to sleep wondering what might happen next. As she wrote the last few pages of the novel, I felt that familiar feeling -- as though I were saying goodbye to a good friend, knowing that it would be some time before I might see her again -- that I feel at the end of a great book.

I say familiar, but I mean the closing pages of Moby Dick, Nobody's Fool, The Things They Carried, The Sound and the Fury, maybe twenty or thirty other books whose voice I know I'll miss, even as I'm enjoying each ending. Like I say, I watched her research, live, and write this book for eight months, then I watched her research, design, and craft a query letter for the next two months. I've seen and listened to twenty or more drafts of her cover letter, and I think she's nailed it now. From her hook, to her synopsis, to her closing salutation, she's written a compelling, exciting argument about why someone should publish her book. I think she'll earn an agent very soon, certainly, I think, a book deal.

My spouse is way smarter than me, I think we've all come to terms with that.

In the meantime, I've been trying to write my own query. Here's what I have for a hook so far: "Stuff happens in a steel mill and somebody probably dies." It's awful. It's an awful thing to write. I believe in the book. I believe in the writing. But how in the hell do I write about the book? No, I think anybody who followed the epic whining of "The History of My First Failed Novel . . ." should know I have no problem writing about the book. More to the point, how do I write concisely about it?

Three more famous stories:

When Rimaud's mother asked him what a poem was about, he replied, "I have said what I have wanted to say, literally and in every other way."

Flannery O'Connor said of her short stories, "If I could have written them any shorter, I would have."

Jeanette Winterson, apparently likes to say, "It's about what it's about."

I'm paraphrasing off the top of my head, not quoting: I just want to be clear.

Anyway, I'm including those quotes for two reasons. First off, because I love them; they speak so deeply to the creative process and many of the things that I believe about art, that I celebrate them in papers and at cocktail parties and around campfires, often to very serious head nodding. Secondly, because I love them and use them as a constant excuse to not push myself harder to do the necessary writerly things that might not be as pleasurable as writing literature.

Ouch. It hurts to admit that.

But it's true. I don't wanna write a query letter. I don't wanna read the submission guidelines. I don't wanna buy a manila envelope to mail a manuscript to 10000ish zip code where, I'm almost certain, my manuscripts are insulating some of the tallest buildings in the city.

The only things I ever want to do, as far as writing is concerned, are read and write. But that's never enough. I think this might be a true story for a bunch of us out there in the world. For instance, by a show of hands, how many folks out there, like me, somehow expect an agent to happen across a manuscript and give you a call? (I'm typing with just the one hand right now, by the way.) Or it might be something else -- shouldn't a particular press be seeking out your very own work this minute, because you'd be a perfect fit for them?

Meanwhile, in my writing classes, one practice I insist my students engage is honesty -- not with the world, though I find that important to, but with themselves. Find the places you're being lazy, I tell them, and acknowledge that laziness. Often those lazinesses are easy to see. Some writers use a half dozen semicolons to build a monster sentence that goes nowhere, because they don't know how to advance their plot, their argument, their assertion. Others attempt to fit all 64 common prepositions into a single paragraph, because they've written something off topic and can't figure out how to get back to their text.

You can't lie to yourself and be a good writer.

No, scratch that again, one can be completely misguided in how one reads the world -- that might be how one creates such a compelling narrator.

But you can't lie to yourself about your writing and be a good writer. I'm working on a chapter right now in my epic oil narrative history clusterfuck, and in this chapter, I know, I absolutely know that the perspective is off. I've chosen, in fact, the completely wrong character to narrate this chapter. I've known that intuitively for a long time, but just last week, I admitted it. I said it out loud: "This chapter belongs to a different character." So after months of working and reworking a particular 5,000 words, I have to let it all go, redream it, see it from another angle.

That I'd been employing the wrong narrator all this time was hard to accept, though I knew it to be the truth. But, if I had recognized it earlier, I could have saved myself many headaches, countless frustrating hours, a full ream of paper . . . I might have completed the book manuscript by now, had I been honest with myself sooner.

So, okay, here I go: while what I want to be doing this afternoon is researching oil and writing awesome epic asskicking adventures about the early days of the industry, I'm going to sit down with Scrap and try to write two or three good sentences about it.

Such work is not glorious, not artful, but, if I must be truthful, necessary work.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nothing in Isolation

"Nothing exists in isolation in the forest."

I was famously sitting in my family's cabin by the Allegheny River for the coldest six-month stretch of my life. Late fall, I watched the ice gather on the river in small patches and form fields, which themselves impinged on the shore like hour-long car wrecks, until the water was frozen solid. I was a college dropout and a college grad. For an entire month, the high temperature did not rise above freezing. I was a steel-mill worker and a hoddie. I was also an ex-all those things and, though I couldn't know it at the time, a soon-to-be grad student. Mostly, I spent that winter reading and writing. I had visits from friends and family on the weekend, but spent four or five days each week, not hearing a human voice or seeing a human face (unless you count the folks on the other side of the river or the characters on the VCR tapes).

One of my favorite programs to watch at the time was a Nature Channel or Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel series about the world. I forget which channel, clearly, but I do know that the series explored the tundra, the polar caps, and South American rain forests, specifically, as well as a few other sweeping geographical generalizations. I learned a lot about the planet. My favorite detail came when a flock of toucans, who had apparently eaten some sour berries, ate mud from a cliff. The mud had no nutritional value, but provided a base to counter the negative effects of the acidic berries. Ha! Not a pharmacist or an M.D. among them. Parrot, I thought, heal thyself! I knew they weren't parrots, though, so it was a moot point.

Later in the same episode, the announcer in a conversation about one of the most complex ecosystems in the known universe says, "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." I paused and rewound and played that line at least a dozen time. "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." "Nothing," the announcer says, "exists in isolation in the forest."

I had payed money for these tapes. That line was scripted. It's not as though the announcer were commentating a live broadcast of the forest. He had been payed to say, very specifically, "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest."

I felt duped.

*     *     *

On the other hand, I love Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. She insists that we all slow down and read and recall what it's like to savor what we read and to learn from what we read such that when we read again or when we read something else or when we write, we can enjoy again what we have read in other great works. More than insist, she gives us permission to read thus.

She begins her book by insisting on close reading in her chapter 1 titled "Close Reading." She goes on to focus on how a story might hinge or develop or change entirely as the result of a single word in her chapter 2 titled "Words." Chapters 3, 4, and 5 -- "Sentences," "Paragraphs," and "Narration," respectively -- grow larger in scope, but focus on language with the same kind of intensity as her previous discussion of close reading and words. "Character," "Dialogue," "Details," and "Gesture" -- chapters 6-9 -- encourage us to consider carefully the myriad ways in which an author develops a piece of fiction through such such devices.

My students are to come to class today, ready to discuss "Character." In the chapter, Prose discusses The Marquise of O— by Heinrich Von Kleist, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. Yet another beautiful conversation by Prose in which she block quotes huge swaths of the texts and discusses how they variously develop character through dialogue, thought, dress, narration, perception, and other methods.

Something that struck me about twenty pages into her chapter, the impetus for this post, in fact, is that, for a moment, I forgot the title of the chapter. During her discussion, I lost sight of whether this was a chapter on narration or gesture, details or dialogue. I've read the book before, enough to recall lessons from each of the various chapters. In reading the long passages she had quoted from the text, I found myself applying Prose's lessons on several of the writerly things* her text addresses. What a pleasure, I thought, to apply so much of what I've learned to just this one passage! Then, of course, the terror set in that I would not be able to talk to my students this afternoon intelligently about character, and would end up, again, tangentially describing the glories of free indirect discourse in narration. The horror, it was as if something buried deep in my literary subconscious had uttered, the horror.

*     *     *
The summer after my longest, coldest Pennsylvania winter became the hottest, driest of my life. I started working for a temp agency in April and ended up cleaning the scrap pits at a machine shop for three weeks in June. There was a stretch of thirteen days where the high temperature each day was above a hundred. On my lunch breaks, I sat on a bucket chewing tobacco and watched The Wasatch Mountains burn. I didn't have much invested in saving the world, so I thought, Burn, baby, burn, at times, and at others, thought, Shouldn't someone put that out?
At one point, in the machine shop, my boss got frantic and put me in charge of making rabble arms -- pieces for a ten-story industrial** furnace used to heat and slowly cool giant hunks of metal used in the construction of submarines. The furnace was in Brazil. I was in Salt Lake City. The submarines would end up in the ocean. The rabble arms were made of some strange sort of concrete I'd never seen before or sense, the powder a finer consistency than even sifted flour. I mixed the mortar and poured buckets full of a million tiny metal needles into the mixture. I have no idea why. For all I know, I might have been making those car-wide curbs that keep cars from wondering off in parking lots. I was famous in the machine shop for chewing tobacco and not knowing shit, so I continued to not ask questions.

Still that announcer haunted me, even then, even 1957 miles away from where I'd first heard his narration, even months later and a hundred degrees hotter. "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." The awfulness. The sweeping generalization. The vagueness. The obviousness. The statement made more sense to me at that moment -- in the desert building a product of steel and stone that will build a product that will build a product that will swim through the deepest oceans -- it made more sense and sounded more astute than any other statement I had ever heard.

And, today, here I am in Southeastern Ohio, reading Prose, thinking of a machine shop in Northern Utah, wondering about a text: is it character? is it narration? is it dialogue? And this, traditionally, has been the hardest part of teaching writing -- creative, composition, literary -- for me: you can't separate out the parts. You have to learn and grow and write very intensely, applying all of what you've learned and grown into and written, into every document as it comes out before you. Nothing exists in isolation in literature. Good dialogue is good character development. Good setting is good plot. Good generalization is good detail. Nothing exists in isolation in literature. We separate it out to talk about its pieces. We look at the toucans and we look at the sloths. We live in the desert or we live in the hills. But nothing exists in isolation in literature.

*Prose doesn't define or describe how she separates the chapters, so I don't know what she'd want to call these things -- they're not themes or devices or techniques, necessarily, nor are they not not those things either.

** For the record, I realize that if the furnace is ten stories tall, I probably don't have to mention that it's industrial. I'm in too much of a hurry to bother with redundancies.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Teaching Creative Writing

I once (three days ago) famously (well, seven people responded, and only three of them were me) tweeted, "I don't mean to sound preachy, but why would one take a creative writing class if one hates to read and write?"

The question, I admit, sounds preachy. It looks facile. It seems as though I'm pissing and moaning about a lack of effort on the part of some of my students. And that's all probably true, but something more important than that is at stake for me. I, ultimately, don't have time to worry about how much effort my students put into their studies, their careers, or their lives. On the other hand, the general lack of commitment shown by many students who take creative writing courses, ultimately, devalues the entire process of teaching creative writing.

But, here, let me tell you the story.

The catalyst for this post was my collecting student reading and writing journals last week for a midterm update. The reading and writing journals, I believe, are the most important processes in the course. I have written the following on this blog before; I have said it again and again in the company of many writers; I make the same claims about practicing writing that I make about practicing running and practicing math: if you want to improve your creative writing, you have to develop a sustained, consistent effort. I've said it so often, I have, at times, believed I made up the phrase "sustained, consistent effort." It's in my syllabus. It's on the assignment sheet for both journals. 50% of your grade, my syllabus tells us, will be "the sustained, consistent effort you put into your reading and writing journals."

So I collected both sets of journals last week and found that a full half of the class was not only not halfway through the completion of their journals, but some had only written two or three writing-journal entries out of a possible thirty. Some had less than ten percent of the minimum reading-journal requirement completed.

Some students included apologetic notes, "I'm sorry. I know this journal isn't where it needs to be. I'll work harder." To whom, I always wonder, are they apologizing? Certainly not me. They have not hurt my feelings. They have not let me down. I have four kids, a spouse, two parents, some pets, several friends, and my own thousand words a day to put on paper -- I have better things to do than be let down by students. For me, grading is strictly business, nothing personal. I tell them, "I'm the Michael Corleone of grading." I will help any student with any problem, academic or personal, to whatever extent that I can. "Come to my office hours," I tell them, "if I can't help you, I'll find someone who can." But I am not going to be sad about a student's lack of interest, intensity, or commitment.

Well, then, this seems like a non-issue, Jackson. If you don't care, and they don't care, then . . . what?

Just this: there seems to be a great sweeping belief that just signing up for creative writing classes, and just showing up from time to time, and just talking about what one likes or does not like about a piece of writing is enough to pass the course.

But such students are not going to pass my course. I tell them on the first day of class: "If you think you can just show up and talk about what you like or don't like about a story and pass this class, you're wrong." It's in my syllabus: "We are not here to talk about what you like or don't like about stories." Your reading journals are a place to experiment with what you are learning through your reading -- through imitation, celebration, and engagement. Your writing journals are the place where you will sit down every day and give the muse access to your pen. Students who don't do the work in my course, fail my course. I tell them this, and, each term, some of them are surprised by low grades. They then say awful things about me, and that's too bad, I think, for everybody concerned, because it's hard to get a letter of recommendation from a worthless piece of shit, but it's their prerogative.

The question has larger ramifications.

The best creative writing instructors* in the country, I believe are under constant scrutiny: "Can you actually teach creative writing?" They are asked by students, administration, parents of students, colleagues, other writers, each other, themselves: "Is it even possible to teach creative writing?" The easy answer is: "Of course." And, for me, that's the truest answer. But, again, I point to an ancient Greek whose name I can never remember, who once said, "Every question possesses a power that does not lie in the answer."

*Let me take a moment to point out that I am not suggesting that I'm in this crowd of great cw instructors. I have my moments, but, ultimately, have a lot to learn about teaching. I will, however, remind you that I just compared myself to Michael Corleone.

Anis Shivani is the most recent writer I know of to garner a great deal of press for writing a scathing** piece about teaching creative writing. He writes:
Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities -- except, like everything else in our culture, it comes in a stripped, dumbed down version that partakes little of the rigors of psychotherapy. More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop. Life lessons and living a more authentic life are always just beneath the surface of any workshop discussion.
** I think Shivani would agree his piece is scathing. I think he means for it to be scathing. But I am not writing this in an attempt to refute the creative writing naysayers, only to point out that they get a lot of attention (some of it earned), and that attention (often unwarranted) hurts creative writing instructors. It hurts the whole field.

That said: I have heard of this kind of creative writing course, where writing is synonymous with therapy. I have imagined this kind of creative writing course. I have feared this kind of creative writing course. But it has never been my experience. I have rather been taught by great teachers and writers to create a space for myself to access the muse. I have been taught to learn from what I read and to practice craft and to consider perspective and to weigh options and to think about the ways in which my own writing might fit into writing throughout history. I have been taught to value, above all else as a creative writer, reading and writing. It is not easy. Learning creative writing, I believe, is a constant lesson. It takes constant practice. I don't imagine Melville saying, "Well, I guess that's all I need. I'll write Moby Dick now." But writing is not therapy. I have never written about my feelings. I have never been psychoanalyzed by a peer or an instructor. I am not sure, exactly, what Shivani means by "the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop," but I'm pretty sure that's never happened to me.

Rather, I believe, we can teach creative writing. It was taught to me. I have seen it taught to others. I will teach it to anybody who wants to learn. Still, the power of this question lies in the asking, rather than the answering. I can't recall hearing or reading anybody ever ask: "Yeah, but, can anybody really teach history?" or physics or astronomy -- three subjects that seem infinitely less teachable to me. I mean, can anybody seriously imagine teaching history? What the hell would that look like? I can imagine encouraging somebody to read a book. I can imagine grading somebody on how many dates and places and events she remembers. I can even imagine suggesting to somebody that history books are always written by the winners. But teaching somebody to weigh conflicting reports of a factual event; teaching somebody to search through artifacts and determine which one is most accurate, most true (who would say that? most true? what's that); teaching somebody to understand the ramifications of The Magna Carta*** on contemporary American civil liberties . . . forget about it: can anybody really do that?

*** Turns out, it's not, in fact, spelled Magna Carter. Thank you, wikipedia.

For two years, as an undergraduate I studied secondary math education. I meant to be a middle school math teacher. I wanted to teach math because I was awesome at it, and I wanted to teach sixth, seventh, eighth grade, because I wanted to help kids through some rough years. But can one really teach math? In my experience, it's no easier than teaching creative writing. I can draw numbers and symbols and apples and arrows on the chalkboard for forty minutes a day; I can encourage students to practice at home; I can collect and grade homeworks and quizzes; I can test students on their retention. But getting them to understand math. Not a chance.

I think, in fact, we need to change the question. I think, when we say, "Can you even teach creative writing?", maybe what we mean is, "Can you evaluate creative writing?"**** I think that's a much less insulting question with a much more meaningful, if infinitely more complicated, answer. For the purposes of the University system, of MFAs and Ph.D.s in creative writing, I think the notion of evaluation is much more important, even if the individual answer is only relevant to a particular program, a particular school, or a particular instructor.

For me, for the Introduction to Creative Writing Course that I'm teaching, I am not evaluating the quality of students' creative work. I grade the quality of their self-analysis and the thoroughness of their peer responses, but the 50% of their grade that is their creative practice, I only grade their sustained, consistent effort.

I also make professional comments on a single work of fiction each quarter, and offer to them on a daily basis that if they would like to meet with me in my office to discuss any aspect of writing (theirs or somebody else's), I would be happy to do so.

**** In fact, the even better question might be, "Should we evaluate creative writing? And by whose standards? And what kind of magical criteria?" But those questions, I think, have much more to do with whether or not we're getting into Heaven than whether or not we're getting tenure.

[Meanwhile, I just thought I should note, given my belief in the power of questions, that I have changed my initial (perhaps rhetorical) question to: "Why would anybody who refuses to read and/or write take a creative writing course?" The hating is optional.]