End of another long and difficult week. Most of time spent conferencing and grading–mostly grading student papers as well as mid-term portfolios. I find these so important to teach but take time from my writing–my manuscripts. I did have time to record a few interesting videos I’ll soon be editing and adding to the Lincoln Land Review website. One of those videos includes a brief interview of Illinois author Ricardo Cortez Cruz. And what a great experience recording this interview and classroom visit. He discussed difficulty and complexity in his writing and he also discussed his sense of urgency and passion. He also discussed a bit on his idea of ‘slanguage’ which reminded me of my thoughts on spanglish and incorporating more representative language to fictive texts. And though I wasn’t writing or revising some of my manuscripts I believe I was focused of course on writing and the gathering of bullets or ideas on aesthetic to return to Monte Stories and perhaps some of my shorter work.

Also I’ll be spending some time in the next few weeks putting together my proposal for sabbatical. And so I’ll be putting together my plan for the next year to develop my creative and academic literacy through research of other’s fiction, travel to writing workshop and of course the act of writing at home.

So perhaps I’m beginning to think more like Prof Ron Carlson in this clip:

In my lit course we’ve been reading Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays and there is so much for the young writer to learn from this book. I have to preface this review or response or whatever you want to call it by saying I’m a writer and not a literary critic. Mostly I appreciate form and not meaning.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines literary minimalism–because I couldn’t find a good definiton in my literary handbook:

  • Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description. Minimalist authors eschew adverbs and prefer allowing context to dictate meaning. Readers are expected to take an active role in the creation of a story, to “choose sides” based on oblique hints and innuendo, rather than reacting to directions from the author. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional.

 And as Didion gives us in her essay “Why I Write,” I am not very good at writing in abstracts so I’ll try to explain specifically how this book is motivating me tonight after a pretty decent discussion with my students last night. Like me they found the book dark and sinister–the themes of male dominance over the main character Maria. They also enjoyed the form which is truly why I admire the book. So spare and nearly as barren as the desert Maria drives through to reach her husband, Carter. Instead of a long and drawn out narrative as in other books we’ve read–and I’ve just finished Love in the Time of Cholera this summer and that book does have an overly sense of telling rather than showing–and this book and its 83 chapter–scenes really–are so spare they are incredibly rigorous to read. Some chapter requiring a few reads to gain footing concerning plot and in some cases even dialogue tags. It is almost as if the technical is Didion’s focus here and not character or plot. In fact we learn the most of Maria and not the men running around her, which perhaps is Didion’s point.

And her is some quick research on minimalism I wanted to throw up here. According to Chuck Palahniuk in his essay “Chasing Amy” where he praises Amy Hempel for her minimalism, Tom Spanbauer classifies minimalism to four components:

  1. Metaphor: develop recurring metaphors for reader to interpret
  2. Burnt tongue: Force reader to read close, twice
  3. Recording angel: narrator without passing judgment
  4. Writing on the body: tasty, smelly and touchable details—give reader a physical reaction

This applies so completely and closely to Didion’s text it is as if Spanbeaur is speaking of Didion. In Didion’s novel the theme of evil is given to us throughout in the physical fear and finding of snakes. Maria’s existential dread comes to us in the character trait of dreading snakes. But not only snakes–snakes who the universe or mother nature has decided should be venomous but having the traits of non-venomous snakes. 

Didion writes:

  • “Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask. I never would, not anymore.” 

All giving us the problem of evil as a recurring motif in the book but in such economy. The idea that the universe is amoral and can strike at you in the everyday at any moment is another recurring theme. This the second paragraph of the book and reaches a note another writer would’ve taken pages to reach.

More on Didion to come as I finish rereading this amazing book…

I’m looking at my last post and seeing how frustrated I was. Grading assignment after assignment can do that to you. Three sections of composition can take a good amount of energy from you. And really teaching has given me so many opportunities. I shouldn’t knock it. Now I worry concerning time and writing–I worry that grading takes me from the writing. Takes me from my manuscripts. It all reminds me of how in grad school peers would complain around me about the workload and the time to create fiction. And as MFA students we all complained over teaching and writing. My answer was that it all was nothing as a real job–nothing like a real job. Nothing like the hard work from the stories of the Grandfather and Grandmother. Nothing like long and mindless shifts of breaking down cardboard boxes and unloading of trucks. I have to get back into that mindset. The creating of fiction has never been a chore for me. I have to find that mindset again.

And yet I am so fortunate to have work that is in my field. I think of the past week and all we’re discussing. There is so much here that interests me. We’re discussing Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion and literary minimalism. Discussing Tom Spanbaeur and Amy Hempel and Palahniuk’s ideas on literary minimalism. How to focus on technique rather than meaning. And in a way I feel I have surpassed some of the lectures I’ve received in the past–literary minimalism was given to me by analysts of lit rather than writers of fiction. So I feel I am giving my students a different perspective on the study of fiction. Teaching them how to teach like a writer. Teaching like a writer. And at the same time I feel I am developing myself as a writer–reading and rereading theory on the crafting of fiction.

And this summer I have the opportunity to meet with some writers I know and admire at the school’s expense–if I can get my proposal organized. And I also have the opportunity to take a sabbatical soon and write at the school’s expense. So I hope I can stay positive in the idea of teaching and being a writer. And again I consider myself very lucky to teach as a writer.