maxwell’s so long, see you tomorrow

I’ve written about the achingly beautiful book by William Maxwell before but tonight my students will be concluding their Lit 111 experience with this book–the last lecture anyway. This will be our final discussion before they head off to complete their term papers and prepare for their presentations. I hope I can convey to them what a crafted and original book Maxwell wrote. And lately I’ve been revisiting Maxwell’s short stories as well as his novels and more and more I admire how keen the voice and dialogue predicate midwest life. I’ve only been in the midwest for a short time but I sense that even though New York City and Chicago played a major role in his work and development as a writer, the small town midwest was still his home.

I most admire the slow movement from first person to omniscient narration–so subtle and flowing you almost miss it. Last night I found myself choking up over the character of Trixie, Cletus’ dog in the novel and her means of perception late in the book. I also admire the metaphor of the house as memory and his allusion/reference to Giacometti’s palace at 4am. I think of this as I question a relative about the past or I imagine I’m re constructing my own character’s memories and lives. Hope to have more blog posts on this writer and this book soon.

some books to read

D and I talked about putting together a kind of reading list for one another because we are always telling each other to read this or read that. We’re finally going to have some time in a few weeks to read something beyond readings from our course syllabi. And D reads so many books I’m sure she’ll out read me very quickly. And I’ve been following the idea that I need to write more than read and I want to follow that but perhaps I can find some time to read and investigate other story telling techniques. I’m hoping to hear her suggestions soon but here are a few I’m suggesting for her:

Play it as It Lays–Joan Didion

Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao–Junot Diaz

Revolutionary Road–Richard Yates

Ceremony–Leslie Marmon Silko

Angels and/or Resuscitation of a Hanged Man–Denis Johnson

The Man Who Killed the Deer–Frank Waters

(All of these I can lend as I have them on my shelf and I hope D can do the same.)

waiting for superman

Had a rare afternoon free from classes and grading annotated bibliographies and so went to see Waiting for Superman. Something I wish all teachers could do. I’d read of it and watched a few interviews–this youtube video on the film I find particularly interesting. I couldn’t help but think the criticisms of unions in the film was compelling and upsetting. And quite a bit of my thoughts were affirmed in the film about class differences and remediation rates of students leaving high school and entering college as well as the treatment of poor teachers. I’m so cynical about this country and the level of education.

I have a literacy narrative assignment in my composition courses and I read so many anecdotes concerning students and their high school experiences/problems. I read so much on the lack of quality and lack of challenge. And I have similar anecdotes from my upbringing–my high school experiences were difficult and crushing in some senses. And I often tell my students that due to curriculum and funding issues I am surprised anyone can succeed in some school districts. I say this because I am cynical and I want them to think closely about their education–take ownership of their work away from careless and thoughtless teachers.

I was also moved by the stories of the kids–the anecdotal record of the students who perhaps are set up to fail. The kids who put their hopes in lotteries that dictate placement in charter/magnet schools proven to be working. And as a teacher I have to ask what can I do to solve this problem. And I assume all I have, I guess, in the face of so many challenges and concerns–from students and administration–all I have is the student in front of me. To focus on the students in front of me in all those conferences I have coming up over the next three days.

three minute fail

Submitted this to the NPR contest and lost. But I had fun editing down the cross section of another story down to 300 words. The winner was a fine story about dying birds/owls. The other stories were all pretty whetto but I’m not complaining. Or maybe I am. The previous segment on their show was about Mad Men which is a show I hate–all the shows on TV are supposed to criticize the country and its more simpler times but I think it glorifies it. Anyway the guy who won was an ad man and a copy editor or writer, I forget. Anyway I know the rules said English only and I tried to weed out the spanglish except for the title. But the language of the winning story was so much cleaner and leaner than mine. I hope I can learn from this fail.

Coco Stories

Some people swear that the house is haunted. And the Uncle, he relies on ghosts. He drains his beers and yells, “The Coco eats little boys.” Near the furnace, when the crew of boys take bags of potatoes to the basement, or when the light switch seems yards away, the Uncle warns them, “Their bones and clothes. Every bit off of them. You hear me? So move it!” And with the kitchen windows open wide and the whole crew are waiting for a mother and a father to return from nights out dancing at the Donahue, or from endless amounts of festivals at St Francis of Assisi, the Coco stories come while they work. “Just one bite to taste the blood and then they run away. Just to get the taste of boy’s blood to their lips.”

Little Lolo and his brother Relles, along with the crew of fosters, they learn the Coco lives on the narrow, unpaved streets of the neighborhood; down Spruce street from Old Man Hernandez’ house; over from the Baca family house and even in the darkness of Minnequa School’s playground. Inside, under the beds and in to the deep darkness of closets, and under the stairs heading up to the attic from the Mother’s bedroom. They jump on Mitedio’s back as he trots from room to room yelling, “Climb aboard, you little mocos.”

“Where do these Cocos come from, Uncle?”

The Uncle pauses solemnly before answering: “The fields of New Mexico, boys. Ancient haunts in Espanola. Chimayo. Name it. Your Father has seen them. Your Father has fought them and won.”

“The Jefe?”

“Yes, your Father defeated them. We all ran from the fields but your old man burned them down with his eyes. He tore them down with those dirty, awful looks of his.”

The boys all nod and agree; the Father does have masterful dirty looks though they aren’t certain how they cut down Cocos.

 “You see your Father was working the fields with the Abuelito—that was your Great Grandfather. My Father. Well, you see that old man was a mean one. Meaner than any Coco. You never knew him like I knew him. He left his little boys out in the fields all alone with no lanterns or lights or nothing. Left them in the moonlight to work and fight with whatever Cocos happened upon them. And, your Father was scared. I was there and I know. I was afraid too but your Jefe called out to them. In the loudest and broadest voice. And it was a big voice for a little moco—he was no bigger than you, little Lolo.” The Uncle stands and relives it for his boys: “Cocos! I am Santiago Ferdinand Ortiz and I fear no Cocos. I am a man and I have work! So let me be!”

“Is that what he really said, Uncle?”

“I’m no liar,” the Uncle sells as he sits back to light his cigarillo. “Those Cocos threw down their tree branches and leaves. You see they look just like dark shadow. Oh, those Cocos are tricky.”

“Don’t believe it!” the crew of fosters say.

“I’m telling you, boys. They let us get our work done until the Abuelito came and turned on the truckito’s headlights. Until the workers returned with their lanterns.”

“Were you scared, Uncle?” little Lolo asks and the crew of fosters nod and wonder too.

“Ah, Lolo. I was—”

“You, Uncle?”

“That day the Jefe got ‘em. I’ll tell you. We were men. No babies. Nothing was ever the same again after that.”

fat city

I’ve been obsessing over the novel Fat City and the film Fat City over the last couple of days. I should be reading So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. I should be grading my Lit students’ second formal essay. But instead I am rereading scenes and watching scenes from the film. The film follows the novel so closely. And I even went so far as to copy ch 19 for my creative writing students because I believe it represents exactly what Tracy Daugherty advises in his essay “A Character’s Skin”. And I know I’ve written about this book before–many times. And I’ve written about the Denis Johnson essay about Leonard Gardner and his fine novel and his fine screen play that John Huston turned into a very understated film–understated is how Netflix describes the film and you can watch it immediately if you have a Netflix account. The film is very subtle and slight in its meanings/themes. And I’ve taught this book in a couple of my novels class and right now I regret not having it on my reading list for next Fall but perhaps next Spring.

What I love about the book is the third person narration and the very concise/brief chapters–also the very precise narration. Denis Johnson in his essay admits to obsessing over Gardner’s paragraphs and the form–something I can’t but obsess over myself. I rarely read books that I obsess over as much as ch 19 of Gardner’s book–the interactions and the shifts into omniscient narration. The achingly beautiful relationships between Billy Tully and his doomed relationship with Oma. Like Johnson, as soon as I read I picked up my notebook and drafted the Notorious Cornbread Baca and the places of my youth in Colorado–imagining the places from Baca’s youth.

Now I obsess over the film and the locations and the peripheral players–showing Huston’s keen eye.

tracy daugherty “a character’s skin”

I’m thinking about this fine essay “A Character’s Skin” by my old mentor Tracy Daugherty. I’m also sitting here wondering how my students will react to his ideas concerning characterization. I’m hoping they will also have ideas on how it relates to the selections from Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson I also gave them. And as I reread Daugherty I am reminded of how much the essay influenced me in my writing fiction. How it instructed me.

And as I think of it now I am unsure when I first read this essay–I guess the first year of graduate school–but definitely I can remember how it influenced my writing and how it made me more thoughtful on the process of writing. Now I must’ve read about filtering as explained in John Gardner’s Art of Fiction or in Burroway’s Writing Fiction and I must’ve thought of it as an error and something to avoid. But it wasn’t until this essay and some lectures from Daugherty and a couple of individual meetings in his office did I finally realize this. And this essay and the language and Daugherty’s language and his metaphors. Specifcally his metaphor of writing fiction or writing a character as utilizing language to find “the heart of the character” from “the inside out” and also the metaphor of “the skin” of the character. The line that always gets me: “Language, after all, is the only skin a fictional character has.” Just the idea that the building of meaning and theme can overlap and hurt the building of character always helps me with revision.

Again, before this essay, I thought writing was something based on detail and of course skill by the author. And I still believe it is. But I guess at that time I was just starting to understand coming back to a draft and a character again and again. At the time I thought fiction was a process of getting down the best you can and then tweaking. But if you didn’t nail it you produced an entirely another draft–perhaps I felt writing was an all or nothing process. This essay reinforced to me how revisions should not be more fuller “explanations” of characters or control of details but rather revisions were the struggle to capture more accurate “experiences” of characters. To capture better experiences for the reader. And this is very similar again to what I had read in Gardner or Burroway but it was an effective analagy and I felt it was one of the rare times in my life I feel I had an aha! moment in my work.

I remember his other lessons. I remember writing them on the draft of the essay he gave us and I can see how it is still on the drafts I give my students. The list: 1. focus on interaction; 2. focus on dialogue; 3. balance scene and summary; 4. limit qualifiers and adjectives; 5. find the character’s skin or rather find the heart of the character aka don’t filter. I put these up in my apartment on a notecard. And #4 was the key for my writing. It opened up my thesis and opened up the character of Manito in my stories. I returned to those failed drafts with more of the idea of wanting to have the reader experience Lolo as I had experienced Lolo. To lighten up on theme and even plot to some degree. To replace the focus on me as a writer and how clever and talented I was and switch to focusing on the experience of the character. A subtle difference but an important one. Also a much more daunting task for revision. As Daugherty writes: “There’s a subtle, but enormous, differnece between filtering and detaisl through a character, and actually seeing through a character’s eyes.”

More on this as I think of it…