Chuck Palahniuk’s new book might be one of the most down to earth texts on the craft of writing. And I’ve long admired Palahniuk and his craft of writing–his fiction and his non-fiction. And back in the day when I started teaching fiction, I started using his lessons from litreactor.net and his compiled 36 Writing Craft Essays by Chuck Palahniuk. I used them in my classes and for my own education on craft. Reading his work in those days led me to Amy Hempel and Tom Spanbauer. (The book is dedicated to Tom Spanbauer by the way.) I very much enjoyed his take on the pretentiousness of heavy lit and how-to workshops and texts. His criticisms made me think of my own thoughts on the Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway text I use in my classes and how I feel the text doesn’t quite communicate with my intro to fiction students. There are so many lit references I don’t think they can swim with–the examples and lessons the text brings seem very heavy. That book seems good on paper for intro to fiction and I used that since my grad school days in courses. Palahniuk’s work on the other hand references films and television in a way I believe the Burroway craft text and others like it do not. And I enjoyed learning more about Palahniuk’s growing up and family life only hinted at in other essays. This may be a book when out in paperback I can bring into my classroom for a more practical way of teaching literary minimalism and writing process.
I’ve lived and taught in the Midwest for ten years now and have yet to fully understand the place and the people. After the Michael Brown shooting and the Ferguson riots, I found this incredible episode of This American Life onMichael Brown’s school district–the worst district in the state of Missouri according to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Makes me think more powerfully on the intersection of poverty, diversity and classrooms here in the Midwest.
PS: I would also recommend the documentary Spanish Lake I recently watched on Netflix on the topic of neighborhood integration in Missouri.
Peter J. Kuznick’s research translates well to this Oliver Stone directed series of hour-long documentaries. I found myself admiring the post-structuralism historical mode as well as the well constructed mix of photographs, film footage and news reels.
In the article “10 Famous Writers Who Hated Writing” from The Huffington Post, Bill Cotter discusses his “dark feelings” regarding what he labels as “the commission of the act of writing.” He lists quotes from famous authors revealing their angst on the very act of writing and he also discusses the problem of his own inarticulateness. And I must agree when Cotter jokes he would rather go to the emergency room rather than have a writing commitment.
And the more I teach the more I empathize with my first year students and concerns over writing and composing essays. I often say their concerns as writers are very similar to my own. Even in creative writing, my chosen field of study, I feel students have a point when they complain over drafting basic components of a short story assignment. I am just as susceptible to internet distractions and slothful tendencies. And I often dread approaching the work of revision.
Currently, I have a novel I’ve been wrestling with. I also have a novel I’ve been chipping away at for years. And perhaps the more you know about writing the more you are jammed up. The more I teach and learn the more I am self-critical and also I over-think the simplest of revision exercises. And maybe I am just reaching the age of worry over my talent if I have any and the limitations of talent. Perhaps subconsciously I worry about not fully developing as a writer. More and more I have broad stories with broad notes–more free writing really. And I struggle just to get my broadest thoughts down on the page regarding scenes or characters. Sometimes I just type where I want a character to go or what I want them to do and I have no way to get them there. I often say that writers suffer more from inarticulateness than most others. Lately I’ve been joking I would rather work with dogs or own a bed and breakfast than sit and work. I’d rather sit and watch MST3K.
This all reminds me of a George Orwell quote:
“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”–George Orwell
Perhaps the difficulty of writing–the illness in composing and revising–is what makes it great. PS: It took me hours to write this.
A new semester will soon begin as I write this and my thoughts obsess over inspiring and motivating my students. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been teaching since about 1999. I should be seasoned and secure in my teaching philosophy. Yet nothing concerns me more than motivating and caring for my students. The coursework comes easy but the technique in the classroom is something I’ve always struggled with. And I’ve aspired for years to act more aggressively as an advocate for my students.
I remember years and years back in an intro to education course watching a film with my fellow group members–a group of young and idealistic teacher-wannabes assigned to write on teaching styles. We watched Dead Poets Society over pizza and sodas in a dorm meeting room. And because I was young and capricious and uncertain what I wanted to do with my life–I mean one semester prior to this I was an engineering major thinking I would take all math and science courses–I found myself dismissing the film as sentimental and over-cooked. I was angry and young and stubborn at the time. And then I tutored for a few humbling years and found my way to the composition classroom. I returned to the film recently because of Robin Williams’ death and found myself captivated in the representation of the instructor-student relationship. I found the film to be a very strong representation of how a teacher can struggle with administration and also struggle with students. How a teacher has to face challenges from within and from outside the classroom. Williams’ character is kind and patient as well as firm.
The scenes I remember most fondly are the scenes where Williams’ character pushes his students to feel empowered and to think independently. These are the moments early on in a term when I am reminded of teachers who have inspired me–gone above and beyond to help me. Will Hochman from the University of Southern Colorado, Lisa Ede and Tracy Daugherty at Oregon State and most recently Sergio Troncoso from the Yale Writer’s Conference.
The first time I heard Thug Notes I found it very funny and engaging. I played it for my Lit 111 students. We liked the break down in a less elite language. And I love to see books and ideas from books featured in so called new media. I wonder though if this quick summary of books perhaps might be what Bradbury was warning us about? Will quick summaries like this or another quick summary like SparkNotes take the place of reading?
Now I’m thinking I’d rather see videos like this on from The Pen Pixie:
A few years back I made a joke to D about teaching and writing. I told her I was deciding to be a bad teacher and to focus on my writing. I told her I would be selfish. I would put my class work on cruise control. This was difficult to do because I feel such a responsibility to my students and I spend so much time note taking and creating lessons and lectures. It didn’t help that Sergio Troncoso inspired me with the care and attention to his students I witnessed in his workshop. Resolution: This year I will try to devote more time to the work. I always say my teaching is investigating story and writing, but I recognize I need to work harder on revising manuscripts rather than generating new material. Update: currently the Semi-Orphaned novel in stories manuscript is away at the editor and I am anticipating a mass of notes for revision. Actually I’m waiting for Jennifer C. Cornell to kick my ass. She was incredibly helpful with what became The House of Order manuscript. I’m slowly and surely starting to understand the importance of an experienced and assertive editor. And her notes are the most rigorous and detailed I’ve seen from an editor. Invaluable for the work. I’d also like to complete the Monte Stories manuscript later on this year. That is another manuscript–possibly another novel in stories–I know needs much work and development. This should be an interesting year of struggling for balance.
Reading this defeatist article on Slate.com on grading the college essay. Rings true in many ways but why would I want to give standardized exams instead of essays? So as I prepare to spend the next three or four days reading my students’ work, I just have to keep telling myself to grade, and not to edit. In many ways this article goes against an essay by David McCullough I read a while back. His point was to have students write in every class, in every situation. In his point of view, and I have to agree, that is exactly what college is about. Reading, writing and thinking.
I tell my students that Week 4 of the semester is usually where the wheels fall off–for students as well as instructors. This semester is particularly difficult as I try to write, edit and act as a student again myself. As well as teaching I am refreshing myself in an online instruction course. Something about week 4 that reveals the grind of education. Making time for work as well as reading and writing can be difficult. I’m also in the middle of a new technique and philosophy with my teaching method. I’ve decided to become less strict on classroom work and with my students. Trying to create more of a positive feel to the classroom. In the past few semesters I’m afraid I’ve lectured my students–not on writing or rhetoric but mostly professionalism and note taking. Reminding them education is about grit–energy and focus. I feel I’m still strict but I’m not so quick to change the energy of classroom because of a student on his or her phone or on a student coming in late. I guess I’m lightening up quite a bit as I’m encouraging them to use their phones for looking up words and author backgrounds. I began my courses with an exercise in criticizing previous instructors and techniques and even though I’ve been teaching for a while I’m consciously trying to become more and more effective–trying to stay flexible as well as firm. Can’t help but think back to all those instructors I felt were working against me instead of working with me and the challenges I faced.
I set up this blog to follow my writing but the past few weeks I am back in the classroom. Putting the work of editing manuscripts aside. I am also back in the writing center and tutoring for the first time in years. In fact I had my first tutoring session. A session discussing a poetry assignment and I haven’t taught poetry in years. And even though I meet individually with my composition and lit students it is difficult to work on another instructor’s assignment. The session was great but I felt that I caught a stride again. I forgot how students who are hungry and seek out additional help from the writing center or student services can inspire.
Enjoyed Sergio Troncoso’s fiction workshop the past ten days and wanted to post some of my notes on the rest of the Yale Writer’s Conference.
Day One: Keynote speech by author and medical doctor Richard Selzer asked us to combine our interests and occupations with our love for language. Loved the idea he gave us to avoid timidity in our writing. “Don’t be afraid to tell lies,” he lectured. He also gave us the idea that instincts are more important than our intellect; our impressions are more important than the facts of a story.
Day Two: Kevin Wilson’s craft lecture on his process in moving from short work to longer narrative works was so helpful. I loved the metaphor of short story as car crash versus a novel which is a road trip. Urged us to find the interiority of our characters. Also his exercises and group work with fellow writers was a great idea to push friends and fellow writers to write often. He shared some quotes from his mentor: “Your writing may fail but at least you will have the evidence.”
Day Three: Interesting thoughts from Deborah Triesman the New Yorker fiction editor. urged us to submit our strongest work to fiction @newyorker.com.
Emily Bazelon from Slate Magazine warned us about the difficulty of earning a living as a writer for hire–warned as about low pay for freelancers. Also her words on the worry from her staff that there is not much reporting and not much high quality reporting from publications.
Day Four: The master class with Zz Packer was an incredible experience. Her lecture on communication and the creation of image was helpful. Her notes and lecture she put up on the chalkboard followed these thoughts: 1. clearly communicate and create the image by unpacking sentences. 2. add action or motivational force. 3. plotting advice. She also went through a series of very helpful tips in terms of revision. I was most taken by her messy use of the chalkboard and her interaction with the class.
Day Six: An incredibly informative panel discussion with seven literary journal editors. Some of the journals included N Plus One, First Inkling, Atlas Review, and Hunger Mountain ; Fence and The Harvard Review were also there. Each editor gave great notes on what type of story to submit and how to avoid the slush pile. I was amazed how each editor suggested stories that begin immediately and also how each stressed the idea that there are many more writers who submit than folks who subscribe and read the magazines.
In the next couple of days I want to post more of my notes from the Yale Writers’ Conference. Today though Sergio Troncoso sent his workshop students this great link to Jorge Luis Borges’ lectures on poetry and philosophy: