13 March 2014

ZZ Packer

A great first line can be wonderfully galvanizing thing. Sometimes they don't entirely pan out; other times they are fair harbingers of pleasures to come. Such is the case in the first line of the ZZ Packer story, "Brownies," assigned for tomorrow:

“By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie troop 909.”

I've found a video of Packer reading the story, in case any of you want to hear it from the horse's mouth. Check it out if you like. In any case, do get through this excellent tale of youth and groups and race and many other matters--we'll be discussing first thing.

06 March 2014

Writing about Thinking

One of the first things I heard in grad school was from Rosellen Brown, who tried valiantly to warn me away from the "sitting and thinking" story.

I didn't take the warning completely to heart, though I knew it was serious and applied to me. Hence, no doubt, my own fiction output.

Now I find that I have the same basic discussion all the time with my college students. Through one of them this semester, I came across this exercise from the beloved Chuck Palahniuk. In the essay, Nuts and Bolts: Thought Verbs, Palahniuk offers up an incredible discipline in examining these problematic thoughts--these insights so crucial to us as writers and so deadly boring to our readers. The essentials are below:

...pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb.  Then, find some way to eliminate it.  Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing.  Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them.  After that, find a way to re-write them.  Make them stronger.

 Check the whole thing out here and give his exercise a shot--if you dare. 

13 February 2014

It is said that TheCastle, while being an indisputably great book, seems pointless to read after a while. And I admit that, although I am officially reading it this week and am pretty delighted by it, I have not been driven to pick it up every day, as I recently was with The Goldfinch and The Son. It makes sense: Franz Kafka's story is one of incompletion, in which a man named K. (even his name is incomplete) arrives to a mysterious, unplace-able town dominated by an impregnable bureaucracy known as, of course, The Castle. A few pages in, it is painfully yet wonderfully clear that he is not going to reach his grail. Why should I finish the book if our hero’s hopes are to be brutally dashed?

All the more a reason to think about its beginning. In the beginnings, we usually find the ends. In fact, the first chapter is the only one from The Castle ever published by Franz Kafka. So let’s take a look at its first paragraph:

It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

As the book goes on, the Castle above grows even more illusory and empty, and the gaze lasts a long time, but, oh, that gaze. That is the crux of it, this gaze peering into the mist and darkness. And what a great way to beckon us on to read and learn more.

The other beginning I’m thinking of this week is from our textbook, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. In “The School,” Donald Barthelme begins:

Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that . . . that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems . . . and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the bet. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant, and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.

With Barthelme, as usual, I enjoy him too much to make critical sense. But it’s safe to say that we are meeting a man through his voice, we are hearing a story through a man. And though a man isn’t telling us about his day, his life, we are learning all sorts of important things about him.

This is especially a speaking voice, one that repeats itself a bit, that doesn’t quite end, and that is depressed by the death of trees but this depression, well, maybe . . . (it’s hard not to mimic the rhythm in part) maybe that’s not the most adult response to take to the blight. So we worry a little for the children, and wonder if he, their teacher presumably, knew anything about trees before handing out thirty of them. I at least am curious to read on, to see what other disasters follow at this poor school. 

10 February 2014

A few notes about grading

In the old days, I used to proudly announce that I don't believe in grading creative work. It was part of my training. I went to schools where whatever I turned in to a CW class was given an A. And I can assure you, it wasn't because all my work was excellent. 

Over time, however, I've come to see that treating students as if they are all young geniuses who might be harmed by being corrected or edited is silly and maybe even lazy. In fact, such teaching isn't teaching at all but a great disservice. There is plenty to learn about writing, and plenty to call "mistakes" -- even though the mistakes might become something quite powerful if you really push them. But first you have to know what you're up to. 

This is why we draft and workshop. We draft, change, discuss and even argue about fiction in the classroom. (It's always good when there is real disagreement, as there was on Friday.) And I insist on small group workshops as you develop your stories. Mostly I am guiding you toward an understanding of fictional strategies--your own, your classmates', Ernest Hemingway's, and Selah Saterstrom's. Because I work on the theory that all writing is revision, I want you to be able to see what you do as mechanical even as we all know that good writing is inspired and can't really be quantified. Here, we have to quantify it. And I have to give grades. 

So for your stories I give one grade for the story and one for the mechanics--your grammar and punctuation. (Those quotations!) They are averaged together for your total grade, so poor punctuation can cost you. The first three stories won't count as much as the two you work on for the portfolio, but super low grades can be a problem. That's why I allow revisions to improve the grade.  

22 January 2014

20 Lines A Day, Genius or Not

As mentioned in our first class, you will benefit enormously from a daily writing habit this semester. Just getting something (practically anything) on the page every day will help build your confidence with writing of all kinds. Daily writing will also result in an array of words, sentences and ideas to be foraged for the stories you're working on this semester.

I've always liked Stendhal's instruction to himself (partly because it's French, I admit it):

 Vingt ligne par jour, gĂ©nie ou pas. 

However, one of my students this semester has done that pithy phrase one better. That's right, a student blogger has created a post full of smart ideas and links to others thinking about daily habits and especially daily writing--so do check it out. 

17 January 2014

Fave book and punctuation assignment

Ahem, the assignment.

I generally am very happy to stick with writing about my old boyfriend, James Joyce, and to discuss him a little when working with college writers. Reading him and thinking about him absolutely cannot hurt a writer. Unless--but that's another topic. You can always riff through this blog to find old posts on the topic, if you wish.

However, it's probably time to mention someone else to my students. I've admired the Brazilian novelist-essayist Clarice Lispector since I was introduced to her in grad school many moons ago. The book I've got by my bedside is her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, translated by Alison Entrekin. (The very first book I read of hers, The Hour of the Star, is absolutely fantastic too, and I'm only not quoting from it because I'd have to do some digging to find it.)

In keeping with our assignment, here is a bit from the beginning of a Wild Heart chapter called "…The Bath…"

When her aunt went to pay for her purchase, Joana took the book and carefully slipped it among the others, under her arm. Her aunt went white.
    Outside, she chose her words with care:
    "Joana … Joana, I saw …"
    Joana glanced at her quickly. She remained silent.
    "But don't you have anything to say?" blurted her aunt in a tearful voice. "My God, what will become of you?"
     "Don't worry, ma'am."
     "But just a girl … Do you even know what you did?"
     "Yes …"
     "Do you know … do you know the word …?"
     "I stole the book, isn't that it?"
     "But, Dear Lord! Now I'm at a complete loss, as she even confesses to it!"
     "You made me confess, ma'am."

It has (as per our assignment) perfectly standard punctuation.

This will probably be my last assignment (one of the joys of being the teacher), but I remain ready and waiting for yours. 

Back to school: Open world