"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

English 150: You Are Here

Yesterday, I taught W. Scott Olsen's "The Love of Maps" and two Paul Gruchow essays, "Rosewood Township" and "Naming What We Love" out of his 1995 Grass Roots. The purpose of the class was to explore what it means "You Are Here" and how many possible ways there are to be somewhere. We talked about how many ways Olsen answers the question he poses in the first sentence: "Why are you here?"--and we talked about philosophical, historical, physical, theological, historical, and other answers to that question. We talked about how the two authors fit together, how they both wrestled with the question of what it means to be somewhere, what is necessary to know a place, what is necessary to call a place home. We discussed that Olsen is writing what amounts to a place essay through the vehicle (pun intended) of a road essay. We wondered if it is true, as Gruchow argues, that you cannot know a place unless you know the names of the things that surrounds you.

Here's the writing exercise we did, designed to reinforce the elements of essay I want them to learn (narrative, exposition, high exposition) as well as start to think about their first writing project.

1. Describe a place you connect to--any place, could be home, could be a place you've been once--with every sense except sight.

2.What significance does this place have for you? Why is it important? What do you like or dislike about it? (If you connect to the place because it holds memories, dig deeper: why do you want to hold onto those memories, what do those memories represent for you?)

3. How long did it take for you to form this attachment?

4. How does what you know about this place play into your connection?

5. Now: how would you tell someone else about how amazing and special this place is? How would you make someone else care? (This is the "so what?" factor.) Why should anybody else care about your place? Why do you want them to feel the same way about it as you do?

I want my students to learn about writing details and descriptions, as well as beginning to articulate why a particular place has any sort of meaning--but that's only half the battle. The other half, as they will soon learn, is in making anybody else care about what they're doing. Without this exposition and high exposition, what they're doing is a basic journal entry and everybody has journals and nobody cares about yours. But making something that is personal relevant to readers takes practice. And there's no better time than the present to start.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

National Geographic Writing Exercise

I did this last night in my Intro to Fiction class (not my English 150), but the exercise went well enough that I thought I would share it. I got the original idea to use National Geographics from the epic awesomeness that is Jonis Agee (about three hours before class, so I really made the whole thing up as I went along), so I went to various thrift stores around Lincoln, looking for anybody who had National Geographics. The ARC on 27th and O had a great stash and I bought 60 of them, spanning four decades. I couldn't have been more thrilled, except that they weighed a ton and I did not account for this as I was getting them to my office.

I had my students choose an issue and flip through it, looking for something that caught their eye, whether it was an article or an image. Since the day's focus was on details, I first had them write a basic snapshot description of the image. Basic details: this is what I see.

The next slide on my Power Point was a definition of synesthesia and I strongly recommended that they read Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses if they considered themselves any tiny bit a writer. That book should be required reading for everybody. I directed my students to look at the basic description they'd just written and I wanted them to incorporate at least one sense-switching detail.

From there, I read them the first paragraph of Andrea Barrett's "The Forest," contained in Servants of the Map, which is one of their assigned books for the semester. I wanted them to turn that basic description into a scene, like they might find in a story.

The next step was to consider perspectives, points of view, and characters. I told them to look at the article itself, other photographs in the article, and make a list of possible characters. I was looking at an article about the Ice Man, the 5,000 year old mummy found in the Alps. My character list included the Ice Man, the hikers who stumbled over him and thought he was an accident victim, the archaeologists who were digging him up, the journalist covering the story. And there could have been more. Who has the most interesting story to tell? I asked my students.

I did not do any more with the exercise to pull out characters or plot points, since the idea was to work on details. But I pulled back a little bit and asked the class how many of them were looking at an article they found pretty interesting. Almost the entire class raised their hands. I asked if anybody was willing to share and two did: one was reading an article about the Iron Curtain and the environmental destruction that had gone on behind it, because there was no regulations and such on steel plants. He was looking at a photograph of a man whose job it was to walk a four-inch balancing beam and open and shut vents at the steel plant all day. If he fell off his beam, he died. Another student was interested in his article on the Korean DMZ.

These are the stories to tell, I told them. These are where the interesting ideas are. These are the stories they should tell. Nobody's really interested in dorm stories. The world is a very cool place and there are stories around every corner. It's the writer's job to find them, make them real to the reader, no matter where or what or how or why. I would like to read a story about the man who shuts the vents at the steel plant. I would like to read a story about the hikers who found the Ice Man. There's a reason why we're told to Write What We Know, because that's how we get the details of what it feels like to be on a sailboat--but there are lots of stories in other details that are often left untold.

This class has a place focus, just like my 150 does, but we're going to be approaching it in ways that while they're important to me, may not be relevant to my focus in this 992 class. We're reading William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake, set up in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. Place, in that book, is as much a character as any of the humans. It has just as much agency. It is absolutely more than setting. We're reading Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map, which I want my students to read with an eye towards writing the untold stories of science and place. And we're reading John Keeble's short story collection Nocturnal America, in which place is a driving force of those stories, affecting everything from action and plot to character development and identity. These are conversations that I'm fairly sure my students have never had before--and I'm really looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Where I'm From: A Minnesota Babine

No matter how long I live elsewhere, if you ask me where I'm from, I will always say northern Minnesota. I left there after college, for a MFA in creative writing in Spokane, a job teaching composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, then here to UNL to do a PhD, and everything about living in those places has felt temporary. My family (which consists of two younger sisters, my brother-in-law, 18-month-old niece, my still-married parents, and my mother's mother) all live in Minnesota and we're all very close. (They're conscious of their privacy, so I won't post pictures or their full names.) In one very real sense, it is my family that defines home for me, but in another way I'm only starting to understand, the physical place is important as well. After all, when we visit my father's family in California, we are the Minnesota Babines; they are the California Babines.

My grandmother had emergency surgery a week ago and since she's 88 and this was fairly major surgery, we all dropped everything and went North. My sisters, K2 and K3, my brother-in-law, M., and K2 and M's daughter, C., all live together in Minneapolis and by the time I arrived at our grandparents' Cabin, they were already there. (I'm the oldest of three K sisters and our father has long called us #1, #2, and #3.) Our parents were already asleep in their fifth wheel camper, parked in the driveway. The knotty pine panelling is familiar, the bedroom where I slept still smelled faintly of my grandfather, who has been dead for five years. Raspberries were growing along the sides of the road, only enough to give C. for her breakfast the next morning, and we took seriously the poison ivy report K3 gave us. She would know. That weekend, I slept with the window open, waking to the sound of loons, running into layered memories of childhood around every corner. It's harvest time and we talk about sandy soil on the way to the hospital, discuss colors of tractors, point out immature bald eagles over County Rd. 6. Gram is pleased to hear about the eagle, miffed when I tell her that the deer got her showy lady's slippers.

This place, this Cabin, more than any other spot on the planet, is home. Enough so that when we discussed our parents moving to Minneapolis after retirement and selling the Cabin, I had a fairly extreme reaction to parting with the Cabin. In our discussions, we wondered what is home? Is it the place or is it the people? Both, I think. When I'm not in Minnesota, I miss the lakes and trees as much as I miss my family. But I've felt enough like a nomad for the last ten years that the thought of losing this particular place, the only permanent place in my life, was awful. For the time being, the discussion has been shelved and I am a bit relieved.

Driving the seven hours back down to Lincoln, or wherever my address labels say my home is, there's always enough of a pull back to my own bed that I'm grateful for this home too. I've said before, flippantly, that home isn't where I hang my hat--home is where my books are. I've long contended that if you want to know a writer (or a person), look at their bookshelves. Mine will tell you that I'm very fond of books written by or set in Minnesota. Paul Gruchow is my favorite, as you might be able to tell from the three copies of Grass Roots on my shelf. If I know a writer, I cannot leave a book of theirs in a thrift store. You'll be able to tell that I'm equally fond of Ireland and Irish literature, especially contemporary Irish literature. The essayist Tim Robinson, in particular. My genre of choice is nonfiction and it occupies more space on my bookcases than any other genre, though I'm working on beefing up my fiction collection. I'm fond of travel writing, which I don't often separate too far from what is more place-based. If you look at my fluffy shelves, you'll be able to tell that I like mystery and suspense, with what seems like incongruous historical romances next to them (not as incongruous as one might learn to look at them, as the author is the daughter of Carol and Robert Bly). I like to cook and I love Jamie Oliver, as evidenced by several of his cookbooks.

This 450 sq. ft. apartment is filled with furniture that's been handed down, creating an established history. There's familiarity here. I'm typing this on my grandfather's desk; my grandparents' bedroom set graces my bedroom; the tea cabinet I built with Dad last summer is filled with tea, teapots that represent certain events in my life, and teacups that belonged to my dad's grandmother. I could tell you a story about nearly everything in my home, from brilliant Goodwill finds to furniture I've refinished to reproduction of a 1651 map of Galway, Ireland and the clay replica of the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise to remind me how much I adore the smell of the Corrib River, the feel of Galway's cobblestones beneath my feet, how the smell of cigarette smoke and the taste of chocolate-orange puts me right back there. I could tell you how I prefer small spaces, what living in them does to my sense of place, how it fits with the environmental aesthetic that I don't always do so well with.

Yet with all of this impermanent permanence, there's still a part of me that would like to load all I own in the back of my Jeep and take off for parts unknown on the spur of the moment. I like to plan things too much to do that, but I've compromised with my 13-foot Scamp camper.There's a significance to being able to hitch a home (of sorts) to the back of my Jeep, pack the cats in the backseat, and wherever I stop for the night, I can sleep in my own bed, but change the view outside the windows. There's a inconsistency between travel and home that doesn't seem to bother me. Right now, while I'm at UNL, finding time and money to Scamp has been difficult, but that's life. After I'm done, I hope to take a great trip somewhere. Perhaps Nova Scotia. Perhaps it's just going to be the easiest and most economical way to get Up North, wherever I get a job after I'm finished here.

All of this comes together--at least for the purposes of this class--in the classes I'm teaching. My English 150 class, Rhetoric as Inquiry, is place-based, focused on ideas of home and away. We looked at aspects of home, the languages of place, and how place and human affect each other and these ideas comprised the three major writing assignments. I'm teaching English 252 (Intro to Fiction) for the first time as well and even the fiction we're writing and reading will be heavily influenced by place: Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map, John Keeble's Nocturnal America, and William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake. I have ideas for future classes that focus on themes like Literature of Natural Disasters, Irish Environmental Literature, and more. I'm hoping to change up my syllabus and books I teach every semester while I'm doing this program.

It's important to me to start my students thinking about where they are and how that contributes to who they are. Most of them have never considered if you live differently if your bedrock is granite or if it's limestone. Before I came to UNL last year, I spent seven years teaching composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which had a very interesting mix of urban students from Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland as well as rural students who had never been very far away from their family farms. The basic mix of students at UNL is similar, but the place-consciousness is different. Their places influence who they are, but what they know instinctively is not yet accessible. At BG, students were more aware of how where they came from influenced who they are, like the student who, through no fault of his own, lost his NCAA football eligibility and broke down in my office, because his entire family was counting on him to get his degree, play football professionally, and keep them out of poverty because he was the man of the family. At BG was more common for me to encounter students who like him, who had never been told that they had anything else to offer the world other than athletic talent. At UNL, what my students learn about their places has, at least so far, been less heart-breaking. But no less fascinating.

This semester, I will tell them that I'm in the middle of plotting my next novel (so when I'm finished with my dissertation and comps in 2013, I can write it...) and my main character is a geologist in Fargo--and yes, you farm and live differently on the clay of the Red River Valley than you do on the sand of Hubbard County. You can understand why the Red River floods, if you know that the Red River is only about 10,000 years old and isn't old enough to have its own flood plain. But how many of my students--wherever they might come from--have ever considered why things like that are important?

I'm an essayist, so my idea of Where I'm From, won't be a poem. Everything I consider important in my life is tied to a place, both the big-important things like my family, or small-important things like my favorite blues music. The strawberries that grow so well in Hubbard County don't taste the same as strawberries grown anywhere else. Irish butter doesn't taste the same as any other butter. The sound of wind in the maple tree outside my Lincoln bedroom doesn't sound the same as the wind in the white pines at the Cabin. Every time I travel, I get a little closer to knowing where I belong. Each new book on my shelf tells a different story of what's important to me. And I will, very soon, need another bookcase.