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

Friday, October 14, 2011

Eng. 150: Place and the Language of Natural Disasters

It might be accurate to say that my apartment is a sort of natural disaster this morning. I'm still recovering from my weekend at ACIS, followed by the most insane allergy attack I've ever had, followed by a migraine so bad that every cell of my body rebelled. I have the broken blood vessels around my eyes to prove it. I look like a raccoon with red freckles. Funny looking, in hindsight. But such is the Midwest when the weather shifts from season to season. These are things to know about one's place in the world. (And, Maeve and Galway have been chasing each other around my apartment, knocking things over, and I've had to peel her off him more than once--and now she's chasing her tail on my bed...)

Yesterday, I taught Kim Barnes's incomparable essay "The Ashes of August" and Dorothy Barresi's "Earthquake Weather" out of A Year In Place to my English 150 class, as we continue our discussion of place and language. (This book that these pieces come out of is pretty amazing.) Yesterday was about the language of natural disasters, a topic that is becoming dearer to my own heart as I'm putting together this class for next semester on natural disaster narratives. Barnes's essay is one of my favorites of all time and it's always fun to teach those. Barresi's essay is a nice complement to it. Barresi's is about earthquakes (specifically the 1994 Northridge earthquake), but also about the death of her mother, her marriage and her parents' marriage, and the birth of her son. Barnes's essay is about wildfires, but also about family, the way that stories evolve under those conditions, with what we know and how we know it.

I started class by putting my students in their groups, then asking them to look for how many different languages were being used in these essays. In Barresi's, they identified not just the technical language of earthquakes, but also the language of California, the language of Los Angeles (which is not the same as the language of California), the language of cancer, the language of marriage, the language of motherhood. We talked about the many narrative threads that Barresi weaves in this essay, that it's about an earthquake, but it's also about marriage, it's also about motherhood, the loss of her mother, and the birth of her child. It all comes together at the end, just at the point my students were wondering if it ever would.

In Barnes's, we got the language of wildfires, the language of Idaho: even in the first page, as we get this spectacular grounding in light and color and taste (which is bookended in the last paragraph by spectacular evocation of smell), the reader is told that "the riverbanks are bedded in basalt" and I looked at my students and asked where basalt comes from. We've been talking about what it means to live on different bedrocks, how it's different to live on the limestone of the Aran Islands or the granite of Connemara in the West of Ireland. Basalt, they remembered, comes from volcanoes. Ah, yes, I said. So this place was formed by volcanoes. What she's telling us it that this is a volatile place, formed by fire, from earliest days. And it's more effective to tell us that it's basalt, than to tell us straight out what that means. Oh, they said, nodding, and I had that thrilling teaching moment where they nod at me, then scratch at the page with their pencils, making some kind of note, some connection.

We talked about what craft is happening here, that the essayist is making these stories relevant to the reader. My students knew about the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but none of them had ever been in an earthquake, they're not from California, they'd never been through a wildfire. So how do the essayists make these stories relevant? (We've been working rather hard in the last several weeks to get them beyond thinking that they have to relate to something to care.) The context makes us care, the exposition that both essayists use to develop the idea that they're working with. If it was a straight narrative about Barresi getting married, her mother dying, and having a baby, nobody would care. If it was a straight narrative about the wildfire around Barnes's home and her husband going out to fight it, nobody would care. Everyone has stories, I tell them, and nobody cares about yours. Unless you make them care. The exposition, the high exposition--that's what makes people care. (More head nodding, more pencils to page. It was a good day.) Language, the descriptions that Barnes and Barresi use, the ideas that they're developing from beginning to end--that's what makes people care.

Then we morphed the discussion into Where are these two essayists doing things that you recognize? Where is the narrative, the exposition? What's the rhetoric of the beginnings, the endings? How about the use of white space (as we talked about segmented essays last week)? The longer I teach, the more I'm realizing how much I want to break down the barrier between my students' work and published work. In my Intro to Fiction class, I had my students write their last two reading responses on one of the pieces that was getting workshopped that week (they had to write on one of the stories in the same way that they did any of the other published pieces we read) and the results were astounding. What can this story teach you about writing? I was so proud of their responses that I wanted to hug them. They talked about being able to see things in other stories that they wanted to do in theirs, they saw things they did that they wanted to avoid. They were able to look at the craft of the stories with the same eye that they did any of the other stories we talked about. It was a beautiful thing. And in two weeks, my 252 class will Skype with Mike Czyzniejewski, the editor of Mid-American Review and author of Elephants in the Bedroom, beginning the second half of the semester filled with Skype conversations with real live writers, writers who are writing what they're reading, writers who are going through the same struggles and triumphs that they are.

What I'm realizing this week, as we go into Fall Break and I won't see my students again until they turn in the rough draft of Writing Project 2, is that we've reached the point of the class where they're afraid to trust themselves. It happens every semester. We can get through the first Writing Project well enough, because they're writing about themselves, about a place they know well. Some will get the essay part, some will not. But when we get to writing about a place and its language, they lose all confidence that they have any ideas, that they have anything valuable to say. Every semester, I know it's coming, but it always seems to surprise me. Yesterday, I had a flood of students come to my office hours (the first they've done so all semester), worrying about the topic for their paper. And every one of them, every single one of them, came into my office with a fantastic idea. Absolutely fantastic. But not a single one of them had the courage to believe that the idea was a good one. And they got hung up on the sources I'm requiring them to use, as if those were more important than the essay itself. The rough drafts are going to be interesting, I think. And I have a feeling that when the mandatory conferences come around in two weeks, I'm going to be repeating myself a lot: Trust yourself. Trust what you have to say is valuable. If you don't trust what you have to say, nobody else is going to. And, my personal favorite: don't be afraid to write crap. Nobody writes a perfect first draft. Nobody. Let me tell you stories about that...

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