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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eng. 150: The Blue Plateau

Yesterday was a turn in the weather that made me really happy, even as my eighty-year-old joints protested. It was a good day for my fireplace app on my iPad, some Godiva hot chocolate with ghost-shaped marshmallows left over from Halloween, and as it turned out, some Gay Talese. I'm reading Unto the Sons for an independent study I'm doing this semester (on the subject of Essentials of Mid-Century American Nonfiction). And then there was dinner at Bread and Cup last night, as it was Bread and Cup Wednesday. Local food just tastes better.

This morning, the air was on the cold side of crisp and my neighbor and I had a discussion on the way to campus about how fifty degrees (the high for today) in November is not the same fifty degrees as March. In November, fifty degrees is jacket, hat, and mittens; fifty degrees in March is shorts and a t-shirt.

Today in my English 150 class (Rhetoric as Inquiry), we're starting our third and final unit of the semester, on the topic of how have humans shaped place--and how does place shape humans? We're reading Mark Tredinnick's awesome The Blue Plateau to go along with it. Tredinnick visited UNL last spring and kindly visited my class; this semester we're reading the whole book instead of just excerpts. Next week, my class is going to Morrill Hall, to the natural history museum, and I'm excited to hear what my students find there. Many of them have been there before, on school field trips and such, but this time around, they've got a different purpose, a different way of looking at what's there. Love it. Museums are not boring, people.

So, today's class on Tredinnick will talk about settler culture, difficult landscapes, and more. There are days that I'm more excited to teach than others--but today is one of those days where I'm particularly excited. This book is about wanting to belong--and a book about failing to belong. How and why does he fail--and was that always a foregone conclusion? We'll talk about pastoral landscapes, this particular definition taken from Tredinnick's anthology, A Place on Earth:

The literature of landscape we have made, therefore, has tended to take as its models for literary engagement with landscape the works of other citified cultures--it has written about landscape as Rome's writers did, as London's have... A pastoral engagement with land is sentimental and escapist rather than realist and vernacular. In it, nature is a foreign place to which one escapes, when one can, the stress and grime and world-weariness of the city. Pastoral does not witness; it idealizes or demonizes; and it sounds, even at its best, unrooted in the soil of the places it evokes. The place escapes it. It is an idyll of landscape made in the city. This is the nature of the greater part of our writing about place. Until now" (43).

And on Tredinnick's website, this gem, from his The Little Red Writing Book:

What makes writing worth writing--and reading--is what the story or the poem achieves beyond the tale it tells: its music, its form, the way it makes the ordinary world beautifully strange. A good tale is only good, in other words, if the telling is sound and memorable. It's the voice and mood, the arc and flow, the poetry of the writing that endure when the storyline fades. Literature doesn't aim to tell anybody anything. To tell a story or make a poem that makes sense, of course, you're going to have to convey some information. But that's not really what the work is for. Creative writing makes art out of the stuff of life, it makes it out of the words we speak, and it's for whatever art is for. How a piece of writing becomes a work of art--a plain but unforgettable thing--has everything to do with the integrity and humanity of its voice and the elegant of the work's composition."

It's a good way to start off a chilly Thursday morning in November. At least I think so. And so, to cap off this post, some writing prompts we will be doing:

  • What they won't tell you about ___ is ___.
  • This is the kind of place where___.
  • Describe a place as if it were a person, complete with hair color, height, personality, a favorite book, and more.
  • Name something significant that happened in this place--how you define "significant" is up to you.
  • If this place were a song, what would it be?
  • How do you get to this place? Write your way into this place. What are its boundaries? Theoretical? Natural boundaries (like a river)? Political? Cultural?
  • Where is the physical center of this place? Where is the emotional center of this place? Are they the same? Different? Write about that.
Happy writing! Happy reading!

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