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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'Tis the Season...For Skype!

It's getting down to the end of the semester and the workload is increasing in inverse proportion to my students' willingness to do it. But it's also the season of Skype. For the last couple of semesters, my teaching philosophy and practice has been evolving (as one might expect with changing schools and starting a PhD program) and it's become increasingly important for me to get my students to talk with the writers who are writing what they're reading. Last spring, when the Australian nature writer Mark Tredinnick came to UNL, I corralled him to come to my Eng. 150 class--and my students loved it--which gave me the desire to try to do more.

This semester, I set up a conversation for my 252 with Mike Czyzniejewski, fiction writer and editor of Mid-American Review--and my students picked his brain for what he was reading, what his writing process looked like, what stories catch his attention as an editor, things to do and not to do. The best piece of advice he gave them was something his mentor told him: find the best story you know and go and write a better one.

Last week, my 252 Skyped with Kent Krueger, author of Iron Lake. We asked him about the use of place in his fiction (and he said that the best place-based fiction that he's found is in the genre novels, not literary fiction). We asked him about his process, what books he likes to read. (For me as a writer, my favorite question to ask any writer is what they're reading right now. Or what they've read lately that's set their world on fire.) He told us about his two failed novels that he wrote before Iron Lake, he told us what he went through to get that book published. (And after we hung up, my students were thrilled to learn that even published authors started where they're sitting right now. I love that moment.) Krueger asked us, since we hadn't asked, about why he'd killed off a certain character in Iron Lake. It seemed that he gets that question a lot and it surprised him some that we hadn't asked. In fact, we had considered that very thing a few class periods before--and we'd decided that Cork, the protagonist, did his best work when his world wasn't going right. Practically, Krueger said that he didn't know when started writing what would happen to that particular character and it surprised him when she died. But she had to, for the series to continue.

Last night, my 252 had a lovely conversation with W. Scott Olsen, author of more books than I can count and editor of the literary journal Ascent. What surprised me is how chatty and excited my students were before I turned on the Skype and then they got pretty shy, which was funny to me. But they asked about writing, they asked about publishing, about being interested in editing. We got insights into online literary journals and online submissions, to the future of e-books and such. We talked about what editing means and how many different kinds there are. Scott told a story about an essay I'd rejected at Mid-American Review that Scott not only took, but ended up in the Notables of Best American Essays. When I'd received my copy of Ascent, I'd emailed him, laughing over the weirdness of the whole thing, and then he pointed out that he'd cut the last page of the essay, which completely made it into a different, wonderful piece. In that way, editing is a lot like teaching--finding the potential and making it better.

I'm in the midst of possibly setting up a conversation with Mark Tredinnick for my 150 class for next week, but I'm not sure it will work. Tredinnick, who's in Australia, is 17 hours ahead of our time zone, which makes my 11:00 class at 4:00 in the morning for him. We'll see. But my students really ended up loving The Blue Plateau, as I knew most of them would, so it would do them good to talk to him.

Next semester, I've already got several conversations already on my syllabus, for both my 150 and my 252. I'm so excited about them, which is a lovely bright spot at the end of this semester. I'm doing conferences this week, trying to calm the fears of my students who are over their heads with stress. And so far, I've only been stood up once today.

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