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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bonus Double-Post Wednesday: Place-Based Writing Exercises

I called it the Writing Blitzkrieg, which comes on the class period before the rough draft is due in my English 150 class. We've been talking about Mark Tredinnick's The Blue Plateau to complicate our ideas of how humans shape place and how place shapes humans, a conversation that has gotten consistently better as we get deeper into the book. They started out not liking it much, but once we got into talking about it, analyzing it both as readers and writers, they started to become more fond of it. I love it when that happens.

I've done this once before, where I've given them a zillion writing prompts in a very short amount of time and we've spent a maximum of five minutes on them, to give them as much exposure to different prompts as possible. It seemed to work well before, to jar them out of expected modes of thought, so I did it again.

Here are a bunch of the prompts I've used--and a disclaimer here: I got these prompts from somewhere a long time ago and I don't know where, so I'm unintentionally plagiarizing here. If anybody knows who these prompts belong to, please let me know and I'll give credit where it is due.

  1. Write a little something that includes the following: the smell of fresh-baked bread, hot peaches, a man in a beret, the words souvenir, clink, and lurk.
  2. Write about a time you either very very hot or extremely cold--and try to include something visual in every single sentence (a color, a description of an object, a metaphor). The idea behind this exercise is to combine two senses at the same time--the visual and the tactile.
  3. In this exercise, list ten places. (Any place will do.) Then list a smell that comes to mind in each place. After you have those ten places and ten smells, circle the pair that you find most intriguing and start writing.
  4. See #3, except do ten places, ten sounds.
  5. With specific detail that appeals to all the senses, describe windy weather on a city street.
  6. Imagine a body of water. Might be a lake or pond or river, anything. What do you see in your mind? Describe this body of water in detail--detail that addresses all the senses. What colors do you see? Lights and shadows? How does it feel on your skin? What is in it, near it? And in the last minute, write the feelings that this body of water evokes.
Happy Wednesday writing!

'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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Class Before Thanksgiving

This morning, I rode the elevator with one of the department's poetry professors, who commented that today should be like a ghost town around here and I agreed. It's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and for us, break starts tomorrow. Yesterday, my dear friend Mike Czyzniejewski posted this as his Facebook status: "I've never met people as thankful as my students this semester, many of who are taking a nine-day weekend to celebrate their awesome level of thankfulness. It's inspiring, really." I was, frankly, quite surprised that only two of my students in my 150 skipped this morning, mostly because their rough draft of their final Writing Project was due. Tonight, I know of one student who will miss Fiction, not because she went home, but because she got some theater tickets to something or other. We're Skyping with Kent Krueger tonight, so it's her loss, I suppose.

But today in 150, I tried a new workshop strategy that I'd not tried before. I got the idea from the ProfHacker blog on the Chronicle website: "Speed Dating Peer Review Workshops." The directions here are for an exercise on introductions, but since that's not something we need help on at this particular stage, I had my students choose one short section of their essay that they were nervous about, didn't think worked well, or they had a specific question about. We formed two circles, facing each other, and since we had an odd number of students, I hopped in to the mix. The pairs switched papers and each read the section identified and came up with a specific piece of advice. They traded advice, wrote down the advice on a separate sheet of paper (to keep the draft clean for the next person). Very quick--this whole process took 5 minutes. Then one circle stood up and moved one seat to the right. Five minutes. Next seat. We did this six or seven times and then I had the students look at the feedback they'd gotten and I had them write hard for five minutes, immediately starting to revise that section with fresh ideas. Write hard, keep going, if you get stuck write I'm stuck I'm stuck I'm stuck.

The consensus was that it was a good exercise, they got some interesting feedback and the quick writing netted some positive results. I'm looking forward to using this workshop idea in more classes, maybe even in a creative writing class. The quick nature of the feedback and that they got quite a few pieces of advice on the same section meant that if their partner gave them advice that didn't work, they weren't left with no advice.

My goal is to grade some of these rough drafts before I leave for home tomorrow, so I can spend the weekend playing with my family and chasing my niece. I hope they're good drafts!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Reading(s)

It's a lovely, chilly, sunny November Sunday and the Weather Channel warns of severe wind that could cause power outages. Fantastic. My pot of water is simmering on the stove, adding much needed humidity to the air so I can breathe. If we're going to lose power--which just should not happen--I figure I should already have some humidity going and a pot of tea refilled, just for such an eventuality. And I should really go put that load of laundry in the wash.


As I posted yesterday, I finally feel like I have my life back on track, at least professionally. I have my 150 for next semester figured out and as of yesterday, and a series of traded emails with the delightful Dawn Duncan of Concordia College, Moorhead (who is also my undergraduate Irish lit professor, as well as being my colleague and friend), led to the most spectacular idea and I hope to God it works. I emailed Duncan yesterday to get her take on whether I should assign John Banville's The Untouchable or Sebastian Barry's Annie Dunne for my Intro to Fiction Writing (252) next semester. Knowing what I know about Duncan and Banville and Barry, I figured it would be like trying to get her to choose between her dogs. Duncan is a post colonialist and I'm a writer, so why we would want to teach certain books is based in where we're coming from. She'd rather assign Barry's A Long, Long Way, which led to me asking her given what she knows about that book and about me, would she recommend that I teach a book that I haven't read yet. From there, we discussed Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, which is on my Field List, but I haven't read that either. And from there, we came up with what could potentially be the most spectacular idea: a collaboration between my creative writing fiction class and her literature class, reading the same book from different perspectives, then talking to each other about those perspectives. I have no idea how it's going to work--all hail the technology!--but I'm going to see Dawn at Thanksgiving and I'm sure we'll work it out. I'm so excited--I hope it works!

Because yesterday's writing was successful, today is devoted to tea and reading. And perhaps the aforementioned laundry, which is a great multi-tasking task. I'm almost through my first pot of Assam, ready for the refill, and on today's reading list is Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men. I'm a third of the way through it, basking in the love I already have for Lopez, and I really hope to finish it today. There's something really spectacular about reading that reminds me why I'm a writer. Reading good work--just like reading bad work--teaches you how to think, how to put sentences together, how not to be satisfied with the easy answer. So many books, so little time. Except for today, when I've made the time.

And the tea.

So here's the question of the day: anybody done a collaboration like this before, between a lit class and a creative writing class, reading the same book?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

State of Mind: 150 (again) and MN State Volleyball Championships.

The good news is that in the wee hours of Thursday night, when all seemed darkest (and perhaps influenced by the necessity of Benadryl to my allergies), I woke up in the middle of the night with the solution to my Eng. 150 problem for next semester. Hallelujah. It was enough that instead of just turning over and thinking I'd remember it in the morning, I got up out of bed, leaving behind the lovely electric blanket, and found my notebook in the living room. I jotted down what was in my head, because the subconscious was clearly at work here and I was clearly not awake, and then stumbled back to bed.

The idea was this: to more fully embrace place-conscious inquiry tenets, I reformed my class to function better at the 100-level. We're going to start with reading fiction, Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife, which starts with the 1811 New Madrid Earthquakes. It is no coincidence that I'm using this book as we pass the 200-year anniversary of those earthquakes. It's sometimes easier to see how place affects character and plot if we're looking at fiction, rather than our own lives. The goal here is to explore the natural disasters that have formed This Place, what's under our feet that we might not know about. We'll go to Morrill Hall and see how those bones and such can illuminate our ideas.

Then we'll shift into modern disasters: the 1888 Children's Blizzard (reading David Laskin and Ted Kooser) and then into the Dust Bowl (reading Timothy Egan). This writing project will be an oral history type of project in which the students will investigate how local disasters of recent memory (and it does not have to be those two) formed the identities of those who live in that place, in that community. Where I come from, the 1991 Halloween Blizzard is still indicative of my hometown (which I'll get to in a moment), because the town was empty to go watch the Tigers play in the football playoffs in the Twin Cities. That event says a lot about who Nevis is as a community.

The third project will investigate modern, human-caused disasters, because another tenet of place-conscious education is to move beyond the personal and immediate and into the larger world and the larger community. This week, Obama put the kibosh (basically, we hope) on the Keystone XL pipeline. The environmental catastrophe that would have resulted from this pipeline is incalculable. On this same day, a report surfaced that the chemical used to frack in Pennsylvania was showing up in the aquifer. So, we'll read Erik Reece's The Lost Mountain, about mountaintop removal for coal mining. We'll talk about the wetlands of the Mississippi being destroyed (and, maybe, get some face time with my favorite musician, Tab Benoit?--we'll see...). And we'll approach the topic--whichever one the students choose to write about--from a position of conservation or prevention.

I feel better about this.

I also believe it's no accident that after way-t00-long of trying to set up a Skype date with my friend N. (whose older sister J. was my good friend in high school and I'm J's daughter's godmother; and said daughter turned ten yesterday) the Skype finally happened. And not only did I get to talk to N. and her 2-yr-old E., who was rocking the little blonde pigtails, who should pop into the frame, but N.'s dad, Mr. Smith, my high school history teacher, one of my favorite people in the world. We talked a little about teaching, a little about Nevis volleyball--because, get this, NEVIS IS PLAYING FOR THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP IN VOLLEYBALL TODAY!! IN LESS THAN AN HOUR!!!--and see previous comment about the 1991 football, because I'm guessing most of Nevis is in Minneapolis today. Being in Nebraska makes watching MN high school volleyball difficult (even if the Huskers weren't playing Penn State today--another interesting example of community and disaster)--but the good news is that it's going to be streamed live on various websites, both radio and video. I'm sure I don't know any of the kids playing, but that doesn't matter.

It all comes full circle. Communities don't just exist in thin air. They are created and they must be fostered. All members of the community must contribute. Places influence who we are--even if we specifically reject that influence, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But it's valuable to look back to see how we got to where we are--as well as look forward to see where we're going.

Stay tuned for the results of the volleyball game!

(We lost the game 3-0, but I'm so proud of them!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

State of Mind: Post-Election and Week 12 Meltdown

A lot of things are on my mind, place-related, this morning, some of them pedagogical, some political, some personal--and some food-related.

My 150 students and I are not connecting well with each other right now and I'm supremely disappointed in them, for several reasons. The last straw was yesterday, when we went to Morrill Hall, the natural history museum on campus, to get some ideas for our third Writing Project, and when I asked them what they found, if they learned anything new, they just stared at me. Even "what was the weirdest thing you saw?" elicited blank stares. There will probably be a come to Jesus meeting with them tomorrow if this continues. Guess how much I'm looking forward to that. As a result, there is much stress in the Babine household today--and I'm going to cook my way out of it. Roast chicken, chicken stock, baked oatmeal, carrot ginger soup, and chocolate chip cookies.

My 252 is continuing to discuss Kent Krueger's Iron Lake and Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map. They're loving both books, for different reasons, and that just makes me happy. We discussed the middle section of Iron Lake last night and I love how discussing a book with students helps me to see things I never noticed before. The discussions last night of how many ways place and landscape and weather are active participants in the plot were spectacular. Next week, Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell are visiting campus and their reading is during our class time, so we're going to go hear them read. Should be a good time.

On a completely separate place-related note: at the grocery store this morning, the produce is displayed so it's the first thing you see. It's still apple season, so the apples are front and center. I am an apple nerd. Not an expert, but a nerd. My grandparents managed an apple orchard in New Ulm, MN in the 1950s and I've learned quite a lot about Minnesota apples. Earlier in the fall, Hy-Vee was selling Haralsons--and it's been years since I've had a Haralson, let alone seen them anywhere outside Minnesota. And then today, there were Firesides. It's been even more years since I've had a Fireside. I was so excited that I had to call my mother.

"Don't get the green ones," she said.

"I know," I said, "or it'll taste like a potato."

"Your grandmother will be so proud that you remembered," she said, laughing. Firesides are late apples and they have to ripen fully on the tree or they have no flavor at all.

The depths of my apple nerd-ity were also confirmed as I was watching ABC's new show Once Upon a Time. The evil queen--in her mayoral persona--was telling Emma that she has her own special apple tree, of Honeycrisps, though the link to the poisoned apple is obvious. However, the apples she has in her basket--and the ones that are on the tree in later scenes, are absolutely not Honeycrisps. They're not the right color or the right shape. The evil apples are Red Delicious, which in my own apple snobbery, seems about right.

I am a nerd.

But I'm also conscious of politics this morning and what it means to live in a place at a certain time. Yesterday, Ohio overturned SB5, which severely limited collective bargaining power. And Mississippi failed to pass its Personhood initiative, which would legislate that a fertilized egg is a person, with all the legal rights guaranteed to a person who has been born (except, as I saw one article say, a woman of childbearing age...). Dear students, if you don't think that place influences you, you only have to look at how different places define what it means to live there, or not live there, or the living conditions you are entitled to--or not--while you live there.

I hope Thursday's discussion in my 150 can convince them that the bubble they think they live in doesn't exist--and the world's a lot more interesting out here than it is in that bubble.

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!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching Iron Lake, Part 1

It was actually accidental that last week our craft lesson was on the rhetoric of beginnings, and we were starting two new books in my English 252 (Intro to Fiction). The first is William Kent Krueger's suspense novel Iron Lake; the second is Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map.

We started with Iron Lake and as we're concentrating this semester on reading like writers, we looked at this novel with the same eye that we've given any other written work in front of us. How was this created? What techniques can we discern--and emulate, possibly? We looked at how Krueger moves in and out of the main narrative, moving to flashback, to exposition. We considered how the dialogue was constructed and how it created characters and voice. As we were talking about beginnings at the start of class, we discussed how Krueger begins this novel (we read the first nine chapters).

In the first nine chapters, we are introduced to the main character, Cork O'Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. When we meet him, Cork's life is pretty messy. It's been a year since the recall election that forced him from his job, his wife wants a divorce, and it's Christmas and he misses his kids. Add in the main plot thread of a judge's death and a missing kid, cultural turmoil between the Anishinaabe on the reservation and the whites in the town of Aurora.

Here are some of the questions we asked:
  • What role does place play here? How it as much a character as Cork or Molly or Jo or anybody?
  • What role does weather and landscape play in advancing the story?
  • How does the book begin? What do we learn about Cork and Sam Winter Moon in the first few pages?
  • Consider the voice of each character: how is it constructed?
  • What does each character want--by the end of this section? What does Cork want by the end of these first nine chapters?
  • The prologue and the first chapter are both in the voice of fourteen year old boys (Cork in the prologue, Paul Le Beau in the first chapter). What does that do to the movement of the narrative?
  • What function does the Windigo serve? Obviously it serve a plot function--and we can talk about it from a literary criticism position and discuss metaphor, etc, but we won't. How is the character of the Windigo created and how does it work in narrative?
  • Where do you get the best insight into characters? (We discussed that it was in dialogue that we got the best insight into Cork, because he's a different person in his dialogue with Molly than he is with Jo.) We got our best characterization of Henry Meloux through dialogue as well, just that brief car ride where Cork picks him up on the side of the road.
  • In Chapter 4, the prologue plays an important role, because we see the return of Sam Winter Moon. By now, as all the characters are being introduced, we start to see how they all fit together.
  • Just from that first page of Chapter 4, what can we tell about Sam's character? Given the prologue, we get that he is showing compassion for Cork, who just lost his father. But in Chapter 4, we find that Sam has left "Sam's Place" to Cork, so it's obvious that they have created a special relationship, that they were close even after that bear hunting outing.
In their reading responses, my students commented on how Krueger created his characters, how closely they are written in the landscape; they commented on the dialogue; they commented on the descriptions; they commented on how the conflicts are set up. All in all, I was really proud of the way they looked at this book as something equal to what they were doing: a draft that had been sweated over, that took the same techniques and struggles that they are currently working through, that what Krueger is doing here in this book is what they're trying to do in their own stories. And they're getting more comfortable analyzing the craft of the writers we're reading. I love it.

And then we took a short break and I tried to set up the Skype, so we could talk with Mike Czyzniejewski, author of Elephants in the Bedroom and co-editor of Mid-American Review. The Skype didn't work, so we conducted the interview via speakerphone. Mike was great and my students asked some great questions--and even though I know how important it is (to me, as a teacher) to get my students to talk to established fiction writers, they were just so excited about what Mike had told them afterwards that it made all the technological difficulties worth the trouble. Tonight, Chapters 10-18 of Iron Lake!