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

Monday, January 30, 2012

Eng. 252: Awesome Videos on Writing

Need a writing pick-me-up? Check out these videos I used in today's 252 lecture. (And I just figured out how to embed video. Prepare for more videos on this blog, now that I know how to do it.)

We're not reading Colm Toibin yet (CHOI-bin is how I'm told his last name is pronounced), but we will later in the semester. And in here, he's got a great line about Mary Lavin and writing the least-likely story. And in the second video, about the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer (and listening, actually). Brilliant. And in the third, Junot Diaz has great advice about comfort zones, mapped territory, and writing something new.

But here's the fun part. These were part of my lecture on narration and dialogue--and I always think it's valuable to hear the writers we're reading, see them (almost in person), because we often forget that it's an actual person who wrote what we're reading.

So we finished watching the second clip of Colm Toibin (my students made me repeat his name a couple of times) and then I told them to write that conversation as if Toibin were a character. You don't have to get the lines and the dialogue right--just write the dialogue. Write his eyebrows, write his jowls, write the tone of his voice, write his inflections. One of the big goals of yesterday's discussion of dialogue was to get them beyond attributive verbs (hissed, was one brought up). Hopefully it works. We ran out of time to talk about John McGahern, but we'll combine him with Edna O'Brien tomorrow. Whee!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eng. 252: Sean O'Faolain, "The Talking Trees"

We jumped into 252 with both feet today, with Sean O'Faolain's short story "The Talking Trees." O-FWAY-lun is how I'm told his name is pronounced. My knowledge of Irish things is largely written, not verbal, so my pronunciations are not what I would wish them to be.

We started class with a writing exercise out of the What If? book, Exercise #22 for those of you with the 3rd edition, which has a goal of creating a child narrator: "Using the present tense, write an early memory in the first person. Choose something that happened before you were ten. Use only those words and perceptions appropriate to a young child. The memory should be encapsulated in a short period of time--no more than an hour or so--and should happen in one place. Don't interpret or analyze; simply report it as you would a dream. When you can't remember details, make them up; you may heighten the narrative so long as you remain faithful to the "meaning" of the memory--the reason you recalled it in the first place." We wrote for ten minutes and then we talked about what we did to create this voice, how the sentences worked, the word choices, how we wrote about what we noticed, how we didn't interpret what we saw. It was a useful starting point to talk about O'Faolain, whose story is that of four teenage boys. The way the narrative starts is in the voice of a fifteen year old boy.

I divided the class into five groups of four and gave each group a specific question to consider, they would talk in their groups, and then we would come back together as a large group. Most importantly: what can we learn as writers from this story?

  1. Plot and conflict: what is this story about? (How many things is it about?) How does the story move? What moves it?
  2. Class and Gender: we can see that the author is working with class issues and gender issues, but we're interested as writers. How are these issues brought up, represented, constructed on the page?
  3. How does the POV shift between characters? How are the characters constructed on the page?
  4. Place and setting? How does it function?
  5. Voice. How is it crafted? Look at the first page, think Noah Lukeman and A Dash of Style.
When we came back together, we had a great discussion. We talked about the way that the setting reflects what's going on there, how the story starts in a candy shop and moves to a darker place, how that reflects the childlike characters and their childishness and moves into a more grown-up place. We talked about the way that class and gender work on the page, how that's constructed in dialogue, in characterization, in the tone. We talked about how Gong Gong is where the story rests, because it's his character who takes the conversation out of the candy shop and moves it from thought to action and it's Gong Gong who becomes the point of the story by the end, shedding the nickname that others gave to him and becoming himself ("Tommy"). We talked about music and class, we talked about how where Gong Gong was prone to bursts of dialogue (as he's described at the beginning) and how by the end of the story, he's lost that childish-outburst type of style. We talked about how the subject matter (teenage boys being afraid to talk to girls) is as relevant today as it is in the story, that while the place/setting itself is essential to the story, the universal quality of the story itself is what makes it resonate.

And then there's the final paragraph. Dear students, never underestimate your sentences.

We concluded class thinking about what this story can teach us, as writers and my students piped up with things like not being as afraid to use younger characters; that there's as much drama in the teenage years as there is outside of them; that just because the drama isn't Death, that doesn't mean that it won't make a good story; and once again, I walked out of that classroom thinking that 50 minutes is a really short amount of time.

For Friday, we're reading Bridget O'Connor's "Postcards"--and this always throws me for a loop because one of my characters in my novel is Brighid O'Connor. All in all, quite a good day teaching.

Eng. 150: Jonis Agee, Special Guest Star!

Mornings like this remind me that I'm a morning person and there's a reason for it. Of course, a good night's sleep helps too. But this morning, I'm in my windowless office on the 3rd floor of Andrews Hall, drinking Assam "strong enough for a mouse to trot across," my feet propped on my desk, new, awesome shoes on the floor. The lamps are on, it's cozy in here, and all is right with the world. I love my life.

This morning, in my 150, Dr. Jonis Agee came to visit. We've been reading her novel The River Wife in that class, talking about identity and characters and the New Madrid earthquakes. As I mentioned to my friend Jacob on my way down to class, this is one of the moments of teaching they never tell you about, when your students come into class, absolutely beside themselves with surprise that the liked the book you assigned. Because of scheduling, we're actually going to finish the novel on Friday. I knew my students would love her, because she's one of the biggest personalities I know, she laughs like the world is full of joy and jokes, and she doesn't pull her punches. What I won't tell my students is that I have a Post-It note on my sightline at home, so when I look up from my computer I see this admonition: "Just write the fucking thing. -Jonis Agee." And that makes me put my eyes back on my computer screen. She's a writer whose voice you can hear on the page with perfect pitch. I admire her a lot, and not just because she's my advisor.

She started out by telling us how the story started, what led to it, and she was visiting a bootmaker in the Ozarks who had just returned from New Madrid. "I always drive through New Madrid fast," he said. "Why would you do that?" she asked. Because that place still has quakes every day, little shivers. When Jonis started doing research--"because that's what writers do"--she learned the story of a girl who would morph into the character of Annie Lark in her book, a girl who was trapped in her cabin by the New Madrid earthquakes and left to die. Jonis describes this as "haunting," that the story of this girl haunted her--"and if you're a writer, you have to do something about it." And do something she did.

Here are some of the questions my students asked and the conversations that came out of those questions:

1. Who killed Baby Jula, really? Whose fault was it, Jacques or Annie's? Jonis said that she considered them both guilty, because they both played a part in it; my student blamed Jacques more. Jonis said that she considered that even the core event that destroyed their marriage, an event that started with Jacques being willing to buy and sell human lives, being willing to do anything after that.

2. Annie's death. Jonis said that she always felt Annie was living on borrowed time, that sooner or later everything that Jacques touched would be destroyed. She asked a very pertinent question that seems to resonate in many spheres in this book: what does it cost to have dreams? (We didn't talk about this in class, but how would each of those characters answer that question--Omah, Laura, Little Maddie, Jacques, Dealie, Annie, Chabot, Hedie, Clement, and all the others). Jonis said that she saw Annie and Jacques locked together in a passionate dream that would both destroy them both but not let them go.

3. The role of place. The role that the earthquakes and the flood had in the characters' lives is a matter of knowing the place where you live (something that my students and I are starting to talk about in more depth as we become more familiar with the concepts). The river floods. That's what it does. And Jacques, in his quest for control, forgot that. It's interesting how the river bookends Annie and Jacques' relationship--it brings them together and it tears them apart. The river brings both wealth and destruction. When we forget what the place is, that's when things get dangerous. Or when we think we can control a place.

4. Framing structure with Hedie's story (in the 1930s). Jonis said that she always felt like Annie's story wasn't big enough to carry the whole novel, that the first chapter from Hedie's POV was the first thing she ever wrote, the voice that stuck with her--and that chapter was supposed to be a short story. Eventually, though, the story wouldn't go away and it became more important to show this one place through time, through all the people who lived there.

5. The writing process. I love when my students ask this particular question, because it's part of my goal every semester to get my students to figure out their own process, because it's never going to be the same as anybody else's. Jonis has a page limit every day, not a time limit, and she usually writes early in the morning. The River Wife, she said, took between six and eight drafts, and took her eight years to write. I think this, also, is the single greatest moment that my students can hear--that published writers go through the same process they do, of drafting and revision and struggle and joy and all of it. What they see in front of them, perfect though it may be, never started out like that.

She said that she carries around a writer's notebook and that she and Ted Kooser have had a constant conversation about the search for the perfect notebook (Kooser is also coming to our class in a few weeks). Writers, she said, are also on the search for the perfect pen, the kind of pen that makes you feel good when you write.

Jonis mostly writes on the computer, but if something isn't going right, she'll usually switch mediums, to pen and paper. Some writers, she told them, write their first drafts longhand and then transcribe it to a computer and that's their first revision. She told the story of Kerouac writing on a long roll of paper, so he wouldn't lose his momentum. She talked of giving her intermediate creative writing students an assignment to write as fast as they can with no punctuation, no capital letters, nothing--and to write two pages a day for seven days. The goal is to not write backwards. I loved that. How often do we go back and delete what we just wrote when we're working on a computer? I love the idea of not being able to go back, only able to write forward. I might try that myself, just to see what comes of it.

My students were actively engaged in the discussion, leaning forward in their chairs, smiling and nodding, even if they weren't speaking. When class was over--and we probably could have gone for much longer than our allotted 50 minutes--the majority of the class waited in line outside in the hall for her to sign their books. Happy sigh. I just love the days that remind me why I do what I do.

Monday, January 23, 2012

State of Mind: A Response to Anis Shivani

It would be very easy to dismiss Anis Shivani and his latest rant “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy for the Disaffected Masses” in language my amazing mother would disapprove of (she was very insistent at “no body parts, no body functions,” especially at the dinner table) and it was my instinct to employ silence as a rhetorical device and not even engage him, because it really seems like his purpose is to incite, not provoke legitimate dialogue—but then once I realized that not saying anything was part of his goal in silencing, that put my back up, and here we are. It seems that I always come away enraged when I read anything he's written, yet I can't help clicking on links when they come up to see what he's done now. I could write a lot more than this on this topic, adding references to all kinds of writers, but then we’d also be here forever. So, as you read this, know that there is always more to add to the conversation.

Shivani asks the age-old question, can creative writing be taught?, and such a question will never find an answer among writers. As a teacher, I believe it can, though there is a line between talent and skill, but Shivani intends to take the question in a different direction, which in itself is well within his rights to do. Extending and complicating a question like this is important for the writing community, but the main problem with Shivani’s rehashing this old question is the gendered way in which he does it, destroying the female perspective and contributions and highlighting only that which is male. He writes in the second paragraph that “Creative writing is not literary writing as has been understood for all of the history of writing. Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities… More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop.” Whether Shivani has taken any courses that might have introduced him to the history of rhetoric or the craft of writing is unclear. But the rhetorical canon aside, the main issue that Shivani overlooks—whether intentional or not, in his purpose to incite as much reaction as possible in his readers—is the difference between creative writing and literature: literature is artifact. As my fiction students identified last week, artifact brings to mind archaeology, digging, brushing away, interpreting this long-dead item for what it can tell us. Creative writing, on the other hand, considers a text as a living, breathing thing, something that puts my students in a chair next to Raymond Carver, because “Cathedral” did not spring, fully-formed, from the mind of Carver. He was once a beginning writer too. He wasn’t always Raymond Carver.

What is clear, however, that Shivani has equated creative writing with the feminine, and “real” writing with the masculine, for the purpose of silencing voices other than his own. Calling creative writing “Oprahfied” certainly genders the creative writing in terms that call to mind powerful women, mass appeal, and to him, little substance. From this argument, only women go to therapy; men do not. But what is particularly interesting about this phrasing is that it is a female mindset that phallically penetrates the workshop. He genders the workshop itself in other ways, using “she” to represent the creative workshop teacher—though it is interesting that as Shivani also argues that students are guided to imitate the models that the female teacher brings to class (Carver, Hemingway, Barthelme, Plat, Glück, and Levine are the ones he mentions), two women, four men, but the method of imitation that he rails against comes strictly out of this classical, masculine, rhetorical tradition. In Cheryl Glenn’s article “Silence: A Rhetorical Art for Resisting Discipline(s),” she writes “gendered power differentials [still] continue to determine who gets to speak out, who should remain silent, who gets to decide—and when” (267). And, as we will see later here, gendered power differentials also still determine what we can and cannot write about.

But it also defines what forms of writing are acceptable to Shivani, a move that discounts any other method of telling than his own. Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald write that “women have often written in unprivileged or devalued forms such as letters, journals, and speeches to other women” (xx) and “they write of the necessity of an education, the perils of marriage, the catastrophe of abuse, the conditions of women’s poverty, or the pleasures of women’s sexualities” (xxi). As women find voice, a consideration of different forms is necessary, because a linear form often does not represent fully the subject matter that a particular author brings to the page. From my perspective, a recovery of women’s voices, rhetorics, and literatures is an important adding-to of the vast world of words and though—not a taking-away. I simply don’t understand why some men feel so threatened by literature written by women—and to extend this, why the literary world feels threatened by reading minority writers, LGBTQ writers, or anyone else.

Shivani continues, “Literature as we have known it though history springs from genius—that most politically incorrect of words. By definition, no creative writing teacher can give official sanction to this terminology. And so the literary criticism of Horace or Sidney or Coleridge or Eliot is out the door. All of literary criticism is banished. Creative writing can flourish only in this enormous vacuum. Creative writing is taught with this single most important premise: no criticism, as the word is traditionally understood, can be allowed into the workshop.” At this point, I actually agree with Shivani—sort of—which is enough to make me slightly nauseous. I think that criticism should play a large part in the creative writing classroom—but craft criticism, not literary criticism. Traditional literary criticism has its role in the literature classroom, where it is extremely valuable in interpreting the artifact of a text. The beauty of criticism in that sphere is that it is constantly changing, constantly recovering lost voices, constantly questioning the perspective that one brings to the reading of a work. Craft criticism is different. Craft criticism looks at the way a text is constructed to achieve the effect that literary criticism looks at. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” which we discussed in my fiction class on Friday, we don’t care if the story is about abortion, what the title might represent, what symbols and metaphors and such Hemingway used. We looked at how he constructed the ambiguity of the story, how he crafted the dialogue, used the repetition of phrasing to construct the characters, used his punctuation (we’d also been reading Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style), to end up with the story we were reading.

But what Shivani defines as genius is complicated in “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities” (Huffington Post 8/13/2011) when he attempts to silence the female poets in ways we women writers have come to expect: “One would think that a celebrated female poet like Sharon Olds would show some signs that she had assimilated the key ideas of the twentieth century—or even since the late eighteenth century. But Olds is like a time-trap in medievalism, stuck in her obsessions with bodily flows, the pain of childbirth, and the witchery of men who love like it hurts…but it might as well be in a land before constitution, consultation, and communication.” What Shivani fails to understand—or at least acknowledge and articulate—is that women writers being able to write on such topics is a very recent acquisition, even as he rails against confessional poetry. In his attempts to silence the validity of women’s voices, the way that women—and more than women—come to voice in the creative writing classroom, are relegated to realms of “therapy,” which still retains a stigma of shame. Teaching students to be ashamed of their bodies, their experiences, and their traumas is absolutely unconscionable. Cheryl Glenn, in “Mapping the Silences, or Remapping Rhetorical Territory,” writes, “For the past twenty-five hundred years in Western culture, the ideal woman has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence), a closed body (chastity), and an enclosed life (domestic confinement)” (1). Writers are told to “write what you know” and until only very recently have women in the United States been permitted to know anything but their own bodies—and even then, their bodies have legally been controlled by the men in their lives. Still, today, men want to control women’s bodies and our decision about what to do with them. And even this basic freedom for women is not universal. And those are perspectives we need to be reading too.

Until recent decades, women writing about their bodies and their experiences has been confined to “confessional” writing—and demeaned in the doing—but even as I write those phrases, women writing illness narratives, addiction narratives, and other deeply personal things is still largely dismissed in the writing world, often shelved in “self-help.” Even Susan Sontag, writing Illness as Metaphor at the beginning of this phase, could only write about her experiences with illness in a form that did not recognize her personal experience as a valuable source of knowledge and understanding. But such silencing affects men as well as women: while it is slightly more acceptable these days to write about motherhood, menstruation, rape, and other personal issues rooted in the physical body, the flip side is that it’s less acceptable for men to write about fatherhood. Yet it was Philip Lopate who wrote Portrait of My Body, navel-gazing at its literal best. But it’s still less acceptable for non-white, non-straight men to write about themselves honestly, let alone about their bodies.

Shivani argues for tradition in the literature/writing classroom even as he argues against it. He writes, “Literature is about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time, how history and politics have shaped national literatures, how you can not necessarily learn—for that is too reductionist a term—but by challenged by great writers like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Kafka, to create something utterly unique to yourself.” Of course, he seems completely unaware—or purposefully remains unaware—of the way that masculine traditions have shaped literature, how it has shaped the canon, even to how masculine voices are the ones, traditionally, who have run academic departments and decreed what can and should be read in various classes. And of the great geniuses he mentions, all of them are men. This is not to say that Chekhov and Tolstoy and Kafka are not brilliant, but it reduces the vast world of writing down to a tiny sphere of What Is Acceptable To Read. And he remains ignorant of why any of that would be problematic.

He argues that “Literature is not about expressing yourself,” and again he uses “penetrate,” and in his picture of the creative writing classroom, the students who “eagerly participate” in this “mild form of hazing” are all gendered male. And he concludes his argument that “[creative writing] is perhaps also a refuge from self-help (which is where memoir flourishes)… No wonder creative writing is the most popular scene on campus. Show don’t tell, find your own voice, write what you know, sure, you can do that while carrying on a hectic social life and not even feel guilty you’re wasting time. Come to think of it, Louise Glück, that Pulitzer winner, doesn’t look at all that different from what you’ve been doing.” The voices he is disparaging here through his sarcasm—not to mention using a female Pulitzer winner as his example of creative writing gone wrong—are the voices we most need to recover from silence. It is the reason that my students have no idea that there are more writers in Nebraska than Willa Cather—and introducing them to various contemporary writers of the Midwest teaches them that they can participate in this community of words, that the Midwest is still a valuable place on the planet, that their perspectives are valuable, and even essential. It is an opportunity, not a problem. To quote Audre Lord, who argues for the value of perspectives: “‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine,’ yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust? Or another, ‘She’s a white woman and what could she possibly have to say to me?’ Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’ Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’ And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other” (304). What Shivani is ultimately arguing for is a continuation of the white, straight, male, privileged class that has dictated What Is Literature since rhetoric began (ironic, he doesn’t fit into that paradigm either). If that’s all he wants to read, that’s his business, and I wish he’d leave the rest of us alone. He’s not a teacher; his website only claims a bachelor’s degree in economics as his education. What right does he have to speak for us?

But that is not what literature is. Literature is the voice of a perspective at a specific time during a specific event. But creative writing is how we get to the literature. If there’s any element of therapy in a creative writing classroom it is to teach students that their perspectives are valuable, that you can write about anything you like (and sometimes that should go no further than your diary), it’s teaching that “what you know” is valuable, because the reality is that my students don’t think it is. That’s why I have to tell them I don’t want to see any science fiction stories—they feel attracted to writing about brand new worlds because they don’t believe that the world in front of them has anything left to see, to say, to learn from.

If you feel like weighing in, please do! I don't pretend to have all the answers--and a discussion would be lovely!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I Teach, Wednesday Edition

I did my fair share of complaining this weekend for having MLK Day off, not because I object to the holiday or the reason for it, but because it comes at such a dumb time in the semester. I have the same problems with Labor Day. I just meet my students, we just get started, just start to create a momentum in our classroom and then I don't see them for almost a week. So my goal yesterday was to get some of that momentum back.

In my 150, we started reading Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife, which my students were excited to tell me how surprised they were that they were liking it. Most of them had read beyond the assigned pages. I'm having small groups do author presentations for the major authors we're reading, so my first group did theirs on Jonis--and it was wonderful. I just love this class so much I can't hardly stand it. Not only was the presentation great, giving information about her, her books, the background on the New Madrid earthquakes, GET THIS: they emailed her to get more information about some things, because they couldn't find it any other way. I just wanted to dance at their initiative. (Of course, I didn't and we were all grateful for it...) So amazing.

Then we talked about the Ryden essay from last week a little bit, because we went to the museum that day and here's the most important moment that came out of that class yesterday: when we talked about how people view the Midwest as backward, wondering if we have malls (as a student mentioned yesterday), wondering if we have running water, my question was: how is this possible? How is it possible that this is still the image of the Midwest that's out there? The point of the Ryden essay is to argue that the Midwest is just as full of history and wonderful things happening right now as any other place. But when we think of Nebraska literature or Midwestern literature, we think Willa Cather (and all my students shuddered)--we don't think Jonis Agee, or Ted Kooser, or any of the other amazing Midwestern writers who are writing fantastic work.

And here's the moment of the day: one of my student piped up and said she thought it was because we're so focused on the past here. We learn about our history in school, but we don't learn about the present and the future. We read Willa Cather, we don't read anybody else. We know this place is complicated and valuable to us, but what we're taught has everything to do with the past. Not who we are now. This isn't to say that the past and history isn't important, because it is, as we've seen in Ryden and the museum, but we need to do some thinking about the present, the here and now.

I love my job.

We talked some about The River Wife and we ran out of time, but the point of today's discussion of the book was to think about the ways that the characters were formed and shaped by the New Madrid earthquakes. Tomorrow, we're going to talk about "who is othered in this book?" I'm having them read some scholarly articles for every class, to complicated the book, but I think that I'm going to need to give them another way to think about those articles, because they're in that "if I can't relate to it, if it doesn't do anything for me, it can't matter" and that's not true. So it's going to be a matter of giving them tools to understand complicated material and question why it was so important to read that I'm having them do it.

Yesterday in 252 was the first really good day I've had in there, mostly because I'm still getting used to the MWF-50 minute schedule. Last semester, you may recall, was a Tuesday 3-hour class. I'm still getting used to the rhythm and finding out what I can and can't do in 50-minutes. But yesterday was the first day that we've gotten into the main course of fiction and craft, beginning to talk about voice and sentencing and characters. I had them read the first chunk of Noah Lukeman's awesome book A Dash of Style--and they loved it. I figured most of them probably would--but I just love that moment of "I never thought about it that way!" It felt good. The discussion after the lecture felt good. On Friday we'll talk voice and character and Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." Not yet too deep into the Irish fiction, but that'll come. Need to find a balance of working with what they know before I push them off the deep end.

On a completely separate note, yesterday our intrepid former custodian James Cherry (he's been moved out of Andrews Hall to Seton, I hear) did his recitation of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Bailey Library yesterday morning. James was there, in 1963, to hear the speech in person--something that just makes my skin tingle--but then he gave the speech. Memorized, as he's done every year for forty years. It was beyond incredible. It's been a long time since I've been moved nearly to tears by something like this. Incredible.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eng. 150: Morrill Hall and Disruptions

As I mentioned last semester, I'm sure that the rate of posting will go down as the semester picks up speed. But for now, enough is going on that's worth sharing that I'm going to keep at it. Today I took my Eng. 150 class to Morrill Hall, the natural history museum. The purpose of this first week in our Rhetoric as Inquiry class is, as far it is possible for me, to disrupt what they think they know without scaring them so much that they shut down out of fear. So far, it appears all is going well, on all counts.

We started out in the large mammoth and mastodon room at Morrill Hall to get our bearings before I sent them out on their own. I asked them to read Kent C. Ryden's article "Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity" to orient their thinking. I asked them what Ryden had to do with us being here and one of my students very promptly answered that "we do have a history in the Midwest." The point of Ryden's article is to contrast the way that history is visible in other regions (the Northeast and the South). My student said, paraphrasing Ryden, that our history in the Midwest is not defined by an event in the way the Northeast defines itself by the Revolutionary War or the South does by the Civil War; our identity, for that matter--but that doesn't mean we don't have one.

Some moments in Ryden's article that are particularly thought-provoking:

"'Region' in this sense implies a historical veneer through which a section of the country is seen, understood, assigned meaning, and given identity according to some defining experiences located deep in the past, a crucial phase or moment at which the region was broken away, stamped for life, and set on its separate cultural course within the national collective, having achieved an identity that it is believed to maintain with greater or lesser dilution to the present day" (513).

"Lacking the historical touchstone of identity so readily available to other regions, midwesterners are required to do a different sort of imaginative work. Instead of adopting and adapting a ready-made history, they continually construct the past anew from the materials at hand...locating regional identity not in a spot but in the spot on which they stand" (513).

"Travelers in the Midwest, by contrast, notice something very different as they move through the landscape. The signs at town borders tend to bristle not with long-ago dates but with the names and accomplishments of athletic and academic champions from the local high school, a practice I have never seen in New England...a need, I suspect may seem particularly urgent in a part of the country that, unlike New England, has no obvious claim to be the locus of a national origin myth" (517, 519).

"[Many observers] are so unimpressed that they insist on seeing flatness in a landscape that is really quite rumpled, filled with swelling hills and interesting glacial leavings if not mountains. Not seeing any obvious topographical or historical significance in the landscape around them, they witness nothing at all, intuiting and projecting emptiness in a region that residents could tell them is actually richly textured; it is just that the texture is subtle, the flatness is finely calibrated and frequently interrupted, although none of these nuances is particularly obvious unless you have spent time there" (521).

"True, the region may lack a defining historical moment and an agreed-upon pantheon of cultural heroes. To expect these things, though, is to come at a definition of regional identity from the wrong direction, a direction inappropriate to midwestern circumstances" (528).

The point, I said, why we're here, is this: we're talking about this place we all home and what we know about that place that shapes who we are and how we think. We're here at Morrill Hall to either learn more about how and what history is written in this place--or to find out that maybe we don't know as much as we think we do. I asked them to be on the lookout for surprising things, weird things, things they didn't notice when they were here as kids. And I sent them to explore on their own.

While I was waiting for them, I skimmed through their first Think Pieces that they had just turned in. And I'm so proud of them that I just can't stand it. My grin just got bigger and bigger the more I read through their ideas and reactions. Most of them expressed some dismay at the confusion they felt after reading the Steinberg and Warnock articles (that we read for Wed.)--what they thought defined a natural disaster was basically destroyed--and neither I nor the authors gave a suitable definition to replace it. A great number of them admitted that these two authors forced them to be more open minded about natural disasters as Acts of God or Acts of Humans, expressing very strong religious beliefs in a God who still controls nature to teach humans a lesson. Even so, their ideas of that were complicated in ways I was very pleased to see them admit.

A few students wrote about wondering how a class on natural disasters--a subject they did not know much about--would go. Would it be boring? (This, of course, is always a chief worry of mine as a teacher, as it is for many teachers...) But already, just one week in, they're being open minded, at least, if not as excited about this as I am. And, one student mentioned that when the teacher is excited, it's a lot easier to get interested--especially at such an early hour of the morning.

When we all came back together, I asked them what they'd found and they talked about the camels, about other things that surprised them or they didn't know about. Lovely to hear what they were thinking, what they don't know about this place many of them have called home since childhood. Love it. I can't wait to talk more about Ryden's article in depth next week, as we expand our thinking.

Next week we start reading Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife--and one student, in her Think Piece, already started it and is loving it. I just love my job.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Eng. 150: What is a Natural Disaster?

This morning, the weather changed. Where it's been unseasonably warm for January in Nebraska, barely requiring a jacket, let alone mittens, this morning was chilly and windy and made me regret leaving the house with wet hair. There was Pepto-Bismol pink of the sunrise reflected on the buildings I passed on my way to campus, but strangely, it felt as if the light came from somewhere else, because it didn't feel like the sun was actually rising. Very odd way to start the day.

Today was the second time I've met with my new English 150 class and I went into class thoroughly caffeinated and energized by what we'd talk about today and hoping that my enthusiasm, my very large Stanley thermos of Earl Grey Supreme, and what we'd read would somehow translate to my students. Since we don't know each other very well, I didn't have high hopes for getting them to talk about two scholarly articles on topics they had little knowledge of. But it was a great class, so exciting that it's given me the push I needed to get out of the First Week Worry that this brand new class on a topic I hadn't taught before and now I'm just straight-up excited for the rest of the semester. My students are talkative and willing to be interested, which is more than I could have asked for at this early date.

I had them read Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" and Mary Warnock's "What is Natural? And Should We Care?" I started off the class with a short free write, a space for them to define for themselves--and then we would construct a collective definition--of what constitutes a Natural Disaster. They offered things like death, destruction, caused by nature, unexpected, out of our control, affects a group of people (rather than an individual), affects an area, involves the elements (water, fire, land, etc.). From there, we complicated those definitions, because the point I wanted to make with Steinberg and Warnock was that defining such things is not as simple as it sounds. Death is not the only way that humans can be scarred by a disaster. In the 1997 Red River Flood, nobody died, but that didn't make it any less horrifying. Caused by nature--what does that mean? Because Steinberg starts his article with a reference to the 1889 Johnstown flood, which was partially caused by spring rains, but it was the faulty dam that failed that caused the catastrophic flood. We'll talk about Erik Reece and mountaintop removal--that's a human thing that's causing catastrophic environmental damage. So it's not just nature--people are involved. Unexpected works in some areas, but we saw Katrina coming, we saw the 1997 Red River Flood coming--that doesn't make them less a disaster.

From there, we talked about both articles and the way both authors worked through natural disasters by bringing in the human component. Culture is a very influential filter of disasters, how we think of them, how we understand them. Natural disasters as morality tales is one of our oldest forms of storytelling. Plato's telling of Atlantis was a morality tale. The biblical flood is a morality tale. But even more complicated is the way that both authors discuss "natural" and "unnatural," how disasters are either Acts of God and something completely out of our control or they are completely explainable as to how humans contributed--and both authors' arguments culminated in "it's not that simple."

Trying to understand natural disasters is our earliest form of trying to figure out the world around us. It's how we get the Greek myths, how we get Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. And once we start to understand the place we come from, we understand how it works, how the way that that the Red River floods can be explained by its geologic history and the soil composition around it. Warnock also made the point where the environment stopped being just nature and became political nature and economic nature. I said that nature wasn't just what Thoreau went to find at Walden. What keeps nature natural is a matter of politics and economics. A very interesting moment.

One of the greatest moments that came out of class today was one of my students, when we were briefly talking about the Dust Bowl: why didn't they leave? An excellent question--why didn't they leave? Those who left Oklahoma and went to California left--and what happened to them? What other things might be in play that people wouldn't leave? What would prevent them from leaving? He also said something about cloud seeding and such as being crazy and why didn't they just wait out the drought, have faith that once you hit rock bottom, things will come back up? Another truly excellent question--but how did they know that things would get better? How are things not that simple? At what point, when the drought has been going on for ten years and your children are dying from dust pneumonia do you try anything and everything in your power to make it end?

The point of class today was to complicate--and yet somehow come to a common understanding--of natural disasters, how we would be talking about them with relation to understanding a place where we come from, how they might form personal identity as well as a community identity, and more. On Friday, we're going to Morrill Hall, to the museum to specifically explore "What don't we know about this place that we should?" My purpose is to further disrupt what they think they know, because the assumptions we make about place don't help us to understand it and how it affects us.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

State of Mind: Linguistic Ecology and its Implications

There's a moment that usually happens on the Sunday before a semester starts, where stress and worry turns into excitement for the semester to begin. Today it's happening in that space between my migraine existing and starting to go away. The weather is changing around here--they're forecasting flurries or some such nonsense--and that almost always gives me a headache. Add to that two late nights of short sleep with weird dreams and I just want to curl into a ball and wait for all that pain to go away. So, today has been a cocktail of Excedrin, Advil, tea, rice bags, and every other remedy I know to relax my muscles. Of course, there's no cure for the weather.

Now that my headache has started to go away, the stress of tomorrow leading to excitement, I'm really excited to teach my Natural Disasters 150 and my Irish 252. I hope I can interest my students and teach them to think about the world just a little bit differently. I have my box of books ready to go to the office tomorrow, and my bag will be packed tonight. One of the greatest things about teaching college is that the first day of school happens twice a year (of course, this is also a drawback...)

Here's the greatest part of the day: I've been stressing about what to do to propose for the IASIL Conference this summer (International Association for the Study of Irish Literature), the kind of stress that leads to this delightful headache. But yesterday, it all popped clear for me. I've been working for a while to create this space where environmental ideas and creative writing and literature can come together and it occurs to me that the ideas of linguistic ecology that I explored with my recent paper on the Irish essayist Tim Robinson (recently published in New Hibernia Review!) is something that I would like to keep working on. So, what if I continued that idea and kept trying to apply it to other pieces of contemporary Irish literature, and see where it leads me?

My current idea, which is in the fiddling-with-language stage of the proposal process, is to take Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea and filter it through my linguistic ecology to see what the choices he made as a creative writer have done to effect a particular ecological perspective. What interests me most right now is not just the sentence-level awesomeness that I love to do, but I also want to examine the physical form that the narrative takes as well. This is a very interesting book, craft-wise. It's written as a book within a book, with very interesting character/voice/POV movement, that uses different forms to move the narrative forward (footnotes, letters, newspaper accounts, etc.). The prospect is extremely exciting, only some of which is relief at filling the Void of No Idea.

And then, I enter the realm that has become familiar territory for me: nobody else does this kind of creative writing/linguistic ecology thingy, to my knowledge. If I take my Tim Robinson essay, add to it my impending essay on O'Connor, write a couple more (especially given my also-impending Focus List on Irish environmental prose), I could have a book before too long. That would be excellent, a larger project, something to work towards, rather than random essays here and there. And because I also always do this, I wonder what it would be like to teach a class on the subject? Hm. Might keep that in mind for my focus portfolio, the syllabi that are required as a part of it, and hmmmmm. The possibilities are endless. So many classes, so little time--time to focus on the ones I'm actually teaching!

Bring on the new semester!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bookmarking: Place in the Pages

Now I'm really stretching the purpose of this blog, but classes start next week and I'll be able to post on actually teaching things. But I wanted to take stock of my New Year, so far, because it's Day 5, and the reading has actually gone quite well. I'm trying to read as much as possible for my comps before the semester starts, because I don't know how much I'll be able to do--though I hope I can keep at a pretty good clip. So, to keep myself honest, here we go:

1. Dinty W. Moore's Between Panic and Desire. Freaking stupendous. I'd read parts of this, but never all the way through. I love that my comps is getting me to read all kinds of stuff I've put off till Later. I'm fairly traditional when it comes to nonfiction and form, but considering different forms is something I'm working on. My overarching question when the form isn't traditional circles around why write something this way? Mostly, my first introductions to experimental forms has come with pieces that feel like the writer is pulling a gimmick, trying to do something just for the sake of being weird, not because the piece demands such a form. With Dinty's pieces (some more than others, but that's going to happen in any book) the form was absolutely the right way to write his way through those ideas and those events. I'm looking forward to talking with him about this book at AWP, as well as my friend SFM, my resident expert in all things form.

2. Susan Orlean's The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. Hated. But I pretty much knew that going in. I'm not a fan of the New Yorker style pieces, of which this book is mostly composed. There's nothing in those style of pieces (I can't bring myself to call them essays, because they're not even close) that transcends their subjects. They're lovely in their writing--and they absolutely know their audience. However, because they're so topical with no perspective, they rely on their reader for meaning, which means if you don't know the person she's talking about, don't know New York or the place, or don't have some other sort of connection, it's going to be a waste of time. I will say that I think the New Yorker style inhibits Orlean, because those pieces that were not published in the New Yorker were near to brilliant. Those pieces allowed Orlean to make meaning out of the person, the event, the place, or whatever she was seeing. She's a brilliant writer, that's not in doubt. This just solidifies that the New Yorker wouldn't know a good essay if it bit them in the ass--what they do is good, but they should stop calling them essays. And stop clogging up Best American Essays with them. Sorry, sorry. Soapbox alert. Sorry.

3. Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. Not for my comps, but for enjoyment as well as wondering if I could possibly teach it at some point. It's been a long time since I've closed the back cover of a book with a heartfelt and reverent "holy shit," but this book was one of them. This book was so complicated, so brilliant, that I think it's definitely going to be on a teaching list one of these days. First, most importantly, the man can write a sentence. Wow. And the role of the place in the story was so much more than setting, second. Boston was not just a setting, but a place, a character, and acted as much on the human characters as they did upon it. I'm definitely teaching this one.

4. I haven't read David Quammen's Monster of God yet, but that's what's on my list for today. Bring on the charismatic mega-fauna! Stay tuned to see what I think of it.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On a Wednesday Before the New Semester

Why is it that when you have the least amount of time, when what time you have is very tightly allotted to various projects, that all the idea for other things come up. I was on the phone today with a friend and we were lamenting the stress of spring syllabi, because while we had the entire summer to plan fall classes, we only have a couple of weeks to do the spring ones. We figured that we should try--even as we wouldn't know what we were teaching in any given spring--to plan the spring classes over the summer too.

The imaginary class I'm planning in my head (only barely out of the dreaming stage, which is where I hope it'll stay for the foreseeable future, or at least till summer) has to do with literary mysteries, and teach it with a place emphasis: what role does the place play in the narrative?

I'd definitely teach William Kent Krueger again. Particularly Iron Lake, but I might revisit some of his other works. Maybe some Nevada Barr. But right now, I'm reading Dennis Lehane--Mystic River right now--and thinking that maybe this book would be a fantastic addition to my imaginary list. The book is so great that I'm only halfway through it and so blown away that sometimes I have to put it down to breathe. Core question for this book: how is he playing with the expectations of the genre and form in this novel? Such a good book.

I also found Benjamin Black's first novel, Christine Falls, at one of the thrift stores in Fargo over Christmas--Benjamin Black, of course, being the pen name of the one-and-only John Banville. This one I haven't read yet because its first couple of pages are being scanned, so I can teach my students about pacing (we'll read an excerpt from Mefisto, the first few pages of The Untouchable, and the first few pages of Christine Falls in my 252 this spring). Dear students, you will never be a writer unless you learn to love sentences. And it doesn't matter where you find them. Twilight, Harry Potter, Hemingway. It doesn't matter what you read as long as you read.

I stole the loving sentences bit from Annie Dillard. In "Write Till You Drop," she tells this story:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?" "Well," the writer said, "I don't know... Do you like sentences?" The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of the paint."


Anyway, I digress. As I'm starting to formulate this imaginary reading list, I realize it's very, very short on women. If you've got a favorite, one that uses place (urban or rural, all is good), let me know.

While I'm at it, my knowledge of canonical-type mysteries is low too. I'm a nonfiction writer, after all. Beyond Poe, I don't have much. So help there too would be great.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

I'm going to stretch the definitions of place and space in this particular post, because I need to put this in writing and it only has very little to do with teaching and place. But it does fit. Sort of. There's a bit of New Year's resolution in here, but not really.

1 January 2012 marks the beginning of my eight months of comps, which, at UNL, means that I've already submitted my reading lists for approval to the graduate committee, they've been approved, and I've got the go-ahead to go ahead. Because I want to finish both my Field and Focus portfolios by the start of fall semester, my plan is to do my Field in the spring and Focus over the summer. Each list consists of 30-40 books selected around a theme of sorts. The Field is designed to be the larger of the two, in terms of scope: mine is "20-21st c. American Nonfiction" and my goal is to write my paper on the Contemporary Essay. My Field list is "Contemporary Irish Prose: 1966-present" and I want to write on contemporary environmental prose, particularly in the West of Ireland.

In addition to these 20+ page scholarly papers, our portfolios will include an annotated bibliography of our reading lists, a syllabi based on the list, a statement of teaching goals, and such. I'm pretty excited about the whole thing, because this is a subject I'm in love with, books I want to read, and I have plenty of tea in my cabinet to get me through. I'm eternally grateful that the shift from creative writing to scholarly writing isn't a hard one for me (though I think that scholarly writing is equally as creative as "creative" writing).

So, this morning, while the bright New Year's sunshine fills my south-facing bedroom (the only windows in my apartment), while Galway sleeps on the radiator, sandwiched between the warmth of the pipes and the warmth of the sun, while Maeve sleeps on the fleece on the couch, I've got a pot of Almond Biscotti/Madagascar Vanilla tea in my favorite pink pottery pot that I bought for my birthday a few years ago and it's wonderful. The lights on my small Christmas tree are bright and comforting. Cinnamon candles warming the air. Dinty Moore's Between Panic and Desire on my coffee table, with a pencil.

I'm basking in the glow of great books to come, great classes to come, new friends, old friends, new students, new ideas, new experiences, and the general wonder of a brand new year. This year is going to bring a lot of exciting things and I'm ready for the challenge.