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

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

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.

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