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

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.

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