Today, the long-awaited day when Ted Kooser comes to visit my English 150 class. If you've been following this blog, you know that this class is deep into natural disasters and we're currently working on our second Writing Project, which deals with a specific natural disaster's effect on a community. My students turned in their topic proposals today and just skimming through them, I have several working on the 1975 Omaha tornado, the 1997 Plains storms, tornadoes in Arkansas, the European heat wave, earthquakes, snowstorms, and more. They just posted their weekly Think Piece to their blog last night/this morning--and I'm so excited about them, I just don't know what to do.
We finished David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard on Monday and for today, my students read Ted Kooser's poetry in Blizzard Voices. It's really interesting to see the difference in perspective that prose and poetry offers. We sat in a circle and the first question one of my students asked was about process, how Ted went about finding these voices. He said that he tried to stay close to the original source that the story came from, but using the poetry itself to highlight the drama of the voice and the story. And then Ted said something that resonated throughout the class period--and I think it's going to resonate beyond. He said that memories attach to concrete things, and so if you can find that concrete detail in a memory, that is what will keep it coming back. He told a story told to him, about an American Legion presence at a funeral and as they prepped for the gun salute, one of the guys got his yellow necktie caught in the gun and it wouldn't fire. He whispers to the platoon leader, what should he do? The platoon leader whispers back, simulate! The guy whispers to the guy next to him, what does simulate mean? He's told it means pretend. And so when the guns go off, the guy with the jammed rifle yells BAM! And so what we remember out of this memory is that yellow necktie. So find those concrete details.
I was curious about something Ted said, about still being curious about the Children's Blizzard, going (and returning) to see the graves in Seward, Nebraska--and what about this disaster still provokes such curiosity and wondering? He said that there's an energy in the air with things like this, and he likes to be in the presence of that energy. He likes to walk around, just to see what he can feel. I like the idea of lingering energy and that being a eternal springboard for trying to understand what happened in a place and the people it happened to.
Another student asked about Ted's writing process, how that might come out of his previous comment about liking to be alone. Ted said that he's always written, but because of his job at the insurance agency (he needed to be there at 8:00), he usually gets up at 4:30 to write, because when he gets home he's too tired. "I write poorly every day. I write well about once a month," he said. And this was something that I hoped my students could latch onto--not being afraid to write badly. It doesn't always have to be brilliant. It's all about the process and using the process to combat the fear, the thinking that what comes out of a page needs to be perfect the first time. Love it. He said that he writes in an 8 1/2 x 11" artist notebook, with blank pages, and it always starts as a journal entry. What he did yesterday. What the temperature is. Sometimes he'll doodle. And it might go no further than that journal type entry. But sometimes it sparks something. And that's what's important. He doesn't force the writing to go where it won't go and he said that if he gets six poems a year that he's happy with, that's a good year of writing.
Ted gave some specific advice to my students, that he started out in the insurance company in an entry level position and he retired as a vice president--and he thinks the main reason that was is because he could write. He'd never had a business class, but he could write. And so the other people who had business degrees would come to him, asking for help with their writing. Lots of people in business can't write, he said.
I also loved his comment that "writing is almost an athletic endeavor." He told us how he quit drinking 25 years ago and that was the best thing he ever did, because it was almost a second job. To be a writer, you need to eat well, sleep well, and be healthy, be disciplined about writing and about your life. This myth that you need to be a miserable starving artist is ridiculous.
To wrap things up, one of my students asked for specific advice as they went into their Writing Projects, how they might tease out some of the things he was talking about. Ted said that they should listen for concrete details (like the necktie), those things that memory is attached to. If you can get the person to think in terms of sensory images, that's really important--smells, sounds, that sort of thing. He also told the tale of trying to get his mother to talk about the house she grew up in, but she said (and this sounds like my grandmother), "Oh, I don't really remember anything about it" but then he had her draw a floor plan of the house--and I thought this was brilliant--and she could, in incredible detail. Doing this teased out that his mother and sisters and their mother slept in one room and the father and brother slept in the other room. "Your parents didn't sleep together?" he asked her. "Oh, no, I guess they didn't." There are ways to get people to remember--and I'm definitely trying that floor plan idea. Another question he likes to ask (and he got this from a friend) is have you met anyone famous?
He read the last poem in Blizzard Voices for us to wrap up the class (brilliant--see video in previous post), kindly signed my students' books, and then we said goodbye. My students, who I think were more intimidated than I expected them to be (especially considering how NOT intimidating Ted Kooser is), absolutely bubbled their way out of class. I can't wait to talk to them next week about their reactions. I love my job.