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

Monday, February 27, 2012

Eng. 150: Finishing up the Dust Bowl

Today, we finished talking about Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time, just as my students turned in their second interview for their project (how their community has been shaped by a specific natural disaster).

We started off talking about the final chapters and how the response to the aftermath of the Dust Bowl sounds eerily familiar to our lives today. The same questions still rage: what is the value of a place? Does it only have value if it can be used? Just as Roosevelt proposed planting the Plains with trees to hold down the soil, we also talked about whether that means that we'd learned nothing from the last ten years. The Plains wasn't designed for trees--so would we only be courting further disaster, introducing vegetation which it was never designed to have? We'll be talking about Wangari Maathai later in the semester and the Green Belt Movement, but it seemed pertinent to bring it up now too.

My students were surprised how political the book became, how much the government and politics were involved in the Dust Bowl--in all stages. We came to rest on the question of where do we go from here? What do we do? (This is exactly the question I wanted them to come to, because WP3 is all about that...) My students were also really stuck on learning more about the Dust Bowl and other historical events in an English class than they ever did in a history class. And then I told them that history is only boring if you forget it's about real people.

Then we turned to their projects. This time, I had them imagine the disaster they're researching and write it as a story. Where are the concrete details, the sensory details? What was this disaster like? What did it smell like, feel like? They wrote for a while, more feverishly than I've seen them write in a long time. I wrapped them up after a few minutes and had them recast the interview they'd just done into a narrative. Some of them had expressed admiration for how Egan writes, the way he incorporates voices, but were nervous about trying out those techniques for themselves. So I wanted them to try. What does the person look like, what does their voice sound like? Where are you sitting? I'm really looking forward to how their paper turns out. So far, the blogs they've been putting together have been terrific and I'm really excited to see how they turn out. There will be some adjustments I make to the project as a whole, but so far, things are going fairly well.

Today, my 252 class is turning in a draft of their short story--and I'm excited to see what those look like, having talked about them with various students over the past couple of weeks. Should be interesting!

Saturday, February 25, 2012


The third Air Schooner podcast is up, the second to do with our lovely Irish issue. For my own endless literary vanity, this one also includes me, reading from my essay "Galway(s)." I can't figure out how to embed the podcast here in this post, so click here for it.)

And below is the whole essay (it cuts off abruptly at the end, but that is the end, so you haven't missed anything.)

(Of course, there's a little of is that my voice? to quote Yzma. Why do our voices sound so foreign to us?)

Eng. 252: John Banville and other Literary Crushes

It's no secret among those who know me that I have intellectual crushes. Yesterday a high school friend teased me for posting about my crush on Placido Domingo (he appeared on The Colbert Report the other day)--a crush I've had since I was a kid and saw him on Sesame Street with Placido Flamingo. It was the day I learned what "namesake" meant. But I also sent word to my three high school English teachers that the incredible William Kent Krueger was going to be in Park Rapids next week and if they didn't know his work, they should. Two of my teachers are retired (and I know they would love Krueger's mysteries), but one teacher is still teaching and I had a brief moment of wondering whether she would spread the word to her students, maybe take a few to listen to him. When Krueger Skyped with my 252 last semester, that might have been the highlight of the whole term for my students.

Yesterday, in my 252, we talked about John Banville, another of my literary crushes. I read The Untouchable during my MFA and loved it. An excerpt from Mefisto was in our anthology, so we read that on a day we were talking about voice and pacing, the Friday before their short stories are due on Monday. I paired that with the first few pages of The Untouchable and the first few pages of Christine Falls. And I remembered that Dawn Duncan, my mentor with whom I'm collaborating with Joseph O'Connor, she loves Banville, so I sent her a quick email--to which she replied that she and her students were boarding their plane for Ireland (it's spring break where she teaches) and I was instantly insanely jealous. She's going to meet up with O'Connor, I think, so I'm doubly jealous.

I did post an interview with Banville, talking about his writing and his alter ego, Benjamin Black (who wrote Christine Falls). One of my students wished I hadn't told him that Banville and Black were the same person. We talked about how a writer can so clearly choose his style and his voice depending on the story s/he's trying to tell. If we didn't know better, we would have no idea that the man who wrote The Untouchable and Mefisto is the same writer who wrote Christine Falls. The basic sentencing is different, the tone, the voice, the mechanics of it. But above all, at the most basic level, though, is a man who loves his sentences.

I suppose I expected that my students would want to turn the pages on Christine Falls the most out of the three, simply because it is a crime thriller and the first few pages set up enough questions to make the reader want to turn the pages. But I was surprised how many students really were intrigued by the other two excerpts, Banville's excerpts. I can't wait to talk about that a little more with them next week. I'm really interested to see how they're reacting, as writers, to the texts we've been reading. They're not the most cheerful of stories, but then, that's not confined to the Irish--"Hills Like White Elephants" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and ZZ Packer's "Brownies" and all the other American stories we've also been reading aren't cheerful either. Makes me doubly curious for the kind of stories I'll see when they turn them in on Monday

I'm glad it's Saturday, and a sunny one at that. I have reading for my women's rhetoric class to do, but then I have high hopes for a pot of Maritime Mist, a Cadbury Creme egg, and some quality time with Banville.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

State of Mind: Tuesday Edition

Last night, I texted my sister, K2: "Sitting here, drinking Twinings Orange, Mango, and Cinnamon, tasting the Aran Islands, and thinking of you." And I was. Tasting a squall that blew up just as we got back to our hostel in 2000 after a walk to Dun Aengus, very nearly slamming the door behind us as it hit, then laughing through it as we sat in the kitchen with our hands warming around mugs of tea and soup.

It was a Galway kind of day yesterday, all cold rain and wind, Assam in my Stanley thermos. I've said before that I think since my first introduction to Galway was in the winter and the rain, that's how I prefer my Ireland. And last night, in the warmth and cozy of my tiny apartment, drenched in low lamplight and surrounded by the insulating power of my books on my shelves, the steam from my mug of Twinings--tea bags hoarded since the last time I was in Ireland in 2007--tasted of All is Right With the World.

This morning, the rain has moved past and there was sun when I took out the garbage and recycling. It's Viennese Earl Grey in the pot this morning and the brightness of the morning sun is highlighting the dust on the shelves and the pieces of cardboard Maeve has strewn around the floor in the last two days. And it is time to vacuum, refill the pot of tea, cats sleeping in various parts of the apartment, blues on the iTunes. This too, has its own flavor of All is Right With the World.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cemetery Hunting in Seward

It's a gorgeous February Sunday and I'm standing over the grave of Etta Shattuck, born 1868 and died before her twentieth birthday, on 6 February 1888, in the aftermath of the Children's Blizzard. The sun was rich butter yellow when I set out from Lincoln on Hwy 34, thinned to lemon by the time I reached the Seward city limits. It's not flat here, the hills like shoulders.

This is a place of deliberation. This is a place where trees plant themselves at creek edges, looking from a distance like morning-after scruff, but these creeks are not simply water. They plow their way through the soil, ripping it away, forming their own paths, their own beds. This is a place of gravity. This is a place where the weather and the world comes to you, because it can't help itself.

But I'm standing at Etta's grave because we just finished talking about the Children's Blizzard in my English 150 class, combining David Laskin's book The Children's Blizzard with Ted Kooser's poetry Blizzard Voices. Ted asked me on Friday if I'd been out to see Etta's grave and I had not yet done so--but it was beautiful yesterday, so I fired up the Jeep and went to see what I could find. I hoped I could find her, so I could report back to my class on Monday.

Etta was a schoolteacher, the sole support for her family, which included her father, a Civil War veteran. There were many markers for Civil War veterans in the three cemeteries I went to yesterday and such things are the reason I love to hunt cemeteries, for these stories. I know that through the Homestead Act and the ones that followed it, if you were a Civil War veteran you could get a year knocked off the five year "prove up" limit for every year you were in the service. That must have sounded mighty good to those who fought. Etta was caught in the storm, rode it out in a haystack, survived. But gangrene followed the frostbite and she had both legs amputated below the knee. Whatever complications followed nobody knows, but she did not survive.

I've said this before: hang around in a cemetery long enough and you'll find out everything you need to know about the town you're in. You'll find out who the main families are. You'll find out when it was settled, what its original language was, when the language switched to English. You'll find out about epidemics, war participation, and more. And that's what I found.

I found the Berneckers, two brothers, married, with children, families buried in adjacent plots. The children's graves are in German, one of the mother's in English (much later). Of the children there, the dates stuck out. 1883. Oscar Bernecker and his wife Mary lost three young children with about two weeks in 1883. A few feet away, Herman and Salome Bernecker lost two of their young children in 1883. Five children in one family in such a short period of time. I don't always Google to find out what happened, but I did for these kids: it was a diphtheria epidemic. Ten years later, Oscar and Mary had twin girls, one of whom lived for five weeks and the other who died after three months.

Too many graves of children here. Intellectually, I know about mortality rates and I know that they were much worse on the Plains, in rural areas. But too many children.

Today we start talking about the Dust Bowl in my 150. And we'll talk about the interviews that my students did over the weekend for their own project. We'll talk about how many hundreds of gravestones there are in the cemeteries I visited and for all that death came to each of them, there are no identical stories in any of those stones. Each one is unique, each one is a story that should be told. I found graves where the young mother and her child died in childbirth, I found young men in their thirties, I found old ones of ninety. Accidental deaths, went to sleep and never woke up, murder, diphtheria epidemics, cancer, pneumonia, premature birth. Each one is a unique story, never to be repeated. But that doesn't mean we can't listen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Eng. 150: Ted Kooser Visits Our Class!

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Eng. 150: Children's Blizzard, Day 2

Monday was a great day. I'm sure my students were overwhelmed with all I tried to cram into our fifty minutes, but such is life. We're reading excerpts from David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard and on Monday I paired our reading with a couple of articles. I know my students hate the articles, but they're so important--and I'm so hoping that is coming clear to them. So many of their Think Pieces from last week detailed how they'd never heard of the Children's Blizzard, even having lived in Nebraska their whole lives. I know. I know. So we read John Opie's "Moral Geography in High Plans History" and Marita Sturken's "Desiring the Weather: El Nino, the Media, and California Identity." Fascinating. Simply fascinating. Half the class had read one of the articles and the other half read the other article and they taught what they had read to the other half of the class. It's the first time I've tried that tactic and I think it went well--but I'm really missing my longer TR class periods.

Getting my students to consider the Plains in terms of Opie's "moral geography" was an interesting process. What happens when we impose a morality on a piece of land, how a landscape is made to represent fundamental values of a group of people? We talked about Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, the Homestead Act (most of my students had no idea what that was), and how all of that plays into shaping the people who live in this place we are also now calling home. The article also talks about various federal Farm Bills as moral responses to take care of the people starving in this geography.

Some thought-provoking moments:

"On the Plains, when farmers failed they believed they were under the divine hammer and had also betrayed the American dream. They believed it was both sinful and unpatriotic to abandon their homesteads" (244).

"It offered a geography of hope, a pastoral idealism preached by Jefferson, Crevecoeur, and many others. By the ninetieth century, a near-mythic belief that life on a family farm...was a superior way of life stood as an article of faith at the heart of Americanism" (245).

"Because God was on the United States' side, surely nature would conform to God's plan. A livable landscape could thus be imposed on the challenging Plains" (247).

"By the second half of the twentieth century, the Plains had slipped off most Americans' mental map; they became a region beyond society's edge. By mid-twentieth century, American 'social space' stopped at the boundaries of suburbia, and any unique features beyond suburbia appeared to be antique, hardly relevant curiosities" (253).

And more. I could go on and on and on. This is a great article, thinking about all the ways this landscape was manipulated--and in the case of many of the immigrants that Laskin follows throughout his book, how the immigrants themselves were manipulated into this place. Wes Jackson makes an appearance here, a welcome introduction for my students into a biocentric view of the world.

Combining this with Sturken's article about the weather and El Nino was likewise fascinating. I'm looking forward to my students' Think Pieces tomorrow, because I really want to see them applying ideas and moving in and out and among them. Sturken writes about the weather as a thing "not to be experienced so much as watched and consumed" (162). She moves through the weather as entertainment and how the weather, throughout much of history, "has been dictated by narratives of control" (163). She considers the weather in terms of revenge--and as we've been talking about in my class, morality tales. (Dear students, this is a moment of connection you should be making with the blizzard and Opie...)

A fascinating moment, though, is how she connects the weather and its narratives to citizenship and nationalist discourses, where "weather is most often defined as coming from elsewhere" (164). El Nino was "a foreign entity...visited upon the United States" (165)--and for the purposes of thinking about the Children's Blizzard, it came on the wings of an Alberta Clipper. Weather, she writes, "is also one of the means through which people situate themselves in the world, not only as local citizens but as national and global citizens" (171). She does discuss Othering in terms of who is affected--and I really wish we could have dug into that a little deeper in class. Oh, the limits of the classroom space.

One piece my students found fascinating was the two narratives of weather and disaster in California: the first is that of an apocalyptic narrative, that it's inevitable that The Big One will come and California will be destroyed and crack off and become an island in the Pacific; and the second one is a narrative of "California desires what it gets [coming] under the guise of a moralistic stance about consumerism and popular culture" (182), that because California is asking for these disasters because of their immoral ways (Godless in Hollywood, gay marriage, all that fun stuff). Fascinating, because she also points out that Florida and other states in the path of hurricanes regularly suffer more damage than California, but Florida and those places have no apocalyptic narratives. And it's even more fascination how Sturken considers all of this in terms of California's regional identity. Another point of contact for my students and our class. You can't escape how a landscape shapes your identity as an individual and you can't escape how it shapes your community.

Ending as Sturken does was a great way to end the class--one I hope we can continue to talk about in our class--that "These narratives are ultimately about the question of survival... The story of weather disaster is about finding meaning in survival" (186). She continues, "In creating an overreaching narrative for the weather, El Nino provided an explanation for that thing which is perceived to be the most uncontrollable... This was weather with a purpose, and, as such, an indicator of a larger purpose in life" (187). We talk about these disasters because they have meaning--not in themselves, but meaning that we give them, as we try to find answers in the unknowable, patterns in the random, explanations in the unexplainable. It's why the Plains--and other places prone to disasters--have formed this moral geography, because it's one of the ways that we find meaning in our lives.

On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser is coming to our class to talk about his book Blizzard Voices, which is a collection of poetry about the Children's Blizzard. I can't wait. It's going to be fantastic.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Launch of the Prairie Schooner Irish Issue!

This last week, Prairie Schooner, the venerable literary journal on which I am happy to serve as the Senior Nonfiction Reader, celebrated the launch of its special Irish issue. Over two days (Thursday and Friday), we welcomed four visiting writers, Aidan Rooney, Nuala Ní Chonchuír, Deanie Rowan Blank, and Sandra Bunting. (Click here to read Nuala's write-up on her trip.) There were interviews, readings, and it was a great time. I was a part of the panel on contemporary Irish writing, moderated by Dr. Stephen Behrendt, and it contained Aidan Rooney, Nuala Ní Chonchuír, my friend Bret Shepard, and myself. Our broad topic was the role of place and landscape in contemporary Irish writing, something very near and dear to my own heart, but the discussion went off in many interesting directions, too many to report here. But I would like to summarize and think about a couple of the ideas we did talk about--and feel free to weigh in on any of these things. We didn't come to any conclusions, but I'm not sure we wanted to.

For me, being interested in place studies as I am, it's really interesting to see my own definitions of place being expanded. It's one thing to think of environment as encompassing both the natural and built environments, and as Aidan Rooney pointed out, "Joyce [in Ulysses] made the urban very important." And we considered the way that Ireland is viewed as homogeneous, but it's actually very regionally diverse. Accents differ, language differs, perspectives and values differ. So considering all those factors that influence our idea of place need to be expanded. We considered the traditional "sense of place" in Irish writing, how it is tied to the rural, and how the Irish are continuing to reclaim their right to name their places. The place is tied very much to the land. But there's also the issue of immigration, which sets up a sense of placelessness as well.

But I also started to think of place studies in terms of domestic space, of houses and such (especially as they play out in the big house genre)--and what happens when we expand the domestic space to also encompass the body as place. The fiction of Nuala Ní Chonchuír is very intensely situated in the body as place (which makes boiling down what her stories are about to sex and relationships dangerously simplistic). When one of our panel members mentioned that (I forget who), someone else quipped, "Let's not go there"--which is an interesting choice of phrasing, one that means there is a there there to go, i.e., a physical place as well as an intellectual one. This week in my Women's Rhetoric class, we're reading bell hooks and her discussion of the homeplace as a place of political situation--and such is also true in other spheres. Women's bodies are intensely political spaces, but I'm only beginning to think of that kind of rhetoric and that kind of performance in terms of place studies. This is a new idea for me, so I'm very much looking forward to spending some quality time on Jstor.

But other considerations and expansions in the ways we think about place moved in our discussion from the page as space to thinking about digital space, in terms of writing and literature. Nuala Ní Chonchuír made a comment about the performance poets working in Ireland right now, how anti-page they are, and Stephen Behrendt observed how many of his students come to class reading on their Kindles. There has been a shift, whether writers are on board with digital forms of literacy or not, a shift has happened. But the page is still an important space. One of my fiction students who was attending the panel wondered about "literary Darwinism" and the internet, wondering if good work will always be good work, no matter how much crap is posted on the internet (I'm paraphrasing). There will always be a tension between the benefit of access readers have to works they would never have been exposed to before, simply because of this digital space, and more traditional venues of publishing that prize the page. Nuala Ní Chonchuír also brought up the changing editors of Poetry Ireland Review and the recent death of the Irish Times poetry critic. She said that poetry is losing the visibility it once had on the page. Interestingly enough, Behrendt commented on Ted Kooser's poetry project, the goal of which is to increase the visibility of poetry in newspapers.

And the third major item I'd like to report on came towards the end of our session, a piece I wish we could have explored further. The question came: "how do you define Irish poetry?" And the immediate response was that poetry is poetry, that the first thing a writer must do is be human. Fiction must be real life. But then the conversation shifted, Aidan Rooney commented that there is a tendency for Irish writers to do what is expected of them, that they are Irish first. The result is a kind of quaintness. But he hesitates to feel Irish all the time, that he wants to be known as a good poet, not a good Irish poet. Our editor, Kwame Dawes, piped up with a reference to Langston Hughes and his discussion over the difference between being a good poet and a good black poet--and that what's happening is not as universal as we like to think it is. Such a desire is actually very specific and it is white, coming from a position of power. The question we were not able to answer was how would we know if a writer is writing an Irish poem or not? What makes a poem--or a poet--Irish? Someone brought up that in the Dublin Writer's Museum, it is all men, except for one woman. We discussed writing from a perspective that is not our own, but we acknowledged the great responsibility in doing so, especially when there has been exploitation in that relationship.

As our panel ended, Stephen Behrendt said, "We write to find our own reality, our own definition of self. We write to find who I am at this moment." And quite succinctly, Nuala Ní Chonchuír said, "At the end of the day, we don't go to the desk thinking 'I'm a woman writer.' We just go to the desk."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Eng. 252: Sebastian Barry and Point of View

Sebastian Barry is my new literary obsession, ever since I finished A Long Long Way. I loved Annie Dunne, which is on my Focus list for my comps, and I wish A Long Long Way was on there instead--and I wish I had more time to read just for fun, to follow an author until you've exhausted everything they've written. It's the good kind of literary stalking. (The other kind can be found at AWP at the end of the month...) So I have no idea why I was nervous to teach the excerpt from The Engine of Owl-Light in our anthology, other than its subject matter would be disturbing to my Midwestern undergraduates. The first third of the story is in a strip club, the second on a boat where the characters argue about homosexuality in the Rasta culture, and the third where the characters witness a murder.

What's great about looking at contemporary writers is that they're still alive and you can either talk to them in person or you can find interviews and such things on You Tube. Brilliant. It's one of the reasons I like doing contemporary work as much as I do. I could have tried to contact Barry, but I didn't. Maybe I will at a later time. So I played a video interview where he is speaking of his novel The Secret Scripture, inspired by his great-aunt. After the clip finished, I had my students think of a person on their family tree who would make a great character, who has an interesting story to tell, where the puzzle of things surrounding them just doesn't all fit right. My students came up with some great ideas.

Then, on to Barry:

What I've learned about teaching, in general, lately, is this: it's obvious that every class is different. But why do I insist--to myself--on treating them all the same? I'm finally getting smart(er) about that. This class needs some time to think through their thoughts--on the page--before we get into a discussion. Now, that wasn't too hard, was it? Seriously. It makes so much sense in hindsight. This also makes the students who I know didn't read the assignment flip through the book to find the story and pretend to write something, like they're actually doing what they're supposed to. (It's hard to take when half your class is there because they think it's an easy creative writing class and boy, did they pick the wrong class if that's what they want...) So I had them write a reaction to the Barry excerpt. What did you think? And then I asked them to consider how these three parts of this story fit together. What's the connective tissue between them?

The discussion turned out to be great. Maybe I shouldn't have worried. (Of course I worry. I'm a teacher. And a Minnesotan.) But we talked about the reality vs. imagination that was going on, the denial that the characters face. It's easier to deny that there are gays in the Rastas, to deny that a murder has just taken place in front of you, if those people aren't human. In the strip club scene, the women are objects, not people; in the boat scene, gays aren't people; in the murder scene, the murdered person is not a person. As Ali keeps speaking in absolutes, "That didn't happen" or "It cannot be" or "It isn't," his character combines the objectification of people in these scenes into a social apathy towards what would be a moral issue. Of course, this brings up how and why that happens, and why Ali's character feels the need to do that. But it's interesting. And all of it plays very nicely into our weeklong discussion of Point of View, this detached observer of the narrator who shifts from a first person to third person back to first person.

We talked about language, about not overlooking the simple poetic devices like alliteration or not underestimating your verbs. I think that moment caught them a bit by surprise, for whatever reason.

Tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday is the launch of the Prairie Schooner Irish issue and it's going to be chock full of writing and talking about writing. Four of the writers published in the issue are coming to campus and there will be interviews with them, readings, and what I'm most invested in: the panel on contemporary Irish literature that I'm doing with Dr. Stephen Behrendt (who edited the issue), my friend Bret Shepard, and two of the visiting writers. We're going to be talking about the role of place and landscape in contemporary Irish writing and let the conversation flow where it may. The events will take place in the Sheldon Art Museum and here's a link to more information. Join us! It's going to be great!

Eng. 150: The 1888 Children's Blizzard, Day 1

It's been a while since I've posted about my English 150 class, mostly because the last two weeks were a whirlwind of rough drafts, conferencing about said rough drafts, workshopping, and final drafts. On Monday, my students turned in their final drafts, I'm in the midst of grading them, and we started our second Writing Project. Quite serendipitous though, that we had a really great snowstorm over the weekend, before we start reading excerpts from David Laskin's awesome book The Children's Blizzard.

Here's the goals of WP2: Use primary and secondary research to investigate a local disaster where you come from. You will use all tools available to you to complete this project, which will include doing personal interviews with people from your community who witnessed this disaster first-hand or have another sort of primary knowledge. You will also investigate other texts like photographs and artwork, personal artifacts, and more to consider all possible angles of how this event affected this community. You will put together a digital space (a blog) that details what you've discovered, one that allows your community (as well as other digital communities) to share in the knowledge.

So. On Monday, each student created a blog, where they will post their Think Pieces, their interviews, their interpretations of those interviews, videos and articles they find, videos they may choose to make, etc. This will be capped with a five page paper that takes all they've learned and puts it together. They don't have topics yet, but they will by the end of next week. They seem kind of skeptical about it--even strangely hostile--but I hope that will change soon. Otherwise it's going to be an uncomfortable few weeks.

Today was the first day of WP2 and we had our Author Presentation on David Laskin and the Children's Blizzard. Like the presentation on Jonis Agee a couple of weeks ago, it was great. Great information on the author, great information about the disaster itself.

Then, we wrote: as I mentioned earlier, we had a great snowstorm this weekend, which left behind 12+ inches of snow on its way. It started Friday night, ended Saturday. Gorgeous. Of course, there were plowing issues (as always happens in Lincoln), as well as some power outages. So here's the prompt I gave them: How did you handle this storm? What did you do, what did you think, what did you see when you looked outside? I said that I'd gotten self-righteous about my four-wheel drive, which made them laugh. And then, after I'd given them a good chunk of time to write, I asked them How was what you did, what you didn't do, what you thought, etc. influenced by the community you come from?

We talked for a while about their writings, what they did, what they feared about the storm, what they didn't fear, and more. What was particularly interesting, though, was the connections they were able to make about their community's influence and the place they come from. I said that when I went out on Sunday to dig out my Jeep, a guy had gone into the snowbank across the street and was stuck. So I lent him my shovel, because I was using the brush. He was grateful. But the place where I grew up valued winter survival kits--extensive ones--with kitty litter, shovels, and more. Our communities are where we learn how to look at the world, how to stay safe in it. For this particular Wednesday, the wheels were turning, but it was slow. Hopefully this gives them something new to think about as we continue with this project.

Then we shifted to Laskin. I started with a little bit about why we're doing this, why it's so important to find these connections--that this blizzard and this book is not just about snow and people who died. It's a lot more complicated than that. It rubs up against the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism--even to the myth of the Great Plains and how that was sold to immigrants who didn't know any differently. We considered how we define tragedy.

I showed them a clip of Galloping Gertie, which collapsed in 1940 as the beginning of the storm system that would become the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard in Minnesota, then would go on to wreak havoc over the Great Lakes. Most of them had never heard of either event, but I didn't expect that they would have, so I showed them the video clip of Galloping Gertie. It elicited the reaction I wanted from them.

We worked our way through the first 26 pages of Laskin, I gave them some things to think about as they continue to read, complications they might not have considered, reminded them of the Think Piece they have due on Friday, and sent them on their merry way. Unfortunately, I did also have to remind them about reading the assignment and even if they choose not to print it off, they still need to have a good enough grasp to discuss it in class. I hate it when I have to give that speech. But all in all, a great start to WP2.

Dear Students, the world is a much more fascinating place than you could ever imagine.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Short Mini-Interview With Joseph O'Connor

My Eng. 252 class is reading O'Connor's short story "Mothers Were All The Same" for Monday and so I sent O'Connor an email, wondering if he could give us some insight into the writing of the story. (My class is collaborating with him and Dawn Duncan's Eng. 346 class at Concordia College, so we've set up this communication beforehand.) We're studying POV this week in our fiction class, so we'll be talking about that, as well as other areas of craft (dialogue, setting/place, character development, etc.) It's true, the story is fairly old (for himself), but he was willing and so here's our exchange. Some interesting insights here.

Karen Babine: "I'm wondering if you could talk about the process you went through to get to the final draft we're reading. How many drafts did you go through? Any particular struggles you went through to revise?"

Joseph O'Connor: "I wrote "Mothers Were All the Same" about 25 years ago, perhaps before many of your students were born, and so you will understand that I no longer remember all the precise steps (and mis-steps) that I took during the process of that particular story. But generally, back in those days, my approach to a story was fairly instinctive. In a first draft I would simply splash the words down onto the page and not worry about anything like grammar or spelling, or even logic. I probably focussed on something like finding a 'voice', the actual sound of the person speaking. Then, when I had written perhaps four thousand words, I would start into the process of refining and shaping them. Usually, I would do maybe forty drafts of a story. Anything less than twenty drafts doesn't work for me."

Karen Babine: "We're studying POV next week, so it might be beneficial for my students to hear something about how you chose a first person narrator over a third person narrator (even a 3rd person limited narrator). (We'll talk more about POV when we get to Star of the Sea.) When you're writing, how do you decide what POV to choose? Do you ever change POV in a story when you go back to revise (like 3rd to 1st or 1st to 3rd), if you find that one works better than another?"

Joseph O'Connor: "I am not conscious of ever choosing a point a view for a story. Instead, I try to let the story choose its own point of view and then go with that. Your students will have realised that point of view changes everything in a story. 'Mothers Were All the Same' would be a very different thing were it written by the young woman he meets on the train. And it would be equally different if narrated by an all-seeing eye. It simply felt to me as though the ACTUAL subject of the story, as opposed to the plot it outlines, is the naivety of the young man narrating events he scarcely understands. For that to come across, I must have felt it would be better told from his point of view."

Karen Babine: "This week we're studying dialogue, so I'm wondering if you could speak to your use of direct vs. indirect dialogue in this story. How did you choose the way that you presented the dialogue? Was it a matter of pacing and tone, voice, or something else?"

Joseph O'Connor: "Again, you ask about my 'choices', but I am rarely conscious of making any choice, as such, when writing a piece of fiction. I mean, I do make choices, as every writer must, but I tend to go by instinct. My approach, perhaps a rather idiosyncratic one, is that I assume the story already exists 'out there' somewhere, and what I am doing is trying to see it more clearly so that I can write it down. That sounds insane, I know. But that's what I do.

I feel dialogue is truly essential to get right in a story. Nothing trips the reader up more severely than bad or unbelievable dialogue. When I wrote that story, I was myself young, and so I wrote the dialogue through a process of listening how my friends talked. Every writer needs to be a listener, and a watcher, before being anything else. That's far more important than literary 'style'. In fact, no style is possible without it. And as writers, we need to read like writers, not simply readers. So, when we encounter the work of a writer who does dialogue well (for example, James Joyce) we need to study every nuance.

You ask about the issue of 'reported' dialogue, as opposed to noting down exactly what someone said. The answer is very simple. I just don't believe any of us remember entire conversations word-for-word with total precision, so when a writer asks me to believe that he or she does, I don't believe it, and then I lose interest. Everything we do as writers needs to be focused on making readers stay with us, not driving them away."


If you're interested in more of our collaborative project, check out our wiki-in-progress (it's very in-progress...).

I also think this interview is a good one:

Creative Writing Can Be Taught: Creative Writing Professors Answer More Important Questions

Stephanie Vanderslice and Anna Leahy put together a fantastic roundtable conversation in response to Anis Shivani's latest rant against creative writing classrooms. Find it here on the Huffington Post. Find Shivani's original article here. Find my own response here.

Happy Sunday! We got more than a foot of snow here yesterday, so we'll see how that goes.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Eng. 252: Stress Tics and John Edgar Wideman

This morning I wondered how Galway looked so much like Lincoln. The rain was hard, sideways, the wind feeling like it was right off the Atlantic. I brewed my Assam "strong enough for a mouse to trot across," filled my big Stanley Thermos, and off I went to campus. I was glad for my awesome jacket (waterproof, windproof, and good to 20 degrees), but my jeans were soaked by the time I walked from the parking garage into Andrews Hall. I contemplated my Thermos, remembering a comment a student made on Wednesday, wondering if those things were like military issue in the English department. I liked the juxtaposition of those ideas. But then I thought it would be much more convenient to have a tea spigot right here in my office.

It's the final day of two days of conferences. Fairly good all around. I like conferences and I find I like them better when I forget the sign-up sheet at home, so I don't know who's standing me up. Better for my stress level. And so I was thinking about stress when I walked into 252 this morning. I knew my students were stressed and I was feeling it myself. Figured I might as well channel that energy into something productive--and teach my students how to do the same. I went through the daily housekeeping as I usually do--to a very hardy few who braved the weather--and then our writing exercise for the day is one I was particularly proud of :

What is your stress tic? What is that thing you do when you're particularly stressed--that you might not even recognize as being caused by your stress? I gave them the example of my freshman roommate in college, who came home one day to a spotless dorm room, looked at me, and said, "Did you have a bad day?" And when I thought about it, I had. "Why?" I asked her. She looked at me. "Because you clean when you're stressed." Huh, I thought. I guess I do. Never realized that before.

When they finished writing, we talked about some of the things they do and we move to talking about how they need to view their characters as real people. Your characters will have stress tics too. They may pick the skin on their fingers, they may drive to Kansas City for no reason, they may play the same music over and over on the piano. Very rarely do our stress outlets turn out to be passive. We usually have to do something to combat our stress. So do your characters.

I also talked about channeling their stress into their writing. When I was starting my MFA, 9/11 happened and I didn't have cable yet. So I channelled all that uncertainty, all that fear, all that stress into the character I was writing. When I was writing of the death of a different character, it was how I dealt with watching my grandmother fall down the steps (she did not die, but she broke her collarbone) and me not being able to catch her. Writing is a very good stress relief, because we can channel that onto the page. Sometimes it turns into something awesome, sometimes we write our way through it, burn the page, and we feel better for it. Of course, things like this sound a lot like the "therapy" that Anis Shivani was raging about a couple weeks ago, but the reality is that fiction (like other genres) is real life. And emotions and actions and motivations and stress tics are also real life. It's how we get to the real heart of whatever it is that we're writing.

It was from there that we switched to talking about John Edgar Wideman's short story "Fever." I love that story, but I wasn't sure how my students would take it. Since this week we're talking about dialogue, I wanted to see what they'd say. There isn't a whole lot of dialogue-dialogue in it, but the switchings of POV/voice/character puts forth a dialogue of its very own. And there was a moment in class when I asked why Wideman did it this way, why he didn't just write one main character in a traditional sort of narrative--and what would have been lost had he done that? And my students all popped in with ideas about how the story was like the fever, all sort of dreamy, that you never quite knew what was going on, how you never quite knew who was speaking, but that's the whole effect of the story. He wanted that dreamy fever-like stage, which he couldn't have gotten any other way. I think they're starting to understand what it means to read like a writer, which makes me so happy I could just dance around the office. I love my job.

And I also have to mention that several of my 252 students signed up for conferences too and I hope I've been able to talk them out of thinking their first draft has to be perfect, like the things we've been reading in class. I think they're just starting to understand that the story in front of them is absolutely not the first draft that author made of that story. It doesn't happen. And so they're starting to turn off that internal censor that tells them ugly things. At least I hope so.

(Feel free to post your stress tics in the comments!)