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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Eng. 250: Narration, Dialogue, and Breakfast

It's been a while since I've posted, busy-busy-busy around here.  But this morning has slowed enough that I can consider what I'm doing in my Creative Writing class.  Last week we had a snow day that turned out to be nothing, very disappointing on all kinds of levels, so today is playing catch up.  I was supposed to talk narration and dialogue last Thursday (the day that got cancelled) and today was supposed to be the awesome day of beginnings and endings, but I think I'll push the beginnings discussion to Thursday, when this class hands in its short stories.  

Because of the snow day, I modified our syllabus a bit, so today we're reading Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," John Edgar Wideman's "Fever," an article that breaks down the sentencing of Hemingway's story and the true brilliance that is Noah Lukeman's A Dash of Style.  It's one of my favorite moments when my students come to class after reading Lukeman's first unit, surprised that they liked it--and what they're able to apply to the stories is fantastic.  I use it in every class I teach, from composition to all forms of creative writing to literature.  Wonderful.  I'm excited to see what my students have to say about these stories, particularly because so far they've had a hard time with non-traditionally-structured stories.  But this class also knocked their poetry unit out of the park, reflections coming in that surprised me with how much they learned and how much they took away from the forms we studied and wrote.  Makes my little teacher heart go pitty-pat.

In my 252 class, we're start workshopping short stories today and the first round of stories is pretty weak in terms of dialogue, so this moment in my 250 will show up again in my 252 (even though we've already discussed this).  Dialogue is something that takes practice, lots of practice, so reiterating what we've talked about is never a bad thing.  

But here's what I'm planning for my 250 class today:  

First, a friend posted this article from the Guardian:  "'The Sexiest Meal': What a character's breakfast says about them" and this is going to be the writing exercise that starts us all--and in honor of today's narration and dialogue, I'm going to ask them to put their character in a situation where the scene is composed of direct dialogue, gestures, silence and all the other elements we've been talking about.  Their character could be ordering in a restaurant, cooking at home on a Saturday morning, or any other scenario where breakfast is involved.  

"When we do witness breakfast, it is usually because the author is trying to tell us something about the person eating it. Breakfast is the most habitual meal of the day, a routine so key to inner wellbeing that Hunter S Thompson called it a "psychic anchor", drawing, uncharacteristically, on an image of weighty predictability. If somebody is having toast with marmalade this morning (or, in the case of Thompson, "four bloody marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half pound of either sausage, bacon or corned-beef hash with diced chillis" plus quite a few other things), it is a safe guess that they had it yesterday and that they will have it tomorrow as well.

For this reason, breakfast is the ideal barometer of normalcy, the meal that tells us who a person really is. An example: in the fifth chapter of Moby Dick (simply called "Breakfast"), Melville offers a morning scene at a bar-room in a whaling town, as a way of painting us a picture of Queequeg, a Pacific islander who "eschewed coffee and hot rolls" – savagery! – and "applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare". And in The Hobbit, Tolkein reveals much about the implicitly decadent nature of Hobbithood when he has Bilbo Baggins consume a second breakfast – an occurrence that has somehow become one of the most recounted parts of the entire book.
Their character could be ordering in a restaurant, cooking at home on a Saturday morning, or any other scenario where breakfast is involved.  Last week, when we were talking about characters, I asked them about which fictional characters they would want to go get a beer and burger with, a character they would want to go on a road trip with, which character they would want to wake up next to in the morning.  The only two brave souls who answered when I asked answered "Hermione Granger" and "Mr. Darcy."  I think I will ask my students to reprise that writing exercise with the breakfast conversation.  

This is making me drool a little, thinking of Fat Nat's Eggs in the Twin Cities, my parents' new-traditional after-church brunch place.  In April I will reluctantly celebrate a year of being a vegetarian and so the first time that I went to Fat Nat's with my parents over Christmas, I asked if I could get their Bacon Avocado Eggs Benedict without the bacon.  (A side note:  I have given myself special dispensation to eat as much bacon as I want, when I am in Ireland...)  When it arrived, the English muffin was layered with a slice of tomato, their "spicy avocado verde," the poached egg, and the Hollandaise sauce.  I'm a Swede, so that means my heat quotient is fairly low, but the spice in the avocado was life-changing.  If it had been socially acceptable to lick my plate clean, I would have done so.  On another subject, brinner is a favorite in our family (breakfast for dinner)--and it came up in conversation with my mother yesterday.  Rhubarb Bundt Cake is our traditional special-occasion breakfast/brunch go-to.  When I was with my family for my niece's third birthday (and the first time I got to meet my brand-new nephew), my brother-in-law (for whom the Rhubarb Bundt Cake has become really, really important) lamented that they hadn't had any for a while.  Since I usually cook when I'm at their house, I asked, rather skeptically, if they had any rhubarb.  "Not the point!"  he declared.  "We can get rhubarb.  What we can't get is somebody to make it!"  I foresee a rhubarb bundt cake in my spring break future, when I Go North for my grandmother's 90th birthday.

This group of students (my 250 class, which is all three genres) has an overwhelming number of journalism students and criminal justice students, with very few English majors.  This is not anything surprising to me, but it does highlight the importance of meeting students where they are, sometimes shoving them forcefully out of their comfort zone--and why this particular class has had a really hard time with non-traditional fiction.  My 252 class loved Ron Hansen's "Nebraska"; the 250 had no idea what to do with it.  I suspect the same thing will happen when we get into discussing John Edgar Wideman's "Fever," which is one of my favorite stories of the moment.  I did suggest my students compare that story to Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever," so that should be interesting.

But here's why I love to teach "Fever," especially in conjunction with Hemingway.  The conversation between sections and voices in "Fever" lends itself well to a discussion I'm looking forward to having.  I'm going to bring up stories we've read already, so we can talk about them in a different way.  
  • First, a free write:  apply Link and Lukeman to these stories.  What is going on on the sentence level?  What is the difference between them?
  • How does "Fever" subvert what we think we know about dialogue?  How many voices are involved in this story?  How does this turn into a conversation between these voices?
  • What do you make of the lack of narration in Hemingway
  • How does Hemingway construct his dialogue--as a writer--so that the characters are talking at each other, past each other, not to each other?  
  • What is the effect at the end of these two stories?  Why does each author choose to write his story this way?  What would have been lost if "Fever" had been written in a more traditional way?  What would have been lost if "Hills Like White Elephants" had been written with more exposition and narration?
  • What is the relationship of direct to indirect dialogue in "Ship Fever"? Compare to "The Things They Carried"?
Last week we had the "sentences are awesome" and "language is your greatest weapon" speech, which made my class look at me like I'm crazy.  It's okay.  I don't mind.  They had the same look on their faces when we started form poetry.  It's part of the fun of teaching to watch that look morph into something more confident.