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

Monday, January 28, 2013

State of Mind: On Aunting

(I wrote this on Saturday, but I didn't have permission to post it until today.)

I don't recall my first memories of my great-aunt Katherine (or my great-uncle Dick).  She is my paternal grandmother's older sister, older by three years, and as I grew up with (two) sisters of my own, I'm not sure how two sisters could be more different than Marion and Katherine.  We often describe Katherine as the most right-brained person we've ever met, whose creative talents never led to culinary success.  We also often say that Katherine could burn water.  A couple of weeks ago, she sent my father an email that ended with "Gotta go change clothes.  Going dancing tonight." and nobody was sure if she was kidding or not.  She has neuropathy in her legs and can't feel them, but it's entirely within her character to go dancing anyway.  She and Uncle Dick were married for 55 years before he died in 2007 at the age of 94, almost one year to the day after my maternal grandfather died.  Today is her 90th birthday.

Dad and Katherine

Katherine and Dick never had any children of their own, though Dick had two daughters from his first marriage who I've never met.  But my grandmother had five children and there are thirteen of us grandchildren and so many great-grandchildren now that I have to sit back and count them all out.  Whether it was because my father was the oldest or some other reason, our branch of the tree has always been close to Katherine (and Dick, whose impish little smile I still miss).  I'm the one who has taken up Katherine's duties as family historian and every time I visit, she sends me home with more pictures, more objects, more pieces of the puzzle.  The thing about visiting with Aunt Katherine is that she is always beyond thrilled to see us (this is not to say that our grandparents were not this way, but aunts and uncles are a special kind of energy), even when my sisters and I were little and annoying in the way that only little kids can be.  She and Uncle Dick always greeted us like we were important, always asked about what we were doing and actually cared, they played with us, they wanted to know.

Aunting, as an active verb.  

Katherine and us, 2008

When I finally brought my Scamp (my little 13-foot camper) home, Katherine was more excited than anyone.  I’m sure that some of the genetic predisposition for movement comes from her as well, she who had a private pilot’s license in the 1940s, she who worked for Ryan Aeronautics, she who traveled everywhere imaginable with Uncle Dick, she who had always wanted a Scamp for herself.  To say that Katherine is independent is not completely accurate.  Unpredictable might be a better description--but that doesn't cover it either.  When she worked for Ryan in the 1950s, as the family stories go, they were laying off men with master's degrees in engineering and keeping her on, even though she was a woman.  

My dad's favorite Christmas story to tell of Katherine and Dick takes place when they lived in Ramona, CA and is more a story of Dick than Katherine, but there's a reason I'm telling it:  when my dad was little, Katherine and Dick spent the Christmas Eve night at their house and due to the distribution of beds, Uncle Dick ended up in my father's bed and my father slept on the floor.  All night long, as the story goes, my father would pipe up, "I think I hear him, Uncle Dick!  I think I hear Santa!"  And the incredibly patient Uncle Dick would answer back, "Go back to sleep, Danny."  A few minutes of quiet, then, "I think I hear him, Uncle Dick!  I think I hear Santa!"  "Go back to sleep, Danny."  All night long.  I tell this story of my father and his uncle because it was from Katherine and Dick that I learned how to be an aunt.  

But I also learned how to be an aunt from my father's sister, my Aunt Teresa, who is twelve years younger than my dad.  My earliest memories of her involve being in my grandparent's house and running into her room in the dark of the morning and jumping on her bed.  I couldn't have been more than three or four.  I remember the curtains pulled against the morning and I remember the red of the Tab cans.  When she married Uncle Robin, I remember being really disappointed that I couldn't go to the wedding (I was, maybe, six).  But from them, I learned again how to be an aunt.  Aunt Teresa (and by extension Uncle Robin) was always glad to see us (my two sisters and me) and it was never the perfunctory hug that adults often give kids.  She wanted to do things with us, to sit at the kitchen table with us, playing with rubber stamps, tie dying, or whatever other craft or activity that she was excited to share.  She wanted to be with us, not just around us, and I remember how that made me feel as a kid and how it makes me feel as an adult to have this relationship--and I want that for my niece(s) and my nephew(s).  Uncle Robin recently passed away, unexpectedly, and among the many facets of loss I am still grieving, today I grieve that C. and her new brother won't get to grow up with that sunshine in their lives.

It's not an easy role to play, not if you want to live up to their example.  I do not have children and do not plan to have any children.  I've never wanted them, even back to high school.  But I like kids.  When my friends started having babies (which all seemed to happen in the same six month period in 2007), I assumed the role of aunt.  Most particularly to my dear friends L. and J., which really started, emotionally, for me when L. told me she suspected she was pregnant, back when our offices were next door to each other.  When H. was born, it was like my own sister had given birth.  I love that kid something crazy (something that spills over to her sister, V., who I've only met in person once.)  But there was something about knowing that I could go home to my own house that didn't trip any of the triggers that set off these new parents.  I actually didn't care if the babies screamed--it didn't raise my blood pressure (still not sure how that miracle happened); I didn't mind changing diapers (though, when my blood-niece C. was born, I had to get used to cloth diapers); I had some gag-issues with spit-up, but after a while, that was routine too.  Now that H. is in kindergarten (still not sure how that's possible) and she's got a two-year-old sister V. and a surprise of a brother due in July, there's this security in the family you create on purpose, by choice, that is as important as the family of blood.  

H. and me, 2010

In addition to today being Katherine's birthday, it's also L's birthday.  Two important people in my life, two important women of my family, and it seems fitting to think about what they've taught me about being an aunt on this dark, early Saturday morning, the 26th of January, this day that my sister will be induced and my nephew born.  This was not planned--H. isn't actually due till the end of February. This is Week 35.  But my sister went for her appointment yesterday and the doc gave her a choice: induce today or tomorrow.  K2 chose tomorrow (which is now today).  He's about stopped growing, so they want him out, so he can get nourishment.  He's perfectly healthy, just tiny--right now about four pounds.  I'm just bummed that I'm not there, with the whole rest of the family, so far away from the memory making.  But I get to Go North for C's birthday in two weeks and hopefully H. will be out of the hospital by then.  In the meantime, I hope to make use of the magic that is Skype on smartphones.

C. and me, Summer 2012

These last three years being Aunt Kinny to C. have been more fun than I could have anticipated.  Not that she's any more special to me than my non-blood-nieces (and impending nephew), but just in a different way.  As I did with H. and V., I've channeled Aunt Katherine to try to create for them and with them the kind of memories that stick.  What was so special about our relationship with Katherine? How can I pass that down?  When K2 and M. announced in the summer of 2009 that they were expecting, I set up a monthly system of gifts for K2--and the first one was a memory box.  I found it at a local antique store and my purpose was I wanted my niece or nephew (we didn't know if she was a boy or girl until she was born) to have something uniquely hers, a physical place for her to put her favorite rocks or diary or anything else special to her, something that could grow with her and be as appropriate for a child as it would be for an adult.  I wanted her to be able to look at that when she's in her twenties, thirties, forties, and say, "Aunt Kinny gave that to me."  When she was born, I bought a Belleek teapot to celebrate and my plan is to give that teapot to her on one of her special milestone birthdays (haven't figured out which one yet), but I want her to grow up knowing that one is hers every time she comes to my house for tea.  

I want to do the same for H, but his early arrival has thrown my plans into a tizzy:  I don't have his memory box yet and I don't have his teapot.  But I will.  I can't wait to make memories with this new addition to our family, to my own tiny branch of the tree.  In the meantime, I will sit by the phone, sit by the Skype, and wait for news that he as arrived.  Though I'm pretty sure that I'll be able to tell by the new brightness in the day.

Welcome to the world, my sweet nephew!  You've picked an incredible day to be born.

Update. H has arrived!  4 lbs, 9 oz, 18" at 3:47 pm--and he's perfect!  Doc says he has to maintain his weight and get to five pounds before they'll let him go home (probably in a week or so).  The family has been wonderful about keeping me updated with pictures and little videos and I can say--without bias--that he's ridiculously cute.  I can't wait to meet him!

A most unexpected update:  my dear friend A. is expecting!  As I am currently in Aunt Mode and can't turn it off, it's lovely that I keep being handed new nieces and nephews to spoil, making my family-by-choice even bigger!

State of Mind: On the Importance of NTTF

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the absolute importance of introductory classes.  I have taught introductory classes in composition, creative writing, and literature over the course of my entire career--on purpose--and I have worked with special learning communities comprised of first-generation college students.  I do not view the teaching of undergraduates as a stepping stone to teaching in a graduate program, nor do I view this work as "paying my dues."  Sometimes my work has been as a graduate student; sometimes my work has been as a non-tenure track faculty (NTTF) member.  Given this experience, I feel as strongly about the work that graduate students do as I do about NTTF, both full-time (as I was) and adjuncts.

I was a full-time instructor of composition at Bowling Green State University for seven years (2003-2010), teaching a 4/4 load of required composition classes to first-year students.  Our department saw 4,000 students every semester across our three classes (1100, 1110, and 1120); we are often the first teachers that students meet--and often we are the only teachers who know them and know their names, despite each of us having 90+ students every single semester.  The importance of introductory classes--and small introductory classes--and the faculty who teach them is incalculable.  It goes beyond teaching students about college writing, or how to do MLA citations, or how to research.  The faculty who teach those classes (especially writing classes, where personal experience and expression are foundational) become the ones to teach first-year students how to be college students, how to cope with being away from home for the first time, we help them deal with roommate issues, financial issues, deaths of loved ones.  It isn't by design that this happens (none of us have any formal training in those sorts of counseling needs), but simply by being the teacher who knows them, knows their names, and cares about them and their writing, this is the role we are asked to play--in addition to our jobs as teachers.

I still remember the moment when I realized that being a teacher of first-year students was absolutely integral to my work as a teacher, to my work as a writer, to my work as a human being:  M. was a student in my 1120 class (the research paper class, the second of the required courses in the sequence), a football player from inner city Cleveland, smart, articulate, kind.  There were five or six football players in my class that semester.  M. was good, but his writing wasn't yet living up to its potential.  And then he started missing classes--he came back to class before he had accrued enough absences to fail, but he looked terrible.  Something was not just wrong, but incredibly wrong.  One of his friends told me that he'd lost his NCAA eligibility (didn't say how) and that he'd lost his football scholarship.  I asked M. to come to my office and when he did, I told him how truly excellent his writing was, his ideas, how much potential I saw in him.  I will never forget the look on his face when he finally pulled his gaze up from the floor:  he didn't believe me.  I knew he didn't believe me.  I told him that there was more to him than football, that he was an incredibly talented writer, that maybe he should consider an English major.  Still he said nothing.  When he did speak, he said, "Nobody ever told me that before."  His entire life, he said, nobody had ever told him Go read a bookGet A's.  It was always Go throw a ball around.  His entire life, he'd been taught that his only value as a human being was as a football player.  And who was he now, now that he wasn't a football player anymore?  And all I could think was Good God, I'm the first teacher--the first person-- to tell him that there was more to him than that?  M. stayed in my class, passed with flying colors.  I left BG soon after that, so I don't know what happened to him, but his story is just one of many I could tell.  Everybody I know who teaches first-year students is full of stories like this.

The way that composition is set up at BG is unique:  General Studies Writing is its own department, separate from the English department, and comprised entirely of NTTF on full-time contracts.  Most of us were on 3-year contracts; some were on 1-year.  The director of the program had worked tirelessly in the years before I got there to shift the part-time adjunct faculty to full-time status, to move the 5-year non-renewable contracts to 3-year renewable contracts, among other moves that added to the strength of the department as a whole.  The department of GSW became a place where a majority of the instructors chose to make a life, marrying, buying a house, having children, setting down permanent roots--rather than seeing this job as a stepping stone to something greater.  (And doing so without any sort of permanent job security.)  Perhaps it is cliché to say that we--a department of forty full-time instructors and dozens more graduate students--became like family, but we did.  We recall the Baby Boom of 2007, where the 4th floor saw the birth of five babies within a couple of months; this fall, from Bowling Green to wherever we are now, we all grieved the loss of Scott Gallaway (whose 40th birthday was yesterday) from cancer; and now, across the distances, we are facing the proposed cuts of 10% of the University's NTTF by the end of spring semester, which amounts to 100 faculty members (while President Mary Ellen Mazy has publicly stated her desire to increase student enrollment from 19,000 to 25,000).  And, you may recall, GSW is made up entirely of NTTF.  These proposed cuts will be devastating, not just to the university, but to this specific department that is so important to student success--and student retention.

As I was preparing to leave BG to pursue my PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, BG was suffering through a series of short-lived presidents who had no interest in the health of the university as a whole, viewing it only as a business.  This current president, Mary Ellen Mazey, is someone I have no personal experience with, as she came in after I left.  As I was leaving, the faculty voted to form a union; the administration was not pleased with that, to the tune of collaborating with Ohio state lawmakers to pass SB5, Ohio's union busting bill that passed the legislatures, but was eventually recalled by voters.  As it stands now, the faculty is still working without a contract, more than a year after it was promised.  This cutting of 100 NTTF will bring the faculty-to-administrator ratio to 1:1, quite a distance from the Chronicle of Higher Education's recommendation of 3:1.  In addition, the faculty has not seen a raise in three years, not even a cost of living increase; the president continues to be awarded raises.  BGSU's faculty remain among the lowest-paid in the state.

I am not naive about the realities of life in academia, the cuts that have to be made because of funding shortfalls from various sources.  But I don't think that turning Bowling Green State University into the University of Phoenix (as Mazey has publicly stated her admiration for, as an educational model), especially at the expense of NTTF who are often, as I have said, the first line of defense for students, both in terms of student success and student retention.  There is no way, absolutely no way, that cutting faculty and increasing students (and class sizes) will not have an effect on the quality of education at BG.  It's a good goal, for that not to happen, but it's not realistic.  Especially not in a writing classroom.

A university is only as strong as those who teach its most vulnerable students, the ones at risk of dropping out, the ones at risk in other ways.  Job security of the faculty, even the NTTF faculty, is essential to their success--and where the students succeed, the university succeeds.  If NTTF are worried about not having a job for the next year, the time spent on the job market takes away from what they would rather be doing in their own classrooms.  Moving full-time NTTF to part-time adjuncts takes away from the success of the university and its students, as some schools are doing to avoid paying for benefits via Obamacare.  Education matters, on both the student and teacher sides, when we remember that real people are involved, real human beings who are affected when the conversation becomes only about money. Only good things can come from valuing the work that graduate student teachers do (at Bowling Green and elsewhere, where graduate students often do the work of NTTF in introductory classes) and the work that NTTF do.  But the largest moment is this:  if we value our teachers, if teachers are shown that they are valued, that their health matters (with health insurance), that their work in the classroom radiates out from those students in ways they may never know, that can only add to the success of the university as a whole and the larger society, as we send those educated students out to make a difference in their own way.

Please sign the petition, even if you have no personal or educational connection with this university, whether you are a teacher or a student.  It is important for all of us in academia--no matter our position or rank--to support others when they are facing arbitrary cuts that will undoubtedly destroy the integrity of the institution.  We are all in academia.  We are all vulnerable.  This is important--to all of us.  Please sign, please make your voice heard.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Eng. 250: The Sonnet

I can't believe how the semester has already gained so much steam that regularly updating this blog as to the really exciting things that are happening in my classes has gotten away from me.  I resolve to be better about that--because there area some really neat things happening there.  On a side note, coming into my 250 (Intro to Creative Writing) on Tuesday, after the inaugural on Monday, was pretty neat, because we got to talk about our national tradition of inaugurating our president with music and poetry--and then we got to talk about Richard Blanco's "One Today."  Terrific discussion.

(I have specific things to report about the contemporary Nebraska fiction we're reading in my 252 class, as we've been reading mostly Ron Hansen's short stories from his new and collected collection, She Loves Me Not, recently released.  My personal favorite:  "Wickedness."  But more on that later.)

In my English 250, Introduction to Creative Writing, we're starting with poetry.  This is the first time I've taught a multi-genre creative writing class since my MFA and I'm so excited about it, hoping this rubs off on my students.  Not only are we starting with poetry, but we're starting with form poetry.  I believe that students need to have a grounding in the history of the genres they're choosing to write in, especially in an intro class, because if they choose to take further poetry (or literature) classes, they're going to be expected to know what these forms are and what they do.  I often think that the wealth of fantastic poetry that happens to be written in form is often overlooked, often dismissed by beginning students--and I want them to be able to appreciate what these forms do (if I can't convince them to love them).  We started out with the villanelle last week, then the sestina.  Tuesday we looked at the pantoum; Thursday (yesterday), we looked at the sonnet.  (We're using Eavan Boland and Mark Strand's anthology The Making of a Poem.)

Each of my students has been divided into groups to present on each of these forms and doing such presentations so early in the semester is deliberate.  First, it gets my students talking to each other in small groups, bonds them early in a way that they need to be to function well in a workshop.  Second, it makes them accountable to the rest of the class, gets them talking to fellow students outside their groups.  And third, it actively involves them in the making of the class.

Yesterday, the sonnet, was my favorite day so far and I didn't see it coming.  The class started with the presentation and this group, like the ones before, picked up on things that have started to be very important--namely, hearing the poetry aloud.  We not only got the specifics of the form, what separates a Petrarchan sonnet from a Shakespearean, but they found Edna St. Vincent Millay reading via YouTube (something we've done quite often these past weeks).  It's become very important to us to hear the writer reading his or her own work, whenever we can.  As the presentation closed, we were talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort" and we pulled it apart (with a gentle reminder to Google unfamiliar words and references).  What kind, what meter, what rhyme scheme--this is is our first line of inquiry.  My students had some trouble discerning what the poem itself was about, and because we knew it was Petrarchan, we knew that the first octet would be different than the sestet.  So, what's happening in the octet?  Line by line, word by word, we were able to figure it out.  What's the turn in the sestet?  What's the allusion in the final line?  Once we understood the content, we were able to talk about why Hopkins chose a sonnet for this poem, rather than any other form.

I then assigned each group a sonnet with the directions, as has become familiar, to scan the poem to determine meter, label the rhyme scheme, and identify what kind of sonnet it is.  We looked at Shelley's "Ozymandias," Patrick Kavanagh's "Epic," Seamus Heaney's "The Haw Lantern," Denis Johnson's "Heat," and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee."  Having two Irish sonnets in there was unintentional, but they turned out to be the most interesting discussions of the day.  Denis Johnson's "Heat" also provoked an incredible discussion about why he uses this constrictive form to write about the chaos that is August--and what we felt also dealt with the freedom of the 1960s.

And before I get into Heaney, I will say that I got the interpretation of Kavanagh's "Epic" wrong--and as I realized I was wrong (something I will bring up in class on Tuesday), I started to wonder if it matters, to what extent a poem must stand on its own.  My reading of "Epic"--which started with the literal reading of the poem, aloud, by one of my students.  (And as a side note, teaching my students how to read aloud has been interesting, trying to get them to slow down and READ the poem, not just the words--this is an incredible poem to read aloud, over and over again.)  This group had looked at meter, rhyme scheme, format and then we looked at the references--and my thought process identified "that Munich bother" as the 1972 Munich Olympics and Ballyrush and Gortin as sites of conflict during the Troubles in the 1970s.  Kavanagh's closing with Homer's ghost whispering, "I made the Iliad from such/A local row.  Gods make their own importance"--that made sense to me in terms of the Troubles.  Upon further research, the "Munich bother" was the Munich Agreement, which did not result in "peace for our time" and saw WW2 start a year later.  Hm.  "Epic" was published in 1960, so Kavanagh could not have been referencing the Troubles, but I believe that good poetry is porous.  There's a part of me that doesn't want to give up that interpretation.

But the highlight of the day--and I still may be riding this high--was the discussion of Seamus Heaney's "The Haw Lantern."  The group first identified that it's not a real sonnet, because it only has thirteen lines (though it would be Petrarchan if it had that line), and the octet and the sestet are reversed.  They did not mind so much a lack of consistent meter or rhyme scheme, but the line issue irritated them.  We then, as a class, worked through what the poem meant, what a "haw" was, who Diogenes was.  The movement of the little light of hope in the sestet that turns into great cynicism.  But then, my flash was this:  what if the white space between the stanzas isn't actually white space?  What if that is actually the fourteenth line of the sonnet?  My friend Jeannie rightly observed that "Irish sonnets are not accidental," which is incredibly true--and true of any form--and I'm still searching for an answer to this question from anyone who knows poetry better than I do, someone who knows this particular poem better than I do.

Needless to say, the class ended on a really high note.  I have their Think Pieces from this last week (which I don't think will address the sonnet, though it might)--but I'm really looking forward to seeing what they have to say--I can honestly say that my students' Think Pieces are one of my most favorite parts of the week.  Last week, I got pretty excited over how many of my student wrote about no longer being afraid of form, of meter and rhyme, that they could see the freedom that these forms offered.  Glorious.  I also have their first poems they've turned in, so we'll see how those look too.  Next week we study the elegy and the ode--they have poems due next week as well--and then we jump into our first workshop!  

Monday, January 7, 2013

First Day of the New Semester!

I don't actually teach till tomorrow, but today is the first day of what looks like will be a stupendous semester.  Lots of fun things going on, lots of projects and deadlines and such, but all of it is of the Really Exciting variety.  By some fluke of bureaucracy, I have two creative writing classes this semester, a 250 (Intro to Creative Writing) and a 252 (Intro to Fiction).  I will say the degree to which I was disappointed I didn't have a comp class surprised me, since I was really excited to try my Natural Disasters class again (and just have one new class to prep with my dissertation revising and defense coming up in the next two months)--but looking a gift class in the mouth is dumb.  I'm so excited about these classes.

In my 250, we're going to be concentrating on form (for the most part).  I'll be teaching form poetry, using Eavan Boland and Mark Strand's The Making of a Poem, because I think it's really important to disorient my students' ideas of poetry--and my prose students' ideas of language--and narrow their focus down to what a line, what a word, what a syllable, what a sound can do.  I also think that students should have exposure to form poetry in intro classes, even if they choose not to write in those forms.  We'll be writing short stories in the fiction unit, naturally, and the goal is to transition from language and image to the shape of a story, how a story add Language and Shape to Idea, writing Montaignian essays that move away from the shape of experience and give precedence to the shape of thought.  It's the first time I've gotten to teach nonfiction in a creative writing setting--and I'm pretty excited about it.

My 252 is something I've taught twice before, in settings different enough that I hardly consider them the same classes.  The first time was Fall 2011, a weekly night class, a schedule I adored, and I chose texts that were only loosely grouped around place, trying to teach them that they could write about anything, set anywhere.  In this class, I learned that teaching a novel (and by accident I'd chosen a mystery novel) is essential to my fiction pedagogy.  The second time, Spring 2012, the schedule was an afternoon MWF, and I used contemporary Irish fiction to challenge my students to apply what they know about fiction to texts they would usually only find in capital-L Literature classes, not creative writing classes.  This class also provided the opportunity for our cross-class collaboration with Dawn Duncan's British Literature class--as we read Joseph O'Connor's novel Star of the Sea.  (The choosing of a novel was deliberate, but by accident, it turned out to be another mystery novel...something that now has become a permanent part of my pedagogy.)  I've scheduled either in-person or Skype visits with various writers we will be reading--and I'm excited about that too.

This time around, it's a TR schedule, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how the longer class periods twice a week balance between the once-weekly and the MWF schedule.  Because I knew I'd have to rearrange the schedule anyway, that the two syllabi I already had prepared wouldn't exactly fit the new format, I figured I might as well choose new texts:  so, this time, I'm teaching contemporary Nebraska fiction.  One of the most important moments of my entire educational career came in a Minnesota Writers class when I was in college, where I learned not only about the literature that comes from my home state (I had no idea that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was a Minnesotan), but also that I, as a writer, could write about Minnesota.  It was an incredible moment.  As a result, I think it's absolutely essential for both writers and scholars to know the literature of their home state--to the degree that I think a course in Nebraska Writers should be mandatory for all English majors at UNL.

So, I've chosen to use Ron Hansen's She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories, which is just out; Ladette Randolph's anthology A Different Plain: Contemporary Nebraska Fiction; and Sean Doolittle's thriller Rain Dogs.  I tried to get Ron Hansen to Skype with us, but his schedule would not permit it.  Sean Doolittle was excited to participate--and the Omaha novelist is actually making the trek to Lincoln to visit my class in person.  Guess how excited I am about that?  And my delightful advisor, Jonis Agee, is coming as well, to talk with us about short stories.

Both classes will become more aware of how they fit into the existing community of writers, not just by talking to established creative writers in person or via Skype, but as we participate in the life of the writing community at UNL.  Sherman Alexie is coming to launch the Winter Issue of Prairie Schooner; Prairie Schooner is also doing a "Global Ireland" event, to which my friend Eamonn Wall is coming; I'm looking forward to in-class and out-of-class excursions to Morrill Hall; Michael Forsberg, the eminent Nebraska photographer, is having an exhibit at the Great Plains Art Museum...and more, and more, and more.

This is also the semester where I revise and defend my dissertation.  I finished the draft of it before I went North for Christmas (a good thing, because the only thing I accomplished Up North was making a zillion Christmas cookies with my seriously delightful niece), which means I revise it over the next six weeks or so, and defend it in March.  (My niece will be getting a brother about the time I hope my revised diss is done, which coincides with my grandmother celebrating her 90th birthday, so that's another time-sensitive goal.) With a TR teaching schedule, that means the bulk of my MWF can be devoted to writing.  I've never had something like this, time-wise, and I'm pretty excited about it.

Today's writing thought, from Matt Bell's website, which is always a good way to start the day:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

James Lee Burke and Voice in Fiction

Happy New Year!

I'm back in Lincoln, getting ready for the new semester, sitting in my lovely red desk chair on a floor that is not quite level, so that if I tuck my feet up (like I'm doing right now), my chair slides away from my computer.  The joys of old houses, I guess.  I'm putting away the very thoughtful presents my family gave me, including a post-Christmas gift from my sister K3 at a Christmas-Clearance sale.  It makes me miss my Scamp and long for summer.  Part of my present from my sister K2 was tea from Teavana, so this morning I'm drinking my new Raspberry Riot Lemon Mate in my favorite pottery teapot and waiting for my mother to Skype in with my niece's sunny little face.

When I'm on the road, between Lincoln and the Great White North (as an Ohioan friend used to call it), I've become very fond of listening to books on CD.  This is not new or groundbreaking.  Audiobooks are not new.  But in the last few trips north, I've been treating them less as the entertainment they provide on those miles and more as a writer should.  This time, I listened to James Lee Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown, one of his Dave Robicheaux novels set in Louisiana--this one takes place in the days before and after Katrina.  As I'm also rereading Joy Castro's amazing Hell or High Water, apparently I'm in a Katrina state of mind.

Most of my readings of Burke have been in my Jeep, not in paper form, which lends itself to a really interesting consideration of fiction.  Will Patton never does anything for me as an actor, but he's the voice to read Burke's books and in that medium, I'll follow him anywhere.  Most of us writers read our work out loud at different stages of the drafting process, sometimes in a more professional setting of an organized reading.  But I've never really considered what this kind of listening can do for me as a writer.  Generally, when I'm listening to someone else read their work, I'm concentrating on things other than dissections of craft.  Maybe it's because most of my experience with Burke has been auditory that I'm able to concentrate on more than plot.

Listening to Burke during this time when I'm working on revising my dissertation-book, I'm reminded that voice, whether it is in fiction or nonfiction, is all about the sentence.  Even more specifically, it's about the verbs.  On this last revision of my Irish novel, The O'Connor Women, before I tabled it indefinitely, I had worked incredibly hard on voice, to distinguish these four first-person narrators from each other.  After Jonis, my advisor, read it, she looked at me and said, "The voice is all the same."  I wasn't exactly crushed, but more bewildered.  She said, "The sentences are all the same, in each section."  And, of course, they were.  So, shifting the sentences is the next step of revising that novel.  In the margins of my printed copy of my dissertation, which I'm revising longhand before I go back to the computer, most of the notes are about tone and diction, paying attention to sentences, making sure that the approach to the sentences and language match the effect I want the reader to have.  I've been a writer for most of my life, yet the power of sentences still surprises and delights me.

But James Lee Burke.  I enjoy Burke for his position in the world of crime fiction and I enjoy him as much as a writer as a reader.  Someday, I'd like to pick his brain.  Burke's voice--and for that matter, the first-person narrator of Dave Robicheaux-- is characterized by incredible verbs, as well as almost a complete lack of contractions, a combination that results in a more formal voice that suits Robicheaux's Southern character.  This construction of the sentences requires the reader to slow down, to match the pace of reading to the pace of the writing.  This slowing-down of the pace also suits the Southern quality of the prose.  (The shifting of first to third person narrators is something to address in a different post.)

From The Glass Rainbow:  "Two weeks ago the remains of one of [Clete Purcel's] bail skips had been found in the bottom of a recently drained canal, her decomposed features webbed with dried algae, as though she had been wrapped in a sheet of dirty plastic" (21).  This is not to say that more passive verbs are not present in the prose, but the distinction between descriptions that require active verbs, to make the sights and smells and sounds inside Burke's head real to the reader, and the passive verbs are usually confined to technical information (guns, geographical information, etc.).  In the exposition we find the more formal constructions of sentences, even towards not ending sentences with prepositions where they might naturally fall in our speech.  I'm fairly certain that Dave Robicheaux would never end a sentence with a preposition.

I'd like to do a more sustained exploration of Burke's sentences and his voice, the effect on pacing, where and when and how different verbs and different sentence constructions appear in the text.  Maybe it's just an excuse to spend more time with Will Patton's voice.  But the discussion of voice, how it's constructed and the way it functions on a page are not simply helpful for me as a writer, but next week, when classes start, it's going to be forefront on my mind.  Not a bad way to start off a couple of creative writing classes.  As writers, we should learn from everything we read.  If we're not picking up elements to imitate, we're picking up What Not To Do.  If, as writers, we're not paying close enough attention to put down that book a different writer than we started, that's problematic.  Of course, does that mean that as writers we can't just pick up a book for pleasure, without analyzing it?  Maybe, at some level.  But the two aren't mutually exclusive.  Best are the books that make us want to write when we finish reading them.