Category: Teaching

Lunch date with poetry

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Lunch date with Kevin. We took the food back to his office because sometimes we like to do take-out. We don’t always eat at home. It’s not that we don’t have enough to eat home, just that sometimes we like to get take-out. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. All I can do is move forward.

This was going to be a serious post about serious things, and what could be more serious than poetry? A friend in my poetry book club made copies for the group of an article in Harper’s Magazine, by Mark Edmundson, from July of this year called “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse.” Whilst waiting in my quiet office for students to come and talk to me, I read through it, underlying bits here and there and scribbling arguments in the margins. What spoke to me directly was his suggestion that it took three qualities to write “superb lyric poetry,” (and in my mind I couldn’t help but substitute “literature” for “lyric poetry”).

First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress senes, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. … [Second,] she must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. … [Third,] the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. 

He goes on to say that ambition might just as rightly be called courage. I like that view of ambition, frankly. Moreover, I like that view of what’s required to write well, and plan to offer it up to my students before the term ends (two more classes, my God, it’s not enough!). I think most of us who are drawn to writing come with the first talent: a facility for language. It’s why we’re drawn to writing. It may also be what stops many of us from moving on much further, and why agents and publishers tear their hair out trying to get young and talented writers to write about something, and not just beautifully or masterfully or lyrically. That’s why theme is so important. You have to have something to say. But I knew both of those things before reading this article; it’s his third point that is a new idea for me. And I like it, very much.

Ambition. Courage. Willingness to put one’s grand ideas on offer for public critique. The daring required to engage. No wonder a writer needs a hide tougher than a rhino’s. How does this willingness to stand out, to say something out loud, to take a stand, to care about something publicly, how does all of this fit with the necessity of being vulnerable? Because if you’re writing about something that compels you, something you care about, you can’t not be vulnerable. It’s what makes what you’re doing matter. We all know it, as readers.

One more thought from the article, on writers who teach.

Teaching poetry means talking about it in a highly self-conscious way. It means bringing the judging facility to the forefront. … But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front part of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits.

Now. I like to think that teaching creative writing this fall has forced me to distill and make useful much of the knowledge I’ve gained instinctively over my years of practice. I appreciate being forced to bring the judging facility to the forefront. But I’ve written next to nothing of creative content this fall, and though it wouldn’t be fair to blame this entirely on teaching, I do wonder if he’s got a point. By picking something apart, analyzing its pieces, well, the thing you’re dissecting is dead, isn’t it. It had better be, for the sake of all involved. When I’m writing, it’s like coping with a living thing that seems almost unrelated to the suggestions and guidelines I keep trying to share with my students. Sure, there are rules. There are excellent, tried-and-true ways of doing things. But I’m not thinking about them. I’m writing. I’ll save the analysis for later, for revision and editing.

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For the record, I had the pork belly with the papaya salad, and Kevin had the fried chicken, and both were very very good. If you live in town, follow @westofseoul on Twitter for menu updates and to find out where the truck is parked from day to day.

Be forewarned and be reassured

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Be forewarned: I’ve got nothing particular to say. Be reassured: the one thing I’m not going to do is to ramble on about Rob Ford, the spectacularly awful mayor of Toronto, even though it’s just about the only news penetrating the wall of fog that seems to have lowered itself around my noggin. It’s these early mornings, one after the next after the next.

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I’ve been wondering about my inclination to get up and exercise, no matter how tired I am. Is it helping? Is it making me a calmer, happier, fitter, stronger, more productive person? I sleep better when I exercise, and that counts for a lot. And I’m often up early anyway, so it seems like the practical thing to do. But I also know that tiredness can bleed into the whole day.

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I’ve got a sick kid home. He read me a whole book, with some help on tough words here and there. “Did you know you could read that book?” I asked in astonishment, and he shrugged and said, Nope, he had no idea.

There are only three classes left in the term. Tonight I’m tackling creative non-fiction, a subject that makes me nervous, as my level of expertise is not as high as when we’re talking about the short story. Still, creative non-fiction fascinates me, and it’s worth tackling, assuming my fogged-up brain can make sense of my scrambled notes.

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This is where I sat last night to compose those scrambled notes and find readings to support my claims and generalizations. I will miss this office, quite a lot, actually. I will miss the quiet, and the routine. And I will miss the camaraderie that’s been created in the classroom over the course of the term, that I will miss a lot. It will make life easier, not to have this extra obligation, but my preference, as you may have observed, doesn’t generally skew toward easier.

Tonight’s supper: turkey noodle soup, with buttery corn-off-the-cob on the side.
Last night’s supper: grilled salmon, and macaroni-and-cheese made with leftover noodles and real buttermilk.

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Yesterday’s after-school activity: music. In this beautiful sunlit building. I’m about to leave for campus, to teach. The kids are home, and it’s our quiet evening, with only one extra activity — karate — to which the boy has a ride, thankfully. I’m letting everyone eat the Halloween candy as their after-school snack. And I’m grabbing some to go. Be forewarned. Be reassured.

This is the story

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Not having time to take and process new photos is not a good reason not to post, I’ve decided. That’s a lot of nots. Not having time to write a new post is also not a good reason not to blog, I’ve decided. I’ve got fifteen minutes, tops. So this ain’t gonna be uber-reflective or even mildly reflective. Think: stream of consciousness.

The phone keeps ringing, but it’s not good news, or news of any sort, in fact. It’s those people longing to clean my air ducts. “I don’t have air ducts.” “What do you have, ma’am?” “Nothing that you could clean,” I say, and he laughs — mockingly? The line goes dead. “I was supposed to hang up on you,” I say, too late.

This week, I’ve been reading through all of my students’ rough drafts for the short story unit, in preparation for a workshopping session tonight. I’ve prepared a “helpful” mini-lecture on the difference between description and story. These are not the same thing, not at all. I’ve looked longingly at the new book by my elbow, Ann Patchett’s THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE, and wished to cast aside all cares and responsibilities and gulp it down, and I have not. I have resisted and scribbled comments in pencil on all of my students’ stories.

I haven’t been reading so much at night. The tired leaks into my free time. Tuesday evening, the kids in bed and Kevin off to hockey, found me folding laundry for a full hour (three days’ worth) while streaming a new sitcom, “Mom,” which was not as funny as advertised, although not terrible. (Be warned: my standards for sitcoms are pretty low.)

In other news, I wasted the better part of Tuesday paying stupidly avid attention to the not-so-mysterious but nevertheless mind-boggling show put on by Toronto’s own mayor, Rob Ford. As AppleApple (also an avid news-watcher) and I stared at Ford’s “apology” streaming live on the kitchen computer, we provided shocked running commentary that mostly revolved around the slow-dawning realization that the man fully intended to ride this out, God bless the good people of Toronto. And bless ’em indeed, for he’s causing exactly the trouble and chaos that any addict causes his family and friends, all the while insisting it’s not him, it’s them. Anyone who’s seen a family go through this pain knows exactly what we’re all watching here, and it’s not funny at all.

But there, more time wasted. And it’s not him, it’s me. Where are your boundaries, woman?

A student asked me whether I write every day. I replied, Yes.

It’s true. I do write every day. But let’s be frank. I’m not writing books every day. Most days this is what I’m writing: other things, smaller bits, random and not held together by any particular theme aside from necessity. Notes. Marginalia. Lists. Letters. Journal-type scribbles. Stream of consciousness blog posts.

Today’s session is out of time.

Day of the Dead

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I was kind of bummed out about missing my kids’ Halloween on Thursday evening, even though it was a really terrific class (and I read them Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, which would scare anyone), and the trick-or-treaters and their dad had to endure cold rain and wind. Even so. I missed it. And got no good pics.

But we were invited to a Day of the Dead party last night, so we decided to all dress up. Bring out the camera, Obscure CanLit Mama.

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Why is it so much fun to dress up and be scary? We revelled in the chilly walk over to the party, dressed like this. I can’t explain it even a little bit. Be afraid! And be festive!

We didn’t stay late, in part because a) we were all tired, b) the littlest threw up after devouring two giant cookies and guzzling root beer, and c) well, that last reason is really quite enough to warrant an early departure, let’s face it. Oh, yes, c) we had swimming and running and soccer and more soccer today, that last item all the way down the highway in Mississauga. Which is where we’re headed right about now, as soon as I push publish on this post.

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Two new experiences

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snow on the roof, yesterday

New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I’m very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let’s be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don’t have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.

Lately I’ve been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do — particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson’s “Traplines,” what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?,” which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man’s front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it’s clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn’t you like to know? Again, even though it’s done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.

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dog crate as end table, in living-room

I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters’ reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It’s a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can’t. You can’t go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.

Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver’s relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I’ve forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish’s fingerprints were all over Carver’s first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver’s style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he’d distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish’s changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver’s work — at least, his early work.

At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version (“The Bath”) is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it’s short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version (“A Small, Good Thing”) is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can’t be denied that Lish’s influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success — and confidence — that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.

Long tangent. It’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don’t do that, students! That’s not the kind of editing I’m advocating. And yet, Carver’s stories exist and I’ve loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I’m not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).

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!!!

New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she’s living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday’s class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I’m really liking my office. It’s a weirdly comforting place to come to. I’m essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can’t look at without thinking “bacteria,” but I will miss it when the term ends.

Back yard beauty

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It feels odd to check in here and offer no news. But it’s true. I have no news. I have instead the general happenings of an ordinary couple of days.

I finished my second round of revisions on Tuesday evening by completely neglecting my two youngest offspring (the two eldest were at soccer tryouts with their dad). I knew I was close, and couldn’t stop myself. Here’s how our after-supper conversation went.

CJ: I’m bored!
Me: I’m sorry.
CJ: Can Grandma come play?
Me: Let’s text her and find out.
[a round of texting ensues]
Me: I’m sorry, but Grandma can’t come. She’s visiting your new baby cousin right now.
CJ: [flings self on floor in attitude of despair] Grandma is ALWAYS with the new baby now!
Me: The new baby is four days old. I think you’re exaggerating. [thought bubble: wow, new baby as potential rival, that didn’t take long]
CJ: But I’m bored! We don’t even have Netflix!
Me: How about a video on YouTube? Like Little Bear.
CJ: I hate Little Bear.
Me: What do you want to watch?
CJ: Pokemon.
Me: Seriously? Pokemon? It isn’t too scary? [thought bubble: or utterly nonsensical?]
CJ: Pokemon!
Me: Pokemon it is. I’ll just be in my office … [an hour later: revisions done!]

On Wednesday, I went out for coffee and croissant with a friend to catch up and celebrate the France deal (she speaks French; I do not).

On Thursday, I presented my students with way too much information on the elements of short story writing.

Unrelatedly, I also made a list of things I want. It’s a bit extravagant, and includes a treadmill desk and a laptop. Also running tights and a haircut.

Must have been in list-making mode, because I then made another list of potential words of the year for next year. This year’s word is STRETCH. I think about it from time to time and wonder how it fits in with everything that’s happening. And I remind myself to do yoga and actually physically stretch.

It’s a full moon tonight. The sun is shining. This morning, I went out to the back yard and took these photos.

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