I want to encourage my students to find something in literature that resonates with them— and so I encourage them to make connections between their reading and their lived experiences. But I’ve been thinking a great deal about the limits of identifying with characters, particularly where that identification leads to a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of the text at hand. [read more]
A few weeks ago, students in my creative nonfiction workshop were discussing a classmate’s essay about her rather eccentric grandmother. It was a good piece of writing, a solid first draft, and I wanted to get my students talking about what made the piece so successful. [read more]
I confess that I spend far too much time on social media. I like Facebook to connect with far-flung friends and family members. I use Twitter to interact with other early modern scholars (and I’ve developed a number of professional contacts because of my use of the site). Last fall, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, I began to use Pinterest to start collecting (“pinning”) items that interested me – especially, like a huge number of users, crafts that I’ll never actually attempt and recipes I might try when I’m feeling particularly ambitious. I joined tumblr over my winter break, mostly to figure out what it’s all about – and I’ve discovered it’s both a place to aggregate things that inspire me and a place to post some of my own creative work,in particular, my photography.
I had an epiphany while grading some Intro to Lit papers recently: Students do not trust their ability to make connections.
This is by no means an original observation. But while grading those papers – and thinking about this post – I finally understood my undergraduate advisor’s admonition that I needed to learn to trust my intuition more. I always took it to mean a distrust of reason, a distrust of analysis. And I was totally unfair to my advisor, because that’s not at all what she meant.
What she meant was that I wasn’t trusting myself when I saw connections. [read more]
I spent last weekend watching documentaries. This may not sound at first hearing like the most exciting weekend a person could have, but every year at this time I spend all of my money and time to go see more documentary films than a person should see in four days at True/False, a documentary film festival in its tenth year that is a highlight of the year for me and my little town. Directors and producers and writers and fans descend on the city and turn it into temporary mecca for (mostly) nonfiction narrative cinema (and for hoodies, which for some reason go with documentaries like Botox goes with Hollywood), and normal residents like me get to forget our day jobs and immerse ourselves in a vibrant and inventive art form.
Emerging bleary-eyed and wrung out (maybe that explains the hoodies) on the other end of my sixteen-film weekend, I’ve been thinking about documentaries, especially in light of what I do, which is study and teach fiction. This isn’t so paradoxical—nonfictional and fictional narrative share more than most people think, and have a lot to teach us about each other. [read more]
Early on in my introductory poetry workshop, we discuss the difference between sentiment (emotion) and sentimentality (mawkishness, Hallmark cards, Lifetime holiday movies). First we talk about the ways in which sentimentality undercuts our ability to imbue our poems with real sentiment—it leads us toward cliché, it looks for the easy or more palatable way into an experience, it doesn’t require the level of intellectual and creative engagement we expect from good poems.
Then we start making fun of poets.
Okay, I say, imagine that you’re writing a parody of a poem and you want to make it wonderfully bad—full of clichés and cringe-worthy sentimentality. What are some key words you might use? “Heart,” someone always offers. We look for a little more specificity. “What should a heart not do in a poem?” I ask. “Skip a beat,” says one student. “Break,” says another. “End up in your throat,” offers someone else. Once we exhaust the heart possibilities, we move on, looking for the big offenders. What are some other words or tropes that might lead to sentimentality? I can usually get someone to come up with “soul,” which affords me an opportunity to write the word “soul” on the board, then draw a giant X through it—something I always like leaving on the board for the next class to see and fret over what sorts of things are being taught in creative writing classrooms. Usually someone mentions roses. Someone mentions the single tear. All of these go on the board (and I always offer the disclaimer that none of these rules is absolute—certainly, fantastic poems can be written using any number of potentially problematic words or images, provided the poet is savvy about how he or she uses them). Finally we move on to animals—butterflies as symbols of innocence, a bird as a vision of freedom. And, of course, there’s cuteness to be reckoned with—puppies, kittens, any three-legged quadruped. Sometimes I tell my students that they can only use a kitten in a poem if the kitten is dead. [read more]
Textbook discussions of figurative language tend to insist that similes and metaphors deepen a reader’s understanding of what they are describing. But if you look at how most writers employ similes and metaphors, they don’t so much deepen the meaning of what is being described as they change it. Much like you wouldn’t use an adjective or an adverb unless it changed the meaning of a given noun or verb, you wouldn’t use figurative language to say the same thing your literal language is saying.
Instead, figurative language is one of the best tools for writers who want to add emotional connotations, tone, and atmosphere, to a thing that might not otherwise have these features. [read more]
I don’t know about anyone of you out there, but at a certain point in the semester I feel an exhausted relief when I look at the scheduled readings and see that I’ve been smart enough to assign texts that I’ve read before, that I’ve taught before. I have that moment when I think, “I don’t necessarily have to re-read this – I’ve done this before. I’ll just do what I did last time.”
It’s not a good habit, but it’s an understandable one, I think. And I suspect that most of us give in to the temptation from time to time.
But last week, I was reminded once again why it is that I need to re-read for class – and not just because I need to be sure that I’m completely prepared. [read more]
Yesterday I wrote a course description for next semester. It was due only a week ago, so I’m feeling pretty good about getting it done. I’m thinking about the course today, which I’ve titled “1968” and which will be on that historic year in arts and letters, in part because I haven’t chosen the texts yet (use comments section to suggest texts! There’s too much to choose from!). I have some idea of other texts I want to include, but kicking around ideas for possible fiction has gotten me thinking about the criteria I’m using for choosing course material. I’ve been looking for fiction that has characters that feel real, through whom my students can feel what it was like to be alive in 1968. I’ve been looking for fiction that paints a realistic picture, that captures 1968 in amber. And I’ve been looking for fiction that has something meaningful to say about 1968.
What I’m realizing is that these preferences express a set of assumptions about fiction that I often work against in my students. Further, they’re a set of assumptions nobody made me reflect on when I was an undergraduate (not successfully, anyway). Over the years I’ve done a lot of this reflection myself, with the help of critics who have convinced me of some pretty basic truths about fiction, and I’ve internalized them over the years. In retrospect though, I wish somebody had told me these basic truths early in my undergraduate career.
Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #1: Characters Aren’t People.
If you read writers talking about writing, you will come across someone saying that she listens to her characters and lets them determine what they do in her stories. I know what writers mean when they say this, and it may feel this way to them, but it’s not quite true: writers try to create characters who act in a way that is consistent with whatever personality they have tried to give them: they try not to have them do things that seem “out of character” (the fact that people often act “out of character” is a subject for another day). Likewise, if you listen to your students (and I hope you do), you will hear them talking about characters as if they were real people. Often they use a word that has become a bête noir of mine and say that characters are “relatable.” They will talk about whether or not they like characters, they will psychoanalyze them, they will confuse them with their authors. [read more]
I’m always looking for ways to explain to students how reading and writing about literature is relevant to what they’re doing in their other classes—while I might think it’s obvious that reading carefully and writing clearly about a poem is of enormous benefit, many of my students need a bit more persuasion. I need to be more direct about what it is that we’re actually doing. My thoughts on this come in part because the longer that I’ve taught and the more students I’ve encountered, I’ve found myself persuaded by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s argument in They Say, I Say: while good students will intuit the moves the academic writers make, most students will not.
And I think that’s true of much of what we’re doing in the classroom. My students need to know why they’re writing the types of things that they’re writing, and why reading literature can help them in other courses. (A side note: I absolutely think appreciation and refinement of taste is important: however, that doesn’t exactly fly with first-year students who view my class as a school subject to suffer through. I think it’s worthwhile to try to persuade students of all of the values of what we do.)
Over time I’ve come to look for metaphors for reading literature and writing about their interpretations that might help put the intellectual work we do in some context. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Writing and reading is like practicing for a game: Athletes have to practice certain moves over and over again. We’re doing the same thing in the literature and writing classrooms. Whether it’s practicing how to write a thesis statement or how to pick apart a poem, we need to practice it alongside someone who has more experience and who can help us improve our technique. (Of course, that’s simply the teacher-as-coach metaphor favored by some educators.) [read more]