I’ve written before about these two articles by Tim Parks on reading, but as I’m preparing to teach them again this week, I’ve added an exercise where we’re applying his questions to a story we’re reading. The story is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks about a beautiful man who dates an ugly woman. (You can buy the issue of The Missouri Review in which it originally appeared here.)
My guess is students are going to have some negative reactions to this in that the main character is so fixated on his own beauty and her ugliness to the point it’s of the utmost importance, but the question then is, is Banks endorsing this viewpoint or is this just the qualities/concepts he’s working in? Whenever I teach something I want to remind students that exploring one side of an issue doesn’t mean you endorse it. This can apply to so many things–racism, sexism, feminism, and so on.
So in relation to this story, I’m asking students to discuss these questions from Parks in relation to the Banks opening:
- What are the qualities/concepts that matter most to the author in the opening of this story?
- How are the characters positioned in relation to these qualities or concepts?
- What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? What is the consequent debate arising from this atmosphere?
- How is the writer trying to draw you into the mental world of his characters through his writing? Through his conversation with you?
- Is the world authentic? How so?
After this, we’ll do a writing exercise where students write an opening that considers these questions from the reader and how they want them answered. We’ll see how it goes!
This semester, we’re starting out with George Saunders because I can’t think of a better introduction to anything than that.
We’re reading “Speaking of Style” by Debra Spark from her book Curious Attractions where she talks about style really being about your vision of the world. I’m pairing it with “Sea Oak” by George Saunders (a story so funny [and tragic] I tried reading it aloud to my husband but was laughing so hard I could only get through the first scene) as well as “The Tenth of December” from the book by the same name. These stories are clearly written by the same author, but have very different outlooks on the world. In class we’ll read highlights of this interview with Saunders from The New Yorker. Here’s a excerpt:
“Getting through that and finding yourself at the other end of the tunnel—it opens up a certain space in the artistic mind, I think. Living through those twenty-five years and then making a fictive world that had only pitfalls and misfortune would feel false. And/or incomplete. If you think of a work of fiction as a kind of scale model of the world, then the positive valences—where things turn out better than you thought they would—ought to be in there somewhere, too. Something like that.
“So in this book—although there’s still a lot of cruelty and darkness and all of that—I found my eye being drawn to the moments when things don’t go totally down the shitter, and asking, well, how does that happen? I started to feel that, at certain points in some of the stories, the most interesting aesthetic motion—the plot twist, if you will—was the one that swerved away from what I might call the habitually catastrophic.”
Ah, George Saunders. I read your work and have to practice my Jealousy Abatement Breathing.
Ever since we moved to semesters, I’ve struggled to figure out just how to teach my Advanced Fiction Workshop. It’s a big class–twenty-five, which is way over the number of students recommended by AWP–and to even get through that many workshops takes most of the time. I’ve decided this semester, in order to get through two stories each, I’m going to shorten the amount of discussion time to twenty-five minutes each story so we can do three a day. In order for me to do three a day, I am only doing bullet point responses instead of writing full letters to the students. Something had to give, and this way we’ll have about six full weeks to discuss issues of craft, essays on craft, literary citizenship, and published stories, discussions I think are very valuable. Plus, I’ve discovered Powerpoint and memes so these discussions will be very well organized and colorful.
I also decided to only allow stories for workshops and not excerpts of longer works. The two main reasons are so 1) I can see a full narrative arc from the student and they are required to write beginnings, middles, and ends (beginnings being the easiest. If I could just write beginnings for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy [but very incomplete] writer) and 2) I feel unless we’re all working on novels and gearing discussions, readings, and workshops toward that structure, the novel excerpts end up with a watered-down workshop that’s not as effective. I’m expecting some push-back about this decision.
I’m starting my eleventh year teaching at Wright State this fall, and my first as a promoted professor. I marvel sometimes that I was lucky enough to end up in this profession, and marvel too, that after ten years, I’m still overhauling my syllabus nearly every time.
I’m super excited to be teaching another workshop at Thurber House this fall!
This class will be on creative nonfiction. They’ve got a great line up this season, including workshops with Lisa Lopez Snyder, Gigi Morgan, Tom Barlow, and others. Check out the whole schedule here!
I’m super excited to be teaching a Word’s Worth Writing Center class tomorrow, Tuesday, August 4. They are known for great writing instruction and chocolate, and I promise no matter what, there will be chocolate. I’m relatively confident about the other thing as well, because if there’s one thing I love to talk about it it’s the short story, so imagine how happy I am that’s my topic. For more information on their one-time classes and longer-term classes, check out their website!
Lots of great stuff going on here in Dayton!
After Barry moved in, he put his previous house on the market. My soon-to-be-husband’s soon-to-be-ex house is a great house: craftsman style, lots of oak flooring and touches, a renovated kitchen, big workspace in the basement. It’s also an older house, and even though it’s in a great neighborhood with wonderful schools, it took about a year to sell. The biggest thing we heard from potential buyers was that they were disappointed it didn’t have a garage, and the second most cited disappointment? The master bedroom was too small to accommodate a current bedroom set.
I admit, this baffled me: the idea you wouldn’t buy something as huge and permanent as a house you love because it couldn’t fit your dresser. But a few years ago in a hail-Mary the day before a Thanksgiving we were hosting, Barry and I had to run to Sears to buy a dishwasher and ended up getting white to match the current, dying appliances. Since then we’ve made plans to renovate the kitchen in a few years, so when the fridge went kaput a month ago there was much debate between white to match the dishwasher or stainless steel. I figured since we’d already bought the dishwasher we should get white to match, and I was disappointed to think I’d have to get white then when we did the renovation. And then it struck me: oh my cripes, was I really debating changing my mind on a super-huge renovation project to match our $500 dishwasher?
And then it really struck me: this is so much like revision. All too often, I’ll spend hours trying to get around cutting one sentence I love or trying to reason my way into a plot point making sense, and always, it would be easier to just cut my losses (or paragraphs) and start fresh. I need to keep in mind the big picture–the story overall, or the house I love, or the version of the kitchen I want despite the money or time investment that’s already happened. There’s always a cousin who might need that old bedroom furniture or a dishwasher, or a charity that would love the donation, or that file marked “deletes” that you think you’ll go back to someday but never do but that somehow makes you feel better in the middle of the night.
Always remember: serve the story. Do what has to be done. Better to have lost that time and those words than lose more before you inevitably do what needs to be done.
Keep checking back around 2018 for news about a great deal on a dishwasher.
Tomorrow is the last day of classes. Am I happy about this? I suppose. I’ve been chasing that six-weeks-in-my-pajamas carrot for the last month or so, but it’s always a little bittersweet to see some of my students graduate. I hope I’ve taught them well. I hope I’ve taught them what they need to know. “Comma inside the quote” is not something I say because I think the world will crumble if they don’t know how to format dialogue, but because it’s important as English majors that they know how to operate within a set of guidelines, that they respect those guidelines, and that they prove they can communicate to an audience effectively and efficiently with respect for the medium. I have a colleague who says, “All we get are twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation.” Another says, “We’re not curing cancer here, but what we do, we do well and it matters.” I say, “I will lose my shit if you don’t know by the end of the Capstone whether you italicize or use quotes for a book title.”
Graduation is a scary time for many liberal arts majors. English majors don’t have a set path like students in Social Work who will go on to be social workers, but as Cathy Day so eloquently says here, “You don’t go to college to train for your first job, but for a lifetime of jobs.” I want to tell students (and do) that I’m fairly certain they’ll have some less-than-ideal jobs in the beginning, but my guess is in five to ten years, they’re going to be happy in their careers. Maybe that doesn’t seem like good news to someone who’s only been alive twenty years, but that’s how I mean it. I’m hopeful too that their liberal arts educations will also have prepared them for a lifetime of happiness outside of their careers by focusing on what matters to them: art, books, writing, history, and so on. And for the love of Christ, book titles are italicized.
Here is the cake I ordered for the Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards in Fiction and Poetry and the event to celebrate making it out of another semester alive:
I’m teaching a class at Thurber House in Columbus next Monday, April 27, from 6:00-8:00p. The slogan of Thurber House is “Where laughter, learning, and literature meet.” Dude, those are three of my favorite things!
The topic of the class is “Building a Story from the Ground Up,” and here’s the description: You have great characters and a great idea, but how do you set them both in motion and keep the momentum going in a short story? You’ll learn about strategies to avoid common pitfalls in a story’s beginning, middle, and the ever-crucial end.
If interested, there are still a few spots open and you can register here. If this isn’t your bag or you’re not free at this time, be sure to check out the other great workshops they have going on, along with other literary events.
I’m super excited and honored to be teaching at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop one-day spring seminar, Story for All: Stage, Screen, and Page. If you’re interested in learning more about the elements for story writing, screenwriting, or playwrighting, this is a great opportunity. Please help me spread the word!
I’m a big believer in causation in stories. Something happens and something happens as a result. If you have causation in motion in a story and a character who is willing to make things happen, what you have is a story that is much easier to write. For example, if you have a story that opens with a teenage girl arguing with her parents because they won’t let her go to a Kanye West concert, your story is going to be much easier to write if you have a character who is willing to make things happen. For instance, if she folds her arms and sits on her bed saying “shoot!” about not getting to go, that’s going to be a hard (and possibly boring) story to write because your character isn’t willing to get things moving. If you have a girl who flips her parents off behind their backs then sneaks out, what do you have? The next scene. You’ve got to figure out how to get her to the concert (she’s probably going to need a friend to drive because her parents would hear if she just started her car) which will give you more characters to work with along with a destination, and at some point, you’ve got to get her back home, hopefully to parents who have already called the police, which would make sense for them, wouldn’t it? Overreacting the way they did to a little misogynistic rap.
But what I started this post to say was how causation sometimes gets misinterpreted, when a writer has something happen and then says it causes something else to happen. For instance:
He kicked the tub causing him to cry out in pain.
He diced onion after onion causing his eyes to well with tears.
The sun rose above the trees causing her to squint. He hit a tree with his car, resulting in a broken leg.
I don’t know why this drives me crazy, but it does. When it’s written out that an action causes a reaction it causes me to grow crazy. I think it’s because I’m such a believer in an active reader who wants to work, and that fiction is about the reader making connections through the writing and not the writer making connections for the reader. When an author tells me point-blank that a stubbed toe causes a character to cry out in pain I think, no shit. Just show me the toe stubbing and then show me the character crying out. I swear, I’ll get the connection.
Did I ever do this in my own fiction? Oh, I’m sure I did. I’m guessing it’s some kind of shadow self of annoyance that makes me pick these things out. I remember a few years into writing when I realized how many extraneous “thats” I had in my stories, to the point I had to do a search and delete. I never did that with “causing” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to at some point.
What about you? What tics do you see in your work and others?