Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Week 1

So, none of my students brought me an apple.
Not that I was really expecting it, but still. I put on my scuffed leather brown shoes, the French-cuff shirt with two polished Ceratotherium simum cuff-links, I combed my hair, I had a rough lesson plan in my head, I had print-outs. I even swore (tastefully) when the JHMI shuttle left me with two minutes to get from Center St. & St. Paul to the School for the Arts.
No apple!? Come on. Come on.
But seriously, folks (I’m here ‘til Thursday, tip your waitress), today was a blast. First off, this school is almost too awesome compared to my high school. My students were all enthusiastic and we had a lot of good discussions about our reading (see below)—definitely a good sign for the rest of the semester.
I have one ultimate goal that I want to teach: endurance. It’s a subject that we sort of broach in advanced workshops at Hopkins, but I don’t think we students of writing (we few, we happy few!) walk away with the right approach. I know that, when an assignment is coming up, I may read through my story once before submitting it (bad idea). Then the story is workshopped, I edit it and it’s submitted for a final grade. I understand the logistics of a course may demand this kind of treatment, but I think it can be taken in a negative direction.
A story is not completed once you’ve finished writing it. And a story is not completed after given an editing pass. Or two editing passes. The work of a story is not in generating the initial document, it is in the tweaking and hammering that follows—and I want to ensure that my students come to appreciate the art of—well, I guess finessing is the word—a long story that they’ve written.
To that end, this is what I’ve been envisioning: the students write four pages a week for five weeks, to generate a 20 page story. From there, I was going to have them edit each other’s work—in a workshop, hopefully—over the remaining weeks in the semester, making the draft edits, and going through two, maybe three revisions each. The net result may be a ten (or even three) page story. I’m surprisingly fine with that, as long as we all walk away from this class with a story that’s undergone a firey baptism. That’s how you know a story is strong, and that it is worth being read by someone. Sometimes this can get touchy, or painful—I know that I’ve walked away sore from some workshops in my four years, and I know plenty of others who seemed pretty mad at my contributions to their workshops. I also know really well how skewed a workshop can become when the instructor is as involved as the students are—the dynamics of the criticism can get fouled up (“Well, you are the only published writer in the room, Professor XXXX” [incidentally, we may want to consider hiring a Professor named XXXX, as it lends the department a degree of bad-ass street cred {but I digress}]). So I’m also going to try to sit back and let the students run their own workshop—lending guidance where I can, lest my young students descend into horrific savagery as evidenced in Lord of the Flies (a teacher’s necessary companion? YOU decide!).
I brought in two stories to read today—my two favorite stories, in fact. The first is the American classic, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” For those that don’t know, it’s a short little wonder about a man who develops increasingly exotic day-dreams as a way of combating the unhappy and minutia-filled life he finds himself in. I really like this story for two reasons: firstly, Walter Mitty’s secret lives are symptoms we all share in life, maybe even more strongly by writers. Certainly escapism is one of the biggest draws to writing for a lot of people, and in this light, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is (to me) what William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” is to poetry: a writer (of escapism) is one who feels more deeply (about escapism) than his fellows, and as such is able to convey the sentiments of the world better than those around him. But that’s all theory, really. BOO theory (except where it validates my stance)!
Secondly, “Walter Mitty” is dear to my heart because (in my opinion) it is a story that only examines one aspect of fiction: the character. My students were quick to point out that nothing really happens in this story—we enter with Mitty unable to really escape his life, and we leave with the same impression. All the while, this story attracts so much attention because of dear old Walter—a doddering, possibly depressed child-like man with so much imagination and nowhere to put it. That’s the kind of approach that I want my students to think of when beginning their stories: what kinds of characters resonate with us, and why? How can this impact a story?

That’s all I got to report on for the first week. Next week, we’ll be reading the other story that I failed to get to (Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”). Here’s to a successful first day!

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