Archive for November, 2009

An Interview with Sherman Alexie

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I found a great interview on YouTube today with Sherman Alexie, a prolific author whose latest work is titled War Dances.  In the interview, he talks about writing fiction against all odds and how life informs and affects his artistry.  The interview is a bit long at 25 minutes, but if you have the time, check it out!

I’ve admired this author ever since my dad introduced him to me by renting his movie Smoke Signals (based on his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven) almost ten years ago.  Since then, I’ve read many interviews with Alexie, as well as The Lone Range and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  I’m definitely adding his new book, War Dances (just released this past October), to my Christmas list for this year!


Where Are the Wild Things?

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This past week, I stumbled upon an article from the UK’s The Independent.  It explores the criticism Maurice Sendak faced after writing Where the Wild Things Are due to the dark nature of the story, which was written for children.  Reading the article reminded me of a speech I saw a week or two ago at a teacher conference and how it made me think about the kinds of literature we give students.

Now, I have to admit it:  I love a happy ending in a story.  That goes for any story–whether it’s a novel, a play, a film, a TV show, a biography.  Sure, there are plenty of stories with sad endings that I admire, respect, even enjoy.  The happy endings, though, are the ones that I really love.

So on some level, I understood what Emma Walton Hamilton meant when she gave the opening address at the NCTE Convention last week with her mother, the famous Julie Andrews.  She talked about her own son’s experience of entering middle school as a voracious reader.  However, the cross-curricular theme of that year was “war,” and all of the reading and social studies content dealt with wars.  She noticed her son’s enthusiasm for reading waning over the year until he finally approached his teacher and asked for something lighter.  She obliged, and, armed with a stack of books full of happy endings, he went back to being a lover of literature.

At this point, I had to pause for a second.  On the one hand, yes, I do believe part of our jobs as teachers is to inspire a love of reading in students.  But I also believe that it’s our job to teach them how to read.  I don’t mean just for comprehension–I mean for understanding.  If my students can sit down, read Macbeth, tell me where he went wrong as a leader, what brought about his downfall, and how the numerous tragedies in that play could have been avoided… I’ve done my job.  Students need to be able to read, to analyze, to explore the hard questions that might not be so pleasant or so easy to answer.  Stories with happy endings don’t always need such in-depth analysis, because the resolution ties up neatly and obviously at the end.  What else is left to say? 

Again, don’t get me wrong–I love a happy ending, and I’ve learned a lot from books that have them.  I definitely don’t think we can only learn from tragedy–saying so would be a complete disservice from the kind of fiction I love writing!  But I think there is much to gain from stories with more complicated endings.  They don’t have to be tragic, but it’s good if a student is left to analyze and come to some of his or her own conclusions.


Instructor Article

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Check out my new piece, Three Service Learning Projects, in the November/December 2009 issue of Instructor magazine.  Kudos to the teachers who successfully plan and execute these curricular-driven service projects!


Engaging with the Writing World

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I rarely throw anything away involving teaching or writing, and I’m generally pretty good at keeping it all organized.  I kept every single handout from my first master’s degree, a binder dedicated to every course.  I keep everything from my creative writing courses.  My course binders have evolved into a second reference library for me in my professional and creative lives, as it isn’t infrequent that I’ll turn to my organized coursework in addition to my reference books.

 A sampling of my binders.binders

I also enjoy looking back on where I’ve been.  This is the same reason why I’ve kept and saved numerous diaries ever since I was thirteen.  Some days I like going back and reading what I was doing three years ago on this same date.  When I student taught, I kept a detailed diary just focused on those experiences, and that can be very entertaining to read, too. 

This weekend, I purchased a new bookshelf.  As I arranged all of my books onto it, I found myself thumbing through my first notebook I used as an MFA student.  When I opened to the first page and saw:  “Writer’s Life:  Lydia Davis” at the top, I nearly fell over.

Writer’s Life is a series of readings in my MFA program.  Several authors visit each week, and all students must attend eight of these readings per semester.  A year ago, I had no idea who Lydia Davis was.  I probably went to that reading simply because I had to fulfill a requirement and this one was as good as any.

If I saw Lydia Davis’s name on the schedule now, however, I would have a much different reaction.  First of all, I’d be really excited.  I’d think about how she reinvented what the short story is–she can tell a whole story in a sentence, in a block paragraph.  I’d be interested in seeing what she had to say about craft, about her process.  And this time, instead of sitting in the back of the room, passively listening, I’d probably raise my hand during the Q and A to ask a burning question or two.  I’d definitely buy a copy of her book, wait on line for her to autograph it, give her one of my business cards, steal a moment of her time to ask another question.

This moment shows me how much I’ve changed since starting the MFA program.  I’ve always liked reading, but I do so in a much different way now.  I read like a writer these days.  When I’m not sure how to do something in my own writing, my instinct is to read authors who have done that thing successfully.  I read interviews with authors.  I believe there’s something to be learned from reading every book.  Sometimes I contact authors with questions–sometimes they write back; sometimes they don’t.  But the big idea is that even though I’m not an important person in the writing world, I feel part of the community in the way that I engage with it.  The writing world isn’t impenetrable or dead on a page.  It’s living, breathing, and for the first time ever, I feel a part of it.


Unlikeable Characters

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There are lots of characters in literature that we love to hate.  Ebenezer Scrooge, Holden Caulfield, Miss Brodie.  What keeps us interested and reading about them?

The question came up during my writing workshop last night when I was workshopping my first chapter for the umpteenth time.  My character, Alice, was under the microscope.  She starts the novel selfish and, through the course of her first post-undergrad year, grows into a more compassionate person.  The question was:  how do you make your character compelling and interesting to read when she’s supposed to be spoiled and annoying?

For inspiration, I went back to Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin today.  The protagonist is a spoiled woman who leads a charmed life until her fiance leaves her for her mousy best friend.  I loved hating Darcey when I first read the book a few years ago, turning page after page, hoping to see her get her come-uppance.  She has a fantastic turn-around about halfway through and grows into a great person by the end of the story. 

I pulled that book off the shelf today and tried to analyze how Giffin created such an unlikeable yet compelling character.  I also checked out Raymond Carver’s “The Cathedral” at the suggestion of another classmate.  I’m interested in seeing how other authors approach this task.

We see successfully unlikeable characters in TV and film too.  Karen Walker of Will and Grace comes to mind.  She’s crude and insulting, but she’s also hilarious–her helium voice, the specificity of her insults, her forthrightness.  Claude Herskin Brown of Rumpole of the Bailey is the perfect balance of sexist, awkward, and nerdy.  Angela from The Office is defined by her joylessness, excessive propriety, and lack of warmth (when Andy propsed to her in front of the entire office, she muttered “okay”–and when he said “they can’t hear you,” she snapped, “I SAID okay.”).  I think I’ll start watching TV and reading books with an eye focused more on the villains, the flawed sidekicks, and the negative qualities of the funny, compelling characters.  Hopefully doing so will inform my revisions.


Opinions on Opinions

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Opinions.  They make the writing world go round.  Oprah says she likes your book and suddenly it’s a bestseller.  A magazine editor likes your story and you’re $100, $500, $1000 richer.  America loves you for being the ditzy one on a reality show and then suddenly you have a book deal.

So when I attended a literary agent panel recently with the very specific question:  “My writing teacher doesn’t think my book title is sexy enough for people to buy it.  What do you think?” I thought I wanted an opinion.  I waited on line for over an hour to talk to one of the agents to get the opinion. 

Finally, I sat down.  I asked the question. 

The agent looked up from his BlackBerry.  “What’s your book title?”

I told him.

He said:  “Good, not great.”

I waited for more.  Nothing.  “Well, thanks,” I said.  “But can you tell me what a better title might be?”

“I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t really know what to tell you.”

In my line of work, it’s not good enough to just have an opinion.  I could never hand back an essay to a student with a C on it and simply say, “I don’t really know what to tell you.”  It’s my job to explain to the student what was wrong with the essay, to help her improve, to get her to the next level.  Her success is my success.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so idealistic (or narcissistic) that I would expect a busy literary agent to care about a title of an unpublished novel that he’s never read.  Well, maybe I would, considering he’d signed up to participate in a panel to help aspiring writers. 

Anyway.  Moving on.

Later, riding the PATH back to New Jersey, I realized that while I thought I was going to the panel for an opinion, I really went expecting guidance and help, not a five-second appraisal.  I don’t care about an opinion that isn’t constructive in some way.  If a reader of my work tells me, “I don’t like this” and it ends there, what good is it to talk with that person?  On the flip side, if a reader tells me, “I don’t like this.  Here’s why.  Here’s what I suggest for improvement,” then that’s someone with whom I’d want to have a conversation.  And who better to bring it home than my Cornish kin Virginia, sisters of the writerly soul:

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” ~Virginia Woolf


Jumping on the Glee Bandwagon

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Both my colleagues and students have been raving about Glee, a new FOX show about a high school show choir.  I finally decided to watch a couple episodes today and  have totally jumped on the bandwagon just by watching episodes 4 & 5. 

Basic plot:  The entitled glee club diva doesn’t like that the music teacher assigns a solo to another girl, so she quits the glee club.  Eventually, though, she realizes it’s not about individual superstardom but about friendship and teamwork.  I was practically in tears at the end of episode 5 when the diva learns her lesson and volunteers to be an understudy in the mind-blowing rendition of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” (one of my favorite songs ever!).

What I love most about that scene (find the moment by going to about 40 minutes into the episode) is the expression on a guidance counselor’s face in the audience when she sees the kids pull together to perform something great.  It isn’t just the red hair and sweater set that I recognize, but the hand-to-chest expression of awe that every teacher feels when she sees her kids accomplish something amazing.  I’m glad I saw this on a Sunday night… makes me excited to go back to the classroom for tomorrow!