"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Or is it Just that Fiction is so Real?: A Summer Musing

July 10th, 2017 by

I’m always surprised to learn that there are people in the world who don’t like to read. Not only do they not read much: they don’t get that they shouldn’t interrupt me when I’m reading.

Most experience this—whether their interest is French cooking, mountain biking, big time wrestling, or knitting. Someone sees them doing their thing they like, and they look at them like they are wearing a Halloween mask in April. Really, they ask? That good, huh?

My reading doesn’t get interrupted very often. But when it does, it’s by people who seemed to learn in elementary school to think of reading or writing as punishment. Now they think I must have really fallen on hard times. He’s reading? Did his girlfriend break up with him? What’s he done wrong, or, Where did he go wrong? Next, he’ll be praying.

I’ve learned not to yell at people for this. The worst I might say is, “You should read this,” and hand the book to them. They glance over the cover.

Most intolerable are the people who read, but just not fiction. Instead, they only read what’s “real.”

“What,” I usually ask, “you mean, instructions for medication? Street Signs? Computer manuals? I mean, what are we talking about here?”

“You know,” they say. “Nonfiction. Self-help books.”

I usually leave this alone. At least they are reading books.

Many are the fiction writers who have responded to this, of course. “With fiction,” they say, “you lie in order to tell the truth.” There is, in other words, something real that requires telling the lie, the fiction. By projecting ourselves into imagined lives, we start to see our lives played out in a larger, more complicated scenario than we normally have access to. The Greek word for story, interestingly, is mythos, from which we have derived the English word for “myth,” a word usually used on the evening news as a synonym for “lie.” But fiction writers know and tell us that in our stories we find truths about what it means to be human or what the human condition may consist of. Never mind that a king named Oedipus may never have existed or solved the riddle of the Sphinx. His story leaves us contemplating his and our human condition.

There are many good people who will not read fiction. Whether it is because they have high standards for reality, because they don’t want to try to imagine other lives, or because they will only read books that affirm what they already believe, they don’t have time for it. These are all, I think, reasons that tell on us. Many are the Facebook memes recently that have advertised the values of reading fiction, not nonfiction, for developing empathy. And this is reason enough to read fiction. We might be in a position to love others. This squares well with the most important points of my theology.

But reasons one and three above, I think, are especially strange. We have high standards for reality? But is it that we fear that if we read a work of imagination, we will be lost to fantasy and the table will threaten to leave the floor? Is our sense of propriety that endangered? What are we resisting here?

But the third reason really gets me. Are we against being open to new ideas? I find this especially among people who teach theology, I’m afraid. They think of fiction mainly as a debased form of allegory. And when I talk to a theology person about a novel I’m reading, when they find that what I describe doesn’t fit any neat New Testament allegory, they dismiss it.

But theology is not just a formula. The best theologians, like the best fiction writers, are always embarking into their deepest senses of mystery, looking to discover things. What I find most interesting, is they don’t emerge from this mystery as heretics.

I have an example of this from a recent blog I wrote last month, which you can find here.

In either case, whether we don’t want our sense of reality, or our formulas upset, the “reality’ is that our sense of what is real only reaches about as far as our own vision–and what we’ve read. I suppose a good book on light particles or a History of the Third Reich might prove useful. But how helpful might an especially observant writer of fiction be, to add to or deepen our own “headlights” as we get to know characters in greater depth than we usually can in “real” life? It’s almost like the lights are going on a bit longer and brighter. A good novel can do this for us.

I doubt that I’ve convinced anyone to try reading fiction with these few scattered ideas. And I don’t want to forget that reading is first a pleasure. But it is also an invitation: Come, enjoy some of the richness that being alive holds out to us.

Of Declining Literacy Rates and Technological Natives

June 27th, 2017 by

Many of my students have heard from the elders in their communities that they have short attention spans. And their grammar is bad. These problems have resulted, they have been informed, from their uncritical use of too much social media. Or, as it is sometimes said, social media has caused a decline in the literacy rate, and they, my students, are the living evidence of this decline.

Most of my students will simply take this. They will nod and accept this assessment during class, even add what they consider evidence to the claim. I try to seize on this as a moment to introduce the purposes of doing research, or, at the very least, reading widely. I ask them to challenge what they’ve been told about themselves.

Since this notion is not based on research but on people’s experiences of other people, I suggest that I can refute it by telling them about the many people I know over 50 who cannot think or write and have short attention spans. Then I tell them about what I’ve read, that technology has long been blamed for what are always perceived as declining literacy rates—for this, I remind them of what was once written about TV, radio crooners of the 1930s, and even Plato’s hatred of writing, which he held would destroy memory. I tell them that this is a bit of research I’ve actually done. But I ask them to consider what evidence would be needed to support the idea that their generation is responsible for a declining literacy rate. How is literacy mapped? Does it mean the same thing to us today that it meant in the 1950s?

I explain that the research for such claims in either direction will need to be conducted along many different lines. For example, most of us don’t remember the 1950s. But that doesn’t mean that we can assume they represented a better time. We will need to find out what people thought about literacy at the time—especially the Soviet scare with Sputnik and the sudden need to raise test scores in the sciences. It is my hope that in discussing just this one issue that I will have drawn a continuous line for them from their own writing and reflecting on personal experience to thinking about the nature of knowledge that is found in other forms of research and discovery.

This is, of course, one way to begin to reflect on the nature of knowledge behind the writing my students will do. Valuable research, I want to demonstrate to them, is discursive and tied to their concerns, both personal and professional. Research is not something trivial, something outside of themselves, something simply dumped into a paper that doesn’t extend our thinking. I will sometimes have them freewrite on the questions we raise.

The point in all of this is to begin to provide a scaffold for research. Nearly every opinion they’ve been given on every subject has come from their community. In research, we look for ways to understand the ways that an opinion, which seems obvious and given, is really covering over complexities.

The Souls of Readers: A Marketing “Guide”

June 5th, 2017 by

To start the week off, I present here what I am calling a branding/marketing/self-promotion anecdote. (I wasn’t able to fit this under a hashtag, so I’ll just go with the slashes I have here.)

This morning, I walked again with two friends. I am coming back from a health problem that prevented walking for several months, and it was good to get back to this habit. Both of my walking friends are writers, and so it didn’t take too long to get onto the subject of self-promotion and marketing. This is interesting by itself. I imagine writers seventy years ago getting onto the subject of books and stories and favorite writers, not marketing. But that is the subject for another day.

One of my friends began noting that we need to make others aware of our products, and he added this: “You need to ask who your reader is. You need to imagine them. That’s what I had to do—picture them. Who are they? What are they like?”

This is of the sort of advice that I like to call “advice to end all advice.”

My friend was advocating something he read in a marketing self-help guide. Imagine your reader. As a novelist, I imagine my characters all the time. And, I suppose, I am aware of thinking of a possible reader looking over my shoulder, imagining how he or she might respond to the scene I am imagining. And yes, it is always just one reader there at my shoulder, not readers in the plural.

Fiction or Nonfiction
My friend is writing nonfiction—self-help. I see why he might try to do this, to imagine his reader as a character. However, I am writing fiction. As I try to take the advice, to turn from the scene I am writing to that ghostly reader just behind me, someone who might want to pick up my novel and stay with it, I run into roadblocks where it seems the imagining has already been accomplished by an average publishing house marketing department, and in the following key areas:

First, most readers of fiction are women.

Second, most novels are marketed on the premises of genre. There is romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, western, action-adventure, mystery, literary, and so forth. And within each of these genres, there are sub-genres. My novel is vaguely contemporary and, as one writer friend has said, high concept. My main character goes on a reality show where a lot of bad things happen to him, especially in a parking lot outside a Texas barbeque (I don’t think I’ve just given any spoilers).

It is also vaguely Christian, though it doesn’t fit snuggly there. As Christian fiction goes, it could be inventing its own category, which I will, for the sake of argument here, call grumbly Christian fiction. It is aware that it doesn’t quite fit—almost anywhere.

Third, after genre, most will ask about the gender of the protagonist/main character. The obvious connection here is male protagonist appeals to male reader, and female protagonist appeals to female reader, though I have some reason to doubt the universality of this equation. Furthermore, what kind of male or female are we talking about? My male protagonist lives a life in which he seems to think questioning things is a way to belief. This doesn’t win him many friends.

When my walking friend this morning first said that I needed to imagine my reader, the first image to come to my mind was of a woman who is perhaps just two degrees right of center but not tone deaf to good arguments from either left or right of her voting record. She is perhaps between 30 and 50 years old. She has a Master’s degree and is raising or has raised children. She hasn’t lost her idealism, but she doesn’t reject what’s in front of her in the name of some childhood fantasy. She likes to cook good food. She’s white and probably protestant, though I would love to have religious and racial and ethnic diversity in my readers.

The Soul Also Reads
I’m not sure what this does for me, though. Am I only to market to smart, white, middle-age women?

The thing is, I think that my book should appeal to souls, and as with university assessment plans, I’m not sure how to market to this “demographic.”

The novel presents experiences as though actually lived through, and it presents certain perspectives on those experiences. It also raises a few ideas and controversies without the presumption of settling any of them. There are things my protagonist does like “pay attention to the help,” distrust anyone who is selling something, questions those in authority, though never overtly, and doubts his own abilities.

In other words, he’s pretty typical.

End of the Side Walk
At the end of our walk, I had to say that this imagining of my reader had gotten me no deeper into a marketing scheme than I was before. My one friend left, and my other friend, before walking off himself said, “I think you need to just try a lot of different things. See what works.”

I like this advice. Instead of deciding that only left-handed knitters with two male children are my audience, I will, as Ecclesiastes has it, cast my bread on the waters.

I know that this is not good marketing teaching. But it is biblical. And as the preacher says, in so many words, after many days, we will see what will come back.

I offer this dubious “guide” to marketing, of course, hoping to hear from many of you reading this who can offer better ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.

Freewriting, Literacy, and the Key of E-flat

May 22nd, 2017 by

I am on a quest to fully understand and explain literacy—how it works, why some people do or don’t attain it, why it matters, what motives exist for it, how it changes us, what “it” is. You know. The usual questions, starting with the most basic (which aren’t really basic) and leading to greater and greater complexity. This quest will never be finished, in my lifetime, at least. It sort of feels like the quest to travel the speed of light based on our current understanding of energy and matter.

In my quest, I have sometimes drawn on metaphors. Aside from the analogy I just used concerning the speed of light, I have noticed that I like metaphors taken from music. This is probably because that is another field about which I enjoy an amateur’s understanding. This will, I hope, be forgiven. I promise not to sing. At least, I won’t sing here.

What We Avoid
This past week, I performed a Jewish Sabbath song called “Ka Ribbon” with my wife, who is a talented clarinetist. The problem I faced was transposing the piece so that the clarinet, tuned to B-flat, and the guitar, tuned to C, could play in the same tones and not in clashing keys. I could have simply tuned my guitar to B-flat, or used a capo on the first fret and played as though in D, one of the keys of choice for guitar players (the others are E, G, and A).

But I didn’t. I decided to transpose to the key of E-flat. And it was a mess at first. I eventually got passable at it, shifting from E-flat to a barred A-flat. But it is not a key I relish playing in when in front of an audience.

Again, I look for metaphors, and this experience led me to suspect that some of my students might feel about writing the way that amateurs like me think about the key of E-flat. We never do it. It isn’t comfortable.

It is one thing to hum melodies on a kazoo. It is another to learn to channel those same melodies through the structure of an instrument—that is, to shape the language we’ve been speaking all of our lives onto the page and then form sentences that seem to want to construct themselves in the language we were raised in, and not Standard Written English.

Add to this the rush to evaluation that is done in school. If we don’t write outside of the classroom, we don’t have time to play and experiment with different forms of language and different ways of saying things in class. Since writing and language are not the real subjects being taught in these classes—the real subjects seem to be a few absolute, rigid rules—most students really are not going to experiment.

They won’t have time to get used to what things feel like in E-flat.

Speaking of and for Resistant Writers
This is how the semester I just finished teaching mostly felt for the brilliant, challenged students I just had the blessed occasion to work alongside. Among my first-year writing students, the majority came from high schools where they had been given the impression that they were not good at writing, and so writing was a task they avoided at most costs. E-flat was not their thing. They entered my class this past January with resistance, dislike, and wariness. Most expected a repeat of high school.

So, early in term, I made my students freewrite in class. Every time we met, they got used to writing. I am not the only teacher who does this. At the end of the semester, I gave them a final assignment I will never be able to check on or give them a grade for. I told them to freewrite four or five times a week. Freewriting would be a way for them to interact daily with language and to get their bodies and minds working together, if only for ten minutes, to compose through language without fear of evaluation. I suggested that if they took those ten minutes to freewrite four or five times a week about anything at all, they would get more used to the act of writing and to their language. After all, writing is really a behavior.

“Let’s take the mystery out of it,” I said. “Think about something you don’t do very often. There’s a reason you don’t do it, and it is the same reason you aren’t doing it well. The reason could be behavioral as much as it is a mental block.”

I was telling them to play in E-flat.

As an addendum, I say this: As I imagine my students freewriting all summer, I have decided that I will try to play everything I know in E-flat. By the end of the summer, or perhaps before this, I will switch to B-flat. Just to get used to it. It is going to get easier to play along with my wife on her B-flat clarinet.

How Far Will the Rules Carry Us?

April 24th, 2017 by

And swiftly, another school year draws to a close.

When I am teaching mostly writing, I tend to lose track of where the time is going. I find myself working with my students as individual writers, at least, those who will allow for that. Those who have given up on themselves already–and there are many like that, unfortunately–will not care or allow much in terms of interacting over their writing. But at least a few do every semester, and it is to those that I dedicate the semester, the year.

One of the patterns that I noticed more this year than in previous years was something that other teachers of writing have noticed, something that actually was first observed by Cicero. It is this. Writing is a complicated craft. Writing ability comes with much living and trial and error, and much effort. But it is also true that many textbooks sell the craft of writing as a simple matter of rules. This seems like a much better sell, of course, for it makes the craft seem like it can be shrunk to size.

I have been talking with my first-year students all semester about the importance of process. I have engaged them in conferences about their own drafts and how to keep working on them. But that hasn’t stuck. Sometimes, teaching writing is a little too much like parenting–I understand that I am not being listened to. But a few weeks ago, I was startled into noticing that a few of my students had been listening to one point that I made–weeks ago, perhaps as early as week four, when the fatigue was less pervasive.

One student pointed it out again. It was a simple rule of thumb I’d given them about citing from other authors in an academic context. “Never,” I told them, “use an author’s first name only, as if you have known them personally. Do not write that ‘Flannery wrote many short stories.’ The rule is this: The first time you mention her name, give her full name, Flannery O’Connor. Every instance after that, refer to her as O’Connor.”

Again, I said this to them weeks ago, when many of them were doing just that, using the first names of the authors they were citing. This past week, in the middle of another point I was trying to make, one of my less involved students cited this rule again.

I was impressed, of course, until I remembered what this student was doing. He was mentioning a rule. He was comfortable talking about writing in terms of a rule than makes sense of one small point in the middle of a larger context that is otherwise chaotic.

But this is the way that we first think about everything, I suppose. Give me the rules for good hitting or swimming, we might say. Only after we’ve been to enough batting practices or swimming lessons do we become more accepting of the idea that these abilities are not the result of rules.

The same is true of writing. But that is not something that we like to hear at the start.