Archive for July 2013
…continued from yesterday:
My most recent professor was not one on whom the fundamentals of pedagogy were lost. He was decent all around, especially considering he was teaching a brand-new class. He has some wrinkles to iron out for the next time, but this time was fine.
Unfortunately, we had a special guest in class at the start of the week who fell into the “clueless” column regarding mastery of pedagogy. Said guest is a professor at the university, and is acclaimed by other faculty members as a great teacher and a great guest to have in class. That wasn’t the impression I got, and since this was a writing class and these thoughts about the gaps in graduate-level pedagogy have been circulating in my mind for a few weeks, I was inspired to write a poem to express certain degrees of my disillusionment over the past few years.
Some of My Professors Had to be Thinking
We wing it, we
Wizards of Words. We
Who needs it?
Our fragrances are
far the more favorable.
The genius that is
we–aren’t you like
and minds as we
fling you far to
you flipping words every
which way and
draft after draft.
You wing it, you
wizards of words,
and I wonder
at what I learned.
Tonight is the last night of the last class that I have to take–ever. Allow me to reiterate: Twenty-five years ago I started my formal education, and after two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a whole mess of stray classes at eight different colleges and universities, I am done. I have reached the top of the salary scale on my school’s contract, and there is no more need for me to take courses for credit.
I’ve had the good fortune to reach the last lane on the salary scale by taking mostly writing classes these last four summers. Three of my last six courses have been geared specifically towards writing. That has saved me a lot of the drudgery that is professional development for teachers, and kept me interested in the class instead of interested in finishing the class. I still consider myself lucky that writing, my main interest outside of teaching, fits right into my teaching assignment. I’ve been able to pile up lots of graduate hours studying it, which is a helluva lot more interesting than studying things like state education standards, classroom management, and reading strategies–especially since I’m constantly exposed to those things and constantly working on them as I teach.
None of this is to say that I won’t keep taking classes. Those who know that I’m finishing my formal education tonight keep telling me that they are sure I’ll continue to take classes. They are correct, but I will no longer consider if a class offers graduate credit. This that I can start attending writing workshops in the summer, wherever and whenever, and not worry about spending my money on something that isn’t going to move me on the salary scale and help me make more money over the remainder of my career.
Also, it’s about time I was allowed to bow out of the graduate-level education game. The state of graduate education in many places leaves a lot to be desired. I first touched on this two summers ago as I was wrapping up a writing workshop at Skidmore College. What I’m entirely tired of is working with professors who are masters of their content first, and teachers second (or not at all). All too often, universities wish to stack their faculties with as many high-profile names as possible with little or no regard to the teaching ability of said persons. Consequently, too many college-level instructors consider “pedagogy” to be nothing more than a good word to play in Scrabble. Things like working with objectives, fair and challenging evaluation, time management, effective lesson planning, and even passing out a set of freaking papers are beyond them. This is so ass-backwards that it’s enough to enrage teachers who take graduate courses and find out they are better and more capable teachers than their professors. You end up with professors who don’t know how to lead a discussion of a piece of literature, or who read their lectures to you off of a PowerPoint presentation, or who are so socially maladjusted that they don’t speak clearly or make eye contact when they are teaching, or who half-ass create assignments that amount to little more than busy work. Some of them show up to class with a disposition that practically screams incompetence because they don’t understand how challenging it is to be an effective teacher. Their understanding is that they’ve earned a teaching position through their accomplishments in their discipline, and so long as they keep riding that pony they can keep teaching regardless of how well they can actually teach.
To be continued tomorrow…
Longtime follower of The Seeker and former bossman Herb emailed me a few days ago to say congratulations on having “Anthropology” published. I told him thanks for his sentiments and for the surprise–I had no idea the story was already out, and damned if I’ve seen the publication yet. For whatever reason in my mind, I thought it’d be out in October or something. Guess I was wrong. Doesn’t matter. I’m still published.
This one was more (or even the most) difficult the other stuff I’ve gotten into print. I was trying to remember when I started it, and when I dug through old drafts on my laptop, I found a version dating back a year and a half ago. I’m sure that’s not accurate, though, because I remember starting the story on Spring Break in 2011 when I walked into a local Starbucks and the idea for the story kinda exploded on me. Actually, not the idea for “the story,” but intense motivation to at least write something. I was watching and listening to the employees interact, mainly because one was carrying on like a phenomenal douchebag. His tones of voice and high-minded thoughts and opinions cut through the pleasant pungency of coffee until they had polluted the environs entirely. I tried to drown him out by turning up my headphones and working on whatever it was I originally went there to work on. No dice–I was so compelled by whatever that stooge was doing that I started to document his interactions with his coworkers, and the setting details in the store, right down to the song that was playing at the time. It turns out it was “I’ll Come Running After You” by Sam Cooke; the use of the song remained in the story throughout.
I putzed around with some stray ideas about Mr. Barrista, and ended up with six pages of a first draft in my journal. I’m looking at them just now, and am surprised to see that I wrote the story in first-person. I maintained that point of view for about three weeks as I revisited the story. At one point, I tried to type it all out, and I think that was when I realized I was frustrated. Things didn’t feel right, and I didn’t feel confident enough as a fiction writer to fix the situation. For some reason, I didn’t crash forward heedless of roadblocks, which is what I pretty much do most of the time. I stashed the story somewhere for a few months, and when I looked at it again, I had a good feeling. I felt like I had been onto something, and couldn’t quite remember why I had put the story away. I went back at it, put it down again for a short time, and resumed work after inspiration hit me via another short story I read.
It was around this time that I had the chance to take a fiction workshop at Northwestern. I had a complete draft of “Anthropology” to submit, and it ended up being the first thing we work shopped. I took my lumps and accolades, worked for a short time on adjusting a few things, and then got sidetracked by writing still another story. “Anthropology” was dead–I chalked it up to experience, and didn’t regret that in the least. Practice is important, and the experience of writing the story at least got me a little further along the way as a fiction writer. In fact, I said herein that it’s ready for another workshop if the opportunity presents itself.
Last summer, then, at another workshop, I pulled “Anthropology” out again, but only because I needed something to put in my final portfolio that showed some kind of effort and multiple drafts. I made a switch back to the first-person point of view, and when I read my piece to the class I was stunned by their reactions. For the first time in a year and a half of sweating over the story, I felt like I had finally achieved some kind of effect with it. I was encouraged enough to submit it to a few places for publication. In January, the publications editor for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English emailed me to say that if I’m willing to tone down the sex and swearing, she’d bring the story to print. I conferred with a few trusted friends, one of whom told me to stick to my guns and don’t make edits. The urge to be published was overpowering, though, and another friend walked me through some edits he felt would soothe the editor without savaging the writing. He must have been right.
So the process for this story ran more like an uncomfortable train ride with a lot of long layovers. But it’s in print. Or at least I’ve been told it is. Don’t know when I’ll see it, but hopefully soon. It’s unlikely that anybody not a member of IATE will see the story, but if you want to see it, drop me a line or post a comment and I’ll send it along. Heck, I’ll even send the version with the original sex and swearing intact!
(continued from last week)
Here’s a simple truth about novels: You should be studying them because they are the culmination of everything you should be doing as a writer. For the truly great novels, everything is in full evidence–research, characterization, tight editing, complex plot lines, important and socially relevant themes, poetic language… I can’t come close to naming them all. Another truth is that they’re a real bitch to write (at least the truly great ones). And they should be. We wouldn’t want any old hack cranking one out because that would depreciate the value of what we consider great literature.
As a writer, you should be able to learn a lot by reading any particular “classic” and at least begin to put new tools in your toolbox, or have a mental database about what you saw, when and where, that you can refer back to when you’re thinking about your writing. This is exactly what happened in my recent reading of The Cider House Rules. One of the first major things I noticed was Irving’s use of an entirely symbolic scene. I’m familiar with symbolism and am at least somewhat adept at making it a part of my fiction (I first stumbled upon this a few years ago), but to see a master novelist craft an entirely symbolic scene is something I hadn’t noticed before. No doubt it was there, I just wasn’t ready to notice it until it struck me when it did (now I see it all over the place in the things I’ve read and especially reread). So the first thing I started to think about was how to include a symbolic scene in the piece of fiction I’m currently working on. Don’t know if it will work, but the practice of creating one and using it is more important right now than striking a pitch-perfect note.
So I’m glad I read a novel already this summer because doing so has opened some cognitive closets that it turns out have plenty of things in them. I have at two other novels loaded onto my Nook, but I may wait a while before I tackle them. Still, I’m not totally sold on the idea of having to constantly consume novels. They can be time tyrants, and even the great novelists are allowed to indulge themselves and overinflate their prose (I’m looking at you, Mr. Irving, and the last hundred pages of The Cider House Rules). I know that I can still learn a lot about the craft of writing through my steady diet of poetry and short fiction and nonfiction, so that’s probably not going to change–and it helps that I’m writing mostly short fiction and nonfiction and poems. I’ve told others for years now that I don’t have the desire to write a novel. It’s just not in me. Now I think I have to add “not yet.”
If there’s one area where I’m consistently falling short as a writer, it’s reading. There was a big push regarding reading at Northwestern–we read our butts off regardless of what class we were in. No complaints there–that’s how it should be. This isn’t to say that I don’t read now, because I actually read quite a bit. I’ve read The New Yorker for a number of years now (the nonfiction, especially, and most of the fiction in the past two years or so). I subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac at the behest of a few coworkers, so I’m exercising my poetry skills on an almost daily basis. But I don’t read novels, and that’s a glaring shortfall.
Here’s the problem: Novels are too damn long and take too much time to finish. I’ve read 3 in the last year (and one was a reread), but they were all within or in close proximity to a vacation when I had a good amount of time to read. Otherwise, they take a huge portion of time that could otherwise be spent reading other stuff that is pushed back because of reading a novel, and they take even more time away from writing. Thusly, I’ve been pretty content to not read many novels the last few years. This despite how most every writer regardless of mode or genre will tell you how important it is that you are constantly reading the work of other writers because you learn about the craft by reading masters of the craft. Also, reading like a writer is different than “normal” reading–you’re always looking at structure, point of view, the development of characters and settings… the list is endless (and a big one for me recently is Symbolism). It feels like work rather than pleasure more times than not, and I’ve never been totally sold on the idea that I need to be consuming novels with as much regularity as I consume short fiction, literary journalism, memoir, and verse.
Here’s another problem: I’m wrong. I’m full of shit, and I know it. I’ve been willing to subordinate reading novels because I’ve clung so tightly to the ideals delineated above. But a month ago, a few trusted coworkers suggested in a lunch table discussion that I should read some John Irving. I had made one feeble half-attempt at A Prayer for Owen Meany some years ago, but had otherwise dismissed Irving. They both have read most of Irving, and the occasional discussions of his work got me to asking what Irving I should read if I were to read only one (again, trying to minimize my involvement with reading novels). Almost simultaneously, they said The Cider House Rules. Deciding this would be a jaunty little venture, I loaded it on my Nook and slowly started to wade into it.
Still another problem: I’m reading The Cider House Rules like a writer. It’s work. It takes longer than reading “for pleasure,” which I’m not even sure I can do anymore–and I’m not sure I want to do it very much. All those other writers who insist that you always be reading, especially novels, are exactly right, and I’m feeling bashful at having poo-pooed their advice for so long now. It matters quite a bit that I’m working on a piece of fiction right now, and I’m in way over my head with it. Watching what a master craftsman does with his stories makes a huge difference in what I try to do with mine.
to be continued…