Okay—someone tell me—why am I so compelled to write?
These last few days, trying to solve the problem of my novel, have forced some hard work out of me. I might even say I’ve come face to face with a few demons. I might even say, I am taking a hard look at myself through my characters. Oh, to be human.
At a recent dinner party, a sports fan suggested to the rest of us, non-sports fans, that we would be happier people if we watched sports. “It gives you something to root for. It gives you hope,” she said.
I said, “Well, it is true, that a game is a great story—conflict, crisis, suspense, resolution.”
Students in my classes have been writing summary paragraphs. They describe the experience as “tedious,” “frustrating,” and “boring.”
Yesterday, I gave them the task of unraveling the main idea of an essay by David McCullough: “Why History?” I said, “Think of this exercise as a problem to solve—an equation. It should be hard. it should be frustrating.”
I love short stories; I love reading them; I love writing them. Recently, I saw Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain.” As I watched the movie, I was viewer and reader at the same time. The movie was at once literary and visual and…well…perfect. I wonder, what makes a great short story? Raymond Carver. Alice Munro. James Baldwin. Margaret Atwood. Louise Erdrich. Flannery O’Connor. Anton Chekov. Toni Cade Bambara… When someone says, “S/he’s a master of short story writing,” how is that defined? What makes a master?
I put this out as a question to anyone who may be reading these journal entries. It occurs to me, the more I write, that I would be content just reading and writing my life away. Well, I’d like some bread and cheese and wine mixed in, perhaps some human contact, perhaps a walk in the woods, an occasional TV show—but you get my point.
In searching through some books for “teaching of writing” ideas, I came across this quotation from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story:
“From the first I thought that to teach writing was to teach my students how to keep on reading until we all saw as clearly as we could what was driving the writer. What, we would ask of the manuscript, was the larger preoccupation here? the true experience? the real subject? Not that such questions could be answered, only that it seemed vital to me that they be asked. To approach the work in hand as any ordinary reader might was to learn not how to write but—more important by far— why one was writing. In these classes both I and my students discovered repeatedly that this was more than half the battle.”
This week students practiced imitating sentences. I pushed them to imitate in exact grammatical structures.
For instance, from George Orwell’s “A Hanging,” the sentence:
“When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
When we ask students to write, we ask students to construct thought. And I have been trying to think about that in simple and obvious ways. I fall back on the narrative because its first person construction of conflict, climax, and resolution creates a comfortable place to go. Students are drawn to reading and writing narratives because they are familiar, and their formula is somewhat ingrained. (I realize my ideas come from a western point of view). So, I think, if we can break down the narrative into its parts and then find those parts scattered in other rhetorical modes, maybe that familiarity will create some new comfort. That’s where I’m at after my first two weeks of a new semester.
For homework, students read three narrative essays, two by published authors Dick Gregory and Steve Brody, and one by a student named Lisa Driver. I showed students how Brody’s piece was built on a story structure with crisis, complications, and climax. Then I asked them to analyze the structure of Gregory and Driver’s pieces, using the same language.
Next class, I hope to continue the discussion with essays that are less story-like, showing students that crisis, complications, obstacles, climax, resolution are useful devices for any type of writing. We’ll see how that goes.
Okay, so I’m starting to teach at yet another college, and my department chair tells me that students should write four major papers during the course of the semester. While many professors use rhetorical patterns: Description, Process, Definition, Argument, etc, I have trouble plugging myself into the confines of those composition types. If they don’t work well for me, why should I expect them to work for my students?
I think of expository writing as a problem-solving endeavor. Good writing, in its efforts to reach an audience, tells a story of sorts. For instance, a good story sets up a conflict and then takes readers through a character’s conflict and resolution. Similarly, a good composition poses some element of conflict that the writer wants to address and, in some way, resolve.