Monday, March 21, 2011

C'est la fin (du terme/quartier)

The quarter has barreled towards its end and I am now in recovery mode, having felt more than a little flattened beneath it. At a certain point I had to impose mental triage and this blog, unfortunately, lay moribund on the gurney.  In addition to my usual commuting routine and a heavy traveling schedule from the very beginning of the year (classes began on January 3, and I had to attend a conference that first weekend) and to an exacting departmental committee assignment and my fulfilling and demanding graduate and undergraduate advisory and supervisory work, as well as delightful non-work-related projects, like the Roussel play, I taught two classes, the gateway introductory fiction workshop and a required course for senior creative writing majors.  Both demanded a tremendous amount of effort, mainly because of the mountain of reading (I assign multiple initial exercises, online threaded discussions on assigned texts, two short story drafts, and one revision in the intro fiction class, and in the senior class, I require a creative autobiography, weekly tweets on Twitter, a book review, a creative essay on one of six books I assign, an in-class report on one of the many articles I post, and a final paper or interview-with-analysis), but one of the immediate pleasures of both is being able to witness the development of the students' tools, artistry and confidence in the former, and the mastery of skills in the latter.  What was true for previous intro fiction classes seemed even more so for this one; a number of the students made evident imaginative and technical leaps in second drafts, which made me nearly start cheering every time I registered this as I read them. I always try to point this out in my typed comments, and sometimes I worry the students may think I'm being too enthusiastic and praiseworthy, but it is heartening to see a student whose first story tacking closely to her autobiography imagining, in her second draft, the lives of people much older, or different, or from a very different chronological period, and structuring the story with greater assurance, understanding how to create characters who come to life on the page, realizing what details will unlock the narrative in ways others would not, and so forth. As I read the final drafts this past week and weekend, what struck me repeatedly was how far some of the students had gotten, how much they had grown, how, in every case, they advanced--have advanced--beyond their earliest efforts, the tiny 1-3 page exercises, they first submitted to me in January.

With the senior majors, one of the most important things I left with was a feeling of hope for the future of literature, and hope and happiness for their own future projects and work, in and around the literary world. At various points this course left some graduating students with a mild--to serious--sense of gloom about the changing US literary landscape, but this year, perhaps because so much remains in the air--and poet and Northwestern University Press rights manager Parneshia Jones reminded our class during her wonderful visit that in the publishing industry as in life "things change every single day"--and so many tools are now available to writers, editors, potential publishers, all of us, more than one of the students told me that they felt "hopeful," that they could make a difference, that they would pursue careers as writers of every possible type and genus, as publishers and editors, as scholars and critics, and in roles perhaps not yet fully conceived or named, by anyone, as things moved forward. I am looking forward to seeing what they do, and they know they will have my support always.

For the required senior major class, "The Situation of Writing," I debuted three new books: Dunya Mikhail's Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (Elizabeth Winslow, translator; New Directions, 2009), a memoir (of sorts) in verse, of the Iraqi American poet's life during the Gulf and Iraq Wars; Judith Ortiz Cofer's Woman In Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer and (University of Georgia Press, 2000); and David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010).  Of the three, I think the one that provoked the least discussion was Mikhail's, perhaps in part because of its form as two long poems, the first more lyric than narrative and quite abstract as opposed to documentary, which required that the students--or any reader--think about what might constitute a "diary," how trauma and personal experience might be recorded and translated into lyric form, and what war poetry, or poetry written during and in response to war, might look like, all of which were challenging, to say the least. That said, the form also proved liberating from some in the class, and led students whose usual approach might have been a prose essay or creative nonfiction to write longer poems as their response.  The formal approaches of Shields' and another book, Adrienne Kennedy's People Who Led To My Plays (Theater Communications Group, 1996), also appeared to have a liberating effect on the creative essays and final projects, so while there were quite a few to read, their inventiveness (alongside their quality) made each a pleasurable task.

I sometimes think a version of the "Situation" class ought to be offered to all MFA, MA and PhD in creative writing students since it broaches many of the topics that writers not only should be thinking about but have to consider if they want to make writing a career, but from what I can tell, such courses remain a rarity. Which is a shame, but it also underlines how unique and unusual the experience the university's writing students, especially the majors, really is, and how much they are exposed to in addition to the extensive training in writing they undergo by the time they graduate.

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