Clarkson held its Convocation — our opening ceremony — last night and I marched in with the rest of the faculty (to bagpipes blaring!) wearing full academic regalia, something I never did until I came to Clarkson, where they bought my gown and hood for me when I received tenure. The speaker was James Ransom, a Clarkson grad and the elected Chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe. He structured his talk around our summer reading book for this year, Sherman Alexie’s Flight, a book I didn’t like all that much, though I’m an admirer of Alexie’s work in general. I thought the novel too didactic, which actually turned out to be appropriate for that most didactic of forms, the address to the entering class. Ransom gave a wonderfully articulate reading of the story that, incidentally, taught the literature professors in the audience a thing or two, in which he invoked the hero’s journey and the ghost dance in order to offer advice to the incoming class. Occasionally I thought he tended a little too much toward a Chamber of Commerce / Kiwanis vibe, toward what William James called “healthy-mindedness.” But then I would think that, given my own “sophisticated” and post-modern perspective.
I’ll be returning to the classroom after eight months away on Monday and I do so with a little trepidation, if not anxiety. I was on campus Friday and saw groups of new students roaming about, excited and curious and, probably, anxious. But mostly to me they looked tall and slim and terribly young. I actually still remember my first day on campus — the first day of classes, that is. It was raining in Seattle and I was headed to an introductory anthropology class. I had scouted out the location the day before, so I knew where I was going, and it felt very important to be going there. I come from a family without much academic achievement and being on a university campus, headed to a class, felt like a success. I wonder if any of those new students flocking the campus yesterday felt that way. Some of them must. And some must be filled with dread, or boredom. When they plunk themselves down in front of me tomorrow and Tuesday, the students facing me will bring all those attitudes and more to the work I will ask them to do.
I wonder how many of them, though, will take their education personally. How many will see what they do in the classroom and with all those expensive books as something integral to their development as persons? (Not in those terms, of course.) How many will have that sense of signifigance I had on that first day of classes in Seattle back in 1970? I was just leaving the church of my parents when I went off to school, turning away from a fundamentalism that had come to seem narrow and cramped and invasive and simply mean; I had begun to find literature, especially poetry, as a scaffolding on which to build a new set of values. That’s what I mean by taking education personally. Is it really true, as I suspect, that most of my students lack this sense of personal commitment to their educations? I fear that for most of my students going to college is about earning a credential that will allow them to live what they imagine is the good life. Ironically, my college mostly prepares students to function effectively in a corporate culture, but does not really prepare them to lead in that culture (though of course a few leaders will emerge from any group). And my incoming freshmen, while they will be trained in skills that will allow them to earn a solid middle-class income, will not become nearly as successful (read: wealthy) as they imagine.
When I was a freshman at the University of Washington in 1970, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Bad scholarship, like bad translation, has the paradoxical ability to reveal, sometimes, deep truths.) Anyway, this was long before “follow your bliss” pop psychology, but I understood that the meaning of those stories was the possibility that one might lead a meaningful life. I remember trying to explain to a girlfriend — I can recall the exact position of my hands held in front of me — that I wanted to be a “hero” in that sense, the sense of leading a life that has a shape and even a purpose. “Oh, no one can live like that anymore,” she said, laughing. Was she right? I don’t know if I’ve succeeded — perhaps we never know — but what about my students? Do they aspire to lives that have a meaningful shape?
A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:
The Story Behind the Story — Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)
12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.
Narrative Design — Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”
The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction — Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop — Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.
I’m going to be teaching a workshop on the political poem at the University of Minnesota’s Split Rock Arts Program this summer. As I prepare, I’ve become aware of a presumption in my own thinking that a radical poetics equals a radical politics, but this is clearly not the case. Teasing out the relationship between poetics and politics is not nearly so simple as one might wish. To be honest, I’ve often thought of the New Formalists as a group of conservative poets, with the word conservative covering both their poetics and their politics, but that’s not a fair assessment of the range of political positions espoused by members of the group. Conversely, I’ve pretty often thought of the Language poets and their progeny as leftists and I think most of them are, but there is no necessary connection between the poetics of this group and their liberal or radical politics.
This site, which used to be funny, has become a leper colony of bitterness & bad writing. And anyone who would put up a link to a David Horowitz book on the site (without balancing it with this text or this one) simply does not have the best interests of the teaching profession in mind. I used to write things for RYS from time to time, not now. Somehow, the people whose joy in teaching motivated their anger at idiocy in academe have been filtered out, leaving at RYS only people so devoid of feeling they defend rape jokes. Or make rape jokes.
Later: Apparently, the “joke” has been removed from the site.