23 May 2006

Some civil servants look just like my loved ones

What’s most interesting to me about Lance’s call for pedagogical practices and the always eloquent Blonde’s description of speed, is the fact that both together make for crazy classroom antics. That is, the faster we go, the rounder we get. Er, the faster we get, the thicker our prose—the most closely, like some coked-up asymptote, we near the absolute zero, the dead zone, that never-present non-center of our consumerist little paradise.

Or, put even more obliquely, for students, teach them while they learn. Get rid of books all together for a creative writing class, or, at least the textbooks.

For Ah Pook’s sweet sake, who needs another useless exercise on “how to express yourself through nature poetry” or “why setting is real important, like that big-ass house in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ which is also personification you memorization-happy big brain so give yourself a gold star, step directly to go, and do not pass jail”?

Since I like to think of writing as something that can indeed emerge from the classroom in an innovative manner, the first thing to do is to do away, completely (in the undergrad intro course), with firm genre walls. No six weeks of poetry, followed by six-weeks of fiction, followed by six weeks of god-awful workshops where unprepared students learn to jockey for position in the Darwinian umbra of the teacher’s favor.

My first writing teacher, when I was an undergrad at Penn State, was none other than “Now What’s” Dimitri Anastasopoulos, who didn’t bother, if I can recall those halcyon days, with much of the canon, but jumped straight to the strange and wide. I remember becoming so enchanted with Italo Calvino’s “The Distance to the Moon” story (from Cosmicomics) that I would have been prepared to follow Dimitri (or ___ as he was known in those days) into a airlock where we drain away the sounds of the body, the beating of the human heart, before popping open in the great expanse of the milky unknown.

That’s right, babydolls, the other side of the sun.

When in a slightly more “advanced” writing course at Penn State, with a prof. heavily disenfranchised with the rest of the English Department, my two cronies and I were so tired of the typical workshop grind that we began to make things real inarresting like. One pompous student had a habit of recommending, like an idiotic librarian, other tales for us less-well-read types to check out. He’d write on every story, at the close of his curt comments, something akin to: “See ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Checkov for a more successful version of this piece.”

In response, one of my friends began writing these types of things on the other stories: “Please see ‘The Worst Story in the World’ by Armitage Shanks for an example of what you are getting at.” Not content to sit on the sidelines, me and the other crony jumped in, and before long, the real writing of course took place in the margins. Literally. (Side note: Our obnoxious antics came to a rapid close when one student accosted my first friend in the Penn State library, upset that she had been unable to find the story he had so kindly recommended. When he came clean, the prof. shut us down, although not without that sly, disenfranchised smile.)

The point here, if there is one, is that the best writing often happens at these organic interstices. One practical example stolen and then adapted from another creative writing teacher (great for the first few days) of that intro. course.

1) Play a song about the suburbs (perhaps “Don’t Worry about the Government” from Talking Heads ’77) [N.B. Don’t ignore the culture industry for some ridiculous literary trip.)
2) Give the students posterboard and markers, break them into groups, and get them to create a “townspace.”
3) Generate a few characters, symbols, etc. based upon the collaborative experience.
4) Write about it.
5) Place all the class’s different post-boards together, and come up with one huge mega-town.
6) Generate connections.
7) Send the students home to lovingly take their best character from 3, and send that person, squirrel, cyborg, piece of cardboard, into the unknown of another posterboard’s townspace.
8) In secret, fill up water balloons.
9) Next class, play an apocalyptic song (“London Calling” works well).
10) Just when these students are in love with their own genius, creativity, originality, and Hegelian speculative movement, water-bomb the crap out of the town and rip apart the remnants.
11) Write about the aftermath.

From here, it’s onto the not-quite systematic deconstruction (pardon my French) or all those nice little narrative lines that end in silly high school love stories and dime-store Mafioso romances.

Onto Oulipo, séances, cut-ups, et al…and all the wondrous lexicons of the hexadecimal.

Writing in the academy may have its problems, but I do charge those water balloons to the department budget.

What else?


Lance Olsen said...

I'm glad to see you addressing the pragmatics of teaching the "avant-garde," or "experimental," or whatever we want to call this rough beast, Davis, and I'd be very interested to see what others have to say along these lines.

Sometimes, as Charcot pointed out, theory is good, but doesn't stop things from happening.

How else, therefore, can we move from our theoretical statements to the dirty fingernails of praxis?

Rupert said...

I agree with your 'who need another workshop' writing, but can assure you there are plenty of creative wriitng lecturers [myself included] who don't teach in such a way, and several text books too. There's an anthology/text book called THE TEXT BOOK i recommend, and Hazel Smith's recent Routledge book THE WRITING EXPERIMENT [and Lance Olson's rebel Yell, of course!]. Give students processes and ways to write, introduce them to experimentation and a wide range of genres and they're off...

Trevor Dodge said...

I've been having my fiction writers construct Choose Your Own Adventure stories this quarter, and so far the response has been nothing but positive. One of the students is a retired nursery owner who is even trying his hand at hypertext. The name of it is "Old Dog's New Trick." Once they're complete, I'll be posting links the electronic texts on my blog (should be within the next few weeks), and I'd love this NowWhat crowd to check out the results.

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lance Olsen said...

These are some very interesting exercises. Thanks to all of you.

I want to continue to urge the rest of the teachers in our midst to list other exercises that have worked well for you.

It's fairly easy to talk in abstractions about what we do, but I would like to see us think about how those abstractions enter and change the workshop/teaching environment. Or do they? Do our classrooms look any different from other creative-writing/literature ones? If not, why not?

And, for that matter, why continue to use the Iowa workshop model? Are there others, just as there are non-Manhattan publishing models?

What else besides the conventions of a story do people investigate in their workshops?

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

I remember that class very well and the one thing I can say is that my classroom experiment/exercises are very much in that spirit still, even if they're very different, and of course, they work very well in one instance (usually the first) but not so well in others. We spent a week this semester looking at the first three pages of two translations of Arno Schmidt's Republica Intelligentsia/Egghead Republic. First, we tried a transliteration from the German. Then we Babelfished our creations. Then finally we got down to the nitty-gritty of the translators' trade, which is an excellent exercise in word choice. And lastly, we wrote new fictions using each translator's style of translation. Students have to figure out the stylistic ethos which translates one of Schmidt's words into "Cankerstilts" while the other translator chooses, "Daddy-long-stilts."