A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Writing thoughts from George Saunders & Margaret Atwood

One thing I found was—maybe it’s more about my approach to storytelling. It’s so simple. You’re in a scene, and you kind of have a vague idea of what the scene is supposed to do, but you’re mostly having fun within that scene. You’re trying to make the lines work, trying to have a nice pace, trying to get some jokes in.

You’re working closely within the text on its own merits. Almost like cooking to taste. At some point it will spit out a plot point.

So, say a bunch of people are sitting around a table talking, and one of them is really grouchy because it’s funny. And you go, “I wonder why he’s so grouchy?” At some point he says he hasn’t eaten in a day. And you go, “Ah!” So the next talking point is: Get that guy some food.

It’s nothing really theoretical, it’s coming out of the natural energy of the piece. And then, having done that, you might want to look upstream to the proceeding section. Why hasn’t that guy eaten in two days?

All storytelling is kind of that—there’s a bit of text that you put pressure on that spits out some desire that a character has and then you follow that. The other part is that every scene raises an expectation in the reader’s mind—that’s part of its job is to make you look in and be curious.

The next thing kind of satisfies that, it’s entertaining, but it does that whole process over again. You can see a whole book as a series of creating an expectation and then delivering a skew on that expectation so it’s not totally satisfied.

–          George Saunders

Not all of my ideas have been amazing. Some have not, NOT worked out! As they say (I think it was Beckett): try, fail. Try again, fail better. Or something like that. We have all had projects that have ended up as smashed eggs on the floor.

–          Margaret Atwood

 

Saying, “Good for you. Proceed.”

In My Writing Education: A Time Line, Saunders narrates his literary adventures in the Syracuse Creative Writing Program back in the 1980s. He pays particular attention to the generosity of two of his instructors: the short story impresario/memoirist Tobias Wolff and the novelist Douglas Unger. Saunders conjured up that pervasive form of graduate school angst – wanting desperately to impress, while obsessing desperately over potentially being a fool. What stands out is the generosity of “Doug” and “Toby” – how they received criticism as well as gave it, and how they managed to critique their students while promoting their dignity and potential. The whole article rewards a read, but allow me to highlight Saunders’ conclusion:

Why do we love our writing teachers so much? Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? I think it’s because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love. They have so much power. They could mock us, disregard us, use us to prop themselves up. But our teachers, if they are good, instead do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously. They accept us as new members of the guild. They tolerate the under-wonderful stories we write, the dopy things we say, our shaky-legged aesthetic theories, our posturing, because they have been there themselves.

We say: I think I might be a writer.

They say: Good for you. Proceed.

When I read a writer like George Saunders, at the top of his game, it is easy to presume that there has always been an air of inevitability about his eventual success. But how many people simply drop out, because someone eviscerates them with criticism or starves them with neglect? Especially in those pivotal moments, when their talent is underdeveloped, and their psyches are as brittle as eggshells? How deeply do we crave for someone to say to us, or over us, “Good for you. Proceed.” And perhaps, at times, to say it, even when they don’t necessarily fully see it.

Larry Parsley

“Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for being on the wrong side of the mob”

“I think the scariest thing to me is humanity, it’s people. It’s what we’re capable of when we have permission from the people around us. We’re capable of the worst monstrosities that any kind of demon you can drum up in the film, so this one, sort of taking on the ideas of racism, is just one example of that. But I plan to do more movies that explore the human demon, as I call it. It is dark, we are dark. We have the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.”

Jordan Peele

Writing as a Strange, Magic Device

Anthropologists know that the written word . . . is not merely an echo of a speaking voice. It is another kind of voice altogether, a conjurer’s trick of the first order. It must certainly have appeared that way to those who invented it, and that is why we should not be surprised that the Egyptian god  Thoth, who is alleged to have brought writing to the King Thamus, was also the god of magic. People like ourselves may see nothing wondrous in writing, but our anthropologists know how strange and magical it appears to a purely oral people–a conversation with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than addressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand?

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Two ideas on justice and judges

These are two ideas that strike me as pertinent and connected.

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Alan Jacobs

To be sure, most people . . . tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

Why is Viola Davis considered a supporting actress?

I think it’s an insult that Viola Davis may be up for an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress” [in Fences]. Denzel Washington should be nominated for “Best Supporting Actor.” But Davis carried the film with her multi-layered character. Her portrayal of “Rose” made her the star—by far. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a more robust depiction of the valor of Black women and “violence” against Black womanhood. I found myself both rooting for “Rose” and mournfully wishing so many sisters didn’t have to live lives exactly like hers—and worse.

Thabiti Anyabwile. Davis did get that nomination for supporting actress. So what is the difference between supporting and lead role? I just finished reading the play, Fences, because when I heard August Wilson had won a Pulitzer for it I wanted to read it before I saw the film, and I thought Rose’s situation was not only central to the action but thematically even more gripping than Troy’s–that fence, as Anyabwile points out, represents Rose’s attempt to keep her family in, her hopes that Troy will not drive Cory outside it (she is the one who has asked Troy to build it). Saying Rose is not a lead character is like calling Mark Antony a supporting character in Julius Caesar; but Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1953. So, huh.

Barton Swaim’s insightful analysis of Trump’s new political rhetoric

There’s something intrinsically false about the rhetoric of healing and unity, no matter who it comes from. A friend of mine, a professor of English with left-of-center tendencies in politics, likes to say that “the rhetoric of consensus is always coercive.” Any time you talk about what “we” believe as Americans — what “this country” was founded on, who “we are” as a nation — you’re forcing a certain kind of unity that many of your listeners, maybe most of them, are excluded from. The rhetoric of consensus may be appropriate on occasions of high ceremony — an inauguration, a State of the Union address — but otherwise it sounds false and cheap to everybody but the winners.

Barton Swaim. I’ve been reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well with my students and he castigates politicians for using overly-flourished language that hides meaning. It’s the same criticism George Orwell exposed in “Politics and the English Language,” the classic (and just) description of political discourse. But it’s been interesting to read these charges this year, because Donald Trump’s approach has disposed of the usual dressed-up political language. He’s not using faux-sophistication to blur his meaning, nor is he using the approach Barack Obama preferred, the language of unity and eloquence (which, as Swaim points out above, possesses its own implications).

But that is not to describe Trump’s language as more revealing or specific. When he says, “The thing I’m doing, I’m cutting taxes big league,” he’s not hiding behind sophistication or eloquence. Yet neither is he using concrete or specific language. Does “big league” mean anything in particular? To say John Lewis is “all talk” and “no action” certainly lacks sophisticated eloquence and common respect, but isn’t it also meaningless invective? That is, what would the “action” be that would gain respect in this context? Isn’t Lewis’s action in creating a federal health care system exactly what Trump is trying to undo?

Trump’s approach is no more honest than the classically lambasted political discourse, but it is completely different, and I find that Zinsser and Orwell’s indictment of political language, if applied to Trump, are off target. It’s one reason I’m enjoying Barton Swaim’s commentary so much this political season. He is no Trump fan, but he’s tracking Trump’s rhetoric and attempting to articulate what is going on and why, in its own way, it is working.

One reason, he points out (in the article referenced above and in others), is Trump’s approach is markedly different than what we’ve grown used to.