Friday, February 26, 2010

Teaching Literature vs. Teaching Creative Writing

When I walk into my Recent American literature class, my shoulders aren’t tense. I don’t have to do deep breathing. I don’t feel the swirling, pulsing tension that I do when I enter my creative writing workshops. I’ve come to realize that in the literature classroom, you can have a great day, an okay day, a dud day, but in the end, no one is going to be personally celebrated, hurt, wounded or knocked out of the ball park. In short, because students are not producers of the literature but are, instead, consumers of it, there’s filter. It’s that simple.

Or is it?

Although I love both, I find teaching literature far easier than teaching creative writing.

Here are the difficult things about teaching creative writing:

1. The intense “homework” due every single night. For every single class, you must read at least two student-written short stories, then craft a personal, instructive critique letter to each student. It’s good honest work, but it is laborious and intense.

2. You must try to create a “filter” (see first paragraph) even though the actual author sits right there in the room. You must simultaneously “protect” the author from jealous bullies and ignorant readers and make sure he or she is not in a defensive crouch or blind posture when receiving criticism.

3. You must make sure students are not using the words, “I liked this,” or “I didn’t like this,” or “I loved this,” or “I hated this.” You must constantly teach students how irrelevant it is to like or not like something. This is much harder than it may seem.

4. You must guide each student writer towards his or her own personal aesthetic vision, be it one you admire or not.


My literature classroom zings with a steady hum of energy like a good strong refrigerator. Yes, vehement, opinionated stances are taken and argued. Students want others to agree with them and take their sides. There is posturing, prodding, preening. But at the end of the day, no one is in tears. No one storms out of the room, declaring they will no longer be an English major. Random groups don’t gather outside the classroom, taking sides, soothing egos, promising payback. Nonetheless, teaching literature can be tricky, too.

Here are the difficult things about teaching literature:

1. Sometimes I do not want to tear apart a book I love. “Isn’t this a fantastic book?” I want to say. I want the entire class period to be a love fest for that book.

2. The filter I referred to earlier can also have a soporific effect on students. It’s just a book some old guy from Detroit wrote. They can’t “relate” to it. Their engagement level is compromised by the haze of the authorial filter.

3. To have students write creatively in a literature classroom feels like cheating.

4. Reading is private. For years I have resisted book clubs because I find reading (the scouting out of what I want to read as well as the actual act of reading as well as my own response to what I read) to be a deeply private pleasure. Sometimes I find it difficult, even in a college classroom, to coax out someone’s true reaction to a book because I respect the privacy of reading so much.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sew Easy

My mother could sew anything. In fact, she even sewed my sister and me homemade underwear when we were little girls. I can still feel the slippery pink nylon, the soft elastic around the legs, the little strawberry appliqué at the hip. When I told my mother once that it must have been awful to be so poor that she had to make homemade underwear, she said, “Well, we weren’t that poor!”

But they were. I think.

But maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe for her sewing was more than just a financial necessity. Maybe it was her own artistic alchemy, a way to spin something beautiful and lovely out of an otherwise difficult and threadbare life. All I know is that the click and hum of her sewing machine used fill the dining room, where she’d set up shop with her little boom box next to her playing Elvis or Jim Croce. A tape measure slung around her neck, pins held between her teeth, she’d occasionally mutter, “Ah, shit!” then begin ripping up the stitches to start from scratch.

She could sew anything.

She made my first prom dress: a peach gauzy floral, off-the-shoulder with satin ribbon trim. She expertly constructed my black box-pleat cheerleading skirts. My wedding dress became a year-long enterprise. She found the Simplicity pattern she’d used to make her own wedding dress in 1963, then revised it into my own knee-length ivory challis with long narrow sleeves, some 1920s beads stitched in loops around the neck, and 100 cloth-covered buttons down the back. When each of my children was born, she knit them tiny hats, made them cross-stitch samplers, sewed them flannel burp cloths, then, later, classic button-up pajamas with teddy bear & candy heart buttons.

To say that I miss receiving these treasures in the mail, to say what a loss it is, well. I can’t even say.

* * *

The other day I found myself in Goodwill, even though I shouldn’t have been. I’d been overwhelmed with teaching preparation, including a three-hour night class that was looming. All day I’d been glued to my desk, reading, planning, organizing. I had to get out, so I drove to UPS to return a sweater, then found myself unable to resist stopping at Goodwill on the way home. Oddly, there was nothing much that caught my eye. I tried on a suede jacket: too cowboy. I found a teal sweater with an asymmetrical neckline: too 80s. Very rarely do I leave the Goodwill empty-handed, but I thought, Well, good for me, and made my way to the door.

But then I saw it. A bright pink box tucked in with the Households. Sew Easy Sewing Machine. It was marked $4.99. “It’s a real working sewing machine!” it said. A red-haired girl smiled on the front. I opened up the box. There was a tiny yellow foot petal that hummed to life when I pressed it. The needle pumped up and down with thin white thread, and I thought, I have to have this! But then I thought: no. I didn’t know how to sew. When I lost a button, I had a hard time sewing it back on properly. I had stacks of fabric I'd inherited from my mother stuffed in my closet, and not a clue as to what I would ever do with them.

I walked out of the store. I sat in my car, looked up at the white winter sky, then leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. I knew myself and I knew thrift stores well enough to know that if you want something, don’t wait or it will be gone later. I went back in. I took the little pink machine out of the box again and studied it. Maybe I could give it to my daughter, Lily, for Christmas. She was five. Maybe by the time Christmas rolled around I could learn how to use it and teach her. Maybe even my son, Hudson, would get a kick out of it. He was detail-oriented and creative. Still. I couldn’t decide.

* * *

When I was a child, I had a toy sewing machine that worked not with thread and needle but with glue. It was pink and white with a little chamber where you loaded the glue cartridges, which smelled exactly like old-fashioned paste. How excited my mother must have been to give it to me. Where had she gotten it? And how did she afford it? She must have thrown her budget out the window and thought: who cares! My daughter is going to learn to sew! Which of course I never did. For years I’d harbored the fantasy that later, once things weren’t so busy, I’d have my mom teach me to sew. It would be a fun project for the two of us some summer, and I’d fly out to Minnesota, ready to learn. We’d laugh at how bad I was at it and drink iced tea on the front porch and talk about everybody in our hometown that drove past on Main Street.

Of course I was too late.

* * *

I grab the pink sewing machine and buy it. It rides home with me buckled into Lily's car seat for safekeeping.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Buddhist Mindfulness and Ambition

Recently, I’ve been stuck and frustrated with a book project—a nonfiction account of the months my husband and I lived in Vietnam with our two small children. A full draft of the book, Viet*Mom, is already written, but after getting comments from my agent and another trusted reader, I’ve come to agree that much of the book needs to be rewritten with a lighter tone and a more irreverent spirit. In its present version, it’s too fact-heavy, sequential, and (it hurts to say this) plodding. What I came to realize was that even an “exotic” locale such as Vietnam could become dull when presented in expository prose. As my agent (who is a terrific editor) put it, “The problem with travel memoirs is that they can be a little bit like looking at someone else’s vacation photos: pretty but unessential. In order to make this work, I think you have to show readers that they will be in for a good ride.”

Indeed. She was right and I knew it.

For weeks I sat with the 300-page manuscript hovering nearby, causing me no end of anxiety, self-loathing, panic, and eventually, dread. Since I’ve spent most of my adult life writing something or other, and having never before experienced this kind of artistic black hole, I knew this was unhealthy—for both me and the book—so I decided to take a “vacation” from it. For two weeks I would not think about it, work on it, touch it, tinker with it, read it, or mess with it in any way. Viet*Mom was off the table. I even announced it to my husband and a few friends to make it official.

Here’s where the Buddhism comes in. Around this same time I was talking to a writer friend of mine who’s recently experienced a very painful divorce she didn’t see coming after 30+ years of marriage. She began telling me about a Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, she’d been listening to who had helped her tremendously. “She’s a real person,” my friend said. “She’s from New Jersey, and laughs, and is a grandma. She doesn’t take herself too seriously.” At first, I could feel myself disregarding it all. Anything spiritual or religious always got my guard up, but something, thankfully, made me truly listen. “The fact is,” my friend said, “she saved my life.”

Hmm, I thought. That’s pretty dramatic. We paid for our lunches, parted ways, but I found myself later that day searching out Pema Chodron on She used simple words like “stay” and try not to get “hooked” and I went so far out on a limb that I actually ordered one of her CDs from Amazon.

Fast-forward to the present. My decision to take a vacation from my difficult book project has been one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done for myself. Simultaneously, it seems I’ve become calmer, less worried, more centered. I’ve been trying, however slowly, to live my life in the moment and realize that this is it; this is my life. I've found myself taking long walks, listening more attentively to my daughter who comes home from school full of stories and chatter, enjoying a quiet stretch of a random afternoon without the constant pushing, pulsing pressure to be or do something great and worthy and ambitious. I am learning to “stay.”

But something else has happened: nothing.

Workwise, except for my teaching duties, nothing gets done. I am so “in the moment” that I've extended my Viet*Mom vacation—happily—beyond the two weeks. Of course it’s more pleasant not to work hard at something difficult! Of course it’s more pleasant to drink tea and nap and look out the window. Of course it’s more pleasant to ignore the big brooding difficult book project.

And so I'm left with a question: how do the wonderful, peaceful teachings of Buddhism and living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness and learning to “stay” accommodate ambition? Or, as is my fear, do they kill it?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

6 Reasons Why I Miss Being Pregnant

1. Raisins by the fistful, carrots by the pound, slender slices of steak, fanned, bloodrich, across the plate.

2. "To share" personified.

3. Lap swim at the pool where the old ladies with wrinkly arms did not dispense advice but watched alertly, protectively, over me.

4. A free pass—however briefly—to wear giant corduroy overalls.

5. The sleep, a freight train of exhale.

6. That day in Tucson, Arizona where we sat on a bench eating orange muffins and dared to sunbathe the stomach for just a second and the man who nodded and said, "Exactly."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Charlie Chaplin is Eating His Shoes

Last night after a dinner of shrimp risotto, we settled down on the couch with the kids to watch Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." I'm sort of surprised that the kids find these silent movies compelling (in fact, I'm delighted), but as the movie progressed, we found that Charlie Chaplin had later added a voice track and dialogue. This completely ruined it for us. "Awww!" we all moaned. My son, Hudson, was the most irritated. "Why do we need words?" he asked. We zoomed the volume down, but then we lost the music that provides such nice tension and pacing. My daughter, Lily, sat tucked under my arm, her feet wiggling in contentment. I kept watching her watch.

At one point, Chaplin picks the nails out of his shoes, chews the leather bits off of them, then sets them aside as if they're bones. Next, he twirls his black shoelace onto his fork like spaghetti and eats it. Lily began narrating. "Look, Charlie Chaplin is eating his shoes," she said. "He thinks his shoelace is spaghetti!" And it struck me that, as a relatively new reader, Lily is learning how to construct her own narrative from Chaplin. She is "reading" and "writing" the story in front of her by providing words to pictures.

I couldn't help think about the new Graphic Novels literature course I'm teaching. The first book we're studying is David Small's Stitches, which has been called "a silent movie masquerading as a book." Panel by panel floats by in grayscale without a word. The presentation of Detroit, Small's family living room, his parents, are delivered to us silently. It's pure synesthesia to portray silence visually. The effect is moody and hellish but ultimately beautiful. Might it work, I wondered, to bring in some Chaplin movies to the class? Might the students learn how to read graphic novels with more complexity by watching silent movies?