Encountering new (to me) voices

In my last post, I wrote about literacy and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the Black authors I teach in my literature class. Her works inspire my students and give us a glimpse into a time period and a way of life we can’t even imagine. Like so many of the long-gone authors one reads in a Lit class, Harper’s words make real for us a past we haven’t fully learned about.

Another Black voice my students get to hear is that of James Baldwin, a writer whose discussions of race, sexuality and justice in the 50s and 60s played a key role in raising awareness on these topics in both the US and Europe.

I’ve been reading a new book about Baldwin this week, and through it I am learning not just about Baldwin but a time period and a group of activists I am not familiar with or have never heard of. This includes Stokely Carmichael, someone who defined a movement with a simple phrase. I’m reading the book to learn more about Baldwin, who I think of as well known, but as I learn about other important figures, I see how my education has not been very robust when it comes to activism and activists, and I see how I need to step up my own game even more.

I’ll write about this book when it’s done; for now, back to Carmichael.

”When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, ”I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair — well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Stokely carmichael, as quoted in the new york times

Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. As a student at Howard University, he worked to promote Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolence, serving on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group created by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to represent and drive youth.

Carmichael participated in various sit-ins to end segregation, excelled as a student and eventually moved from supporting King’s work promoting nonviolence to a position of advocating for “self-defense.” Politically motivated, Carmichael worked tirelessly in Alabama to get more Black people to vote; in 1965 he “managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.”

I realize that educators can’t cover every activist, and news sources can’t write about every amazing human. But as we’ve been hearing so much about Stacey Abrams doing this same thing in Georgia, I wonder why we haven’t heard anything about Carmichael’s work, which took place decades earlier.

Arrested dozens of times, Carmichael’s push for Black power and pride continued to set him at odds with powerful whites, who didn’t like what they perceived as a desire to make Blacks “rise up” against white systems. He eventually gave up on America and moved to Guinea. In 1998, at the age of 57, he died of prostate cancer.

As I read about Carmichael’s life and legacy, in the Baldwin book and in other sources, I see that he was just too “powerful” and too “dangerous” to be championed by mainstream (meaning white) historians, educators and resources. His belief that Black pride and Black power should be championed is a belief we see squelched today. Because so many of the people in power are still afraid of what it would mean for someone else to actually have pride in their people and draw on its power to help build a way of life, his ideas continue to be “revolutionary”– to some, in the scariest form of that word.

The gift of literacy

You may not be thinking about it, but just in reading this post, you’re exhibiting a great amount of privilege: you can read.

I’m sure you don’t think about what a special gift literacy is, but in a world where 14 percent of the world’s population is illiterate, it really is a gift. That 14 percent is 107 million people, or, if you think about the US having slightly more than 330 million, that’s like a third of all Americans. What if one third of America couldn’t read? (I know, I know, half of America is about that stupid…) If that portion of our country couldn’t read, it would mean oppression and control in a way none of us alive today can imagine. But we all know of a time when a group of people was barred from learning to read: the years before the Civil War. Not only did slave owners prevent their slaves from learning to read, laws such as the South Carolina Act of 1740 existed to make it illegal.

I always start my Literature of Revolution class with a section on poetry, and one of the poets we encounter is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Born in Maryland to free Black parents in 1825, Harper used her position, education and life to work as an abolitionist, educator, writer and suffragist.

We read two of Harper’s poems in this class, “The Slave Auction” and “Learning To Read” and students tell me how much these two poems shock and move them. “I can’t imagine not being able to read,” they say, even if they don’t like reading. The speaker’s experience in both of these poems gives them perspective and sometimes introduces them (anew perhaps) to the reality that some people have been purposefully kept in the dark when it comes to literacy.

If you haven’t explored Harper’s works, I encourage you to do so now. She is one of the first Black females to have her creative works published; in 1859 a short story, “The Two Offers” was published by the Anglo-African. Another champion of Black literacy was Frederick Douglass, who, once he learned to read, found both joy and despair in it. Joy in what he could access through books and papers, but despair in what the lack of literacy meant for other Blacks.

I know the ability to read is something I take for granted on many occasions, but as I go on my own journey to be better educated and more aware of Black history this month, I’m in awe of people like Harper and Douglass who grew up acutely aware of what a privilege it was to have this cornerstone of education and freedom.

If you’re looking to unwrap the gift of literacy a little more, why not present yourself (bad jokes are a gift too, aren’t they?) with some other Black authors. Thrift Books has put together a nice list here, pulling from books they offer. Author Faith Adiele and several other California authors offer a list of their own here.

Fighting not just inaction, but disregard

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, mostly known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At a time when the #BLM movement has made great progress in raising awareness about systemic racism in our country, I wonder if MLK Day is more than a “day off from work” for a lot of people who could help break down some of the systems that have kept racism in place. I didn’t have the day off, and if I’m honest, I only began pondering this question after friend, Whitney Raver, posted these thoughts:

FB post from Whitney Raver’s profile.

As I wrote to her in my response, I’m not 100% white, but I can recognize that I fall into a category of moderate Americans who have for so long been quiet on the sidelines as people like MLK and today’s freedom fighters work for justice for people of color. I can recognize that in my work as a teacher I think of my contribution as making a difference for the future. But is it really enough?

As a Latina who understands what it’s like to grow up in a sea of white faces in a white place, it’s easy for me to be an ally to those who are discriminated against because of the color of their skin. I’ve experienced it myself. Yet am I part of a problem noted by Dr. King? It’s a problem he addresses in “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action…

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham jail, April 16, 1963

Am I part of the moderate crowd that isn’t doing enough? Sometimes the answer is yes. I know that one of the tenets of Critical Race Theory is that people in power use their experiences to talk about other people’s; I’m guilty of that here. And I’m not a march in the streets kind of a person. I don’t yet know how to talk with former classmates and community members about their racism. I don’t know how to get them to see that saying, “but I have a black cousin” doesn’t mean they are devoid of racial bias.

But what I do know is that I want to help raise awareness about social injustice, and it starts with work that I do know how to do: Asking questions. Listening. Teaching. Writing.

That teaching component is so very, very important today. I mean today in general and today specifically, as #NotMyPresident Trump released his “1776 report,” a document that basically excuses slavery and says the nation’s schools need a whole new curriculum to teach them about how great our country is and how condemning slavery and other unjust practices have a “devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.”

Living next to South Dakota, where the troll of a governor Kristi Noem has started her own re-education campaign, I am transported to Cambodia of the mid-to-late 70s and the Khmer Rouge’s re-education efforts under Pol Pot as I read about this new course of history these people want to create.

I believe education is such an important part of moving through social injustice and racism, and it is truly frightening that people in power (people who are definitely not moderates) are trying to erase entire histories. This is not just inaction, it is a disregarding of reality, a disregarding of thousands of people’s experiences and the foundation of racial problems we’re experiencing today.

I urge you to read about Trump’s delusional report, but also to read the 1619 Project cultivated by the New York Times. Knowledge is power, and sharing it is my form of activism.

The reinvigorating cliché

Tonight I sat down to write, but all I could think about was my crap day. Not wanting to write about that, I jammed on the idea “when it rains, it pours.” I know, I know, clichés are about as fun to read as a blogger’s sob story, but I may just have some new ideas for you here.

  • At their best, clichés do impart quick meaning and association. They connect those who know them. When you read, “when it rains, it pours,” you probably imagined exactly what kind of day I had. So there’s that.
  • As a stand in for a writing prompt, a freewriting tool or a research session, clichés can have some value: they give a writer a place to start. I tell my students to use them if they must, and then figure out how to replace the language that came easily with something more beautiful and unique.
  • A cliché can delight. Even though the phrases are old hat (haha!),fun placement can still pack some zing.

To illustrate a few of the ways I’ve played in the puddles of my mind tonight, here are a few of my findings based on a web search of “when it rains it pours.”

Rain poems
I didn’t want to run with this most common phrase, “when it rains it pours,” but I needed something to sop up my emotions this evening, and I knew poetry could help. So I Googled “poetry magazine rain.” Despite its problems in 2020 with Michael Dickman’s poem, the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Magazine is my go-to for poetic inspiration online.

First up, “Rain,” by Kazim Alli and this image: I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled. / If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain. How perfectly this line captures the essence of being consumed by something. Could it be love? Hate? Sorrow? Joy? All of those emotions? Sure. When it rains, it pours.

Next up, “To The Rain,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I love Le Guin’s fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve not read much of her poetry. This poem did not fully provide what I needed as I read it, but I did come away from it with an appreciation for the beauty and promise of rain.

Finally, “The Beggers,” a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’m no expert on Rilke’s works, but I love the lyricism of his writing and the impassioned power of his words. It’s not lost on me that I’m always reading someone ELSE’S words because his poems as I read them have been translated in English. Here, however, I am giving credit to Rilke. It’s not unlike Alli’s poem in that readers peer into the darkness of a mouth and explore what it means to be consumed by something, but the line that stood out most to me was the phrase They sell the hollow / of their hands.

New perspectives
After reading the rain poems (and skipping over others) I Googled just the word “rain.” There were several news stories, my forecast (45 degrees and rainy), videos of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande singing something that had to do with rain, and rainymood.com, which bills itself as “the internet’s most popular rain experience.” I scoffed as I read this line– by what metrics? Are there other less popular rain experiences online? What makes them less popular?– but an hour later, the page is still open in the background, my “rain experience” still spattering away. Normally, rain does not calm me. I see it as a barrier to time outdoors and an inconvenience. But there is something nice about letting rain spill down on me aurally and knowing it won’t ruin my day.

Fun facts
My final foray into finding new ways to express the idea of what it is to experience a deluge led me to a page on the US Geological Survey’s website: a chicken-or-egg bit of trivia that asks visitors to select where they think our planet’s water cycle begins. I said “atmosphere” and did a mental face palm when I read what scored higher. Play along and you’ll see why!

So there you have it. A dreary day and a familiar phrase gave me something to write about in a new way.

No one wants their writing to be littered with tired phrases, but if you can pick up that trash and use it, as a writer, you should. Happy hunting for your own ways to use the cliché!

After 2020, everyone could use writing to heal

A few days ago I wrote a post to commemorate the 16th anniversary of my stroke. One of the articles I linked to in that post, a piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Year We Lost,” explores the many things we didn’t get to do in 2020. It also takes something away from those who managed the year through writing.

It was “a year without parties,” a year that “paused many people’s progress on long-plotted family and career goals,” writes Joe author Pinsker. When I originally read the piece, it nicely summed up what I was getting at in that part of my post, which was the idea that at a time when so many people have lost so much, thinking about what I almost lost but didn’t felt shallow. In the days since I linked to this piece, I’ve kept thinking about this one line in Pinsker’s article:

The year 2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries.

It’s the first line, so it has to be catchy and hooky and give people something to think about. I’m a writer. I get it. But as someone who has studied the value of therapeutic writing or writing about trauma (that stroke, man, it keeps popping up), I think this line doesn’t quite give “writers of diaries” or the diaries themselves a place of value. I get this, too. The belief that the arts have healing power isn’t as widespread as this artist would like. However, if there is any way I see myself making a difference in the world, it is spreading the word that writing is a coping mechanism anyone can use — to great effect.

We may not have done all the things we wanted, or any of the things we wanted in 2020, but those who turned to diaries to track their despair and how they felt about it may have found a way to get through the letdown of a year with a better sense of well-being. People who journal may have had fewer “fun” things to write about this year, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have anything to write about.

Over the past forty years, research has found that writing about traumatic events and how one feels about them helps lower blood pressure. It helps boost the immune system. Expressive writing can help people sleep better and even perhaps “get over” the trauma and even physically heal sooner.

That’s right. Writing can help people heal.

If you’ve click into any of the links I’ve shared in the paragraph above, you’ll see that the fount of this wisdom and research comes from psychology professor James Pennebaker. In the mid-eighties he found that students who spent 20 minutes a day for four days writing about a significant trauma were healthier after this practice than their peers who did not write about their significant traumas. Pennebaker has worked with hundreds, if not thousands of students since then; other researchers have taken the idea and explored various intricacies of it in different studies. The research keeps stacking up: If people are able to write honestly about bad things they’ve experienced, and if these same people reflect on how they felt about the experience or how they feel about it now, they process the event and work through it in ways others don’t.

In his 1990 book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker spends time unpacking his inspiration, the studies he’s conducted and what he’s learned up to that point in his career. The information is compelling, his writing is engaging and he covers a lot of psychological, physical and mental health topics. I first learned about Pennebaker’s work in 2005, when my mom, a therapist, gave me a journal detailing his process of writing to heal. I’d always believed there was cathartic value in writing, but learning there was science behind it was validating. I didn’t need that science to nudge me into writing, or to benefit from my writing, but being able to tell others that it was proven to make a difference was amazing.

Years later, when I entered grad school, one of the biggest projects I spent time on (outside of my thesis) was immersing myself in Pennebaker’s work and getting caught up on what had taken place in the field of expressive writing between the 80s and the mid-2000s. I can’t say I’m an expert on his work–that would require working with him, I think– but I spend a lot of time talking him up to my students who seem like they could benefit from his work, either personally or because of their desired professions. And I’m excited to be presenting on it at virtual conference at the end of January. I’ll introduce people to his work, the theories behind it and what has been discovered about expressive writing. Then I’ll lead people through a little exercise of their own, hopefully equipping them with some strategies and tools to harness the power of writing. As a a writing instructor, I believe part of my job goes beyond just teaching people what they are in class to learn. If I see a chance to share something like this with them, I go for it. Doesn’t mean I’m an expert, but I do think I can be a resource and example for those wanting to know more about writing to heal.

If you’d like to check out Pennebaker’s book mentioned above, here’s a sample chapter from the third edition, published (and posted online) by Guilford Press.

Viva la revolución

Evaluation. It’s a process I encourage my students to undertake every time they engage with a text in our class. What is it saying, I ask them. How does it make you feel? Do the ideas have merit? Why or why not?

This process is one I hope they will use when they’re out in the real world too, and of course I know they come to my class already knowing how to evaluate things in daily life. They can decide whether or not to get the enchiladas or the burrito, the pitcher of beer special or the twofer special. They know how to make decisions and value various things using various metrics. But sometimes I’m reminded in a big way that evaluation and perception must work in tandem, and if someone’s perception of things is filtered in such a way that their metrics aren’t right for the job at hand, then their assessments may have holes in them. And it’s not because the student didn’t take the time to think, but because they didn’t quite have the right tools for evaluation, or the full view of things being evaluated. Case in point is commentary from a mid-term evaluation I received this term.

This class has felt unnecessarily politically charged. The class is supposed to teach the students to write and analyze literature effectively (That is my understanding of it anyway), and I feel that can be done without some of the one-sided left-wing propaganda. Most of it comes in the form of implicit assertions hidden in other statements, but some of it seems rather blatant. For example: Promoting Marxism as 1 of 6 primary methods of criticizing literature seemed rather ridiculous to me. I have not mentioned this in class, as I didn’t want to be accused of disrupting the class and then be on a professors bad side, but I figured I’d leave my comment here.

Yeah. I teach a course about the literature of revolution and it was too political. Dang.

Seeing this comment was both hilarious and upsetting. I wasn’t upset because I felt attacked or anything; no, I was happy to see an articulate comment. From the clarity of the writing, it’s easy to see that the student did put some thought and effort into expressing their ideas. They maintained what I think of as a pretty neutral tone, even as they expressed displeasure. And they demonstrated engagement with the ideas presented, or else how would they have remembered the ideas themselves? All of this was good. All of this allowed me to see that the student did have solid evaluation capabilities and techniques. But what bit so hard was seeing all these good things AND the big black hole that said something like, “your work getting this student to understand that everything is political and thus has potential to be revolutionary has failed.”

I posted the comment to social media, and many friends and colleagues shared a laugh and a face palm with me. I KNOW that teaching the literature I’m teaching must by its very existence be linked to politics. I just thought I was doing a better job of showing students why it is so important to read literature and see how it helps us understand the political — and how understanding politics can help enrich what we read.

So that’s how I get to where I am now, mulling over the idea that someone can be a solid evaluator of things, ideas, people, etc., but they can still miss out on seeing the big picture. I know I risk sounding like I think the student’s critique was wrong, or improper. I don’t. But I do wonder what I could have done differently to give my student the tools needed to have a full scale by which they could assess the value of our theme.

Contesting the norm

It’s one of my favorite times of the year: The submission period for the Southern New Hampshire Fall Fiction Contest has closed and I get to read several of the outstanding semi-final entries.

This year we had 560 submissions. The forty that I’ve read this week are among the best I’ve read in my three years of judging, and I just finished reading a story about a clever high schooler who comes up with a unique way to ask out a girl he likes. This may sound like an age-old story, and of course, it is. But the boy’s tactic, the girl’s motivations for being the way she is and catching his attention: all crisp and unique.

Another writer submitted a piece of metafiction in which the narrator/protagonist is vying for an appointment to speak with the omniscient narrator. Fun idea, and the setting was so sharp that I felt like a fly on the wall in the waiting room.

There have been other good submissions–anthropomorphism cast in a new and fun way, coming-of-age pieces that speak to what today’s youth are experiencing, and a few explorations of addiction, depression and despair. And wow, perhaps the best part is that there have been a BUNCH of stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters, as well as more POC–that’s Protagonist of Color in this context–than I’ve read in the past three years.

I don’t know how many of my submissions come from students and how many come from the general public, but seeing these demographics represented in a noticeable and strong way is amazing. I don’t know if literature as a whole is changing (this is just one small drop in the pond, right?), but this is exciting.

What’s also been totally delightful and yet downright harrowing is the way Covid and politics have shown up across these texts. I know many people are writing about these things right now, and I see many calls for submission on both topics. They are important, but I have not been all that interested in writing about them–or reading about them.

When I read fiction for pleasure, I want to forget about what I’m living, not see how well it’s mirrored or torn down in a story. But I know that writing about what we experience is part of processing it, and through the stories I’ve read this week, I get a sense of joy in seeing how students are tackling these topics, all of them. I love seeing the black character who’s going to Harvard or the queer character whose gender we never learn because it doesn’t matter. I love the trans character whose grandma stands up for her. These characters and plots and conclusions give me a sense of hope about the future. They help me see how these writers are taking what we’re dealing with it and processing it from their own perspectives.

They are crafting more than just a fictionalized future for our country in a post-Covid and post-Trump world, but a literary future that breaks genres and tropes while exploring what it means to be part of something. No matter what it’s about, who writes it and who is featured in it, that’s what the best fiction does.

What new writers are you finding? How are they helping you through these times?

Yellow, orange and green squash and pumpkins of all sizes.

A quiet revolution

As an adolescent, I couldn’t wait to get off the farm. When I finally did, for college, I found that living in the city was as good as I had imagined it would be. I had access to people, unique ideas and things to do. In fact, city living was maybe even better than what I’d seen on TV or while traveling because my college campus was its own little residential community. There was some shelter in the secure life of a student living on a quiet campus, and the city that I moved to was easy to get around and relatively small, maybe 100,000 people at that time. It was a good first step toward city life and a definite first step toward being the writer I wanted to be, as I was studying journalism. It also gave me things to write about, first for the school newspaper and then the city daily.

Three years later, when I moved to Washington, D.C., the jump in size meant a jump in congestion and disorientation. But there too, I got some of the things I’d grown up longing for while watching MTV: access to bookstores, live music any night of the week (not something I had in Sioux Falls), late night dinners and more access to people and things to do. That time period didn’t exactly shape my writing, but it did give me a few things to write about later on, and it showed me that I preferred print to broadcast journalism. I also saw that the political game was really just a game, not a lifestyle I wanted to actually be part of.

I’ve been thinking of that time in D. C. lately, as the election nears, as I move further and further away from journalism, and as I settle into what it means to be a writer on a farm, rather than in a city (it means I don’t get out and see other writers much, for one). I’m teaching college students now, and in one of my classes we explore the literature of revolution. This means we look at war and politics, yes. But also we look at what makes writing revolutionary. We discuss whether or not one has to be an activist to be a revolutionary figure, or if one can do something as simple as write a poem, or a song, or paint a picture. Does a writer have to write about conflict to write revolutionary things, or can love be revolutionary? Work?

Can the change of colors in the sky or horizon lead to revolution?

In my other classes, creative writing classes, not lit classes, I help novice writers think about craft and their writing process. I ask them if they really understand their characters’ motivations and if they can tie the to the plot or the setting more closely. I ask them to consider the figurative language they use and why they use it. I ask them, “If you never make it as a writer, what will you do?”

As this semester moves toward its own falling action, I think back to the week before the election when I lived in D.C. The city was awash with potential, and my friends, Republicans and Democrats, or some variation of each, were on edge for their respective candidates. My room mates and I threw a watch party that night to see the votes come in, and my guy lost. But my biggest conflict was whether or not I wanted to stay in the city when my internship was over. There was so much to like about it, but nothing that would keep me writing, or put me into a position where writing became my work.

We’re approaching another election now, sixteen years later (what?!), and as I look out my farmhouse window onto a scene of blinding snow speckled red and gold with fallen maple leaves, I feel a sense of the cyclical nature of time. It’s something my students and I talk about as we read Marquez, but it’s not just my work life that prompts it. I’m back on a farm, after all, back in the same sort of existence where my dreams of being a big shot writer began. I don’t really dream those dreams any more, at least not in the same way. And I’ve found that contrary to the idea of space and quiet = lots of writing, I don’t write much anymore, either.

My most prolific time as a writer was in another city, in Chicago, a decade ago. But as I sit in my dining room, surrounded by squash and the final harvests of our fall, I see that if I am to be a writer now, it means writing about what surrounds me. Nothing revolutionary there– I’ve always drawn on my surroundings for fodder. Writers do that. But I’ve resisted writing about this life, the farm life, here in my blog. My blog has always been a place where I could write about the exciting cities I lived in and the exciting things I did. But that’s no longer where I’m at, or what I do. I don’t want to write about the Midwest, or farm culture, or what I’m doing back where I began. But I guess if I am to be a writer, then maybe it’s time to just settle in and find inspiration in the quiet and color around me.

 

 

 

Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.

 

 

 

Moving online a bigger shock than COVID-19

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I’m a bit ashamed say it, but as an online educator, I’ve been feeling a little smug this week.

I’m not scrambling to convert classes or learn new software, and I’m not worried about the future of higher education as I know it–well, at least not because of  coronavirus pandemic shifts. I’m not faced with high attrition rates because my students don’t know how to use new software, or don’t have data or space in which to use it.

I’m smug because although people I know are still poo-pooing online education as a “real” means of education, these same people are being forced to give it a shot. Ideally, they’d have a much smoother, more welcoming introduction to teaching online, like I did, eight years ago. It would certainly make them bigger proponents of the method. There will a lot of cracks for them and their students to fall through with this instant setup.

But all that aside, instead of basking too much in my “ease” of academic life, I’ve been trying to learn from this disruption. My newsfeeds are full of articles, tips sheets and suggestions.

This article, from Inside Higher Ed offers “practical advice” for temporarily teaching online. There are good points in it, by my favorite, as a seasoned online instructor, are:

Create a class communication plan so students know where to go and what to expect; address questions like:

  • Where to send questions
  • How quickly will you respond to emails; how quickly will you respond to discussion posts
  • How to reach you with any urgent needs or questions
  • What sort of regular communications you will send out to the class (e.g. weekly reviews and/or updates)

I like these points because students need some stability amid this shift, and telling them what they can expect from their instructor is ALWAYS a good policy. It’s even more important online, where they don’t get to connect physically.

Another piece, this one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that

Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal — they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations. American higher education has already endured several slow-moving disasters over the past 40 years: the radical defunding of public institutions, the casualization of academic labor, the militarization of campus security, and the erosion of faculty governance. As a result, the very instructors now tasked with the herculean transition are already working in extreme conditions: Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of college and university teaching is performed by non-tenure-track faculty members or by graduate students, many of whom conduct heavy course loads without health insurance and with suppressed wages, housing insecurity, and stifling debt.

In essence, the problem is that instructors are being asked to turn their classes into virtual classes in a split second (compared to how long it takes to truly prep a class), and they are already overburdened. When asked to do this, and then doing it becomes acceptable, what else will universities ask of these folks?

The answer, in part, lies in this third piece, from Rebecca Barrett-Fox. As a writing coach, teacher and researcher, Barrett-Fox seems to have a lot of irons in the fire. We all do, I get it. I just appreciate that she’s not just in academe.

Her points 2, 3 and 14 are the best balancing act I’ve seen thus far:

2. Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything. REFUSE to do any synchronous work.

3. Do not record lectures unless you need to. (This is fundamentally different from designing an online course, where recorded information is, I think, really important.) They will be a low priority for students, and they take up a lot of resources on your end and on theirs. You have already built a rapport with them, and they don’t need to hear your voice to remember that.

14. Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

Barrett-Fox offer practical advice that is geared toward sanely navigating this moment/semester as an instructor, but she’s put some thought into how that will spill over and help students, too.

After all, anyone who teaches, who puts in the hours, the research and the organization–virtually or in-person–does so because it’s something they enjoy, and they want their students to get something out of it too. This is a key thing to remember as universities fret over what this might mean for their bottom lines. Now is not the time to worry about that. Students, staff and faculty should come first.

I’m continuing to learn from my peers as they/we muddle through what it means to teach in 2020, but right now, I’m also feeling extremely lucky that my creative writing students and I can just hang out and do our thing. This week they’re working on scene and setting, and they’ve read “High in Hell,” which does such a great job of bringing the African country Djibouti to life though scene and setting. I’d like to say everyone should read this piece of literary journalism to understand just how lucky we here in the US are, lucky to have tech disruptions and tech and any resources at all.