Pastrix (2013) / nadiabolzweber.com

Pastrix (2013) / nadiabolzweber.com

Before Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke yesterday at Lenoir-Rhyne, the students in my 8 a.m. class and I read an excerpt from her memoir Pastrix: The Cranky and Beautiful Life of a Sinner and Saint (2013). The excerpt, “La Femme Nadia,” depicts the events in late 1991 and early 1992 that led Bolz-Weber to sobriety and to God. For my students and me reading in a “writerly” way, “La Femme Nadia” served as an instructive model for its apt sensory detail (“My skin felt like the rough side of Velcro”), and its graceful shifts from summary to scene:

Margery, a leathery-faced woman with a New Jersey accent, was talking about prayer or some other nonsense when suddenly a sound like a pan falling on the tile floor came up from the kitchen below us. I jerked out of my seat like I was avoiding shrapnel, but no one else reacted. Without skipping half a beat, Margery turned to me, with a long slim cigarette in her hand and said, ‘Honey, that’ll pass.’ She took a drag and went on, ‘So anyways, prayer is. . .’

I did not revisit those details from “La Femme Nadia” with my 12:15 students because their class period coincided with the first of Bolz-Weber’s two March 5 appearances as one of the featured writers in the university’s Visiting Writers Series.

In lieu of our scheduled class, we attended the presentation—one that Bolz-Weber nearly missed due to weather-related travel woes that she recounted with humor and grace.

Her remarks focused on faith rather than writing—she would turn her focus to writing at 7 p.m.–but her 12:15 talk was relevant to writers nevertheless. In response to a question about the Eucharist, she paraphrased Flannery O’Connor and spoke eloquently in her own words: “You have to be deeply rooted in tradition to innovate with integrity.” The same is true of writing and of all other art.

. . . and the poet who wasn’t here.

New Weather (1973) / timkcbooks.com

Paul Muldoon was supposed to read at Lenoir-Rhyne last Thursday, as one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series, but the snow kept him away. Day classes were cancelled at the university, too, so my students and I didn’t read his poem “Hedgehog” together as planned. But yesterday, as the rain washed away the lingering snow, we returned to the classroom for our postponed study of poetry, beginning with “Hedgehog.” An early poem of Muldoon’s, “Hedgehog” meditates on the animal of the title as well as the snail, likening the snail to a hovercraft and the hedgehog’s quills to a crown of thorns.

The tentative responses that followed our reading showed how reluctant we can be to express our thoughts about poetry. We are so accustomed to reading straightforward prose that a poem’s roundabout way of making meaning can lead us to doubt ourselves, to sense that there’s something we’re not getting from the poem but should be.

I cannot say precisely why Muldoon chose to run the simile “The snail moves like a/Hovercraft” from the first line to the second, but I can say—and did say to my students—that it’s an example of enjambment, something to try if we want to achieve a similar run-on effect.

As we begin drafting our own poems, I keep thinking about the pleasure of reading that simile, the surprise followed by recognition. Never before had I thought of a snail moving like a propeller-driven hovercraft. And never before had I thought of the hedgehog and the snail as kindred animals for their ability to retreat into themselves.

The snail, the hovercraft, the hedgehog, the crown of thorns: these are now linked in my mind. That’s what “Hedgehog” has given me.


 Writing Ideas Torn from “Hedgehog”

  1. A poem that depicts the similarity between two animals and compares each of the two to something else
  2. A poem that features enjambment

What distinguishes historical fiction from creative nonfiction about historical events? I’ve been thinking about that question since Katherine Howe’s recent talk at Lenoir-Rhyne. In her February 12 presentation, Howe–L-R’s current writer-in-residence and one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series–spoke about her historical novels and the seemingly contrarian nature of the form:

Historical fiction seems to embody a contradiction. If we want to know what happened, we can consult an archive. If we want a transcendent experience, we read fiction.

As a writer of historical fiction, Howe does both, conducting research for accuracy and crafting fictional worlds that breathe life into the past. When Howe mentioned the question of whether the chandelier in her forthcoming novel burns gas or whale oil—a question her research hasn’t answered yet—I was reminded of Janet Burroway’s reflections on her novel Cutting Stone, set during the Mexican revolution:

In the only historical novel I have ever written, I decided that I could put an ice house in a rural Arizona town several years before there was actually such a thing, but that I could not blow off the arm of a famous Mexican general two years before, historically, it happened (240).

Such blending of fiction and fact differs from creative nonfiction about historical events, not because creative nonfiction doesn’t include a mix—it does, sometimes—but rather because creative nonfiction doesn’t place us in the past.

Holocaust Girls (2002) / indiebound.com

Holocaust Girls (2002) / indiebound.com

Take for example “Margot’s Diary,” (one of the essays in Burroway’s chapter on creative nonfiction in Imaginative Writing), in which writer S. L. Wisenberg speculates about the life of the Frank sister who is unknown to us because her diary didn’t survive, as Anne’s did. Wisenberg writes an un-diary of sorts, an essay in nine sections, the last titled “At Bergen-Belsen, Winter 1945.” But Wisenberg doesn’t place the readers at the concentration camp where Margot died, nor does she place us in the Frank houses in Frankfurt, Germany and Amsterdam in the earlier sections. Instead, Wisenberg imagines what Margot may have written before she “ran out of language” (255). Her aim is not is not to return us to the past, as Howe does, but to leave us with an unfinished portrait that conveys a profound sense of loss.


Wisenberg, S. L. “Margot’s Diary.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print. 252-55.

 

 

Conversion (2014) / katherinehowe.com

Conversion (2014) / katherinehowe.com

In Janet Burroway’s chapter on character in Imaginative Writing, she observes that “one of the ways we understand people is by assessing, partly instinctively and partly through experience, what they express voluntarily and involuntarily” (92). I thought of those lines of Burroway’s when I read the prelude to Katherine Howe’s novel Conversion (2014), which my students and I studied as our own prelude to Howe’s upcoming presentation as one of the featured writers in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series.

Howe’s Prelude: “Salem, Massachusetts, May 30, 1706,” chronicles the first minutes of the narrator’s visit with Reverend Green, an encounter that will apparently end with her confession. (“I’ve come to Reverend Green to make my confession,” she tells us.)

Though Howe doesn’t initially reveal the name of the first-person narrator, Reverend Green calls her Ann, and a later reference to the Putnam family leads readers familiar with the Salem Witch trials to conclude that the narrator is Ann Putnam, one of the key witnesses who publicly apologized in 1706 for her role in the trials.

It isn’t that history, though, that lingers in my mind. Instead it’s what Reverend Green expresses involuntarily when Ann first sees him in his study:

His tongue creeps out the corner of his mouth while he writes, the tip of it black with ink, the blacking in his gums staining his teeth. He looks like he’s got a mouthful of tar. I’ve been waiting for some time, but Reverend Green’s still writing. His quill runs across the paper, scratching like mouse paws. Scratch scratch, dip, scratch, lick, scratch.

Why does Howe present the image of the minister’s mouth blackened by ink intended for the page? What greater discrepancy might that image suggest?

 Writing Ideas Torn from the Prelude of Conversion

1. A portrait of a character based on what he or she reveals involuntarily.

2. A narrative that juxtaposes historical and contemporary characters and events.


Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd ed. Boston, Longman, 2011.

Making Shapely Fiction (1991) and a draft of this blog post

Making Shapely Fiction (1991) with a draft of this blog post

In preparation for Jesmyn Ward’s recent campus visit—as one of the featured writers in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read excerpts from her novel Salvage the Bones (the subject of my January 17 post) and her memoir Men We Reaped. For writers reading greedily, the first paragraphs of Ward’s memoir offer a model of what writing teacher Jerome Stern called negative positive knowledge: “the technique you use when you want to tell readers what is not happening. It addresses the problem of how to call readers’ attention to what a character is not saying, or doing, or thinking (165). In the prologue, which recounts Ward’s visits to her father in New Orleans after her parents’ separation, her brother, Joshua, tells her that there’s a ghost in her father’s house, that someone died there. Following his words, Ward writes: “‘You just trying to scare us,’ I said. What I didn’t say: It’s working.” With one line, Ward lets the reader hear both what she said and didn’t say to her brother. Ward also uses a variation on negative positive knowledge, negative positive setting, when she describes her father’s living room as “TV-less.”

Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped (2013) / npr.org

Writing Ideas Torn from the Prologue of Men We Reaped (and from Making Shapely Fiction)

  1. A scene that conveys what a character is not saying, doing, or thinking
  2. A description of a room that includes something that isn’t there

Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: Norton, 1991.

In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway notes the importance of becoming a reader of a “writerly sort”:

reading greedily, not just for entertainment but also focusing on the craft, the choices and techniques of the author; ‘reading the greats,’ in novelist Alan Cheuse’s words, ‘in that peculiar way that writer’s read, attentive to the peculiarities of the language . . . soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates’ (3).

Salvage the Bones (2011) / npr.org

Salvage the Bones (2011) / npr.org

Along with reading greedily, my students and I will listen greedily this semester to the observations on craft and technique offered by the writers featured in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series, beginning with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, who will read and discuss her work on Monday, January 19. As an introduction to Ward’s fiction, my students and I read the opening pages of her novel Salvage the Bones (2011), which depict a pit bull struggling to give birth. While China, the pit bull, serves as the focus, the beginning of Ward’s novel offers far more than the details of the dog’s labor.

In the first paragraph, Esch, the narrator, says that China “stole all the shoes in the house, all our black tennis shoes Mama bought because they hide dirt and hold up until they’re beaten soft.” With those words, Ward shows how a single sentence can reveal details about more than one character: China, the pit bull that likes to steal “all the shoes,” and Mama, the practical woman, who always bought black tennis shoes “because they hide dirt . . . .”

The second paragraph begins, “What China is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother, Junior,” introducing Mama’s labor as a point of contrast, providing a transition from the present scene centering on China to the scene seven years earlier of Mama’s own labor and the birth of Junior, who “came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower.” Ward doesn’t choose between simile and metaphor; she uses both. Junior is like a hydrangea, and he is a flower, Mama’s last one.

Writing Ideas Torn from the First Paragraphs of Salvage the Bones

  1. A scene that triggers memories of (and cues a flashback to) an earlier event
  2. A sentence that describes more than one character
  3. A sentence that depicts someone or something with both a simile and a metaphor

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print.

Window Dressing

Posted: January 17, 2015 in Teaching, Writing
Tags:

ENG 281 TypewriterStep One: Type title of course in vintage typewriter font. Step Two: Print title on letterhead. Step Three: Roll letterhead onto platen of Underwood typewriter. Step Four: Photograph typewriter. Step Five: Post photo to course blog page.

And so I began last Tuesday . . . two sections of ENG 281: the first creative writing course I’ve taught since 1999 and my first ever multi-genre classes, featuring not just fiction, but also creative nonfiction, poetry, and one-act plays. I hope they turn out as well as the window dressing.