Booklet for the 2015 Campus Celebration of Academic Excellence

Booklet for Lenoir-Rhyne’s 2015 Campus Celebration of Academic Excellence

I was rehearsing to perform one as well. Tuesday, April 28, as eight of my students prepared to perform their collaborative one-acts for SOURCE, Lenoir-Rhyne‘s Symposium on University Research and Creative Expression, I was preparing to perform a script of a different sort, one that I’d co-written with two other members of the Board of Directors for the community theatre group Foothills Performing Arts.

Though I had seen the students’ plays once, in class, I wish that I could have seen their encore performances at SOURCE. I had no idea that I would have a schedule conflict, much less one of such coincidence. I had designed my students’ genre assignments–including the one for their collaborative one-act plays–in early January, before the semester began, with no way of knowing that a month later, organizers of the volunteer celebration for Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care would ask Foothills Performing Arts to provide the entertainment for their banquet in April. They wanted a skit about the importance of volunteering. So I volunteered, along with Michelle and Chrystal.

Writing an eight- to ten-minute skit is no eight- to ten-minute task. It requires hours and hours of work, and in our case that included finding a way to to honor the work of volunteers who help people during their most difficult hours. We would be there to entertain them, not to remind them of that, though. And volunteering is all about help and support, the very antithesis of the tension and conflict essential to drama and to all storytelling. And then there was the theme for the banquet, elegant safari. How do you work the idea of volunteering into a safari, an elegant safari?

With all of that in mind, I drafted the first pages of the script that Michelle and Chrystal and I developed into a five-page meta-play about writing a script, one that broke the fourth wall with this sequence:

Elegant Safari

Standing with eyes closed behind my collaborators, Michelle Holman (left) and Chrystal Hass (right).

JANE: But we don’t have a story, or rather this is the story. What we have is a skit about not-having-a-skit.

CHRYSTAL: What we have is writers in desperate need of help. (SHE pulls binoculars from the bag.)

MICHELLE: We could get volunteers.

JANE: How can we get volunteers? We can’t just snap our fingers and suddenly have a roomful of volunteers . . .

(JANE, MICHELLE, and CHRYSTAL exchange glances.)

CHRYSTAL: Then again . . .

MICHELLE: It’s worth a try.

The process of collaboration was worth a try as well. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity, in part because it’s my practice to do what I ask of my students, including writing along side of them, composing the same assignments that I require them to write. But when I wrote a one-scene play in March as a model for theirs, it wasn’t the product of collaboration. I couldn’t show them the script I could show them now–one that I’ll offer to my students as a model in semesters to come.

 

"Mov[ing] like a hovercraft . . ."

“mov[ing] like a hovercraft” across one of the granite steps that lead to the front porch

Earlier this afternoon when I spotted a snail on one of the steps to the front porch, I thought of the snail in Paul Muldoon‘s poem “Hedgehog,” the subject of my post from March 4. As I watched the snail glide across the granite, still wet from the rain, I remembered Muldoon’s snail “mov[ing] like a hovercraft, held up by a/Rubber cushion of itself,/Sharing its secret/With the hedgehog.”

And I thought of these lines from my post on March 4:

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.

Cantos

Cantos, Lenoir-Rhyne University’s literary magazine, featuring cover photography by a schwiebert (Annette Schwiebert).

I have taken a break from reading portfolios to offer this short post, one inspired by seeing so many of my students’ names in the pages of Cantos, Lenoir-Rhyne’s literary magazine.  From the Italian for song, a canto is a section of a long poem, a chapter of sorts, and the students’ work both in the magazine and in their portfolios for ENG 281 serves as a last canto for the course, a final chapter in a series of innovative exercises that they, and I, have produced in our multi-genre Introduction to Creative Writing course. I look forward to reading their selections in Cantos after I finish reading their portfolios, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Some of the pieces in Cantos appear in their portfolios as well.

“Black Dog” and “Regulars” by Ryan Baxter, “Strangers” by Rhonda Cheshire, “Neither Nor was I Made for Either Door” by Charles Clark, “Pigskin” by Peyton Hoyle, “Green Eyes” by Richard Jordan, and “Holmes Triumphant” by Kati Waldrop.

Cantos also features photography by ENG 281 student a schwiebert (Annette Schwiebert) and an essay by Eddie Stiltner (ENG 231, Fall 2014).

Kati Waldrop (ENG 281) serves as Cantos’ Editor-in-Chief, and Peyton Hoyle (ENG 281) and Alexis Monthony (ENG 131, Spring 2014) serve as staff readers.

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.