Ordinarily I don’t blog about a book until I’ve finished it, but John Warner’s spot-on observations on the crafts of writing and acting prompted me to pause in my reading and share this passage:

Imagine an acting school where rather than helping students develop the individual skills of building a performance, students are required to learn a series of impressions of genuine actors performing a role. Deniro 101 would cover Travis Bickle and the father in Meet the Parents, for example. Meryl Streep’s various performances would be 400-level, no doubt. Our aspiring actors would be graded on 45-second snippet imitations, judged on how accurate they are to the standard set in the original performance.

But what happens when our young thespians are tasked with a role they haven’t learned to mimic, a performance that doesn’t yet exist?

This is how we teach students to write. Don’t be a writer, we tell them, just do some things that make it look like you know how to write. And when in doubt, at least sound smart by using words like ubiquitous and plethora. If you really want to show off, try myriad.

And when students wind up in college in classes like mine and I tell them the game had changed, that in fact it isn’t a game at all, students feel like someone has played a cruel trick. Each successive cohort seems less prepared for the challenges of my college-writing class than the last, not because they’re getting less intelligent, or don’t want to learn, or have been warped by the ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ culture, but because they have been incentivized to create imitations rather than the genuine article. (6-7)

As a writer and actor, I often reflect on the similarities between creating for the stage and the page, but it never before occurred to me to convey to my students what now seems vital to their instruction: how self-conscious artifice makes both writing and acting fall flat.

In the first chapter of Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has given me a new insight to share with my students. And no doubt he’ll give me more before I finish reading.

Work Cited

Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Johns Hopkins U., 2018. pp. 6-7.

John Warner teaches writing at the College of Charleston, and his blog “Just Visiting” is featured twice weekly in Inside Higher Education.  From 2003-2008 he edited McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

J.M.W. Turner's "The Slave Ship" (1840) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship” (1840) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At first glance, the painting The Slave Ship seems primarily a showcase for the artist J.M.W. Turner’s use of light and color. But the painting’s title, its subtitle, and closer inspection of its details reveal that Ruskin’s painting speaks to the  consequences of slavery and oppression, as well as the ways in which we depict such injustices. Readers who encounter The Slave Ship in conjunction with other Victorian-age literature may be reminded not only of the words of John Ruskin–once owner of the painting, who described its “awful but glorious light” (385)–but also of the realization by Frankenstein’s monster that without money or social status, he was considered a “vagabond and a slave” (Shelley 107).

In addition to expressing the sentiments of nineteenth-century slaves and abolitionists, Shelley’s words echo those of her mother, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When the monster recounts Saphie’s education, he observes how “[t]he young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom spurned the bondage of which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughters in the tenets of her religion [Christianity], and taught her to aspire to higher levels of intellect, and an independent spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet” (110).

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. Excerpt from “The Slave Ship.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. C1.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Turner, J.M.W., Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On). The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. 385.

In “Proficiency,” one of the essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Shannon Nichols chronicles her experience of failing the writing portion of the proficiency test that all Ohio high-school students must pass in order to receive their diplomas. Nichols’ literacy narrative offers a valuable example to students, demonstrating how even skillful writers fail. Her essay also speaks to different notions of what constitutes “good” writing, though perhaps in ways that neither Nichols nor the textbook writers intended.

Notably, the last sentence of Nichols’ introductory paragraph isn’t a sentence; it’s a fragment. While fragments can be used to great effect, the presence of one in Nichols’ introduction prompts readers to question whether Nichols was consciously taking a liberty or was instead unaware that her paragraph ended with an incomplete grammatical construction. If she was purposely defying convention, did it not occur to her that taking such a liberty on a standardized test could be the reason for her failure?

In addition to the sentence fragment in her introduction, Nichols presents a fragment of conversation that raises questions in readers’ minds. After she recounts failing the writing portion of the test for the second time, she recalls turning to her English teacher for an answer. She asks Mrs. Brown: “How can I get A’s in all my English classes but fail the writing part of the proficiency test twice?” (82). The next sentence that Nichols writes is simply this: “She couldn’t answer my question” (82). What does Nichols mean by that? It seems unlikely that Mrs. Brown literally had no answer for her. In the absence of Mrs. Brown’s answer, readers are left to wonder not only what the teacher said but also whether she missed a critical opportunity to talk with Nichols about purpose and audience.

Whether the scorers of the Ohio Proficiency Test are anonymous humans racing to meet a quota or robo-graders with an algorithm that identifies surface-level proficiency (including the absence of fragments), their aim differs radically from that of many writing teachers–perhaps Mrs. Brown among them–who strive to nurture their students’ ability to express themselves in meaningful ways.

Such teachers are philosophically opposed to “teaching to the test” for good reasons. But teaching the difference between what the test requires and the skills and habits of mind that truly make students college- and career-ready offers a lesson in compromise along with a study in contrasting rhetorical situations.

The textbook writers, themselves, note those contrasting rhetorical situations in the handbook section of The Norton Field Guide. In the chapter devoted to fragments, they write:

Fig. 1 HB-7 / W.W. Norton

“[S]ome readers consider fragments too informal, and in many academic writing situations, it’s better to avoid them altogether” (Fig. 1 HB-7). Later in the same chapter, however, the textbook writers note that “[w]riters sometimes use [them] intentionally” (Fig. 2 HB-9). The first example they offer of an intentional fragment is the one in Nichols’ introduction, which the textbook writers label as intentional for emphasis:

Fig. 2 HB-9 / W.W. Norton

Throughout my elementary and middle-school years, I was a strong student, always on the honor roll. I never had a GPA below 3.0. I was smart, and I knew it. That is, until I got the results of the proficiency test. (Fig. 2 HB-9)

The example of Nichols’ fragment as an intentional one appears in the textbook more than nine-hundred pages after her essay, itself, which increases the chances that students and instructors will not encounter both the fragment in context and the explanation for its use. If the textbook writers had opted not to include Nichols’ essay in Chapter 10 (“Writing a Literacy Narrative”) and instead placed it in Chapter 59 (“Literacy Narratives”), they could have addressed the fragment in one of the questions that follow each piece of writing in that section of the textbook. Seeing Nichols’ essay juxtaposed with the explanation for its fragment would invite classroom conversations about rhetorical situations, dialogues more nuanced than the fragments Nichols offers on the page.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. “Sentence Fragments.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, pp. HB-7 and HB-9-10.

Nichols, Shannon. “‘Proficiency.’” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 82-83.

 

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, ca. 1783-91 / W. W. Norton

My previous blog post features the sample assignment that I wrote for my British literature students. This post presents a second sample that I wrote along with them.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli depicts a blonde lying in her bed chamber with a demon crouched on her chest, eyeing her with a wicked grin. In the background, a wide-eyed, white horse gazes at the pair, his head parting the curtains that separate the irrational world of the nightmare from reality and reason. Though the painting’s title indicates that the slumbering woman is having a nightmare, her arched back and raised knees create an image that’s more erotic than horrific. The demon crouched on her chest heightens the eroticism of the painting, as the impish figure appears in the form of the iconic incubus of mythology and folklore, a demon who descends upon people in slumber, often to engage in sexual intercourse.

A painting of the Romantic era, The Nightmare evokes literature of the period as well works of earlier centuries that the Romantics turned back to for inspiration. With paint, Fuseli expresses the same themes that Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge convey with words: Victor Frankenstein’s Angel of Destruction (Ch. 3) and the Ancient Mariner’s vision of death and his mate (line 189). Pre-Romantic-era works that The Nightmare echoes include John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost–the source of Frankenstein‘s epigraph–“The Daemon-lover,” from the oral tradition of Celtic balladry, and the New Testament Book of Revelation.

 Work Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 448-64.

Fuseli, Henry. The Nightmare. The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. C5.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

The Ring and the River

Posted: February 24, 2019 in Reading, Teaching
Tags:

Both Members of This Club, George Bellows, 1909 / National Gallery of Art

Each volume of The Norton Anthology of English and American Literature now features a full-color section of visual art that offers readers the opportunity to consider the parallels between the words on the page and the paint on the canvases of the same era. That opportunity prompted me to create an assignment series for my British Literature students that asks them to write a blog post about one of the works of art and make connections between that visual art and one or more of their readings. This blog post, “The Ring and the River,” is one that I composed as a model for my British Literature students. I chose a painting from the American anthology to avoid the risk that my students would think that the blog post they wanted to write had already been written.

As a member of the Ashcan school of artists, painter George Bellows championed the representation of American society in its many forms, in particular the working classes. Seeing Bellows’ painting Both Members of This Club in The Norton Anthology of American Literature brings to mind one of the novels included in the anthology: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Bellows turned to the boxing ring to depict America as Twain turned to the Mississippi River. The opponents in the ring evoke the racial conflict at the heart of Twain’s narrative, and the grotesque faces of the crowd mirror the images of the mob in Chapter 22. In the words of Colonel Sherburn, “[t]he pitifulest thing out is a mob” (200).

 Work Cited

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865-Present. 9th ed. Robert S. Levine, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 108-290.

 

I’m standing in the dark with my ear to the curtain, trying not to think about the large stock pot I’m holding. Or how easily it could slip from my damp, sweaty hands. I’m trying to block those thoughts with the words that I’m speaking in my mind, over and over, until I hear my cue:

FLORENCE Please ring again.

Cosme rings the bell a second time, on this occasion with more force. After a short pause, the sound of a pan [stock pot] being slammed down is heard off stage. (1.1)

Finally dropping the stock pot offers no relief from my anxiety; instead it heightens it, because it means that I’m closer to saying María’s lines, and closer to the risk that they’ll slip away from me.

FLORENCE Ah, that sounds promising. Here she comes.

María, the Mexican cook and housemaid, enters. (1.1)

I part the curtain and cross into the unknown, a place where I don’t know whether the words that I’ve prepared to say will come to me again, as I, María, approach my boss, Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world. Florence will ask María to bring tea and cake for her and her guest, her soon-to-be accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Disgruntled María savors the opportunity to tell Florence that she doesn’t feel like preparing cake and tea. She’s trying to clean the kitchen, and then she has to clean the carpet because Florence and her guests make such a mess. With what little Florence pays her, Florence can just serve herself. And so María tells her that:

Oh, pastel y te? No me apetece preparar nada para su mariquita. Estoy intentando limpiar la cocina y después tengo que limpiar la moqueta porque sus invitados dejan el apartamento como un cochinero. Con lo poco que me pagan, sírvanse ustedes mismos. (1.1)

I’m speaking the words rapid-fire—not as if I’m reciting lines in a script, but as if I’m someone I’m not: a fluent speaker. But no hablo español.

The rush that comes with being in the moment fades as I exit. My next line will be far shorter than the first, but as I wait backstage for my cue, I will be holding something far heavier than a stock pot: a large serving tray with a teapot, two teacups, a plate with a slice of cake, plus napkins and cutlery.

As I hold the tray, my hands begin to sweat again, and I’m trying not to think about how easily I could lose my grip (in more ways than one).  I’m trying to block that thought by mouthing my next line, one with a phrase that’s particularly hard for me to say. I think that saying luego me vuelvan (then come back) means voicing consonant clusters that aren’t common in English. But don’t take my word for it. This gringa’s no linguist.

Then once again I’m on stage, speaking the words rapid-fire, blasting through luego me vuelvan as if it’s second nature, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. And again the anxiety returns as soon as I exit. Despite the apparent ease of what I’ve done onstage, backstage I will always believe—throughout the entire three-week, ten-performance run—that the lines are about to slip away from me.

Why would anyone put herself through that?

The truth is, I almost didn’t.

It wasn’t the part I’d auditioned for, but that’s not the reason I was hesitant to say yes. Instead, I was reluctant because I believed that audiences would find me utterly unconvincing as a maid from Guadalajara. And I imagined that the same audiences that would bristle at the sight (and sound) of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed María would also be indignant at the director’s decision to cast an actor who wasn’t Latina.

Recently I was reminded of my reluctance to play María when my composition students and I were studying the essay “Always Living in Spanish,” in which Marjorie Agosín meditates on the vital need of writing in Spanish as a way to hold onto her native Chilé.  

As I gazed at the thumbnail photograph of Agosín on the page of the textbook, I asked myself: Would you have been so hesitant to accept the role of María if you’d known of this fair-skinned, blue-eyed Latina?

Writing of her perilous circumstances as a child who’d fled her home country, Agosín observes: “Daily I felt the need to translate myself for the strangers living around me, tell them why we’re in Georgia, why we are different, why we had fled, why my accent was so thick, and why I did not look Hispanic” (80).

Though I have experienced nothing remotely close to Agosín’s peril, backstage as María, I felt the weight of her words: “I had left a dangerous place that was my home, only to arrive in a dangerous place that was not” (80).

The stage is always a dangerous place, but accepting a role in another tongue meant venturing out of the dangerous place that was my home and into new dangerous territories: a place where some would say I shouldn’t (for lack of authenticity) and another place where some would say I couldn’t (for lack of believability). Those voices ran through my head until the director wore me down.

So this gringa said yes.

For all of my concerns about authenticity and believability, the real danger was the words, themselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that the challenge inherent in learning lines would be compounded by the cognitive shift required of learning them as a non-native speaker. When I say kitchen, in my mind, I see a kitchen. When I say cocina, I don’t. For the first time, I wasn’t visualizing my lines. Instead I was memorizing a series of unfamiliar sounds. I knew their English translation—and I’d kept a transcription with my script—but as a novice speaker, I couldn’t link the signs to the signifiers.

I had actually studied Spanish as a high-school and college student, but I conjugated my last Spanish verb more than thirty years ago, and I’d been a mediocre student at best. One of my most vivid memories of high school is a conversation with my Spanish teacher after class. Holding my quiz marked with a red F, he said: “Josefina [my sister, Jo] is so smart. What happened to you?” Would Señor Grave de Peralta have ever believed that theatre-goers would ask, “Are you bilingual?”

I am always grateful for the opportunity to return to the stage. As a nonmusical woman of a certain age, that chance comes all too seldom. Looking back at the months of rehearsal and performance of Glorious!, I am particularly thankful for the opportunity to embody a Guadalajaran. As María Gringa, I became a stranger in a strange and dangerous new place. I not only faced a new challenge as an actor, I also became a better teacher for my students who are non-native speakers. As María Gringa, I gained insight into the fears and anxieties they face when they struggle to make meaning of a series of unfamiliar sounds.

Three months after María Gringa left the stage for the last time, I was cast as an English-speaking French housekeeper. After learning an entire role in a different tongue, learning an accent alone seemed a cinch, though it proved otherwise.

After one of the performances, an audience member who’d also seen me as María Gringa asked me, “What’s your real accent?”

“Eastern North Carolinian,” I said.

He seemed rather disappointed.

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. “Always Living in Spanish.” The Norton Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 79-81.

Quilter, Peter. Glorious! Samuel French, n.d.

In my childhood home, the bedroom closets were so small, the one in my parents’ room was too diminutive for my mother and father to share. It held only my mother’s clothes and shoes. My father claimed for himself a closet downstairs in a room that had been converted from a garage by the previous owners. My father’s closet with its sliding door became one of my favorite hiding places. In my mind, I am back there now, standing under the clothes rack, half hidden by corduroy and gaberdine, eyeing the pale sneakers nestled among the other shoes. Those sneakers on the floor of my father’s closet were my first glimpse of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars and my introduction to a part of my father’s life that ended, for the most part, before mine began.

The white, low-cut All-Stars in my father’s closet were ones that he’d worn playing rec-league basketball. Though I hold one brief memory of him on the court in his Piggly Wiggly jersey, those days of his mostly predated me and my older sister. Our father played basketball only rarely after he became a father and left his job as a junior-high biology teacher to operate a marina on a lake near our hometown.

That former life of his that I could never truly see remained a source of fascination for me. The man I saw most often wearing a uniform that resembled a gas station attendant’s, complete with an oval chest patch with Dave stitched in script, had once been a multi-sport athlete. He was a first-generation college student whose baseball skills had won him a scholarship to High Point, an opportunity that my grandparents approved of only because it was a Methodist school. Though he never wore his Chuck Taylors on the baseball diamond, those shoes were an emblem of his years as a student-athlete. 

In 1921, ten years before my father was born, Charles “Chuck” Taylor, a travelling salesman who’d played farm-league basketball, was hired by Converse. Wanting a basketball shoe for himself that wouldn’t hurt his feet after a game, he recommended design changes that Converse adopted in 1922. In 1923, to honor his contributions, Converse added Chuck Taylor’s signature to the ankle patch (Dalesio par. 8, AP par. 3).

I bought my first pair of Chuck Taylors at the Salvation Army when I was in high school. My then-boyfriend had introduced me to thrift-store shopping, much to my parents chagrin. They didn’t mind when my boyfriend and I combed the local flea market and thrift stores for vinyl records, but buying clothes there was a different matter. We’ve worked hard so you don’t have to wear clothes from thrift stores, they said. My parents continued to repeat those words until I was in graduate school. That’s when they began to remark on the quality of my consignment-shop and thrift-store finds. For me, in those years as a graduate teaching assistant, used clothes were my creative solution to a problem: how to assemble a professional wardrobe on a meager grad-school stipend. But I digress.

The first Chucks that I bought–navy high-tops from the Salvation Army–weren’t just a retro fashion statement, they also proved ideal for my summer jobs in factories. With their thick rubber soles and ankle support, those navy Converse saw me through eight-hour days of standing on cement floors, two summers in a furniture factory and one in a glass plant.

In 1972, a few years after I first glimpsed my father’s All-Stars on the floor of his closet, Converse leased an old rubber factory in Lumberton, North Carolina. From 1972 until the factory closed in March 2001, all Converse were finished or made entirely at that factory (Dalesio par. 12), including the navy high-tops that I wore for three summers. Back then, when I was a student, I had no idea that All-Stars were made in North Carolina, just 136 miles from my hometown. I still didn’t know it in 2001, two months after the Converse plant closed, when my husband’s newspaper job found us relocating to Virginia.

In a thrift store in Richmond, I happened upon my second pair of Chuck Taylors. When I spotted them on the shelf, my mind traveled back to the navy ones that I’d worn years earlier. I’d forgotten how comfortable they were and have since acquired several more pairs, none of which I bought new. As a woman with small feet, I can wear the size six Converse that teenage boys have grown out of.

My older nephew, now beyond his teenage years, wears Converse, too.

How many more generations will rediscover them?

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Who the Heck was Chuck Taylor Anyway?” Kentucky New Era. 28 March

  1. A7. Google News. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Fv4rAAAAIBAJ&sjid=

         M20FAAAAIBAJ&pg=1717%2C8232748. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Dalesio, Emery P. “Converse Closes Chuck Taylor Plant.” Kentucky New Era. 28 March

  1. A7. Google News.https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Fv4rAAAAIBAJ&sjid=

        M20FAAAAIBAJ&pg=1717%2C8232748. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.