Friday, March 6, 2009

alter ego

A random sampling of recent feedback I've received for my fiction. Note that none of these people have discussed my work with each other, and quite a few of them are reading completely different pieces.


--"David Lynch-like." (Bad enough to get that comment once. I got it twice, from two unrelated people for two totally different pieces of writing.)

--"The tenderness the characters had for each other relieved the grimness of the story."


--"Monotone, in an intentional way." (Uh, yeah, right, I meant to do that.)


The thing is, all this is a total surprise to me. I mean, every once in a while I sense that deep down, I'm not quite as chipper as the people around me. But then I get called an optimist, or cheerful, or funny...and all that stuff sounds true as well. Before recent weeks, no one's been going around using a hilariously antiquated word like "grim" to describe me.

I'm thinking of taking up smoking in order to support my new image.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

procrastination effect

Last night was another surreal night at school. I met with my writing teacher (a grad student) to go over my assignments. I'm not talking about discussing my schoolwork, here. Or doing anything related to actual learning. I'm talking about going over the list of assignments and making sure it's correct.

Yep. That's where we're at. She assigns 4-6 papers per class, each of them insanely small and piecemeal, and then has us read a few dozen disconnected pages and watch spoken word on youtube. Keeping track of all that is like counting confetti -- even she gets confused about what's due when.

For example, last night I received extra credit for turning in two assignments on time. I was the only person in class (including the teacher) who remembered they were due. That's how hard it is to follow our syllabus.

So I spend at least a half hour each week, usually much more, on administrative tasks related to my creative writing class. This would be frustrating even if we were doing actual writing and receiving actual instruction. But we aren't assigned a single short story this semester, nor we read any papers on short story writing.

What do we do instead? Some highlights from last night's class:

A student teaching assistant (yeah, our teacher is a grad student, which means the TAs are regular undergrad students who are somehow receiving class credit -- albeit, no pay -- for their "work") presented a lecture on literary movements. But she got the assignment mixed up (see above) and thought she was supposed to present on poetic movements. So we learned about both Confessional and Beat poetry. I'll come back to that.

Another TA lectured on the Romantic and the Victorian literary movements. She used, as an example of Romanticism, the works of Jane Austen. Jane. Austen. The most staunchly realist, anti-romantic novelist ever to have lived and breathed. Our lecturer brought in 2-page excerpt from Pride and Prejudice, just in case we hadn't flipped through a PBS while channel surfing in the past 5 years. I have to admit I didn't say anything. At times like this, I get this huge self-doubt thing going. Like, "Is she a Romantic because she reacted to Romanticism? Because she wrote during that period? Because, as our TA says, she used pastoral settings and wrote about relationships?"

But, um, no. She's just not, and no critic out on a limb can tell me otherwise. But I didn't want to embarrass the TA. And the sad truth, which I find it strangely hard to face, is that not a single person in my class cares.

Next we were given the in-class assignment of breaking into groups of three and writing a "poet's manifesto." Then we were to write a poem that followed the rules of this manifesto. My wild guess as to the purpose of this assignment is that she wanted us to think about what we believe is important in writing, and to start writing accordingly. Let's put aside, for the moment, the fact that we've never learned to write any poetry at all. And that poetry isn't written in committee. Let's just ride the wave of starting an entirely new poetic movement in our beginning required writing class.

I was grouped with two boisterous guys who treated the whole thing as a joke. How could they not? We were done within 7 minutes, which gave us time to talk. I tried finding out who the best teachers are, what kinds of writing the frat guys wanted to do, and what the hell a girl has to do to find a short story writing class around here. But it was no go. They wanted to text message and talk about bands. By the way, I haven't yet met a single male student who doesn't want to text message and talk about bands.

Our teacher came and joined us. She was, if anything, worse than they were. They joked about how they love to write poetry because they can finish quickly and say, "I'm so fresh." She confessed that she's in her second round of her third year in grad school, and her thesis is nowhere near finished. I try not to suggest ways for her to save time on thinking up useless assignments.

After that, we all stood up and read our manifestos aloud. Then I gave a presentation of my writing, plus a reading from David Sedaris (all this is required). Note that although we are forced to read our writing aloud, there is no feedback or critique. It's just to teach us how to read aloud. You think I'm kidding.

But back to poetry movement girl! Her example of a confessional poem was Daddy by Sylvia Plath. And she had found a youtube recording of Plath reading her work. The poem is 3 minutes, 56 seconds long. Poetry girl shut off the recording at 2 minutes, 54 seconds. With the words, "It's too long."

This is the kind of thing that continually occurs in my classes, and that nobody comments on. For example, a couple of students behind me engaged in a long conversation dissing Shakespeare. I mean, whatever, I'm not committed to Shakespeare. But just have some respect.

Anyway. Quite often we read in class stuff that I've read before. So reading it now catapults me back to the first time I read it, the first time I heard of it, my first teachers. Plath's poem did that in a big way, because when I was 18 I had a teacher who was an expert on Ted Hughes (who Plath was married to) and had a large collection of books, manuscripts, and recordings of their work.

Listening to Plath read Daddy, in her Eve Arden part-British impossible voice, sent me back to a summer afternoon in that teacher's office, listening to a then-rare recording of Plath being interviewed a few months before she died.

It never occurred to me to look for that interview again. Sometimes you forget that what used to be rare is now everywhere. That recording, that hushed office, that moment in time -- an incredible gift to me. We listened to it on a record player, I think. Crackly sound quality. Now I can just look it up on youtube and re-hear her say things I still remember from that one afternoon. In response to the interviewer saying, "You straddle the Atlantic between America and England," she said, "You've put me in a rather awkward position!"

Anyway, it's lovely and nostalgic to hear all that again. Almost too nostalgic, bringing back that teacher and a hundred thousand moments that I had with him over the years. (He had a residency at Chapel Hill, which I didn't understand then was a good school. I visited him there and slept in his den next to stacks of rare books -- also not realizing their importance. During that visit, I watched him reach across the kitchen table, take his wife's hand, and say, "I love you." That was what struck me.)

So whatever, back to my current teacher. Listening to her tell me about all the grad schools she didn't apply to -- and another grad student teacher I have, who told me last week he had only one writing sample -- all I can think about is how I don't want to be like them. And how much I already am like them. I can laugh at all the 5-minute lectures on random literary movements I want, but I still need to go home every day and work on my first short story ever.

But it's much easier to blog.

how pretty

Last week I overheard a little girl at a restaurant say to her family, "We should celebrate how pretty I am."

Not in a bratty conceited way at all. I almost raised my glass in a toast.

Monday, March 2, 2009

school stories

In January, I started taking classes to finally finish my undergrad studies. ( I need 14 English classes for a degree in: English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. I'm not making up that title, that's actually what they call the degree.)

The two classes I'm taking now --Creative Writing, and the hilariously titled Creative Reading, are open only to writing majors. So there's a lot of insecurity and aspiration floating around. My first day at school I sat behind a couple who were vaguely flirting with each other by talking about what kind of writing they want to do. After a few minutes of this, the guy said, "Yeah, I'll probably end up writing technical manuals." Then they laughed. Hey, wait a minute!

I have more school stories, but they're mostly stuff it isn't cool to write about on a blog. Okay, I'll just tell one: a guy in my workshop group asked if, instead of writing original work, he could just write Batman fanfic. This would be less funny if he weren't majoring in writing.

Anyway, these days I'm reading a lot of depressing poetry, going to see even worse plays -- (why must actors always shout at the audience? can't there be adequate microphones?) -- and suffering from severe culture shock (guys who skateboard to class telling me I would love The Bad Plus and office ladies treating me with the condescension usually reserved for nineteen year olds). I'll be lucky if I finish a short story this semester, what with all the "essays on technique" and "urgent social poems" I'm required to write.

Since the last class I took here a million years ago was honors physics, I'm pretty freaked out by the "no instruction, let's just solicit your uninformed opinion" style of teaching. A teacher last week actually said, and I quote, "I could teach you from a textbook. But that would be boring." Then he assigned us to write (not research, not learn) a definition for the term "prose poem." I cheated. I figured I'd just let Robert Hass do that assignment for me as part of his poet laureate duties.