Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary Genre: Creative nonfiction Readings: A packet of persona poems and dramatic monologues Time: 10 minutes
1. Pick a celebrity, sports star, cartoon or comic book character, product mascot (ex. Count Chocula, the Geico gecko, etc.) or newsworthy individual (Octomom, Charles Manson, etc.).
2. Create a mundane problem for that character or person. (Kobe Bryant can’t open a jelly jar. Elvis Presley can’t fit into his old slacks. Speedy Gonzalez gets stuck in a mouse trap.)
3. Free write for ten minutes in the voice of that character as they’re attempting to resolve the problem. What concerns them? Are they worried about their public image? How does this problem relate to bigger problems for them? What sorts of language do they use? Are they thinking about the problem at hand or something else? Where are they at? More specific questions: What are they wearing? What kind of jelly is Kobe Bryant trying to get into? Strawberry or grape? Who set the trap for Speedy? Has Elvis tried dieting? (Hint: You don’t have to answer these specific questions, but be sure to take leaps like this with your own characters.)
In Design as Art, Bruno Munari writes, “Not only does each letter of a word have a shape of its own, but all its letters taken together give shape to the word.” When we read, we read the shape of the word if the word is familiar to us. If the word is unfamiliar, we must read the shape of each letter, attributing sound to each one and combining them. We use this amalgamated sound to attempt to locate meaning. We troll our memories for previous usage. We look at context. If we’re scholars, we might even recognize roots and stems. In effect, in all of these investigative processes, we look to the history of the word—personal, textual, or etymological—in order to understand its present meaning.
Sometimes when I’m tired or sick or otherwise impaired, however, I look at words and they’re only shapes; they mean nothing. It makes reading more akin to viewing visual art, a Rothko perhaps. I look at the whole page, the shape, and the rivers of white across the lines. I see the words as bodies, as segmented insects. Regardless of whether or not I view the shape of the letters or words, meaning becomes untethered to those shapes. They become tangible. I care more for the vessel than what it contains.
While this as a permanent condition could be problematic, the transient aphasia provides me with a means to reboot language, the way time seems new and fresh on those rare and brief occasions when I forget how old I am. It reminds one that language is a symbol rather than an incarnation and that, in order for language to mean, I must be present. I must supply language with meaning. Reading is a transaction rather than a gift of information.
Words need me as much as I need them. When I realize this, suddenly the axis shifts again, and those shapes suddenly have definition.
I’d like to ban the word “slumber” from my students’ creative writing. I don’t think I’ve ever “slumbered.” So often, they believe it conveys a softness, but that double consonant “mb” with that unpleasant “er” actually seems more clunky to me that the simple “sleep.” Easy to say for easy sleep.
A student wrote to me over the weekend to request a prompt for my Intro to Creative Writing‘s 5–7 page creative nonfiction assignment. Although I usually encourage students to locate their own subject matter as it’s a critical skill and they’ll likely care more about their handpicked subjects, I came up with several prompts that I’ll hold onto for future students who need a place to start.
Is there a story or several stories that you like to tell friends or new people you meet? Is the subject matter related or disparate? Write the story/stories that you tell, and the narrative of telling these stories. How have people reacted? Reflect. Why do you tell these stories? Do you find yourself wanting to create a certain impression on listeners? This piece, as it has three narrative components, has a lot of promise for fulfilling the page requirement.
Just a Phase
Was there a time that you tried to “be someone else,” to adopt a different personality? Describe in detail. Did you change your clothes? Your hair? Your interests? Your speech or accent? Many of us go through identity crises especially as adolescents. What did you do while you tried this out? Did you go somewhere? Did you make a fool of yourself or pull it off? When did you realize it wasn’t right for you? Why change? Do you feel nostalgic now? Show this.
Have you ever witnessed something violent, unsettling, or scary? Write about this and your reaction after. How long did it affect you? How did it change you? Did you intervene? Why or why not? Do you regret your decision to become involved or not involved? (See “Accident, June 1948” by Seamus Deane for an example.)
These days it takes me a longer time to get started on the page with a poem. I spend weeks only thinking about lines. Used to, all that wheel spinning and doubling back took place on the page. What’s interesting is how that’s allowed for a shift in my subject matter: I’m more willing to give a little space to the intangible, the ineffable. So perhaps, for me, subject matter is tied more to the medium than I originally anticipated.
I wonder how it would change if I started writing only by hand . . .
Class: Intro to Creative Writing Genre: Creative nonfiction Readings: “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “Los Angeles Notebook,” and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion; “Bread” by Jane Brox Time: 24 minutes
1. Describe the home you spent the most time in as a child including its location, distinctive features, the people, the food, the weather, etc. Be as thorough as possible. (7 min.)
2. Is there something that people often assume about the place that isn’t true? Write an anecdote about a time that someone made a presumption about where you were from. (i.e. Every evening while I had bronchitis I stopped at a pub in Mayfair to have a shot of Jack Daniel’s to ease my coughing before bed. The first night, the bartender asked to see my ID. When I handed him my Tennessee driver’s license, he said, “A Tennessee girls drinks Tennessee whiskey,” and, laughing, “Do you like your country music too?”) (5 min.)
3. Why do you think that outsiders often assume these things about your home? Speculate about why that is, how long that’s been true, and if it will continue to be true. Why or why not? Use this as a means to tell us a little bit of history about the place you grew up. You can use historical facts, family stories, gossip, rumors, etc. (7 min.)
4. If you weren’t from the area, how would you view your hometown? Would you visit or move there? Consider several possibilities. (5 min.)
This exercise allows students to look at a subject from different angles as well as helps them access something personal through exterior descriptions. In much the same way that they saw Didion revealed through the places she talks about (California’s Central Valley, Los Angeles, and New York), students should realize that, by the details they choose to talk about and the perceptions they reject or defend, they do some work to define themselves as well as the place, subject, and—perhaps most importantly—a conflict.