My Textual Analysis class is discussing two essays titled “Goodbye To All That,” the first, of course, by Joan Didion and the second, a response by Eula Biss. We’ll be considering literary influence and response.
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.
My Intro to Creative Writing class discussed Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “On Morality,” and “On Going Home” with regard to what they learned from the “Creative Nonfiction” and “Setting” chapters in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. After, they jumped into this exercise about place and how external details reveal internal information.
1. Write about entering a place that’s incredibly familiar to you (your dorm room, your car, etc., but not this classroom.) What do you notice? Use only concrete descriptions. Avoid emotional responses and abstractions. (5 min.)
2. Think of a time in which you returned to a place that was once familiar to you but to which you hadn’t been in a long time. (A childhood home, your old school, etc.) Write a scene in which you describe only your physical surroundings as you enter that place. What’s changed? What’s different? Compare and contrast your memory of the place with its current state. (5 min.)
3. Now write a similar sort of description about a time in which you entered a new place, particularly one in which you weren’t comfortable or one that has a culture that is unfamiliar to you (like Didion going into the Haight). Again, focus only on concrete details. (5 min.)
4. Read aloud your three entries. The class will then vote on which one was more immersive, compelling, and detailed.
5. Reflect: Why did the class choose that one? Did you write more about one than the others? If so, why do you think that is? As a reader, which one of these is more interesting to you? Why? Which one was the hardest to write? Why?
Overwhelmingly, the class chose either the second or third description as both seemed to reveal an internal conflict—the sense of something lost/irreparable or alienation. The best part is that the students didn’t write about these internal conflicts at all; rather, it was entirely implicit in the concrete details.
Sometimes discussions with my students lead me to articulate things about writing that I’ve fathomed but haven’t been able to put into words. For instance, in Intro to Creative Writing this morning, my students were discussing Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and how they could use journaling as a foundation for their creative writing. Because of the students’ provocative questions and Didion’s exegesis on the practice—”I imagine . . . that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. . . . our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.'”—I was able to finally say what I’ve often felt in keeping my writing journal:
Journaling is an exercise in being a character.
In keeping a journal, I distance myself from the self that appears in my writing. (Think Dante the writer vs. Dante the character.) This not only allows me to receive critical input without feeling as if I’m under attack but it also, and perhaps more importantly, gives me the opportunity to view my own writing as a reader would.
Maybe other writers out there have come to this realization, but the idea, and the way I was able to say it, surprised me in its clarity. Maybe this too is a product of journaling: I have distanced myself enough so that I am allowed to be surprised by myself, a moxie I find quite germane to the writing of the lyric.