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Teaching reading vs. teaching sex

I have met a lot of teenagers who don’t like reading, some of them outright hating it. They were forced to read a novel they considered boring or had too much reading homework for comfort or just didn’t understand the significance of Oedipus no matter how much their English teacher tried to explain, and so on.

This morning I was on Facebook and in under “Books” in the profile of a teenage friend (I know this person, I’m not a stalker), they have written, “F*** Reading,” only spelled out in its entirety. Sorry, I won’t pretend the F-Bomb doesn’t exist but I’m not interested in having it appear in my blog (you can send me an email about the hypocrisy of self-censorship later, dear reader). I know this person doesn’t like to read – they and I have spoken about it – and while they can’t pinpoint what made them decide reading wasn’t for them I was surprised by their volatile, public (yes, Facebook is pretty public, no matter how private you think it is) proclamation against reading.

I’m concerned for two reasons. First, much of what I write is aimed at teenage boys, often considered the most difficult demographic to get to pick up a book on their own for the sheer joy of reading. Second, in my anecdotal experience, it appears if a young man dislikes reading, they really, really hate reading and it often takes a grand and profound experience for them to be open to reading ever again.

All of this has lead me to believe a radical new proposal that will shift how America conducts its public education system is in order. Maybe instead of pushing reading or English class altogether they could replace that curriculum with classes about drugs, swearing, sex, and all the other things parents don’t want their teens doing and let the classes cover every single detail, no matter how “obscene.” Maybe this way the youth of America will stop wanting to have unprotected sex and start sneaking away to read copies of Charlotte’s Web in the closet or jump in the back seat with a special someone to analyze Walt Whitman poetry or get together with a group of friends in someone’s basement when their parents are out of town to have dirty, nasty group book club meetings.

What do you think? Will my new educational platform fly, or have I doomed my chances of ever running for office against someone who doesn’t understand satire? Do you know anyone who hates to read and do they tell you why?

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Part II (“F” Reading) and Thursday’s Part III (“How to fail at reading”) and this week’s installment of Your Friday Recommendation – “Five Books For Boys.”

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Teaching "Intro to Literature" suggestions

Next spring I’m teaching a section of “Introduction to Literature” and my curriculum will likely span across short stories, poems, at least one novel, and perhaps a play. I’m interested to hear from you, dear reader. Do you have an anthology recommendation? Any short stories or poems you find accessible or maybe a few that changed your ability to understand literature as an undergrad? I’m toying with a few ideas but I’m curious to hear what you may have for me.

I select books in early November so I’ll keep you posted with what I ultimately select. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and help.

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I’m teaching English this fall.

Today’s my first day teaching English at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, MN. I have three courses this semester, two composition and one English for academic purposes. That means I get to build on skills I’ve been using and honing the last two years plus diving into some new experiences and seeing what happens, too. On top of gaining overall teaching experience, the classes certainly are a resume builder, too – more teaching experience at a community college setting, teaching ESL students, and teaching online. So there’s definitely a challenge aspect here and more often than not, that’s an effective fuel for my creative fire.

Last week saw me busy putting finishing touches on syllabi, creating new lesson plans, and working on a manageable schedule to balance my new teaching duties with my current job at Excelsior UMC, not to mention speaking with Kelly so we have balance in our new marriage! I also did the whole meet-and-greet in the English department and paperwork pile in HR. People have been really welcoming and willing to help; I’m really getting a great teamwork vibe. It’s also nice to see familiar faces from my days at MSU – the super-cool Kris Bigalk and the super-awesome Kassie Duthie – and I’ve finally met MSU alumn, proven writer, and all-around nice guy, Thomas Maltman. There’s something to be said about working with colleagues who have a shared educational experience.

I’ll let you know how the first week goes, dear reader. Next week: the return of Your Monday Prompt and a few new surprises…

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Expectations for a writing workshop

My aforementioned short story gets reviewed in fiction workshop tonight and I thought I’d take you on a backstage tour of my brain so you know my mentality going into the workshop…

“I hope my peers in the workshop like my story, and I’m going to be okay if they don’t.”

Audience is at the forefront of my mind in most all of my creative endeavors. I write to entertain and I read to entertain, so I hope my readers are entertained. This doesn’t often come up in a workshop situation, however. The best workshops are less about writing peers like and more about how peers interpret the writing works. This is where written comments on the manuscript pages and verbal comments during break come in handy.

But let’s say they don’t like it. Be prepared to accept that. Not every story is for everybody, no matter how well written (I enjoy T.C. Boyle, but there are long stretches of The Tortilla Curtain that do not entertain me). Your story will find its audience, but consider what this first audience thinks of it so you can adjust it as needed (or not, if  you don’t respect them, though you should respect your peers if only at least a little bit).

“I hope my short story works, and I hope my peers are able to tell me if it doesn’t.”

I try to use craft choice to enhance my writing, and I hope my work shows. As a young writer, however, it doesn’t always show, so I have to hope there’s enough to entice my readers. If my choices aren’t working, or the piece would be enhanced by other choices, my hope is my peers tell me so and give positive suggestions on how to do so. Basically, try to write well and if you don’t, have people interested in your continued improvement.

Your craft choices may end up heavy-handed or on the other hand, far too subtle. Decide which choices are best for the story, not which ones are the most impressive. Remember, your peers are studying the same skill set of craft choices you are, so it’s worth listening to what they have to say.

“I hope I walk away from the workshop experience excited, and I absolutely know I will.”

Whether a story gets eviscerated in workshop or published in Tin House, the writer should feel excited about their product. I put a lot of work into my writing, and the writing that excites me is the writing I enjoy giving my time and effort. If you aren’t excited about what you’re writing, why bring it to workshop? How can you expect anyone else to get excited about it?

This is a lesson in marrying humility with self-confidence. If you’re too confident, it becomes vanity and you won’t listen to anyone about your writing. And if you’re too humble, you’ll take every single suggestion thrown your way even if it ends up being detrimental to the story. Rather than those two directions, let them combine as excitement and let that fuel you in a workshop.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to take my own advice tonight. I’m pretty excited about this story, and my last point will be the most important for me to follow, particularly if it doesn’t work for this audience. I’ll let you know the specific workshop results tomorrow, dear reader.

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Analyzing a Short Story: Ryan Harty (Part II)

My presentation last night went well, and it lead into a discussion on using the components of genre to one’s advantage when writing, particularly science fiction. This quickly evolved into a great, multi-faceted discussion sprawling into all sorts of speculative talk on writing, creativity, and entertainment.

Our instructor, Diana Joseph, tossed out the question of what today and tomorrow’s entertainment world is and what we feel is coming after post-modernism. The class latched onto the idea that turning life into a game show on “reality tv” where things seem real but are also staged is a new genre of storytelling the western world seems fascinated by. For my part, I believe this is true, and we’ve also moved past cynicism to an age of self-aware irony while at the same time a reinvention of reality. I think enough people understand the ridiculous manufactured moments on “reality tv” while being simultaneously fascinated by it.

I think this carries over to the emergence of magical realism making such a prominent mark in entertainment these days (think Pan’s Labyrinth, or Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper). At this point, my colleague (and great writer – somebody give this guy a teaching job! …I’ll take one, too…) Luke Rolfes interjected that in times of war, this sort of story becomes appealing as an escape. This lead our instructor Diana to speak of the cycles of art and how they’re directly tied into the national mood. Right now, with “reality tv” ruling the national consciousness, it’s no surprise memoir outsold fiction last year, and that trend is likely to continue.

We particularly examined the post-freedom movements of the 60s and post-Vietnam era of the 70s, and I had a moment recalling my film studies undergraduate days of looking at it from the western genre point of view: the feeling out of the genre in the early “pioneer” days (The Great Train Robbery, Stagecoach), the classic formula of the “golden” era (The Searchers, High Noon, Shane), a cynical “satire” of the genre (Blazing Saddles, Silverado, even the uber-violent The Wild Bunch), and finally “reinvention” (Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, 3:10 to Yuma).

I could go on and on, but the main point is we had an excellent discussion last night and it all lead from the way Ryan Harty wrote a science fiction story – a genre often lacking in the respect it deserves – with character and emotion at its center. Harty used the genre to its greatest strengths, and we all felt it in class last night.

The state of art and life endlessly reflect each other. Harty’s story is a prime example of this. Wanna read it? It’s in the 2003 Best American Short Stories collection at BookCloseouts.com for $1.99.

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Workshopping a YA short story

I had another short story reviewed in fiction workshop last night and the results were mixed. The story is meant to be the opening tale in a young adult (YA) short story collection narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy about his family, his small Minnesota town, and his observations of the ridiculous world around him. That last bit, the observational nature of the story, held much of the workshop’s focus in terms of what was working or in this case may have issues.

The narrator, Evan, is highly observational – he can really read people and understands where they’re coming from. He’s smart, smarter than a lot of the adults (many teenagers think they’re smarter than the adults they know but in Evan’s case, he actually is), and often lets their bumbling play out all in the name of satire. We discussed how this plays out – does it detract from his simple goals and conflicts? Does it ring true? And of course, who is this story for?

A majority of the conversation revolved around YA as a genre, particularly around the audience and what entices a ten-year-old boy to read a book. I know it’s the kind of book I was looking for at age ten, when I was into novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Shogun, and work by Nathan Benchley as opposed to sports stories by Will Weaver and Chris Crutcher or full-length books by Jack London (I dug his short stories, like “To Build a Fire” at that age, though). What I was looking for and what young boys today are looking for may not be matching up 100%.

Yet for as many story notes that I received and will take under consideration in subsequent drafts, there are a few I think will get thrown out the window. I think notes I received on the story’s focus and weight will serve me well during revision, but notes I received on Evan’s observational tendencies and ability to read people and whether that rings true really don’t interest me. And they don’t have to -that’s the beauty of workshop. Take what works for you and run with it. Leave the rest, so long as you’re open to its potential.

When it came time for me to ask my peers questions, I only had one – what was funny and worked and what was clearly supposed to be funny and didn’t work? I got feedback on this and appreciated hearing what people had to say. I’m trying as hard as possible to not let anything superfluous to the story at-hand weasel its way into a story just for the sake of the gag, and it looks like I didn’t avoid that trap entirely, this time around. I especially want to look at how crowds are handled for comedic effect. I’m reading The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield these days and am enjoying how Pressfield handles the gallery around the golfers both as a character and as satire.

When it comes to the humor aspect of the story, I fully admit I’m far too concerned with only one aspect of the story, and that’s not setting other aspects of the story up for success. That said, I think many young writers do that to some degree, it just so happens my way of doing this is by focusing on the comedy aspect of the story over everything else. This makes the comedy distracting instead of an augmentation.

I’ll keep writing the stories in this collection, that I know. I have six finished stories (which all need another draft and a polish), one halfway done, and a few down the pipe, mostly in outline / note form. I had thoughts of this being my thesis instead of the screenplay I’m currently working on, but the screenplay has too much potential to sit on a shelf for now.

I doubt I’ll turn in another story told by Evan for this fiction workshop, however, as I don’t want notes to repeat themselves and I want to explore another story in a completely different genre. We turn in our next stories on April 8, and I’m guessing my piece will be workshopped on April 22. I’ll keep you posted, dear reader.

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My story’s workshop results

Last night saw my story, “Good Taste,” was discussed in my MFA Fiction workshop.

Most comments centered on the information the main character gives the reader (and what he doesn’t give the reader). He’s selective in what details matter to him, while at the same time being really verbose in his speech. My classmates wondered if more pitfalls weren’t apparent than pros in this move. On one hand, the character talks incessantly about the most mundane details, yet speaks virtually nothing about his past. Similarly, the question of an emotional center to the story was up in the air for most readers. Does this character change, and if he does, can we tell?

I included a few innovative moves in the story, at least innovative for my writing. The main character works at a product sampling company and his worksheets are included in the piece. I was also deliberate in style, his manner of speaking lending itself to a three-paragraph structure on each page, the paragraphs falling into lengths of eleven lines, nine lines, and nine lines. These stylistic choices weren’t necessarily commented on, but they were new for me, and it was refreshing to try.

I’m often appreciative of written comments on my manuscripts, too, because I intended this story to be a comedy and it’s typically in the written comments where if something made someone laugh, they let me know. It appears I succeeded quite a bit in that department, so if I can couple stronger craft choices in other areas with the comedy, the story will hopefully come out stronger in its third draft.

Going into a workshop, one should always be open to any and all comments. I’m of the mind that one should take everything in during the moment and then deal with it all afterward to decide what to agree with and what doesn’t work. I was hoping for more comments on what worked, both because I think a lot of what’s on the page does work and because hey, who doesn’t write a story and then want it to work? That said, my peer Katie Lacey may have said it best on the way out of workshop: “I don’t think people go into workshop wanting only all positive comments.”

She’s exactly right. Whether comments questioned my writing choices or lauded them, they’re all going to help the story in one way or the other.

-nm