Wednesday, August 25, 2010

As the classroom beckons . . .


A new semester starts tomorrow at my university. As usual, I greet this fact with equal measures of regret, excitement, and trepidation. While I'm wistful for the summer that is passing, and while full-time teaching (professors, even tenured ones, carry a 4/4 load at my university) certainly does stress one's time in many ways, forcing one into the familiar and maddening jitterbug between writing, teaching, and family (and dog) obligations, there are undeniable satisfactions to be found in the job. There are also real benefits to be had for our students, at least in the Writing Department at my university. Our students, like most of our faculty, get the connection between writing, research, and teaching. They do not argue for and would not accept the false mythology of a dichotomy between good teaching and good publishing. It's never made sense to me how someone who remains active in writing and publishing won't finally have some critical expertise to bring to the classroom, moreso than someone who writes little and doesn't care if he or she gets published at all. It's difficult to accept that the latter individual has as much to offer budding, hopeful, sometimes very talented, young authors as the former. The former has proven his or her commitment to the craft. The latter? While in the middle of a busy semseter it's easy to forget this, I hope I remember that my writing activies and teaching activities are--or at least should be--twins.

Another myth that I and others in our department find maddening, and I'm happy to say that we don't promulgate, is the idea that writing is a special act that should be undertaken by only a select, talented few while the rest would be better off not even trying. You, dear reader, may not share that absurd belief, but I promise you I've heard it expressed, sometimes from people who intend to go into teaching. Can you imagine a more ridiculous premise for a would-be educator to promulgate? What would happen to all those precious test scores in our country if math teachers decided that math was just for a select few, and the rest of the students shouldn't even try. Or how about history? Can you imagine walking into a history class and hearing the instructor tell you that understanding history is a special skill, so only a minority of students should just give up? How bad then would be the state of mathematical and historical knowledge in this country? You get what I'm saying. Should only those who plan on being full-time professional musicians try to learn an instrument? If that were true, how much joy would be lost by amateur and semi-professional players? How much good music would be lost by those who listen to them? Should only those fated for the NBA or the NFL take up basketballs and footballs? Of course not. Writing, believe it or not, is no different. There's not a single person in the world who won't find important skills honed, as well as their lives enriched, by exploring and developing their creative natures. Will all creative writing students become famous novelists? Of course not! But that's not the point of the creative writing course. What most of them will become is more stylish, more articulate, and more demanding communicators, and I've never heard anyone say that communication skills, both written and verbal, are less than priceless in the 21st century world.

I'm also proud to say that neither I nor my colleagues feel it's our duty to decide who will or won't "make it." For the uninitiated, let me stress that there certainly are teachers out there who think it is their duty to decide this. And not only decide it but declare it openly. I can't imagine a greater offense against a student. Anyone who's taught even for a few years has seen those brilliant, prodigious, seemingly unstoppable talents who, strangely, don't in the long run amount to much, while sometimes it's that quiet figure in the corner--that solid talent who you perhaps respect more for her work habits than her product--who surprises you ten (or twenty, or forty) years down the road by making it, maybe even making it big. The fact is, that we the teachers don't know who will "make it." How can we? We're not gods; we're not wizards. All we can do--all we should do--is work our damnedest for every student in our classrooms, and then let them show us who will make it and who won't. Some of them are sure to surprise as, and nearly all of them will have something to teach us, just as certainly all of them will have something important to teach themselves--while hopefully all of us have a blast along the way.

(Picture note: It may or may not fit my entry, but I thought the image was a hoot.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dog days


I grew up in Southern Maryland, not even a half hour from Washington DC. The entire area is famously muggy and not at all cool in the summertime. DC was built on swamp land and for generations, at least until the dawn of air conditioniung, residents were forced to flee the city during summer, when it turned insufferable. In 1993, I moved to south Louisiana, possibly the only place in the country more muggy--and considerably hotter to boot--than the DC metro area. With temperatures never dipping below 90 and with nearly unimaginable humidity, stepping outside your front door in the summer literally felt like entering a sauna. Yet, I was never really all that bothered by weather; I even went running everyday: 5+ miles. I read the newspaper on the front stoop each morning, armed with a big hot mug of joe. All that is to say that I'm a warm climate person, better able to ignore it, withstand it, work in it, move in it, thrive in it, than most. And yet this summer in Arkansas, I must say, has been wicked. It's been at, near, or above 100 for what feels like two months now. According to the weather people, we're well on our way to setting an all-time record for average daily temperature. (Still don't believe in global warming, people?) And by all-time, I mean all-time. Higher than has ever been recorded since they started keeping records in the 19th century. We've been absolutely baking here. Maybe it's a matter of being 13 years older or maybe it's the difference between 95 degrees and 105 (when the high merely reached 97 the other day, it felt like a relief), but I don't remember the summers in Louisiana being as blindly searing as this one in Arkansas has been. Down there, we stewed in June, July, and August; up here we've been frying.

All this makes me think again of Provence, our three summertime visits, and of course Vincent Van Gogh. The region is renowned for its soaring summer season temperatures; its bright and searing sun. I remember reading in one of Peter Mayle's books (I can't remember which) a good-humored account of Englishmen and other visiting Europeans wilting, red-faced and sweating, in the provencal summer. Van Gogh was not exactly immune to the heat. He certainly felt it, but he also felt that he thrived in it. In letters he recounted heading out each morning, planting his easel in a field, and working all day in the blazing climate, "contented as a cicada in a tree." (The cicada, by the way, is the unofficial symbol of the region.) It's no coincidence that the famous "high yellow" of his Arles paintings most accurately characterizes the paintings he painted during the summer of 1888, his only in Arles, and in my opinion when he worked at the height of his powers, reaching an artistic peak that he never found again.

Well, for all of Provence's celebrated heat, and whatever the part, however minor, that it played in bringing on Van Gogh's physio-psychological meltdown in late 1888, I can tell you from experience that Provence has nothing on Arkansas. Yes, the provencal sky is a gorgeous, bold, clear, blue. Yes, the sun is bright. And yes, it's warm. But the climate of Arles in July/August, I assure you, would be a vacation from the July/August of 2010 Arkansas, or for that matter just about every summer we've experienced since moving up here in 1997. (One of the many reasons I'd love to be there right now.) Our dog this morning even uprooted a cicada nesting deep within the grass of our front lawn. He wouldn't leave the poor thing alone, so up it flew, pulling its thick, round body with its buzzing wings, finally reaching a safe place in a nearby tree. There it settled very happily inside the hot hot heat.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The intriguing case of Caleb Carr


This summer I plucked a book from my shelf that had been there a while, waiting to be read: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, a bestseller from the mid-90s. It came recommended by a friend several years ago, but as with so many books it sat idle while I read other things on my list. It was about time to get to it, I figured, given all the reading in historical fiction I've been up to. I'm glad I did. And not just because it makes an interesting cul-de-sac to the subject I blogged about in my last entry: How historical fiction is both a serious literary form and a pop genre at the same time. The Alienist--let's just start by saying it--is a gem of a book. It's large, both in scope and length, and yet a quick read all the same. As with most quick reads, it becomes an urgent, physical pleasure to get through. And perhaps most interesting of all is how it both is and isn't a pop suspense novel. A group of (mostly) independent investigators carry out a secret investigation into a murder against a backdrop of social unrest and intense, negative police pressure. The investigation turns into a manhunt, with our heroes very nearly losing their lives before they catch their man. Sounds like it could be the plot of a tv PI drama, right?

Well, yes, in fact it could be. Carr doesn't pretend to be writing what isn't a crime thriller. He's well versed in the genre and shows it, occasionally demonstrating the kind of logical snafus that bother me in fiction that is suspense driven, such as when a character fails to figure out what is perfectly obvious to the reader and should be even more obvious to the character, who seems to be perfectly intelligent and, after all, is "living" through the situation. While sometimes they turn out to be only minor annoyances in a novel, episodes like that cause me to lose heart and not a little faith in the author who I fear has given up the simple act of telling a story in favor of using his characters to effect a certain, preplanned and unjustified end: in this case, surprise. An example from the book: At one point in the novel the alienist (i.e. psychologist) Lazlo Kriezler discusses a love interest with the narrator John Moore. It would be obvious to a second grader that Kriezler is referring to the character named Mary, not the one named Sara, as Moore first thinks. And yet the realization, coming to Moore too many minutes late, like a big old failing steam engine, stuns and befuddles him. He subsequently demands an explanation from Kriezler. Clearly, Carr felt he needed the surprise moment in order to get Kriezler to say more, but it comes across as forced, phony, and unfair to Carr's own narrator, the talents and wiles of whom he has steadily revealed over the course of the novel. I tell my students all the time: Stop putting all this writing energy into the big Surprise moment (which rarely is) and instead put that energy into building a good story. In fiction that relies on the last minute twist, the next surprise around the corner--as genre fiction tends to--one is more likely to run into gaffes (at least what I consider gaffes) such as the one I just described, at the expanse of engaging story telling.

But here's the thing. Carr's novel is so much more than a genre book, even while at the same time it remains happily one. It is also a beautiful and eye-opening survey of late 19th century New York, when so much of the technology that we took for granted in the 20th century was just beginning to find purchase and yet so much badly needed social and political reform was still decades away. The novel--the first chapter of which is actually narrated from the vantage point of 1919--looks ahead to much of the history of the next century, including the late 20th century's (and early 21st's) fascination with the serial killer, while at the same time offering an exquisitely detailed picture of Old New York. There is also the fascinating personage of Theodore Roosevelt--not quite as fascinating in the novel as he was in real life but not far off--and that man's semi-tragic political and purely tragic personal history that lingers grayly over the book like a prophet's voice. Finally there is the intriguing figure of the alienist himself, committed to the new science of psychology, including criminal psychology, that nearly the whole world, and certainly the New York police force, regards as hocum and voodoo. And yet, not surprisingly, so much of the gains in the investigation come about just because of that new science.

I guess my point is that the book cannot be tossed away as a mere genre effort, as some have tried to, even while it embraces aspects of the genre itself. It's a fascinating and elucidating study of a period of history; better yet, it's a study occupied by characters that (mostly) manage to avoid the creaky stereotypes that drive me and most other readers mad, and that literary fiction is supposed to offer an escape from. (Supposed to. It doesn't always.) The Alienist is a historical study and a genre book in which you can easily find yourself caring about the people inside it, investing in them and relying on them and in some cases growing wary of them, in the way that one would actual people in one's life. In other words, it's a great book written in the form of a literary historical novel and yet one that grips you as tightly as the biggest potboiler you could wish for. It takes a rare sort of talent, and maybe a rarer background, to write such a novel. Carr clearly has it. I'm thankful that The Alienist found its outlet in him.