Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The students speak!


[As Creating Van Gogh readers may have noticed, for most of this semester I have been dual-posting  entries to CVG and my teaching-oriented blog Payperazzi.  This, of course, is because the Historical Fiction Workshop class I have been teaching relates to both blogs.  Today's entry represents my last report on that class.  (For now.)]

In recent semesters I've been moving away from asking for the standard end-of-semester reflective papers that typically accompany my students' final portfolios.  Now I ask for a paper the discusses a particular craft issue in a given genre, or analyzes a form within that genre.  While I expect and encourage the students to mention their own creative work in the discussion I also insist that they quote, take support from, or contend with the model stories and novels we read, or articles they encountered, over the course of the semester.  The point is to push the students toward end-of-the-semester pieces that are more academic in tone and, frankly, more probing.  I did this with Historical Fiction Workshop class and received some very interesting responses in return.

First, I'm happy to report that most of the students felt that exploring this form for a semester has helped their writing broadly.  I know one grad student, without planning to, started working on the novel that will become his MFA thesis.  Another grad student was able to make serious revisions on and new explorations into her (already first-drafted) historical novel.   A third grad student, who previously wrote mostly flash fiction and nonfiction, found herself churning out 15 page historical stories before the semester ended.  And that's a good thing, as she will be in my Novel Writing Workshop next semester!  Many of the undergraduates reported satisfaction with being able to imagine and research time periods [e.g., the slavery era in the United States] or world events [e.g., a major battle in World War One; the voyage of the Titanic] or figures out of history [e.g., Joan of Arc, Maria Monk, Vince Lombardi (pictured above)] that they've always been intrigued by.

But as I was hoping, the papers also raised many issues with and insights into historical fiction as a form; in some cases, issues and insights that had never come up despite a whole semester spent on the subject; issues and insights that I'm chagrined to say had never occurred to me.  So I'm glad they raised them!  For instance, two students--Isabella Evans and Rene Rains--discussed the issue of using historical fiction in an academic class in order to facilitate the understanding of an earlier period.  It had never occurred to me that a history teacher would want to do that, but, as Rene explains, some teachers believe that fiction makes the individual in history more real than any textbook can.  Fiction is much less likely to demonize or heroize an historical individual than to show that person as a rounded being.   On the other hand, Isabella points to a statement she found on the website of teachinghistory.org to show there are dangers in going to fiction for a clear picture of history: "When students read historical fiction, then, they are encouraged not to think of the past as just one thing after another but to look for patterns and sequences, for causes and consequences, for agents and their motivations."  In other words, fiction is overdetermined by its authors; whereas real history, at least we hope, is not determined at all but a complex web of barely associated actualities stemming from myriad possibilities.

TJ Heffers coined the term "fictional autobiography" in his paper and considered the nature of writing history altogether for explaining why, in detailing with certain family stories, fictionalizing them is not just preferred but impossible to avoid: "There is no recorded history of people like my great-grandparents, who worked unimportant jobs and were generally just average people. History books are written about the big people, the Lincolns and the Charlemagnes and the Ramseses who have been powerful enough to shape the rise and fall of nations. What records we have of little people tends to be things like census reports, birth certificates, and records from Ellis Island, which gives us dates but no personality, no conflict, and no day-to-day narrative. Stories based simply on dates would barely be stories at all, and even with large amounts of documented facts would honestly be boring without dramatic techniques applied to them." Indeed, not just TJ but other writers in class used historical fiction as a means of getting close to aspects of their family's history that have been lost to the unrecorded past.  [Pictured on right: immigrants arrive at Ellis Island.]

Lynne Landis surveyed how the different model authors we read over the course of the semester developed their characters, breaking with, or merely hiding from, history when necessary.  In historical ficton, Lynne asserts, the writer's attention needs to be focused on characterization almost to the exclusion of all other concerns.  Most people, she argues (I think rightly), assume that the big challenge of historical fiction is researching and representing the external realities of a past period.  But for Lynne it's the opposite: "If the characters are not special, somehow within and yet beyond their world, then all the facts in the world, all the detail and historical accuracy will not help you. Perhaps it’s simply because people are people, no matter the time or place, and that readers know and need that."

Audrey Carroll, among others in class, tried to get to the nature of what makes historical fiction a separate genre from fiction in general.  Audrey suggests that the case could be made for historical fiction being no different at all.  But she had more fun with exploring the notion of a distinction between literary historical fiction (also known as "high end historical fiction," according to student Stacey Margaret Jones)  and genre historical fiction.  Audrey quotes commentator Sarah Johnson to offer a very canny distinction: "Johnson, who writes specifically about literary historical fiction, claims that it's distinguished by 'fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present' where the writer 'simply use[s] the past as a vehicle of making their plot more believable.'"  That's an important and eloquently rendered formation, I think.  I said repeatedly in class that historical fiction, at least when it's done seriously, says more about the time period in which it was written than it can about the period depicted--whether or not the author means to--and it sounds like Johnson is more or less in agreement.

Other students warmed my heart with their highly personal statements about the pleasure they took in developing their historical fictions.  The one and only Chris Hall, a history major, says with admirable succinctness that "I felt like I was writing in a Creative Nonfiction class with a kick" [pictured on left]; Rene Rains drew out an intriguing metaphor comparing historical fiction writers with rock stars (who both labor in their "studios" for long periods before their projects crash upon the world); while Courtney Ragland pointed to what might be the most entrancing thing about historical fiction for all of us: "There is no limit whatsoever to where it can go. As long as it is set in some time passed—anywhere from fifty years ago to The Beginning—it is historical fiction. No culture, no time period, no situation is off limits. The writer of historical fiction literally has the entirety of the world at his fingertips."  As one who writes in this genre regularly--and who's a committed mind explorer and time traveler from way back--I can only say Amen.

Students: Thanks to all of you for your insights and for your hard work.   And most of all for your wonderful, original stories.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Historical fiction violence!


We finished workshopping last week in my historical fiction workshop class.  This week I receive final portfolios that will include revisions of the creative work along with a paper on a particular aspect of the craft of historical fiction writing.  I'm very much looking forward to those, and seeing what about historical fiction the students find either the most intriguing or the most debatable.  In the meantime, though, I'm simply happy to report that in a very full semester, one in which I asked a lot of them and on top of that many of them--both grads and undergrads alike--were faced with various personal, professional, and departmental challenges,  they produced a considerable amount of intriguing and promising work.  With a few exceptions, none of the students had written historical fiction before; and, going in, just about none regarded it as a genre through which they eventually hoped to define themselves.   They were amateurs, gamely trying, thrusting themselves into into historical eras they had not personally seen but somehow had to make real on the page for a reader.  Not surprisingly, all but three of them chose twentieth-century subjects exclusively.  And two of those three split their stories between twentieth-century and nineteenth-century subject matter.  (The students were given a choice of writing three separate fictions or one long sustained fiction.)  Only one student wrote a story set deep in the past; in this case in biblical times.  And while I'm glad she did that, she was clearly motivated by a story she knew well (the standoff between Rachel, Leah, and Jacob) and that could provide her with several key details both for her plot and her setting.   It's not as if she chose that era on a whim.

Aside from the emphasis on twentieth-century stories, the most apparent thread between the stories was an emphasis on war or, more broadly, disaster.   And again, this should have come as no surprise to me, even though I hardly predicted it before the semester began.  After all, if one has only a cursory knowledge of a particular time period, the wars are what is likely to stand out.  More to the point, wars, disasters, and violent conflicts are innately dramatic and can come fully embedded with countless side stories to engage a fiction writer's imagination.  As I said half-jokingly to the class this semester, "Thank God for World War Two.  There are so many stories to be found within that big huge story that we'll never run out."  And I think that's true.  It's impossible to count the number of fine stories, novels, plays, memoirs, movies, and television series that have already come from that conflict.  And they keep coming!  It's worth noting too that one of the model short stories we read--"Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff--was a World War Two story, set against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of France; one of the model novels we read-- The Good Lord Bird by James McBride--told the story of John Brown's violent exploits as he tried, years before the Civil War, to single-handedly free the slave population.  And another model novel--The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan--referenced in its enormity both world wars as well as, more importantly, the explosive social and political climate in mid-century India as that country struggled to throw off first British rule and then its own inherited tradition of caste hierarchy.  In other words, there was a lot of violence in what we read to stimulate violence in the students' own stories.

Here's the final tally on the war/disaster/violence front: one Vietnam story; four World War Two stories; two World War One stories;  a story featuring ritualized cult killings; a story featuring a physically and sexually abusive husband;  a story about a runaway teenager who almost certainly is dead (we don't know for sure); a story about a labor riot in the 30s; a story about the Titanic, a story about slavery; and a story about Joan of Arc and her call to arms.  That's a lot of violence!  And on the whole I'm quite impressed by the care the students took--given the short amount of time they had--to try to make sure the details of their stories historically accurate.  Their research efforts ranged from interviews with relatives, little known books, archival film footage, television specials, history volumes, and, of course, the ever trusty (or untrusty) internet.   

The most successful of their stories refrained from trying to portray events that are well known to the point of being overexposed, and instead approached their events from unexpected angles.  For instance, one of the World War Two stories is all about the struggles of the family back home after it has learned that their father and husband has died; another of the World War Two stories explores the long term effect of any incident that happened before the husband even left to go to the war; the Vietnam story shows that war through the exploits of a young Associated Press photographer who has recently landed in country.  The less successful stories replayed territory that felt very familiar already--e.g., the fall of Paris, the D-Day invasion, the sinking of the Titanic, the difficult lives of slaves in the American south prior to the Civil War.  But I'm satisfied that through the workshop experience the writers of those stories received suggestions for how to make those stories feel new again.  For instance, one student wisely counseled the writer of the Titanic story to begin her fiction, and not end it, with the ship sinking.  With the fact of James Cameron's movie still too large in the collective consciousness, it seems pointless to try all over again to make the sinking of that ship seem dramatic, unexpected, tragic.  The stories that have been told far less often are the stories of what came next.   I'm embarrassed to say it did not occur to me to offer this piece of rather obvious advice.  But someone in class did, so fortunately the lesson was transmitted.

For a class of newcomers to historical fiction, my group made several remarkable strides forward even if occasionally they descended into the cliched or outworn.  Best of all, having tried historical fiction once, they can, and I expect will, try it again--maybe soon--and only do it better. 

Next week: The students speak!