Thursday, May 10, 2007

The What-Do-I-Do-Now? Moment

One of the things I most enjoy about so-called writing classes is the sense of rebellion that overcomes most students during the course of a semester.

Last night was my night for Creative Writing (a distinction I think is nothing less than a hoot) at Antioch University, Santa Barbara. Antioch is a special place, where students seem to be valued and encouraged to experiment, a place where grades are not assigned but rather the students are given a two- or three-paragraph evaluation. This last is a bit of a bother, but not much because, after all, how are you going to give a grade in a Creative Writing course in the first place?

Mid afternoon and an email arrives from one of the eight students, attaching her assignment for the class, then informing me that she's going to a band concert in L.A. An hour or so down the line, the one male enrollee emails his intention of not being present because he had to finish a paper for another class, a serious class by implication, a class where fact and logic trump imagination and emotion. (Okay, you've got me: by definition then, Creative Writing classes are either funny or not serious, or both.)

I am now down to six students, including two who'd decided to take off the previous week. This is quantitatively good because these two will each have two papers to read for the rest of us to comment on, the missed week and the present assignment. This is qualitatively good because having only six persons present seems to open the flood gates of questions, the answers to which have a more dynamic and lasting effect than were I to address the same materials in lecture format.

These six students run the age gamut from about fifty at the higher end to thirty at the lower end. Of these six, two are in the course because, hey, it's three units toward a B.A., and they had an opening for a class on Wednesday nights. All of them are in some career or other, now pursuing--with one exception--a psychology/counseling track. The one exception makes no bones about wanting to do what I do, which is to teach writing and write writing, as opposed to working in the medical field for an orthopedist.

They have all reached a point in the stories they are working on, to fulfill class requirements, where they are all of them stuck at the same dramatic point, which is in effect, wondering how they are going to cope with the problem they have dramatized.

I smile at them and welcome them to the club: Congratulations, you've reached the point reached by brother and sister writers since the beginning of our profession, the point where you don't know what to do to get out of the problem you've gotten into, thus demonstrating something most readers and many nonreaders experience every day.

It's scary, one of them ventures.

I smile again. I've got her. You don't get good stories without writing yourself into the corner, twisting the arm of convention and morality. You've reached the Abu Ghraib of Creative Writing, where the characters have to feel they're stepping off the edge of a cliff where, unlike in King Lear, there is no one miraculously waiting to catch them.

They smile back, a kind of recognition that they understand.

The pay at Antioch is not all that great. The person who hired me was apologetic when she told me how much I'd get for this ten-week quarter. I knew then that if I could bring even one of the students to the point I've just described, the pay wouldn't matter.

After all the FAQs were asked and answered, all six of them smiled that giddy smile of understanding the risks that go beyond the surface gloss of Creative Writing being the title of the class. They saw the place, each within the boundaries of her own story and her own awareness of where the cliff ended and the dark void of uncertainty began. One by one, they leaped.

Sure, they're all at their jobs now, many of them connected to student loans, men, kids, ambitions--life. I'll have four more shots at them before the semester ends, by which time I'll be thoroughly enmeshed with fifteen others about a hundred miles south of here, at another university, and in, ta da! graduate school.

Since receiving an email from Digby Wolfe, now doing a gig at the University of Canberra, wondering if I'd relish the thought of joining him there next summer, I am led down the paths of whimsy where he signs up to do his old gig of being MC on What's My Line (the Australian version). What I tell them when they ask what my daytime job is: I lead people to the edge of a cliff and get them to cheerfully jump.

My Book Talk commentary this week is on the forgotten Golden Oldie, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about the cliff, the dystopia, thinking about this in relation to my own writing. You know, I consider myself a writer, but my background is science and math (and mythology, of course), so to read your blog humbles me in a way that is both sobering and enlightening. And since I consider myself one of your students, it allows me to connect despite all of my absences. And allows me to focus daily in different ways upon my own work.
Anne C.