A Setting Exercise — and Why Setting Matters

As a writer, I have always been preoccupied by place and why it matters. What does it mean to be from somewhere, I ask my students, both my American lit students and my writers. In American lit, we are looking predominantly at what it means to be called an American writer–what, if anything, distinguishes AMERICAN literature?
Russell Banks says there are two things that separate American literature from all the rest: race and space.

I’m inclined to agree.

So as we take up our exploration of American literature, we think about those two concepts of race and space and see how they influence the writers and texts we study together.Pretty much immediately, the issue of race becomes clear — first, as a matter of omission –(In Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis,” Paine writes: “Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth…” My students are rightly indignant. How,they ask, can the colonists compare their situation to slavery? And how, they want to know, can Paine and others call for freedom when there are already enslaved Africans on American soil? — and later, as we read Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and then The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, race as a central theme in American literature is plainly evident.

Currently, we are reading Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. In this story of Alexandra Bergson and her family, homesteaders on the Nebraska plain, the part of land known in the novel as the Divide, the concept of space becomes clear. The land is as much a character as the humans who inhabit it, try to tame it, cultivate it. So for their journal assignment, I’m asking my students to consider their own relationship to place/space/land. What does it mean to be from someplace, I ask them? Where are you from? How does that influence who you are?

I ask them, what does it mean to be a Virginian (if, indeed, they are)? A Southerner?

To provoke them — I quote Scott Russell Sanders in his book Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World:  “To become intimate with your home region, to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into the local life does not prevention you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places if you don’t have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.” I ask my students, what do you think of this? Do you agree w/ Sanders? Why or why not?

I am only coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sanders’ words as I grow older, and maybe also as I watch my students and other young people I know become less tuned in to the natural world, less comfortable navigating via landmarks instead of GPS, less able to orient themselves in their immediate surroundings. I am alarmed every time I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I ask the question, where are Huck and Jim headed on the Mississippi? And I get answers like Connecticut, California, Massachusetts — and this from high school juniors in a Governor’s School, dual enrollment students in my college-credit class.

And in Fiction II, when I teach Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, we have to spend a little time on first finding Morocco on a map, then discussing how it is that Lalami’s characters can go from Morocco to Spain, what body of water they are crossing, why it is that these characters want to leave Morocco in the first place. We talk about the Arabic words, the Muslim religion, and why some of the characters speak French.

I lament the loss of geography as a school subject — even the memorizing of state capitals, the drawing of maps. In our technological world, I’m afraid that maps will become a lost art, and I fear the repercussions.

So, as a writer and teacher of writing, I am constantly trying to reinforce that place matters, that where our characters come from will deeply influence their actions, the way they see the world and move in it.

And Just the other day, I had a discovery. I took an exercise from the book Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers, Sherry Ellis, ed. (you can check out or buy the book here) . I adapted Geoffrey Becker’s exercise, “A Very, Very Long Sentence” in which he asks readers to write a 250-word sentence that begins “On a Friday night in _______________ .” I routinely ask my students, usually the beginners, the freshmen, usually at the beginning of the year, when we’re writing nonfiction, to write down that phrase, “On a Friday night in ___________ ” and to fill the blank with the name of their hometown. Then I say, we’re going to write for 10 minutes. I set the timer. Your job, I tell them, is to write one continuous sentence for 10 minutes. Try not to write a run-on. Try to let the details emerge so we get a sense of your hometown on a Friday night. And then we go. At the end, when they share, the results are always worthwhile, often surprising, usually vibrantly alive.

But my revelation was this: I could use this exercise in fiction too. I could use it for students to explore their characters, to help determine what it means to their characters to be from somewhere. And I realized that I could use it for a variety of nonfiction projects. If I needed more place details, I could pull out this exercise and go. I could vary it up — Friday night, Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon. I could see what details emerge. Try it. See what you come up with.

The Gate of Desire

I should say that this year’s Key West Literary Seminar — how the light gets in — was organized around 14 metaphorical “gates,” each meant to provide an entryway to talk and think about literature of the spirit. Saturday morning’s gate was Longing and began with a talk by Mark Doty about Desire. He said that language begins in wonder and awe, and that our response to that wonder is naming. How interesting, he noted, that our mouth is the place that connects us to all that is outside of us. He recited several poems, beginning with one of his own: “Messiah (Christmas portions)”and what struck me the most were these lines:

If art’s
acceptable evidence,

mustn’t what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?

The poem continues — and then these lines to end the poem:

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

The poem and Doty’s commentary made me think of Whitman, the way he used desire and male-male sexuality in “Song of Myself.” Desire, Doty explained, is the very point of difference for gay men (his specific reference — obviously true for women as well), and so perhaps that point of difference, that desire, was well worth celebrating. (As I sit here and read and grade Scarlet Letter papers, I’m also thinking of Hester and of Hawthorne. Was that his point? “Aren’t we enlarged by the scale of what we’re able to desire?” Hester is punished for seeing the possibilities beyond what society offers her. I see so many similarities between her life and Margaret Fuller’s. Fuller’s tragic death, a retribution for daring to imagine a new kind of life.) The light, then, is ours. We’re the lucky ones.

More insights from Key West!

Here it is, the last day of my time in Key West — and of course, I meant to post continuouslyphoto-54

while I was here — but there was no time, so here I am, on my last night here, playing catch up, trying to capture this incredible week here in at The Key West Literary Seminar and Writers Workshop. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the theme this year was “how the light gets in: literature of the spirit.” photo-55The seminar runs from Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon. Some of us who received scholarships and financial aid were asked to choose either Friday or Saturday morning to attend or skip, and I chose to skip Friday morning, visiting the Hemingway House instead. photo-56

Saturday afternoon began with a talk and reading from Mary Rose O’Reilly who quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins: “What I do is me and for that I came.” Her take on those words: “If you don’t bring your face of God into the world, that face of God doesn’t get brought into the world.” During a conversation between Robert Richardson and Coleman Barks, “What Can We Really Say About Spirit?” — the invocation of Rumi (thanks to translator Coleman Barks) and his poem, “The Guest house.”

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Both Coleman and Robert Richardson talked about the word “consider” — whose Latin roots mean “study the stars.” Words, they reminded us, are objects first. “Stick to things; words will follow.” Sound advice for writing! More to follow…

How the Light Gets In

I’m writing from Key West, where I’m attending the Key West Literary Seminars (KWLS) — as the grateful recipient of a teacher scholarship. I’m here for a week, one glorious week, and weather-wise, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. It was a bit more complicated to leave school for one week after just heading back post-Christmas vacation, but I’m sure the students are also thrilled for some writing /catch up/ down time. They have plenty to do in my absence!

The theme of the seminar this year is How The Light Gets In: literature of the spirit. I’m going to try to post throughout the week.

Festivities began last night at the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center. What an amazing evening! We were treated to music by the Paul Winter Consort — gorgeous, uplifting music against a backdrop of stars and light. Music, Pico Iyer told us in his introduction, clears the mind and truly lets in light, perhaps more sharply or clearly than words can. Iyer talked about Leonard Cohen, who said we must “say Amen to the way things are.” He talked about visiting Cohen in the various places he has lived, stories that illustrate Cohen’s deep understanding revealed in “Hallelujah.” Cohen has also said that”Light comes through many windows.” And here, Iyer noted, Cohen is paraphrasing Emerson (it always comes back to Emerson) who said, “Cracks are where the light gets in.” And perhaps, Emerson was quoting Rumi who said “Our wounds are how the light gets in.”

We were then blessed- – and I use that word deliberately — with poems by Marilyn Nelson, Mark Doty, Barry Lopez, Coleman Barks, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirschfield, and Mary Rose O’Reilly — all coordinated with music from the consort. And I was transported, brought to that place of knowing, of feeling the light enter, of reaffirming once again my strong belief that it is in our art, in our music, our words, our dance, our painting, that we find and reveal the Divine, how I, at least, understand God.

When I listened to Pico Iyer’s words — “It’s important, what we feel on our knees as a lover and a monk,” I was reminded immediately of Whitman, whom we’re reading in my 11th grade English class right now. I thought of the sexual imagery he uses throughout “Song of Myself” as a sacred metaphor, the way he uses the body, too, in both sacred and profane ways, and how, in our class discussions, sometimes I see that light enter my students’ brains and hearts, how I sometimes feel it too, a flash of understanding, a glimpse of something more powerful than the words on the page in front of us.

I’m going to leave you today with words from Paulette Alden, whom I had the opportunity to sit next to at last night’s events. These words are printed in our program for the seminar. She says: “I had a revelation. I believed in literature. I meant this in the same way that people believe in God, their need for Him. But there it was. I believed in literature, it became my religion and for all those years, in my own fail way, I had been true to it.”

I can’t wait for more!

Preparing for the Transcendentalists…

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Fall — the season of newness and beginnings, at least for teachers. I think maybe we all love the fall, at least that’s what my students confess in their journals, a confirmation to a belief I’ve long held, that the year begins in the fall, not in January, but in autumn, the season we teachers know instinctively as the time to try again. The season of the fresh start. Fall is my favorite season, almost each 11th grader begins in this new journal assignment I’m trying out this year in my American Lit classes. String Journals  — I learned about them in the Approaching Walden Institute that I attended this past summer. The idea is to give students a piece of string. Ask them to tie the string outside somewhere, attach it to something, a place they can revisit throughout the year. But the string, I tell them as we were told, is only a device. If it disappears, so be it. The point is to get outside, to observe one spot in nature over time, to reflect on that observation, and to write about it in a 2-3 page journal entry due every other week.
We are preparing for the Transcendentalists.

I think in some sense I am always preparing my students for the Transcendentalists. Fall, with its visible changes, allows us to be more aware of nature’s insistent call that we pay attention now. Doesn’t Thoreau lament that too few of us are truly awake? Isn’t Emerson’s plea for us to listen to our own true selves? Spring is too subtle with its lightness, its pastels, but fall, this season of deep, vibrant hues, calls us to attention.

My 11th graders are reading Emerson this weekend, with Margaret Fuller and then Thoreau to follow. On Monday, we’ll talk about what self-reliance means, how “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” about the ways in which “society never advances” and is a “joint-stock company.” We’ll probe and consider his words, and it is my hope that the string journals have prepared them in some small way to think deeply about Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau. At least they have begun noticing small things in their daily world of outside.

I took my Creative Nonfiction students on a walk outside, after we read Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” which they loved. We read Diane Ackerman’s “How To Watch The Sky” and several short pieces on the meaning of home. Their writing is strong and accomplished for so early in the year, and I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to soar and find new strengths as yet uncovered.

In Fiction II, my nine students, this year all girls, juniors and seniors, are drafting novels. Their goal: 100 pages of a novel by year’s end. This quarter, we lay the groundwork, writing about characters, their backstories, their vulnerabilities, their potential conflicts. This past week, we have been focusing on the outside world, the setting of the novel. I ask my students, what does it mean to be from the place your character is from? How does place impact them — their lives, their decisions, their language, their hopes and dreams? For two days this week, students created storyboards, dreaming up their novels as they worked, chatting with each other, asking questions about possible motives and behaviors, a happy hum in the classroom.

My freshmen, too, are writing happily right now, nonfiction, their most recent essay assignment focused on home and what that means. They are fierce little writers, already dedicated, desperate to write and write and write. Can we just write all day?  they beg. Please just let us keep writing.

It is a joy — right now and mostly — to work with young writers, kids who are waking up to their lives, bold and bravely putting their worlds on paper, using language to create art and new realities, sifting through their stories, finding truth and their true selves. photo-mums pumpkins

10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment: Blogiversary Post #2


This blog entry hit the nail on the head. Inevitably how I feel at least once every quarter as I grade papers and portfolios…*sigh*

Originally posted on Classroom as Microcosm:

mflfn0II hesitate to put this post out there again!  Not only does it feel outdated (I haven’t asked for a paper copy of an at-home assignment in three years), but at the time it was published, it attracted some passionate critics (and defenders); if you go to the original and read the comments, you will see what I mean.  I came of age as a blogger when this post went moderately viral and I got my first taste of what it means to blog for the “public” and not just for a small and like-minded group of readers.

Nonetheless, it is the 9th-most-shared post I’ve ever written, and it still gets a fair number of views at the end of each semester/year when teachers everywhere are apoplectic and need someone to vent for them.  What’s more, it tickles me to look back at the quaint concerns we had in 2009, like printer ink and Hotmail.

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