Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grace Paley: "An Interest in Life," "Goodbye and Good Luck," and "A Conversation with My Father"

If, as Amy Bloom says in her introduction to Grace Paley, "There is poetry and character, melody and dialogue in Grace Paley's work; there's not much plot," then how do we think more about structure's role?  What is the mechanism by which Paley's stories hold together?  What the hinges?  What the structural planes?
Watch the trailer for this film.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

George Saunders and the Absurdly Human

If I were to describe the plot of one of George Saunders’ stories to someone who’d never heard of him before, such as: When a family purchases a quartet of Semplica Girls (four young women from disadvantaged situations attached by wire through the brain as a lawn display) to please their eldest daughter for her birthday, things go wrong when one morning the family awakes to find the SGs stolen, and their financial situation in dire straits—I would get very strange looks. How can such an absurd story be meaningful? In an interview with Heather Sappenfield, Saunders said “The idea that absurdism and humanity might not, or should not, exist in the same story—I don’t feel that way. They’re not different. When Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost, it’s totally perfect and necessary—the best possible way of objectifying the actual psychological reality of the moment. Plus it kicks ass.” Saunders claims that absurdism in a story not only doesn’t diminish its attempt at meaning, but enhances it. Do you agree with Saunders on this? Is there a place for absurdism in a story trying to grasp at humanity? Do you find that his stories, as bizarre as the situations are, touch at something innately human that we can all relate to?
Aimee Bender in her introduction to Saunders in 3x33 says, “…he does not spare his characters, and his dialogue is heart-sinking and embarrassingly familiar. I talk like that. I know a million people who talk like that. I watch those shows. We are these people. And in the reflection, ugly as it may be, inside the wince, is a clarity. How does he do it?” Saunders somehow manages to make us relate to the weird worlds he creates, despite the fact that the places and the situations seem so entirely fictional. Do you find Saunders’ stories believable? And if so, how is he able to make them so believable in the midst of such strangeness?
Saunders goes on to say “I put a so called ‘absurd element’ in because I think it is the best way of describing the way life really is, and really feels, when we can momentarily shuck off our habituation. Or to be more honest, I put it in there because it seems enlivening at the moment. I am trying to kick ass. It shakes things up, or raises the stakes.” Could you see yourself using ‘absurd elements’ as Saunders does to raise the stakes and ‘kick ass’ in your own stories?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Jacob White and Our Obsessions

Obsessions. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have them. Sometimes, they can even come through in our writing. Maybe we don't even realize when we do it. Obsessions aren't always bad, but they can still become so much a part of who we are that we don't even realize it. In Jacob White's stories, certain character types, themes, details, etc. pop up in more than one story. What are some examples of reoccurring things you found while reading? Do you think he is obsessive about these things, and if so, is it a bad thing? Maybe you don't think obsessive is the right word. Why do you think he chooses to repeat these ideas, instead of coming up with completely new ones? Why does he choose these specific things to repeat? Do you think he is aware of it? 

Don't just look at what he's writing about. Look at your own work. Push yourself to look for similarities in plot, character, meaning, etc. in the stories you've written. Are you able to find any? If so, are you surprised by what you found? What do  you think it means when writers tend to write about similar things? What does this say about them as a writer or just as a person in general? When a writer doesn't deal with their obsessions in their work, does that still make them a good writer? Are we meant to write about our obsessions? Discuss, too, how different White's stories still are even when they share some aspects. Think about how perhaps these particular obsessions or similarities may be what is linking all of the stories together as a collection. 

Note: Mention stories from the first half of the book, if they support this idea, but try to focus on the second half of the book. Besides this, feel free to choose which stories you mention. We are not forcing you to focus on any one in particular.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"The Indweller's Aversion" and other selections from WONDERFUL INVESTIGATIONS by Dan Beachy-Quick

See Arcimboldo's "Air" and other works when you click here.
Right after college, my friend and I read Walden aloud as we hiked in the Sierra Neveda mountains.  It was a wonderbursting time of my life, and in my journal I wrote passages like the following: "The climb up--hard in snow and rock avalanche-damaged areas, but definitely do-able and not overwhelming.  The descent--smooth and easy.  We reached a warm, windswept little lake in no time and sat down on its bank for dinner and Walden.  After two pitiful brave Boy Scout boys passed, oblivious in their pain, we stripped down and strode into the rainbow blues for a chilly dip.  We were surrounded on all sides by peaks.  We lay in the sun to warm up our now-prickly and sensitive bodies, and read a bit more.  Everything was so beautiful that I felt like I was drinking it in, swallowing greedily like I do water from the bottle after a hard climb.
This sometimes stark, sometimes lush natural beauty is like water for the soul.  Necessary element without which the soul dries up, becomes brittle, unseeing, dead.  The vital connection is gone.  I am so lucky to be here."  I also copied quotes in my journal such as: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.  I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains," and "I went to the woods there to learn what it had to teach."  In my youthful enthusiasm, I knew I didn't understand much of what Thoreau was writing, but I loved much of the book, almost as if it gave me language with which to see my life.

When I taught the book to high school students several years later, I had the sense that I understood less about Thoreau's project than I'd believed.  I was decent at living, but bad at reading.  I had no idea how to question thinking itself.  To date, I have not returned to the book.

Now through Dan Beachy-Quick's eyes, I see: borrow, buy, begin.  I want to read Walden again. "The Indweller's Aversion" sparks an exhilaration that I had when I was a young adult.  Yet now it feels centered on an achievable goal: to make of the Old Parsonnage in Freeburg (the home where Silas and I live) my own wonderful investigation.  To make it the center of the world.  To do the morning work, the work of song.  

In "Meditation in the Hut," Beachy-Quick investigates reading and says, poignantly, that "to read threatens the identity of the reader as directly as reading informs it."  Are you open to being double, being multiplied, to be the horde of eyes looking through your eyes?

Our final selection, the prose story of "The Children, The Woods," shakes me up.  This story of two children feels memorable although it is not my preferred style of short fiction.  It is about being the song, about becoming through your life many things: a boy, an outcast, a prey, a grandson, a wolf, a brother.  Note its heavy relationship to the essays.  E pluribus unum, people.