Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

Began the semester by teaching my first-year composition students about the five-paragraph essay. Before you get all mad and stuff, stop to consider: why did the five-paragraph essay become the go-to paradigm for every standardized test prep and essay exam situation?

The naysayers will argue that it did so because it’s easy and automatic, two words no professional writer will want associated with the craft. That may be so, but there’s also a more benign reason, which is that it makes sense. In its pre-programmed way, the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay teaches the basic student or that student forced to respond to a topic quickly and under pressure that at the very least, a well-written, organized essay must have a clear purpose and a beginning, middle, and end.

I’m not about to argue, of course, that mastering the five-paragraph essay is “enough.” In fact, when I teach it to my students, I’m careful to clarify that it’s just a good pattern, and no guarantee against bad writing. It is a starting point, and no more.

But it’s a damn fine starting point, and not deserving of all the flak it’s gotten for its misuse. Anyone who thinks a four- or six-paragraph essay is somehow wrong is obviously an idiot, and no amount of maligning this classic paradigm is going to help them.

What’s up with all the animosity against patterns anyway? In most other arts and crafts, patterns are revered and understood to be one of the classic tools of the artist. Take fashion, for example. Before you decide to revolutionize women’s couture by making them wear their bras as hats, you usually go to fashion school, where they teach you to cut shirts, skirts, dresses, and suits from patterns. You may chafe against the standard knee-length pencil skirt pattern you must follow for your midterm, but proving you can make a good pencil skirt shows you know the basics of your craft. You still may have room for creativity in other areasyour choice of fabric, for example, can make your basic pencil skirt stand out. Who knew a skirt made out of plywood could be so comfortable? Later, when you are designing your own pattern, you may choose to deviate from it or not. You might keep the classic form and continue to exert your individuality by making skirts out of tortillas, or you might decide to add feathered ruffles or whatever to the outline.

It’s not ignorance of the pattern that will make you into an artist, but your awareness and mastery of the reasoning behind that pattern.

The prose version of the five-paragraph essay must be the classic conflict-crisis-climax-resolution pattern. Here, as well, we find a certain disdain for the classic setup. Most highbrow short stories and novels seem to self-consciously deviate from this plot. They key words here, of course, are self-consciously. The art of storytelling evolved in natural ways; one doesn’t often find oneself motivated to start a story about “nothing.” It’s only when “something” happens that one is moved to tell about it, and that “something” is a conflict. The natural movement between conflicts and their resolutions is a series of crises and some kind of tipping point or climax. When one encounters a narrative that doesn’t follow that pattern, it’s because the storyteller has found other ways to generate interest, a seemingly different agenda that upon closer inspection often turns out to be that same old pattern in disguise. We read about narratives, for example, that “resist resolution.” That’s a literal impossibility, however. A narrative that resists resolution is one that never ends, like a soap opera. If there’s an ending, there’s some kind of resolution. It may not be one you recognize: not the happy ending or the reward/punishment, but a resolution nonetheless, even if it’s just a giving up, an abandonment of whatever we have been reading fora thematic resolution, for example.

The two stories I use to teach this point to my students are either James Joyce’s “Araby” or John Updike’s “A&P” and Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Both “Araby” and “A&P” are classically plotted stories. “Araby” begins with the classic layout of the setting, whereas Updike gets straight to the conflict in “A&P.”

At first, Ellison’s story appears to be a nonsensical departure. “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself,” he writes, as if in sheer defiance of our narrative expectations. In fact, that’s his point exactly. The story is, after all, a story about the value of rebellion, and he tells it rebelliously to prove his point. If we examine the story carefully, however, we see that the so-called “middle” he begins with may indeed be the chronological middle of the story, but thematically it is nevertheless the beginning, the laying out of the conflict: some crazy harlequin-type guy is upsetting the orderly society in which he lives. We don’t know why yet, but we figure it out soon enough. The crises and climax are as classically plotted as if the story were written in the usual straightforward waythe Harlequin is being chased by the Ticktockman, and when he’s caught we wait to see what happens next, which is both the resolution and the ending of the story.

Poets seem to have a much healthier relationship to patterns. Sure, there was a moment there when the rebels fought the formalists, but eventually everybody made up and we are now (for the most part) coexisting peacefully. Perhaps it’s because, unlike in prose, poetry has never truly preferred a single form to the exclusion of all others. One could say that in Western poetry the sonnet had its moment, for example, but at the same time poets everywhere were writing villanelles and odes and ballads and a bunch of other things with perfect joy. Today the same poet can write in free verse one day and form the next, and put all the poems in the same collection if she pleases. Like the fashion designer, the poet has the freedom to innovate a little or a lot. She can publish the perfect alexandrine or the completely wacky nonce version of a form all to the same acclaim.

One should never be afraid to follow a pattern, or to deviate from it. Forget about thinking inside versus outside the box--as long as you're thinking, you're okay. It's not the box that's evil, it's your relationship to it. If you're afraid to think inside the box, you're just as trapped outside.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Taking Off in Silence

It's been a trying week, what with trying to come up with the syllabi for the new academic year and helping my mother out with her sprained ankle. Today I found myself staring longingly at this picture that's making the rounds on the Internet:

Supposedly, it's a view of the Mars skyline, showing Earth, Jupiter, and Venus. Of course, it's some kind of hoax, and if you care for the full explanation, Phil Plait provides it at Discover Magazine.

My interest in the picture is different. I wondered if Malibu Barbie liked the view, for one thing. In my poem, "Malibu Barbie Moves to Mars," I envisioned a tired Malibu Barbie escaping to the red planet where she can, at least, have some peace. It was kind of a reverse ekphrastic experience, staring at this photo and thinking about a poem I had already written.

The sense of peace I got from staring at Earth, so far away, was welcome. I had just spent an uncomfortable two hours at a simple routine visit to my mother's cardiologist, in which I had to listen to the same twenty-second piece of Muzak over and over. The ubiquitous large-screen was just finishing some abominable David Copperfield DVD when we got there, and when it finished it went to the menu screen and just stayed there. No one bothered to restart it or play something else, or just turn the damned thing off. Of course, there are no buttons to push on the waiting room side--some secret remote from within the inner office was asleep on the job.

I was quietly losing my mind. I had brought a book, but the waiting room is small and so even in the farthest corner from the screen, you can still hear it loudly. Every time the music started over, I lost my concentration. I tried switching to a magazine, but that didn't work. Finally, I went up to the window, rang the bell, and asked the woman in the inner sanctorum to please do something about the DVD. The other patients waiting and I had a good round of jokes about Gitmo during the few blessed minutes of silence after David Copperfield disappeared, and then the Keeper of the Remote started the Cirque du Soleil DVD I had already seen last year.

The whole thing was surreal. Not so much David Copperfield's gargantuan head or the contorting Canadians, but this mad insistence on the need to be staring at a screen at all times. I do understand that some people welcome it; at my mother's GP, he's constantly offering the local Spanish soap operas. Given that something like ninety-five percent of his patients would be watching these at home anyway, I can sort of understand how it helps to pass the time. Other places show the news, or play music. I can even understand that magic and circus acts fall under the "general interest" category. What I can't understand is how this has become so necessary that no one seems to be able to envision the possibility of existing for a few breaths without it.

I wouldn't dream of showing up to a doctor's office without a book. Unlike a television, only I can hear my book. I'm not subjecting anyone else to my efforts at entertainment. Not a big reader? A newspaper or magazine can offer some light, quiet entertainment for a little while. Illiterate? Wrong language? Look at the pictures. Out the window. Lie back and think of England, but don't force me to participate in your loud, obnoxious psychic void.

I don't care if the Mars skyline is fake. Whoever came up with it had the imagination to do so, and I thank her or him for it, for the few minutes of quiet fancy flight it offered me. There are many arguments for reading instead of watching television, and normally I couldn't care less. Whatever you believe the merits of each is, there is one extremely valuable way in which reading trumps watching: it's quiet. I can't reproduce the entirety of Ogden Nash's "Take Off with Books" here because it's apparently somehow still under copyright, but let me remind you of a few lines of advice to be found there: "Take off with books, not with the rocket's roar; take off in silence and in fancy soar . . . . Books reached the moon before real rockets did."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Ekphrastic Gem

Beautiful ekphrastic poem this week at Linebreak based on the Pieter Bruegel painting above, The Hunters in the Snow. Read "Bruegel" by Paul Carroll and listen to the reading by Ty Kessinger here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Poets & Writers Best Books for Writers List

Before you buy all 79 books, maybe I can help!

Have been out of commission for a while, having some fun with my uncle and then nursing my mother through a sprained ankle. I’m thinking of a “what I did on my summer vacation” type post later, but I thought I’d get the blog rolling again by posting about Poets & Writers intriguing “BestBooks for Writers” list. I saw some old favorites on it, some I’ve not read but would like to, and a couple of glaring omissions. I thought I’d share my reactions with you, dear reader.


Graywolf Press’s “The Art of” Series

There were many selections on this list from Graywolf Press’s excellent “The Art of” series, including my very favoritest, The Art of the Poetic Line  by James Longenbach (2007). I’ve talked about this book many times before, because it changed the way I think about lineation forever. Unlike other treatments of what one might consider an “esoteric” subject, Longenbach’s writing is clear and his logic easy to grasp. The examples are perfect. This is my second-favorite writing book of all time, and my No. 1 favorite book on poetry. You don’t know a thing about lineation until you’ve read this book. Another selection from “The Art of” series is Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007), but I found this one rather hard to get through. Unlike Longenbach, Baxter assumes a very well-read, semi-professional (at least) reader, so at some point one wonders whether such a reader wouldn’t be apt enough already to grasp the subtleties of subplots.

This is indeed a classic, one I first read as an undergraduate. Every poet knows this book, owns a copy, loves it so much that she will go into a burning building to retrieve it. This book is psychology as much as mechanics. Hugo writes about words, but also about the writer’s mind, in beautiful prose of his own. A must-read indeed.

This is another one of my go-to recommendations, and I’ve even used it a couple of times as a textbook. Do not assume that this is a guide for genre writersKing’s advice here is solid for all types of writers. I also love that it’s part writing memoir, part writing instruction. The memoir is of interest even to those who are not King fans (those three sad people), and it’s an eye-opener to the beginning writer who assumes the road to bestsellerdom is paved with sex, drugs, and fancy typewriters. King writes about his early struggles candidly and with humility and humor. I’m not his biggest fan, but I was charmed from page one. The “to-do” section stands alone and has great advice on all the basics: plotting, characterization, even sentence-level editing.

Put this next to The Triggering Town, so you won’t have to scramble during the fire. True, you can find a lot of this info on Wikipedia now, but no one is going to present it to you in a way that makes sense the way Turco does. This is the definitive book on form. You cannot call yourself a poet if you don’t have a well-worn copy of this book.


I’ve been looking for a decent book I could use to teach scene creation for a while, and read some real duds along the away. According to P&W, this book is “straightforward,” which is exactly what I’d like to get.

Despite having spent so much time in school and having read so much all my life, despite all the degrees I’ve accumulated, I still think I’m (gulp!) woefully ignorant. Here is an important writer on important books promising to enlighten me. From P&W: “Originally published in 1934, Pound's book serves as a guide for those interested in honing their critical thinking through reading the classics. The book is based on the premise that to be a good writer one must be a good reader, aware of the traditions out of which the best literature has emerged.” Who can disagree with that?

I’m intrigued by the title of David Orr’s book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011). From P&W: “Award-winning poetry critic David Orr provides a tour and guide to contemporary poetry and the ways in which to appreciate it. Beautiful & Pointless examines what poets and poetry readers talk about when they discuss poetry, such as why poetry seems especially personal and what it means to write ‘in form.’”

Mark Doty wrote an “Art of” book and I didn’t know about it? About description, which is, like, his unbelievable forté? What is the matter with me? I must read this immediately.

The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn (Copper Canyon, 2008)

This sounds good to me. Pun fully intended. Perhaps a good textbook? I know a little bit about prosody, but this looks like it can fill out the empty spaces. From P&W: “In ten progressive chapters, Corn covers everything from metrical variation and phonic echo to the basics of line and stanza.”


You can’t blame anyone for overlooking one of my favorite little books, Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink: Everyday Creative Writing by Michael B. Smith and Suzanne Greenberg (McGraw-Hill, 2000). It’s not a well-known book, much less a classic, and it’s geared toward the beginner more than most of the books on P&W’s list. Nevertheless, I always recommend it, and have used it as a textbook a couple of times. It’s exercise driven, which is not unique, but what is unique is the way it forces writers to mine, if you will, the everyday experiences that make for good writing, i.e., the kitchen sink. One of the greatest obstacles a beginning writer must overcome is the tendency to overdramatize, to succumb to melodrama. Spies. Golden bathtubs. Evil characters with bombs. Nothing that speaks, as Faulkner would say, to the human heart in conflict with itself. The exercises in this book will help you find what all good writers know about already: the gold in the everyday life of everyone.
Another dark horse favorite of mine is Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns by Michael Theune (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2007). I don’t know of any other similar study in poetics. Theune looks at typical poem “patterns,” ways in which successful poems are structured as wholesnot in particular forms, but as objects. For example, many of you may be aware that sonnets have a volta, a turn or shift in the subject that usually occurs after the octave. That’s the sort of analysis Theune provides in this book, only on poems that may or may not have any set form. He discusses relationships of contrast, for example, between beginnings and endings. Full of examples, this book is not only a great read for the poet who is struggling to find ways to guide a poem to the final draft successfully, but also would make a great textbook. I wouldn’t recommend it for an introductory class, but any advanced class that is studying poetry, whether creatively or critically, would find this book eye-opening.

There is one book that didn’t make the list at all that left me clicking for more. How can anyone compile such a list and leave out William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2006)? Could it be that the rift between journalism and “creative” writing is so exaggerated that they failed to see the enduring wisdom of this book? Me no comprende. This is THE BEST BOOK ABOUT WRITING EVER WRITTEN. Period. It can take a talentless buffoon and polish him into a decent writer. I was about to say “polish him up” and caught myself. Why? Because of Zinsser. Because once he gets into your bones, you will never be able to write badly again without a twinge of guilt. The man is a verb in my classeswe speak of “zinssering” a sentence. I mention this book in almost every post. I have to read it once a year. If you only own one book about writing, it should be this. And . . .

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (Longman, 1999). I can see why they omitted this book, howeverit’s really a reference book, to sit along your dictionaries and your Rodale’s. (Did I mention Rodale’s?) So, I forgive P&W for not putting it on the list. Put it on yours and you’ll be okaydespite being now almost 100 years old, this classic (now updated several times, of course) continues to be the definitive style maker for good writing. This book is to writing what Chanel is to fashion.

Hope that helps you out. There’s a lot of terrible writing about writing out there. You could spend the rest of your life reading how-to manuals and peppy you-go-girl guides, so choose what you put on your reading list wisely. And, at the end of the day, remember: it’s better to write than to read about writing. While it’s important to widen your knowledge of the craft, the best way to do that is still to learn by doing. And doing. And doing . . . .
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