I finished When She Woke by Hillary Jordan last night. It was a really great read, and it fueled the current fiction I’m writing. The book lives in a future where people convicted of a crime have their skin chromed. For Hannah Payne, that means she’s a red, because she had an abortion. Here’s some notes I took from my reading:
“The judge turned back to her. ‘Hannah Elizabeth Payne, having been found guilty of the crime in the second degree, I hereby sentence you to undergo melachroming by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to spend thirty days in the Chrome ward of the Crawford State prison and to remain a Red for a period of sixteen years.’” (12) She’s a red for murdering her unborn child so the main character gets her skin dyed red—a form of segregation and labeling for a world that has gone crazy Christian.
This book confirmed for me many things about myself as a spiritual person. I’d been raised Catholic, by a Jewish (non-practicing) father and a Catholic-Italian mother, but my mother won out and we went to church every week, which I spent mostly reading comics or Greek mythology books rather than paying attention. This once led to a meeting with the Monsignor at our church in Connecticut who asked me why don’t I worship those Gods rather than the Catholic one? I was confirmed Catholic and went to St. Bonaventure University. Though my primary reason for going to St. Bonaventure wasn’t because I was Catholic—it was for journalism. I stopped going to church after my freshman year. Even now, I only go for Christmas and I only pick Catholic traditions to better myself. I don’t recognize myself as Catholic, but mostly spiritually hypocritical.
That’s what I like about this book; it showed a progression of faith that wasn’t unlike my own. Though not nearly as extreme. It ends up in what I currently believe, shown in a scene towards the end where Hannah meets Reverend Easter:
Reverend Easter waved her hand dismissively. ‘It doesn’t matter to God what we call ourselves, or even what we call Him. We’re the only ones who care about that. But as an Episcopalian and not an evangelical,’ she said, with a knowing look at Hannah, ‘I’ll answer your question with another question, or rather, with a bunch of them, which is how we tend to do things. How else do you explain the miracle of your beating heart, the compassion of strangers, the existence of Mozart and Rilke and Michelangelo? How do you account for redwoods and hummingbiords, for orchids and nebulas? How can such beauty exist without God? And how can we see it and know it’s beautiful and be moved by it, without God?”
The dark green trees behind her on the Wesleyan campus sharpen her outline. She is dressed in pale colors, pearls at her neck and ears. She’s tall, athletic, vigorous. Her skin glows. She holds out her hand. Chee, she says. Give me a drag off that. She calls us all by our last names. —
Alexander Chee on being taught by Annie Dillard.
I teach Annie Dillard’s “The Chase” in my English 101 class—that story is a delight. I use the essay as a jumping off point for my students’ narrative essays. I haven’t read more of Dillard other than that short story, or Chee. I’ve been reading him on social media for a while now.
I’m curious about how writers are as teachers. I’ve been working on being a creative writer since I was thirteen, but teaching is my day job and I think it makes me a better writer, so I’m always in search of how others approach the subject of teaching writing. Especially writers who made teaching a day job like John Green, Dillard, and David Foster Wallace. You could say I’m leeching off of these people, because—basically—I’m a sophomore teacher. This is my second year as an english teacher, and I’ve been trying to figure what are good methods and how I can be better. I’m always asking my colleagues and such if I can sit in on their classes, what they do in particular situations, how they structure their essay assignments, etc.
This article was especially enlightening, because it’s Chee’s perspective as Dillard’s student. This bit, on her requiring the papers to be triple spaced is interesting:
There was that much to say. Each week we turned in our assignments on a Tuesday, and by Thursday we had them back again, the space between the triple-spaced lines and also the margins filled with her penciled notes. Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence. This had arrows drawn pointing off towards the amazing sentence and the disappointing one. Getting your pages back from her was like getting to the dance floor and seeing your favorite black shirt under the nightclub’s blacklight, all the hair and dust that was always there but invisible to you, now visible.
This is one of the many things I’m constantly worried about: going through nearly sixty papers a week, giving that much feedback leads to there not being enough time in the day—and burnout. Giving as much detail as I can in my comments is a tough cat walk.
What I try to do in my classes is preach this:
You are the only one of you, she said of it. Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original, she said dismissively. Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. You writing it makes it possible.
I think most well-intentioned writing teachers try to put this on, or attempt to try and help the students become themselves rather than mini versions of the teacher. I had a discussion with a student who said a previous english teacher told her never to write research papers using the quote hamburger. Are there better, more eloquent methods? Probably, but I haven’t found one as effective and I get good results. The quote hamburger is a concept I picked up from my time at Brooklyn College where the top bun of the paragraph is the topic sentence, the meat of the burger is the quote or evidence from another source not your opinion, and the bottom bun re-contextualizes the quote into your argument. The purpose of the research or thesis paper is to have a conversation between yourself and another writer. The student might have have misinterpreted the previous teacher’s point, but at the end of the day you’re not there to turn them into versions of you, but help them be themselves and also know how to properly write a research paper. How they write their sentences, what they write about is entirely up to them.
Finally this bit was really cool, and not something I’ve ever thought about, but I’m going to do it the next time I’m in a bookstore so I’ll probably teach it too:
Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.
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LOVE the header.
Go listen to Bryan Fuller on Nerdist Writer’s Panel.
If you consider yourself a storyteller or want to be a TV writer, this panel is a must-listen. I liked what he said about community colleges, about finding a community college with a film program, because you’re going to learn the same amount of stuff rather than going to USC or NYU with such high costs. Also his story on Anne Rice and Star Trek shows that being a squeaky wheel gets the oil. Being kind and showing tenacity goes a long way.
Use your blog to connect. Use it as you. Don’t ‘network’ or ‘promote.’ Just talk. — Neil Gaiman (via thinkprocessnotproduct)
…Having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a faint nowhereness to my life. —
John Jeremiah Sullivan in “Mr. Lytle: An Essay.”
That line is when I knew I was going to really like his work.
READY PLAYER ONE art by daltonjamesrose.
I just finished this.
I love this idea that so many authors are writing books about the things that they love that it almost seems like fanfiction. That’s the thing though isn’t it? It’s all fanfiction. In many ways that’s what we’re doing, a continuation of the books and stories and characters we love, reinvented through our personal tastes/lives/whatever.
This was a fun read, equivalent to a popcorn book. Moving on to When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.
Sandy Hayes keeps family history alive at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
So, I’ve started writing profiles for the only daily newspaper in the Adirondacks, and here’s my first story on the descendent of one of my town’s founders.