Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Obsession Exercise

I've got a great class this quarter, a smart group of graduate students willing to take real risks in their writing.

Here's a nifty exercise I concocted just for them, based on two fantastic (and very different) texts: Linda Smukler's Home In Three Days. Don't Wash. and Zachary Schomburg's The Man Suit:

English 502

Home In Three Days. Don't Wash. exercise: This is a book about obsession, and about the difficulty of translating a passionate lived experience into art. I want you to ask yourself (now and over time) where you draw the line between recording emotional intensity (as in a journal, as in a conversation with a friend, as with a therapist, as in your mind) and creating art out of emotional intensity (which involves editing, revision, alterations, a certain degree of detachment, and ultimately the desire to share deep emotion with a wide audience).

I also want you to think about the difference between a text like The Man Suit, which is driven by wordplay, humor, whimsy, history, visual images; and a text like Home In Three Days which is driven by emotion, kinesthetic impulse, hunger, characterization. What does each text do well? What does each text do less well or not at all? What can you learn from each text?

Your exercise for Home In Three Days is to mimic the kind of obsessive drive that lies behind works written in and out of passion. Other examples I happen to like – you can make your own list to share with the class -- include Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Carole Maso's Aureole, Jeanette Winterson's Written On The Body, Heather Lewis' Notice, Rebecca Brown's Excerpts From A Family Medical Dictionary, and Richard Siken's Crush.

Rather than allow you to search your own life for a living (or haunting) muse, I want you to fixate on something invented, something imaginary, and concoct a fictitious obsession.

Your assignment is to find an intriguing inanimate object located in some public place in Bellingham. (Your house and campus are verboten; you must go off-campus for this exercise.) Examples might include: that fantastic spray-painted dinosaur in an alley downtown; a junked car on someone's lawn; the phone booth used by dealers on Railroad Avenue; a painting in the museum; one of the wooden tables at The Temple Bar.

Find an object and become obsessed with the object. Get weird about it. Worry your friends. Do not take the object out of its location (don't take the phone booth home). Worship from afar, or up close but in public. It's fine if this veers into nonfiction (if, say, the phone booth reminds you of your ex-girlfriend, and you end up writing about her indirectly). It's fine if this veers into the fictionally fantastic, or becomes absurd. But there must be an obsessive drive to the writing, a force, a power, the sense that everything is about to get out of control really fast. You want to move your reader with this piece, break some rules, and create discomfort. Think about the contrast between chaos and control; defy the notion that good writing somehow soothes your reader. At the same time, be sure to allow space for revision later – when you revise, try to cut out melodramatic language, clich├ęs, and sentimental dross. Take note, then, of what you cut and what you revise. When is too much just right? When is too much too much? You might want to save your deleted passages on a separate sheet of paper (like the bloopers reel on a DVD), and bring them along to discuss with the class.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Deconstructing Me

Someone in a land far, far away is blogging about
an old essay of mine, "Deconstructing Me."

I still care deeply about these issues, but rarely talk about
them with anyone, so it's exciting to see another academic
feminist's musings.

I'd love to hear more thoughts on this topic.

It seems like ancient history, but I was very afraid to write
that article, much less publish it. I wrote it outside the classroom,
critiquing the very program I was enrolled in. It wasn't so much
a critique of poststructuralist feminism as it was a critique of
my program's absolute refusal to allow me (or any other student)
to question poststructuralist methods of inquiry. I felt silenced,
frustrated, unheard. My essay was met with disdain, for
the most part, and not long after I stopped working on my
PhD dissertation (which was focused on precisely that conflict,
the intersections between radical feminism and poststructuralist
feminism; my attempts to bridge the two).

I'm grateful in a way that I left the PhD track, because I channeled my
energies into creative writing, publishing my first novel while
I was still in graduate school. I found a way to translate the
questions I'd had about various theories into creative texts.
For example, my first novel dealt with a man whose
lover, Dell, was cheating on him with a woman. Dell's slippery
identity, and her own obvious conflicts about sexuality and gender,
worked themselves out nicely in the form of fiction, without
my having to pledge adherence to any specific theoretical party.

Nonetheless when I think back on the ways I was shunned and
silenced in graduate school -- often by queer professors, who saw
my activism and openness as somehow unprofessional or
overly involved in the community, rather than the academy --
I feel angry, and I worry about my own position as a teacher.
It's important to me to teach my students about poststructuralist
thought, and they are often very excited by, say, Judith Butler's
ideas about gender performance. But I don't want to do to them
what was done to me; that is, to squash their excitement about
embracing self-exploration. There was a real sense of shame
and stigma directed at me (and other activists) from our
feminist and queer professors. We weren't pure enough for
them; we weren't sophisticated enough; we were LIVE and
they were, well, tenured.

I have more thoughts on this, as ever, but I'll save them for later.
Suffice it to say I'm glad my essay has made its way across
the water, and I'm glad that I'm primarily, now, a poet,
and don't have to bow to any theorist, or swear on any
particular text-as-Bible. I much prefer making my ideas
into music, and avoiding the jargon that passes for
prose these days, jargon very few academics can use
with any grace or integrity. So much of the theory
coming out of programs now is just cookie-cutter:
take a theorist, apply their primary idea to a cereal
box or Shakespeare, and you've got an article.

I much admire writers like Eve Sedgwick and Michael Warner
who come up with actual ideas, who create paradigm shifts
that allow us all to see the world anew. But deep thinking,
shaking things up, requires the freedom to make mistakes,
to let the mind wander, and to choose for yourself.
I didn't find much of that in graduate school. I want to be
a better teacher, the kind of teacher who allows her students
to risk -- and I want to write poetry that startles and sings.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Censoring Fun

Here's a link to an article about protests over
the use of Alison Bechdel's gorgeous graphic novel,
Fun Home, in the classroom.

I've taught this text several times now, and I'm
happy to say that my students found the book
wise, funny, complex, and beautiful.

But of course, any serious discussion of lesbian
life in all its rich detail -- including sex, yes,
but also washing the dishes and chopping wood
(Bechdel is funny about this on her blog) --
equates to peddling pornography. If simply
describing lesbian life is porn, how can I navigate
the classroom at all?