Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Will Slattery: Impressions and Preliminary Maxims Gleaned from Teaching High School Creative Writing

1. Of late I find myself entrusted with the responsibility of educating Arizonan high schoolers in the discipline of "creative writing." The basic structure of this responsibility is not hugely different from the adjunct-professoriate responsibilities many members of the Essay Daily family know so intimately, though this high school work feels somewhat more honest than its collegiate counterpart, and also it actually comes with benefits.

2. Almost no one under the age of 18 seems to know what us CNF weirdos mean when we say essay—on hearing the word, their eyes darken under the memory of 5-paragraph drudgery—but even so many of them are what we might call essayistic in their disposition and artistic approach.

2a. Absolutely no one under the age of 18 cares about the Montaignean lineage of "essay as essai, by which we mean an attempt."

2b. About 63% of AWP panels every year include the essay/essai/attempt shtick, so maybe we should all knock it off anyways.

3. There is a certain amount of terror hard-coded into the teaching process. Or maybe not terror, but moral anxiety: the fear that, through some slight incompetence, your instruction might serve as a treacherous wreck-collecting shoal rather than as a conduit for exploration.

4. Almost no one under the age of 18 cares very much about the theoretical lines demarcating fiction and poetry.

4a. To write an essay or a story which moves between paragraphed prose and lineated verse is an easy, natural thing for most of the high schoolers I teach. Likewise for stories, essays, or poems which dovetail into illustrations, sketches, maps, diagrams, calligraphy, or collage. They feel no need to explain or justify this sort of move within the text, even though an undergrad or graduate level workshop would undoubtedly spend at least 10 minutes asking if these moves were really working, if the formal innovations were worth the price of the ticket.

4b. So then: what changes? What ideological or institutional mechanism operates on the adolescent mind such that a high school workshop bounces off the walls with formal innovation but a college workshop often tortures itself over something as simple as a deliberately chosen comma splice? I have absolutely no idea.

5. No one under the age of 18 understands or cares about the distinction between an MA, MFA, and a PhD. This is a very extremely excellently Good Thing.

6. If you force young people to listen to Nico Muhly’s music during their daily free-writing exercise, they will be extremely displeased with you.

7. High school writers generally like Ander Monson’s fiction; they are much less certain of his nonfiction.

8. Young writers are often adversely possessed of the notion that great writers simple Are or Are Not, that top-tier literary talent is a thing one simply Has or Has Not. Likewise, inspiration either comes to you, or it does not. The inculcation of this notion is a form of cultural violence, one for which we may thank the revolting and vulgar dregs of Romanticism.

8a. I am loathe to mark myself as the sort of white boy who might mention Aristotle as an authority, but he wasn’t half wrong when he emphasized the role of habit and practice in the formation of moral character. The same is true of aesthetic character, I suspect.

8b. But then habit and practice are so much less intoxicating than genius and afflatus, aren’t they?

9. Almost as loathsome as the notion of fixed genius is the notion of an interesting life, the idea that nonfiction has an experiential barrier to entry—that one must have done certain things, or had certain things done to them in order to even qualify as a participant in the genre. Every day that I teach, I find myself increasingly convinced that the occasionally-talked-about-but-rarely-studied enrollment gap (and the implied interest gap) between fiction/poetry and CNF can be traced back to this omnipresent, noxious phrase.

9a. I have to come to hope that what Patricia Hampl calls the "dark art of description"—the essayitic unfolding by which we refine & elevate the seemingly mundane or unimportant—might serve as a tonic for all this:
Because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He also teaches high school, in case that was unclear. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Liz Prato: On Didion's Trail at the Royal Hawaiian

Joan Didion covered many topics in her canon of essays—Charles Manson, California’s agriculture belt, the Black Panthers, hippies in Haight-Ashbury, the Getty Museum and complicated grief, to name a few—but the topic that most of her disciples wish to experience for themselves is staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikīkī Beach. Many writers have told me “I’m obsessed with Didion staying there!” and many writers have blogged about their attempts to capture the essence of Didion’s experiences at The Royal.
     It’s not a coincidence that Didion’s experience which authors most wish to emulate is staying in an elegant hotel in a tropical paradise. These same writers aren’t nearly as eager to visit a political prisoner, or hang out with semi-homeless drug addicts who have eschewed conventional hygiene. These writers want to sit in an elegant room with translucent curtains billowing in the trade winds, at a hotel where the private part of the beach is neatly raked every morning and roped off from the public riffraff. They want to lie by the pristine pool and know that, when they are within the hotel’s bounds, they are protected and included within a rarified societal set. Who can blame them? It’s a succulent fantasy, one that Hawai’i has been banking on for a over a century. So it doesn’t surprise me that writers wish to relive this aspect of Didion’s sojourn to the Islands. What surprises me is that they stop there. They cease following in her O’ahu footsteps and remain blind to everything else Hawai’i was, and is. The very reason Didion’s descriptions of the Royal Hawaiian are profound is because she set them against the unrelenting backdrop of violence and war and death.
     Didion penned three major essays about her time in Honolulu, the longest of which is “In the Islands” from 1979’s The White Album. It’s written in three parts, marked by the dates 1969, 1970, and 1977 (one long paragraph attributed to 1975 also appears, seeming to act as more of a bumper in time/space than a stand-alone motif). Three distinct themes exist: Didion’s fragile mental state, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and war—although the word “distinct” implies these three themes have nothing to do with one another, which, I suspect, is the mistake many Hawai’i-going Didion fans make.
     In their Royal Hawaiian essays, Didion fans render sentences that meander on for 66 words, or 71 words, or 81 words. They’re chock full of busy verbs and adjectives that appear both razor-sharp and flowery, and slightly archaic, as if plucked from a mid-twentieth century thesaurus. It’s an effort—unconscious or not—to imitate Didion’s style. Didion’s sentences, however, are not just long and full of Big Words. They have a push, a rhythm, and then a twist that lands someplace completely different from where the sentence started. They are no-nonsense poems.
     In the sentences drawn by her well-meaning imitators, nothing really happens. At the end of one line, I knew no more than when I started it and, in some weird equation of physics, ended up feeling as if I actually knew less. That emptiness of these passages becomes the sum total of an entire essay or blog post describing an author’s re-creation of Didion’s stays at the Royal Hawaiian: nothing happened to the author. She was no different—aside from being slightly more relaxed—after undertaking her pilgrimage.
     The majority of space in Didion’s “In the Islands” is consumed by war: prose concerned with the bodies of young men buried at Punchbowl Cemetery, the eternal pall of the Pearl Harbor attack hanging over Honolulu, the “they-just-keep-coming” casualties from Korea and Vietnam. By “space,” I don’t just mean the most words, the most paragraphs, the most pages, but—for me, at least—war also consumes the most psycho-emotional space. It fills me with a profound understanding of how completely and inescapably death permeates Honolulu.
     Life at the Royal Hawaiian takes up the second most space on Didion’s page. She writes of the exclusivity—tacit and otherwise—shared by the Royal’s guests: honeymooners and gray-haired ladies and mothers and daughters and industrialists and socialites. Afternoon tea is served on rattan tables, fresh papaya is eaten on the terrace, ukuleles are strummed on the lanai. Updates from the outside world arrive at newsstands two days after events occur, after the rest of the US has absorbed the initial shockwaves, further reinforcing the bubble protecting the hotel’s denizens.
     The least amount of physical space (words, sentences, paragraphs) is given to Didion’s fractured emotional state. She admits to having lost faith in people’s ability and motivation to choose the path that will make their lives, and the world, better. More often than not, the news informs her, people select the path of violence.
     We all know—as readers, as writers, as consumers of language in any form—that certain words carry more weight than others. I wondered whether the relative weight of the words in each section, on each theme, were bigger and more galvanizing than its actual length. So, I conducted an experiment: First, I combed each section for the words that jumped out at me. In this way, the data is entirely subjective. These same words may not stick to another reader. But I like to think as a writer, if nothing else, I understand what seizes the attention of our heads and our hearts. Next, I dumped the words from each theme into a computer program that randomly generated three word clouds (one for each section). To maintain aesthetic continuity, I used the same font and shape for each word cloud, and I didn’t alter whatever image was first created. This is what each looked like:

Now, if you were going to immerse yourself in any of these word clouds, which would you choose? The one containing cemetery and oligarchy and Hiroshima and stigmata? Or the one comprised of weeping, insane, murder, and psychotic, with BAD big and bold and in the middle (I swear, this is exactly how it was randomly generated)? Or do you want to hang out in the cloud with sugar and paradise and fortunes and beach? Sure, asp and cataclysm and assassination also appear in that cloud, but certainly such negativities can be overcome by sweet and luaus and silk.
     This seems to be the impression that certain readers take away from “In the Islands”—that while this other ugliness, this war business, lingers out there, it can all be forgotten on the pink terrace of the Royal Hawaiian. The writers who wish to walk in Didion’s footsteps approach the hotel in paradisiacal isolation, not as part of the whole, and not how Didion intended it: as a statement to however much we desire it for a week or two, we cannot escape the ravages and violences of our culture, or the violences of our souls. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel may be Eden, but an asp always curls around the rope that separates its private beach from the public.


Liz Prato is the author of Baby’s on Fire: Stories (Press 53). Her essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Baltimore Review, Hawai'i Pacific Review, and Subtropics. She teaches nuts & bolts craft classes in Portland, and elsewhere. Liz is currently working on a linked essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai'i through the prism of white imperialism. Despite these essays mentioning Joan Didion, George Clooney, Ben Stiller and Pierce Brosnan, she really isn’t celebrity obsessed. I swear.