What I'm Busy with Right Now

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As I've mentioned, I'm really busy right now. But what is it I'm busy doing? Well, for one thing, I'm teaching a bunch of very full classes--I have more students this semester than I've ever had before.

One of the primary duties listed in my job description is teaching creative writing in general to undergraduates, and literary nonfiction writing in specific. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, literary nonfiction is an umbrella phrase typically encompassing autobiography, memoir and the personal essay. Some people call it creative nonfiction. My department calls it "literary" nonfiction instead of "creative" nonfiction because essentially all writing involves acts of creation but not all writing is literary, and we want to stress that we're striving for a certain quality of writing. I don't get my knickers in a twist when I hear the phrase creative nonfiction, but I HATE the acronym CNF.

A book I often teach in both literature and writing courses (though I'm not teaching it this semester) is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a memoir about the deaths of his parents less than a month apart from different types of cancer, and his subsequent experiences as the appointed guardian of his younger brother Toph, who is orphaned at age nine. It has its problems, but students generally like it, and I like it for its preface, where Eggers lays out some of the theoretical and critical issues involved in the writing and reading of literary nonfiction. For instance, he suggests that readers who are bugged by the fact that he claims to be telling the truth do what readers have been doing for centuries: pretend it's fiction. He also appraises the quality of his book, and gives suggestions for reading and enjoy it. He suggests that his readers skip pages 239-35, noting that those pages concern "the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time."

Given that my students are typically in their early twenties if not their late teens, this statement has dire implications for their efforts as writers of nonfiction.

However, one of the classic genres of fictions is the bildungsroman, (from German bildung, "building" and French roman, "novel"), or the coming-of-age novel. In fact, many venerated first "novels" are essentially coming-of-age memoirs disguised as novels by the changing of a few names and the fudging of a few facts.

What makes literature about people in their early twenties "interesting"? Is it really so hard to make these lives interesting? And what are the implications of these questions for young writers in creative writing classes--who are sometimes not merely in their early twenties, but their late teens? How do young writers acquire the wisdom, the vision, the craft, the perspective, the insight to make accounts of their early lives not merely interesting, but works of art?

Trying to find answers to that question that satisfy me and my students is part of what I'm so busy with right now. Oh, and explaining when and where to use commas.

5 Comments

Oh god. Commas. Despite the many (manymanymany) grammatical errors on my blog, the only thing I've EVER had a problem with in papers (you know, like things that I know I'll be GRADED on) is commas. The rule that has worked remarkably well for me: "When in doubt, take it out." I was totally going to write, "When in doubt, don't use one," and then I realized I could make it rhyme. Probably not even remotely original, but original to ME, so whatever.

Holly, I loveloveLOVE your blog. In a very short time it's become one of my must-reads. One of these days I'm going to have to read through the archives. One of these days...

Where do you teach? Hmm, that's probably either confidential, or somewhere in your archives. English is a subject very close to my heart, or at least close to SOMETHING -- my mom has her MA in it, and my brother just got his BA, and wants to go for a PhD (possibly an MFA first). People who know how to read and write critically are amazing mysteries to me (light shines overhead, otherworldy music plays).

I'm now a fair distance from my twenties but as I recall, my life and the lives of most of my peers were in fact very interesting then. We were struggling precisely with the problem of the bildungsroman: how to make an interesting life. In my case, though, and I would not ascribe this to anyone else, I couldn't have written an interesting account of my life then if my life had depended on it. I lacked the discipline, if not -- though I may be flattering myself here -- the creativity.

Hey Rebecca--thanks for the very kind words! I'm a big fan of your blog, too.

I teach someplace in Pennsylvania. It's not that it's confidential; it's just that I don't want a google search of, say, my name and my institution to turn up a link to my blog.

And I'd agree, Spike, that a lot of people in their early 20s are doing interesting things--traveling, starting careers, falling in and out of love. But discipline, creativity and even a little maturity help a lot in making accounts of those topics interesting to other, older readers.

Hey, I used to live in PA! In Chester Springs, which is something like 45 minutes out of Philadelphia (east, maybe?). Now I'm in New Jersey. Yay for being anywhere but Utah! Or the Nebraska! Way not on any sort of related topic, but I was wondering what you think of online courses. Because I'm going to need some sort of background in whatever grad program I decide to apply to, and the only subject I have any real background in is theatre (and, um, NO thank you!). Do you have any idea if online courses (I totally typed "curses" by accident, which is a totally different subject) are acceptable, or frowned upon, or...anything?

Hi Rebecca--I'm nowhere near Philly--never been there, either. I'm much closer to Pittsburgh, though I haven't been there, either. I have been to Harrisburg, and State College, and Falling Water, and some other places.... Oh, and I've been to Palmyra NY and Kirtland OH with family and friends--and I ain't going back any time soon. Philly and Pittsburgh, though, I hope to visit soon.

I can't give much advice about on-line courses. I've taken one but would HATE to teach one because for me, the whole fun part is the classroom discussion. I know a lot of universities like to offer them because they have so little overhead, but I would have no idea about how to recommend you choose one.... Sorry.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 16, 2006 1:48 PM.

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