‘Defuse the Rockets’? School humility

20140916_163514So, this week, we’re apparently defusing the Rockets of Rock Falls. Do rockets even HAVE fuses? I mean, other than toy rockets. After the power-verbs “strip” and “slay” last week, “defuse” sounds pretty technical and uninspiring. Wouldn’t “Apollo 1 the Rockets” be more intimidating?

If “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,” as the Good Book says, maybe we shouldn’t be demonstrating all this school pride. Let’s get out there and show some school humility!

This week’s cup-spelling: ‘Slay the Trojans’

At least it's not "Wear the Trojans."

At least it’s not “Wear the Trojans.”

This week, the Byron footballers are encouraged to re-enact “The Iliad,” minus most of killings (one hopes) but with all of the divine meddling (one dreams). I know Mendota High School students aren’t the only mascotted Trojans, but I’m struck by the fact that any teams willingly identify with the losers of a conflict. Perhaps, for old time’s sake, Mendota’s quarterback could be dragged around the stadium a few times in ritual commemoration.

This is also a good opportunity to link to a cool site of Greek comics, particularly this entry charting deaths in “The Iliad.

By the way, for bonus military references this week, the cup-spellers did this:


UPDATE: The Tigers did not defeat the Trojans, and thus Andromache did not become a slave (The Iliad, Book 6) and Priam’s genitals were not eaten by dogs (Book 22) — figuratively speaking, of course.

‘Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex': Stephen King’s Advice

In a recent interview at The Atlantic, author Stephen King shares some more advice on writing beyond what he wrote in “On Writing.”

To the question, “You write, ‘One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.’ If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?” King answered:

When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

King on teaching writing:

I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

King on letting students pick their own books to read vs. steering them to the challenging texts:

You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teachingMoby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.


Double Plaid!

So, I found some plaid shorts and shirts in the clearance rack at the local department store:

matt_plaid 1 matt_plaid 2And I wore them out in public, with the permission and moral support of my wife. I’ve worn a lot of goofy outfits in my time, but none I recall were as visually disturbing as these.

Creative Writing By Creative Reading



To write creatively is to make something new to the world, often by taking the agency to break rules and do what hasn’t been done before.

To read creatively, then, is to also break the rules of how we’re supposed to read, namely, the rule that says we should start in the beginning of a text and decode each word from left to right and then down the page.

Of course, these aren’t really “rules” at all but conventions, expectations that the writer expects us to follow, because a writer’s work is to make things accessible to a reader (well, that’s one definition of a writer’s duty. I don’t mean to bind writers in this post). Writers and readers each follow the conventions, and communication can happen.

But we don’t always need communication. Sometimes readers may not want to passively follow the writer’s instructions, and we readers want to actively create as well.

The key here, I think, is that, as we read, our minds can find patterns and meanings that were never (what the psychologists call pareidolia) intended by a writing mind. We can create meanings stranger, more unique, than what most texts contain.

So, here’s an incomplete list of Ways of Creative Reading:

1. Read columns of words, straight down a page, instead of across. This may not always make for complete sentences, of course, but we’re looking for unfamiliar phrases and constructs that may delight us in their novelty. For instance, so far in this post, I have these words along the left margin:

to agency to namely each of writer to writers communication but passively as the meanings writing texts

Already here I like the idea of “meanings writings texts.”

2. Take a group of words chosen randomly (as with this method) and let your mind suggest an organizing idea from the juxtaposed words and images. It seems as though my mind hates disorder and so it looks to find or make order. For instance, these 10 words picked at random and matched up the number of syllables:

approach remote

mobile matter

darkest coolness

instrument amorous

advances listening

This set of words doesn’t immediately suggest an overall idea to me, but I can organize them into a sentence:

Approaching remote mobile matter, the darkest coolness is an amorous instrument and advances listening.

And as I wrote this sentence, I started getting an image of a space-travel context: darkest coolness, instrument, listening, matter. I’m not saying this method always produces a fascinating idea or sentence, but that’s not the point; the point is the joy in discovering and making meaning, in the engaged mental state of playing with the words.

3. Read multidimensionally by starting in the middle of (or at any random place in) an article in a magazine, say, and reading bits and pieces, jumping around from article to article, from magazine to book. In other words, taking the perspective that the reading a person might do an any given day is not reading among distinct texts but is reading one pastiche (or collage) text made of all this disparate parts.

4. Rearrange or replace words in a found sentence to make a new sentence. This might include wordplay such as Spoonerisms and mondegreens.

5. Intentionally misread words, or substitute other words.

I’m sure these are just a start. Please suggest any other creative reading ideas in the comments below.

Why lit classes should teach bad novels

Looking though a catalog of books for use in English classrooms, I saw many of the old classics. Here are the contents of a bundle of books labeled “Common Core Literature Pack for Grades 9 and 10“:

The Odyssey, The Best of O. Henry, The Metamorphosis, The Grapes of Wrath,  Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Killer Angels, The Joy Luck Club, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, A Doll’’s House, The Glass Menagerie, Great American Poems, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Great Speeches

This list seems tedious — it’s hard to imagine 14- and 15-year-old humans getting excited about reading Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Tennessee Williams — but this list is certainly full of books that are commonly considered to be worth teaching. These are good books, worthy of the title “literature.”

The tenth graders I’m teaching now are currently reading “Of Mice and Men,” another classic that this catalog company describes as “one of America’s most well-known naturalist stories.” As we read and discuss this book, I guide students in finding “textual evidence” to support their judgments of characters and their interpretations of themes. And Steinbeck’s novel/novella is very tightly structured; as I’m rereading this book this semester, I can see that Steinbeck foreshadows in the first 16 pages almost everything that will happen in the next 91.

The story works in the sense that readers can accept the text’s storytelling logic. Once these strongly defined characters are set together, they act on each other in ways that make sense. Curley starts a fight with Lennie because that’s what Curley likes to do, pick fights, we’re told. And once Lennie fights back and hurts him, Curley seeks revenge. This all makes sense (if maybe perhaps it’s a little too pat, too easy) and we readers are able to suspend our disbelief enough to accept this story as an entity worth discussing.

This isn’t always easy to do, as writers of fiction would acknowledge. It’s not hard to put words down on paper and say that one has written a story, but convincing readers that such a text is actually a story is a different matter. What exists on paper as merely words must build into a kind of (paradoxical) imaginary quasi-reality in a reader’s mind in order for a reader to think that there are “people” behind the words “George” and “Lennie,” and thus, to care about those people. (Perhaps psychologically, we readers think of fictional characters the way we think of our friends and family members who aren’t physically present to us. Maybe “Lennie” is a concept like my Dad, dead now 15 years, is a concept to me — it’s just that I also have a concept that my Dad was once alive, and Lennie never was. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that, because “Lennie” isn’t merely a fictional idea, either, as Steinbeck once said, “The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman.”)

A text that doesn’t convince readers it is a functioning story isn’t a story at all — it’s the literary equivalent of a set of car parts that can’t drive anybody anywhere. But when those car parts are properly assembled, they produce a machine that works, that functions. The physical objects, acting in consistent ways (we describe these ways as laws of physics), can produce motions that seem useful to us — namely, by moving us. But when a text works in conveying a usefully coherent story to readers, is it acting according to some psychological laws? Some thinkers, including Aristotle, this guy, here and here and here, have tried to discern the laws of making a satisfying story. But if there existed an adequate explanation of how to make stories that are effective and attractive to audiences, certainly book publishers would not make books that don’t sell. Even when a new story may follow the model of an familiar story that works, this may feel too formulaic for readers to really engage with the story. Readers may stay aware of the text as a text, not transmuting into story.

If literature students read only those novels that are good, that are judged to have succeeded, students are studying the effects produced by a text — the story — rather than the text itself. To continue the car analogy, it’s as if students experienced riding in the car but didn’t look at the parts of the car, or how the parts contribute to the car working, except as how the car parts affect the car rider’s experience. Saying “Lennie kills the girl because he likes to pet soft things and he gets carried away” is like saying “I could see out the windshield because the dashboard doesn’t rise too high” — both of these things are explicit to readers and riders (and these things are obvious to a more experienced reader, but maybe not to inexperienced students in schools. On the other hand, maybe part of what literature instruction is trying to do is to get students to make their implicit understandings explicit).

If we really want students to understand how fiction texts work, maybe we should have them read novels that aren’t good, novels that don’t really lead readers to suspend disbelief and fully engage in the story. By reading only good novels, students might see how a writer intends them to interpret the story’s text, but students might not see how the writer constructs and even manipulates the story to produce certain effects in the reader (for example, why did Steinbeck’s novel deviate from the facts of the story of real-life Lennie mentioned above? Is Steinbeck, as author, trying to tell readers what they should think, as opposed to just describing what happened? What is the point of fiction, anyway?) Students  are learning to follow the text’s decoding instructions, but maybe students should also be wondering why these instructions are there, and are the way they are.

As someone who teaches classes both in reading fiction and in writing fiction, I’m often looking at published novels by adopting the perspective of a writer, by which I mean that I want to see how the text was made, how it works. In literature classes, novels are often presented as inherently valuable, as worth the class’s time to study, and thus it’s easy to see why lit students would start to think of writers of these assigned novels as Great Writers, and thus the mythology around these writers builds (into its own story). In becoming a writer myself, however, I had to tear down this mythology and realize that Steinbeck and other writers were my peers, not my unassailable geniuses. And in a literature class, readers often treat the text as being complete, or perfect, as they find it in the published version. It makes sense for readers to approach texts this way, and yet, writers often view texts as imperfect, as infinitely revisable. This is perhaps what Valery meant by “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” For instance, Whitman published multiple editions of “Leaves of Grass,” in which poems changed significantly between editions. It may give literature students a more realistic view of the novel to see it both as a reader and as a writer.

All gum still is

Inspired by these thoughts by poet Sparrow, I had this thought recently:

Gum is never used up; it’s just moved around. Almost all the gum that ever was, still is.