Category Archives: Links

‘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.


Links: MOOCs aren’t education’s answer, teaching is hard

1. “The best educational technology we have is always our attention”: A theory why education is not going to “disrupt” education. In short: teaching’s a lot harder than any program can manage. Also by Paul Franz, this quote:

Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing. That’s especially dangerous in education because solving educational problems involves leveraging knowledge and expertise from pretty much every other social science (anthropology, economics, psychology, political science, etc), not to mention knowledge from content areas. Software might be good at categorizing and organizing knowledge, but it’s not so good at synthesizing and applying knowledge in the creative, and often highly contextualized and personalized, ways that educators and educational leaders have to employ every day.

2. An article I found via The Dish, is this one, which discusses why teachers have a tougher job than doctors, an interview with Elizabeth Green. She says:

With doctors, you just have one person that you’re working with, and they want to be there. With teachers, they have as many as 30 or more people they’re working with at one time, and some of them do not choose to be there.

Teachers have to be mind readers at the same time as they have to be incredibly interpersonally sophisticated. They have to be masters of emotional intelligence. And at the same they’re supposed to be teaching academic content. Even the most sophisticated practitioners that we can imagine — it’s still more complicated to be a teacher, I ended up thinking.

She also says that one reason classroom practice gets little attention comes from educational theorists:

The fathers of educational psychology, the first education school professors, were bored by classroom practice. Edward Thorndike, who set the tone for all future education researchers, said when somebody asked him what he would do in a particular real-life situation at a school, “Do? I’d resign!” I think that’s typical of a university system that focuses on disciplinary research — it’s the history of education, the psychology of education. It’s not education itself as a thing to study. That has meant that we train future teachers in everything but how to teach, pretty much.

She recommends that teachers be required to spend less time in their classrooms so they can learn and improve:

We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.

They have no time to see each other teach. Other countries show that time is some of the most valuable time. When you get to have a common classroom experience to look at, then you get things like figuring out that “13 minus 9″ is the very best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing. That kind of learning doesn’t happen in the US.

3. From the New Yorker, an article titled “What College Can’t Do” begins by discussing reverence for work or even overwork:

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.






Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that.

Links: Philosophy, fiction, fairy tales, Bob Dylan and James Brown

1. On how to think about a text’s truth: In a philosophical discussion of Hinduism at The New York Times (which I found via The Dish), there is this quotation about how Hindu religious texts are regarded:

One explanation of this tolerance of difference is that religious texts are often not viewed as making truth claims, which might then easily contradict one another. Instead, they are seen as devices through which one achieves self transformation. Reading a religious text, taking it to heart, appreciating it, is a transformative experience, and in the transformed state one might well become aware that the claims of the text would, were they taken literally, be false. So religious texts are seen in Hinduism as “Trojan texts” (like the Trojan horse, but breaking through mental walls in disguise). Such texts enter the mind of the reader and help constitute the self.

The Hindu attitude to the Bible or the Quran is the same, meaning that the sorts of disagreements that arise from literalist readings of the texts tend not to arise.

2. On fairy tales (a discussion of Kate Bernheimer’s book How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales):

fairy tales are like rudimentary contracts. They are provisional fixes for the horrifying problem of reality: adulthood, time, and death (a set of truths so pure and terrible they can only live in myth). Fairy tales have terms: They will bring you to an uncanny, dreamlike place in which natural laws are waived. In return, you must accept wild nonsense logic, impenetrability, and—with no three-dimensionally human characters in fairy-tale land—a degree of solitude.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale.

3. On “close writing” fiction technique. I’m not necessarily agreeing with this writer’s position, but I found this article thought-provoking.

4. In this post about Bob Dylan at Vulture, I found a couple things interesting:

And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I might be somewhere by now.”


Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be.

5. David Remnick suggests a particular video clip of James Brown.

6. Why we put adjectives in the particular orders we tend to in English.

7. “Three Steps to Better Music Biopics

Links: Tea Party profiteers, Iraq war ironies

1. “How the Tea Party became as corrupt as the Beltway it loathes

2. Iraq ironies: The U.S. is bombing its own military equipment

3. “The War Photo No One Would Publish


Small town living’s fine, except for the white people

I don’t mean to sound racist, but I’ve got a problem with white people.

Lately I’ve realized that, living in my rural area, the people who drive too slow in front of me, the construction workers who (as I write this) blast country music toward my house, and the voters who made this guy my county’s sheriff are, almost without exception, white people. Also, the drunks, the racists, and the racist bullies out here are mainly white. (What’s uniquely stupid about rural racism is that it’s based almost entirely in the abstraction of difference, rather than in actual experience with people of various races, because these experiences simply don’t happen often in rural towns.)

I usually say this as a joke to my friends and family members, most of whom are also white, but I think the reason that this seems to be a joke is because so many of us rurals think of whiteness as being the default, so much so that we often aren’t even aware of our whiteness (our skin color, but also our cultural choices, not to mention our privileges). I suspect this is why some of my white conservative acquaintances sneer about “political correctness” — white people out here are so used to only talking to other whites that they don’t often think how their words and statements would feel to people of other races. My grandma didn’t think calling my wife a “dago” would offend her, but by pointing out my suburban-born wife’s difference from my family’s ruralness, my wife did feel hurt.

This is partly why I found this recent video, which points out the weirdness of what so many white people think is acceptable, so amusing and enlightening:

I particularly enjoy “You must listen to that rural music, right?” and “You don’t sound like a dumb hick at all!” (which, of course, a lot of my fellow rurals can’t carry off).

My serious point here is this: All too often, national discussions of poverty seem to fall into the pattern of a white guy like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan diagnosing poverty as being a problem of nonwhite people who live in cities. As Ryan said this spring:

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said.

Of course, as rural areas in general lack racial diversity but do not lack for poverty, the rural poor ignored in Paul Ryan’s quote are mainly white. In fact, if Ryan wanted to address the largest racial group of people in poverty, he’d be talking to white people. This U.S. Census report from 2012 (located at a link from this site) shows the raw numbers of our population in poverty:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

More than 19 million whites were considered to be in poverty in 2010 and 2011, millions more than the poor of any other race. And while people of nonwhite groups can show how they’ve been harmed economically by a history of discrimination (as pointed out here), white people can’t offer a similarly systemic cause for their poverty. So, what’s the reason for white poverty, white people? Is there also a culture of poverty among poor whites? And can we include country music in this “tailspin of culture”?

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

NIMBY bunnies: Chicago dumps rabbits on rurals

A Chicago Tribune article last Sunday about the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park contained this tidbit:

Unexpected invaders: The park’s 5-acre Lurie Garden has had some unwelcome visitors: rabbits who ate bark on some of the garden’s trees, killing them. [Edward Uhlir, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation, the nonprofit organization that helps manage the 24.5-acre public space] thinks the rabbits crossed into the park on the snaking, Gehry-designed BP Bridge.

Last year, Uhlir said, trappers hired by the park caught 60 rabbits in the garden and later let them go at a “certified release site” about 100 miles west of Chicago. Then a fox appeared in the garden. This year, only three rabbits have been removed from the garden. “We think the fox was having dinner,” Uhlir said.

Hey, I live about 100 miles west of Chicago! Is it city officials’ fault that my green beans have just been denuded!?