Posted by Joe Harris
Thanks, everyone, for posting your favorites. I look forward to discussing them tonight; they’re both astute and affectionate, and as a group offer a compelling picture of a community of writers at work.
I wanted to add my some of my own favorites to the list. For the most part, I’ve picked passages from recent work, but in a few cases I couldn’t resist noting an earlier piece. I’ve divided my comments into four categories:
- Setting the scene (Dayo, Janet, and Lawson)
- Drawing characters (Carol, Rachel, Eriks, Andrew, and Tim)
- Making connections (Xan, Margrette, Zeewan, Grace)
- Parataxis (Lauren, Erica, Brea)
Thanks once again, everyone, for your work this semester!
PS I also cheated and quoted passages much longer than 50 words.
While much of our talk this semester has focused on how to make prose more intense, paratactic, vivid, to evoke characters and experience, I was also struck by the careful work that often went before such moments, by how writers set the scene for what was to follow.
For instance, near the start of “Skyscrapers and Rice Paddies,” Janet Li does a remarkable job of describing, in plain and precise language, the appeal of a remote Chinese village she visited:
Everything seems so quiet in this village. No running water, no Internet, no cars, no interstate highway system. Yet, this village has put a spell on me. The sun is finally up and my cousins have woken up and prepared breakfast. A few hours later, we all travel to the village market. There are people carrying baskets on their backs, baskets that will become full with all the vegetables and meat they plan to purchase at this market.
Small shops of food, movie rentals, music rentals, and ethnic minority clothes line the sides of the street. We are the Bai ethnic minority. The villagers speak their language, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and are using it to communicate now. We like the color white. It is rare these days to find a young woman in the traditional dress, a light colored top garment worn underneath a sleeveless short red jacket and an embroidered apron over blue or white pants. My favorite part of the wear is the exquisitely-embroidered white head ornament that is tied by a single pigtail. I am a little disappointed by the decreasing number of young people wearing the dress, however, the married women walk around the market in traditional dark blue right-side buttoning front vest over a shift and blue loose fitting trousers, an embroidered dark-colored apron, and a black cloth to pack their rolled hair.
Janet contrasts this rural scene with the more cosmopolitan allure of Shanghai in order to discuss, not China, but her responses to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “On Nature” and her own sense of feeling drawn to both city and country. One reason why her piece is so effective is her ability to describe the “country” in ways that are exact, unsentimental, but enormously appealing.
Lawson Kurtz sets a very different sort of scene in “Blackout,” a a critical yet measured essay about the alcohol-fueled culture of Duke and many other universities. Such a piece could easily become preachy, but Lawson works against this with acute, almost clinical, and yet dryly witty description of “the general undergraduate drinking climate,” which he says can be
be summarized using only three words: Get drunk fast (quickly is a word rarely used by the inebriated). The cost- and time efficiency of the techniques utilized by students to get drunk would make an economist smile. Shotgunning, shooting, funneling, keg stands, quarters, beer pong, flip cup, lager bombs, icing, case races… the list goes on. If money is a problem, students find it cheap. If fullness is a problem, they find it potent. If motivation is a problem, they make it competitive. Instead of alcohol functioning as a social lubricant to enhance the social experience of the party, alcohol becomes the party, and attendees become consumed by the culture of consumption. Take a look around West campus on any given Friday night, and your eyes will be graced by a multitude of rowdy students drinking as fast or faster than their bodies allow. It is therefore unsurprising to learn that 40% of these students have reported blacking out within the previous year. While this could possibly be dismissed as an undesirable side effect of otherwise enjoyable alcoholic recreation, it has become increasingly apparent that most don’t actually care about blacking out. For some, a blackout may actually be an intended effect.
In a rather different way, Dayo Oshilaja pauses in the middle of her interview with the articulate and forceful Professor Sandy Darity, of Duke’s School of Public Policy, to examine the effects of their conversation on her and to set up what is to come next (a critique of the idea of “Post-Racial”America and an argument for reparations):
A knock on the door interrupts the flow of our conversation. While Professor Darity is talking with a colleague, I take a deep breath and try and re-group. Throughout our interview my pen has remained frozen in place as I tried to assimilate all the new information. I had never thought of Obama in these terms before. I am un-ashamed to say that back in 2008, I was very much caught up in Obama-mania. I was one of those idealistic college students positive that Obama was going to change the country for the better. I attended his rallies, excitedly hung up his poster on my wall, and proudly wore his stickers to class. I loved to brag to anyone who would listen that I had the opportunity to actually shake his hand when he came to Durham in 2007. But now, Professor Darity was forcing me to look at Obama in a more realistic light. Fortunately for me, I did not have long to reflect; the colleague was gone and the clock was ticking.
This paragraph subtly urges Dayo’s readers to “re-group” and rethink their views along with her. Quietly, the interview starts to become as much an exploration of her thinking as Darity’s.
Posted by Joe Harris
I had never given a profile assignment before this semester, but I now plan to do so regularly. I loved to see writers in this class shift out of a more familiar, introspective essay mode in order to figure out to accurately re-present the thoughts, experiences, and language of other people—often other who were very important to them. I thought the results were often remarkable.
For instance, in “The Christmas Party,” Rachel Revelle describes not only a person (Mrs. Copeland) but a community (Murfreesboro, NC). In doing so, she also tells a lot about herself. Here is part of her portrait:
In the early days she would see people on the street, or the beauty parlor, or Bynum Brown’s Thanksgiving brunch—another tradition for another time—and tell them to “come on by” after church on Christmas Eve. Knowing Mrs. Copeland’s presence around town, and her respected capabilities of small talk, it is no wonder the party grew. “It used to drive William crazy!” she says, referring to her “on the street” invitation system. Nevertheless, it worked for quite a while, until every now and then someone would get overlooked, and she would get into trouble. The solution for the past ten or so years, therefore, has been a mailed invitation, which she currently sends to 90 families, but requires no response. She also makes clear that anyone visiting for Christmas should certainly come along, which means, she says, “We sometimes have no idea who an entire family is until we ask and make the connections.”
I’m struck by how Rachel manages here both to describe the beginnings of her town’s Christmas Party while also offering a sense of the hostess, deftly weaving Mrs. Copeland’s remarks into a quick sketch of local history. It’s not as easy to do as she makes it look!
Similarly, Eriks Reks wanted to recognize the impact of a particular individual has had on his own growth as a person. I admire the risks Eriks takes in his openly affectionate and admiring portrait of “Sonny Falcone: The Herculean Blue Devil.” Here is how he describes one of their first encounters:
From what I understood at the time, Falcone played at Duke roughly around the same time as Zack’s father. So I tagged along over to his house which is perched looking over a lake. I went with a girl who I was seeing at the time. This being my first long period stay in the south, it was also the first time introduced to southern food. The spread was the hallmarks: corn bread, pulled pork, coleslaw, and hush puppies. I was delighted; unfortunately to the dismay of my date who wouldn’t eat anything other than the organic section of Whole Foods. Yet, at that point in time it didn’t really matter what she thought. The storytelling began and I became enthralled in the conversation. I truly did sit in awe, listening to the tales Falcone—both Sonny and Joe, his brother—and Asack told of their old gridiron days. They mentioned the dogs that used to live on campus—very similar to the way the cats do nowadays. They laughed about the things they did on 9th street when they were my age. From this moment, Coach Falcone too became a legend in my eyes.
Sometimes a piece of writing can be a gift to someone else, and I see both Rachel and Eriks as offering such gifts.
Andrew Brown also writes about someone he admires in “The Journeyman,” but moves, I think, in a somewhat different direction, viewing his subject, Mustafa Nassery, as someone who can tells about tensions we are living through. Here is how Andrew begins his profile:
Mustafa Nassery is a messenger. He glides seamlessly between the postmodern intellectualism of college life in the United States, and the ancient tribal warfare that plagues his native Afghanistan. Mustafa straddles these two worlds with a quiet confidence that makes him instantly likable, but somewhat aloof. Sometimes he carries his message of hope and tolerance loudly, on his t-shirt or Facebook status, but most often he lets his life speak for itself.
However, Mustafa is not just a messenger or a role model to look up to. He is also a college student still struggling to find his own place in the world. He is a young man living thousands of miles from home and is also a devout Muslim in a nation sometimes suspicious of his religion.
I don’t want to make the mistake of doing what Andrew very carefully avoids doing—which is to reduce Mustafa to a symbol. But I also admire how he tries to help us learn something from the ways Mustafa needs to travel between very different (yet somehow contiguous) cultures.
Tim Xue also used the profile assignment to think about difference when he decided to interview a fellow student from Tibet. This interview really became as much about Tim as about Duojie, as we observed the two of the struggle to find a way of talking with each other:
Tim: Duojie, I was born in China and moved to the United States when I was four. I have family in the Chengdu and Shanghai areas and visit them every year. My Mandarin Chinese is pretty good, too, but I’m not fluent. Still, I confess I know very little about Tibet. What is it like?
Duojie looked towards the ceiling, raising one eyebrow and then the other. After a few seconds, he resumed eye contact, gave me a grin that managed to be both cheeky and polite at the same time, and responded with…
Duojie: Hmm, that’s a very general question.
I laughed, mentally kicked myself, and began again.
T: Sorry, why don’t we start with Tibet’s geography and culture?
D: Well I can’t speak for all of Tibet, just where I’m from.
T: That’s fine. Go ahead.
What makes this piece so remarkable is that it’s through their false starts and hesitations that we really begin to develop a feel for Tim and Duojie. Tim’s genius here was in leaving what many other writers or interviewers would have edited out.
Finally, one of my favorite pieces of this semester was Carol Shih’s “Tin Foil Men,” an insider-portrait of an outsider-artist at Duke. I love how Carol recreates his epigrammatic mode of speech and thought in this excerpt:
When winter turned to spring, the tin foil men basked in the sunlight again. They came out to get a nice silvery tan. One night, Lev and I stayed up late, past the hour normal human beings fall asleep, and we were walking along the Plaza after studying. All of a sudden, Lev stopped in the midst of his tracks and carefully considered the archway before us. Along the inside of the archway was this small ounce of a crack about seven feet high from the ground.
“High visibility with low accessibility,” he whispered to me, in case anyone could overhear. He then took a little foil man out of his orange backpack and delicately wedged its hand in between the two sides of the crack. But something looked funny and lopsided about the man’s position.
“It has to look alive,” explained Lev in a loud, excited whisper, “Gotta pretend that gravity is acting on them more than it actually is. The material’s light and it’s stiff, so it’s not going to hang like it has normal muscle mass.” He tugged the tin man’s arm down. “We have to pretend that it’s got normal muscle mass, kinda like Leonardo da Vinci and his train of thought. Balance and compensation.”
Carol’s art here lies not in defining her voice, but in listening to and mimicking the distinctive speech of someone else.
I always love it when writers make connections I don’t expect. Almost everyone did that at some point this semester, but here are a few I especially remember.
Grace Kohut centers “(Still) Not Dead” on a piece of writing that she did when she was eleven and for which her parents held what seemed to her an odd affection. It was the “bio” to a creative writing assignment:
“Grace Kohut was born in New York City and lived there all her life. She went to the Hewitt School and has a dog named Shadow. She is not dead.”
Kids say the darnedest things. But Grace actually figures out how she ended up writing that odd bio:
“She is not dead.” All of a sudden—
—I’m eleven now. I’m being asked to write a quick biography about myself. I am given examples through our readings of the famous poets. I find three things in common with all of them: they are always written in third person, always written in past tense and…
Robert Frost died on the 29th of January 1963 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Emily Dickinson died on 15 May 1886, at the age of fifty-six.
Robert Louis Stevenson died at home of a stroke on 3 December 1894.
A. A. Milne died in 1956 at Hartfield, Sussex, England.
… they always end in death! I’m not dead. Why am I writing a bio if I am not dead?! Will I die after I write this poem book? I have to write in past tense so how do I ensure I will not die after my pen leaves the paper???
After defining this subgenre of the “dead poets bio,” Grace moves on to write a moving reflection on families and separation and memory—suggesting that one of things writing can do is make us “not dead.”
In ways that were (at least to me) similarly unexpected, Zeewan Lee uses her essay, “The Grotesque Is Beautiful: Alexander McQueen’s World of Fashion,” not only to argue for the genius of an avant-garde fashion designer, but to draw some striking parallels between his work and that several painters. Here is an example of how she does it:
As time elapsed, however, the demonic dimensions of the grotesque were gradually attenuated in McQueen’s designs. McQueen began to associate with grotesque not only the ugly but also a kind of beauty. The grotesque in McQueen’s later works was more complete in its duality as McQueen incorporated both repulsive and more serene and sublime qualities to his designs. The ugliness once so visible in his designs that it outshined everything else became subtler and more nuanced. McQueen’s grotesque in its evolved form emulated less the horrific grotesque of Goya and more the fantastic grotesque of Kris Kuksi, an American sculptor and an artist. Kuksi’s art spoke of a timelessness-potentiality and motion attempting to reach on forever, and yet pessimistically delayed; forced into the stillness of death and eternal sleep2. This beautiful and accurate definition of Kuksi’s work (below) depicts exactly what McQueen’s later designs encapsulated. Just as in Kuksi’s arts, the notion of the grotesque was less apparent in themes and issues McQueen addressed in his designs. Instead, what made viewers uncomfortable were the outrageous combinations of colors (the first two pictures shown below) and incomprehensible, out-of-place shapes (all four below).
In drawing such unexpected but striking comparisons, Zeewan convinces me that McQueen was a serious artist as well a Lady-Gaga-like provocateur.
In “My Life in the Words I Remember and the Ones I Don’t,” Margrette Kurhtz write a deeply personal memoir that centers on her relationship to language and reading. In this essay, Margrette discusses a poem that I’ve taught many times, William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say,” but draws a connection between the poem her own childhood experiences that has deepened my understanding of it. She says:
When I was in third grade all I wanted was for my parents to stay together. Maybe in this poem I saw the love that I never saw between the two people who should have been setting that example. So when I thought about love, true love, I didn’t imagine anything physical, no kissing, no touching, just some simple show of affection. I wanted to see “like” before I could see “love.”
I didn’t want extravagance: I thought of love as the note my mom sometimes put in my lunchbox, the heartfelt words on the inside of a birthday card, basically anything someone took the time to write out. Or any apology. When it came to my parents, they never apologized and they didn’t love, so apologies came to mean love in my young logic.
So this is just to say that maybe the things I wanted to be important to me: the books of my childhood, then the lofty books that came later, extended metaphors, spiritual passages, and carefully-crafted touching prose in novels, aren’t. Forgive me.
If you know Williams’ poem, you’ll hear Margrette’s echoing of it her third paragraph—an echoing that is both smart and deeply felt. In taking on Williams’ phrasings, she shows me how a poem can literally become part of a person.
I didn’t realize that parataxis was going to become such an important concept in this class. For that, I mostly blame (and praise!) Lauren Kahn for her remarkable rendering of her frantic chase after a New York City bus in order to retrieve a lost DVD
Putting the DVD back in its bag, I take out my iPod to listen to my music. I plug my earphones in and zone out.
madison avenue. Madison Avenue. MADISON AVENUE.
Yikes, this is my stop. I stuff the DVD into the plastic bag, and stride toward the back exit. My body plunges into the street. The double doors slam shut behind me. I made it!
But then, I feel a pull on my hand and hear the plastic tear. The bus zooms off with my bag. In frustration, I grip the scraps of plastic with my fists.
I look down at the blur of black patent leather heels, left, right, left, right, carrying me forward.
Take that, Salman Rushdie! In a few short paragraphs—which I know she reworked over and over—Lauren evokes both the physical excitement of the chase and her panicky state of mind.
Describing a state of mind—the activity of thinking, what it feels like at a certain moment—is precisely what Erica Lin does, with both poignance and humor, in “Denied Entrance.”
I read out-loud, “Dear Erica.” At least they addressed the letter to me, instead of typing Dear applicant, which was not uncommon amongst medical schools. “The Committee on Admissions has completed its review of your application and has decided not to pursue your application further.” Translation: We do not want you. “Thank you for your interest in the Pritzker School of Medicine and the effort you invested in your application.” Thank you for the one-hundred dollars application fee. It will be used towards more worthy applicants. ”Best wishes to you as you pursue your interests in medicine.” Elsewhere. They omitted a word. As you pursue your interests in medicine elsewhere. “Herbert T. Abelson, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Life and Sylvia Robertson, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid” AKA Dreamkillers.
We certainly feel Erica’s disappointment through her witty rephrasings of the rejection letter, but that same wit also makes it clear that she knows how to handle such setbacks. Brea Davenport lets us into the workings of her mind in a similarly witty way in her essay, “Blinded by the Light of the Land of the Rising Sun.” As a bonus, she also introduces her readers to the Japanese term and concept of otaku:
I am not concerned that I am so obsessed. There are conventions held all over the world for people like me. So at least, if I am crazy, I’m not crazy by myself. These conventions are for us otakus. Otaku is a Japanese word for people who like Japanese cartoons, known as anime, and Japanese comicbooks, known as manga. You can be American, Japanese, Italian, or anything to be an otaku. The only qualification is that you have to really like anime and manga. Being called otaku is not really negative. In America, if you are past a certain age in childhood and still love to watch cartoons some people see it as really juvenile, some people would think it was cute, and some people would think it was awesome and make plans to watch cartoons with you. The word otaku comes from the same idea. It is just people who “are past a certain age in childhood and still love to watch cartoons” from Japan.
I’d describe what both Erica and Brea are doing as a kind of “intellectual parataxis”—an insight into the process of thinking that often seems far more compelling than simply listing its results or conclusions. Being funny doesn’t hurt, either!
Posted by Joe Harris
Publishing Plans [X7]
Please take 15 minutes to comment on your experiences in this course. Please consider the questions on the Closing Thoughts sheet as possible starting point; answer as many (or as few) that seem useful, and feel free to add other comments as well.
- X8, due Tues, 12/07, 5:00 PM. See X7-X8 page.
- Final class, Wed, 12/08, 6:00-8:00 PM, dinner at my house!
As a way of celebrating the work we’ve done this semester, I’d like you to showcase two passages written by your classmates that you particularly admire.
Here are the rules: You may pick your favorites from any piece that any of your classmates has written over the course of the semester. However, the two passages must come from two different essays, written by two different authors in this class. Please anchor your discussion in a brief (25-50 word) quotation from each essay. While you may choose to talk about broad issues of structure or tone, you should also feel free to point to moments in a piece that you simply find somehow moving, apt, funny, or stylish. Whatever passages you choose, please tell us what you want us to notice about them.
Please use Favorites as your category and post your comments by Wed, 12/01, at 5:00 PM.
Posted by Joe Harris
Getting Started/Moment of Zen
Ander Monson lost in the old Indianapolis airport
Lesson in Style
Reasons to use the passive voice [handout]
Writing Groups (6:30-8:10)
Please comment on the changes we made to the format of this week’s workshop. What was gained by having a single reader respond intensively to your piece? (And doing the same sort of editing yourself?) What was lost?
- Project Two, due Wed, 11/ 24, 5:00 PM. Same directions as Project One; just use Project Two as your category.
- X7, due Tues, 11/30, 5:00 PM. See X7-X8 page.
- Favorites: due Wed, 12/01, 5:00 PM. See separate post.
- X8, due Tues, 12/07, 5:00 PM. See X7-X8 page.
- Final class, Wed, 12/08, 6:00-8:00 PM, dinner at my house!
I’d like to change our procedure slightly for the final workshop.
Please read all of the writings by your group members and be ready to talk about them when your group meets. But rather than responding to four essays, I’d like you to concentrate your attention on one piece. Follow the same response format that we’ve used so far:
- A letter to author stating what the project is, what is working, and what needs more work
- A few marginal comments that point to specific moments where the author might do more work in revision.
- Use the Track Changes function to suggest specific, micro-level revisions to the author’s text (as many as you feel might be useful). That is, I’d like you to function not only as a reader but as an editor of the text.
I would then like the “editor” of each author’s draft—rather than the author—to direct discussion of her or his text in the workshop.
The editor/author pairs in each group are:
Andrew edits Grace
Grace edits Margrette
Margrette edits Zeewan
Zeewan edits Xan
Xan edits Andrew
Brea edits Lawson
Lawson edits Janet
Janet edits Rachel
Rachel edits Carol
Carol edits Brea
Lauren edits Erica
Erica edits Dayo
Dayo edits Eriks
Eriks edits Tim
Tim edits Lauren
Posted by Joe Harris
6:00 Dave Eggers, Paige Auditorium
7:30: Discuss Eggers, Monson, & R9, LINK Seminar 3
Rev 4, due Tues, 11/16, 5:00 PM
Responses (R10), due in class, Wed 11/17
Project 2, posted to website by Wed, 11/24, 5:00PM