Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exponentially Better than My Girst Drafe

I teach research writing, and I require most classes to submit "cover letters" with their essays--I ask them specific questions about how they think they did, what about the writing process troubled them, and these letters help me comment more effectively on their work. Cover letters tend to truly reflect the mood they're in before they turn in a paper. Some are exultant, some morose, some brown-nosing, and so on. They're one of my favorite parts about teaching.

Recently, a student turned in a final draft of a paper. The cover letter began with the sentence:

"Having finished my paper, I feel as if the final draft is exponentially better than my girst drafe."

This sentence struck me as an incredible microcosm of the arrogance and anxieties of my first-year writing students. So I'll deconstruct it here.

"Having finished my paper"
The student feels relief at meeting her deadline, however, she's still not convinced of a process-oriented approach to writing. She thinks this one is DONE, and the fluidity of writing suddenly gets codified, stabilized, by her notion that this paper is going to never change.

"I feel as if"
This student, like many I meet, uses "feeling words" and opinion words instead of arguing clearly for a position. Either this draft is more effective, according to certain criteria, or it isn't. She feels as if it is, which means if I argue with her, I have to carefully address her feelings. We might disagree on whether the paper is effective, but she's allowed to feel whatever she wants. Using "I feel" instead of "this is" makes people seem less certain, and less authoritative. It also protects her from having to change her position. I see this very often in classroom discussion too--students are careful not to openly dissent, for fear of getting in trouble with me or their classmates. They tie their identity into everything, so disagreements are always personal. It's difficult to help them untangle their notions of "who I am" from "what conclusions I've drawn from the evidence I perceive."

"the final draft is exponentially better"
She's hopeful! She worked hard! She wants to show me that she's engaged in the revision process! These are great things. It's possible, though, that she would balk at doing another rewrite, because she believes she's already fixed everything possible. It's rare for these papers to get that much better in one revision, and it's more likely that she's changed a number of sentences around, not truly rethought her ideas.

"than my girst drafe"
This student used the word "exponentially," and correctly used "than" instead of "then," but has two typos in a row? An idiosyncratic and hilarious mistake. But who really cares about her first draft, when now we can imagine what a girst drafe might be. The arrogance here is that many students do not read over their work at all before turning it in. They don't see the need for proofreading. They don't quite understand the importance of their presentation. It's not about being boringly professional, it's about being conscious. Aware. Making real decisions about what others see.

By the way, she wrote a nice paper--I think it was a B+.

So my most favorite gem to come from this experience:
What is a Girst Drafe? Let's invent some.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Clayton, Wisconsin Part II

Clayton, Wisconsin: A Photo Essay

I took these photos on a day trip from St. Paul, MN to Clayton, WI last summer. Tony and I were visiting his parents, and Clayton is Tony's father's hometown. He warned us that it was "empty." It was.

I felt compelled to share these after extolling the big cities--there's a desolate beauty about Clayton that I tried to capture here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Platanos Maduros and the Cloisters

Tony and I are spending the weekend in New York visiting friends and discovering corners and pockets of wonder in this City of Overwhelm that are delighting me constantly. I spent a good deal of time in Midtown when my sister and brother-in-law lived there, but now I'm staying in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighborhood where yesterday I ate more sweet plantains than anybody should. Oh, but they were good and cheap.
We walked across the George Washington Bridge, I bought a red jumpsuit to wear at an as-yet-unplanned activity, and we ended up at a birthday party with champagne cocktails and conversations about the purpose of intellectualism in an increasingly unemotional social landscape.
I took many pictures and felt bolstered in my utter enjoyment of this city by the fact that no matter where we turned, something incredible was going on. This may be one of my biggest complaints about Boston: there's not enough weirdness on the street. It turns out I feel much better in places where someone's wearing a ball gown on the train, someone's singing very loudly in French, someone's leaning over to tell me how good the albondegas is, someone's selling a pirate print fedora, someone's arguing about whether Camus or Abe was a "better" existentialist. This morning I'm curled up under a borrowed quilt, on a borrowed computer in Brooklyn, waiting for my odd and lovely friends to wake up for brunch.
Of course every city has it's eccentricity, but what I love about L.A., San Francisco, and New York in particular is how much that eccentricity is implicitly encouraged. This is not to naively suggest that one is always safe in these cities doing ridiculous things...but somehow the moment of contact with strangers in these places doesn't exhaust me as much as it does in Boston, I think because I don't feel like I'm fighting for the right to shake it up.
Yesterday at a restaurant called Mambi just a few blocks from the GW bridge, I ordered a caffe con leche that came on a plate with a tiny spoon. The waitress returned to our table right at the moment that I dipped my other, quite large spoon in the coffee, and she laughed at me, because of how silly it seemed to her that I'd used the wrong spoon, I think. "It's okay honey," she said, and took the tiny spoon away. I'm not sure if she meant "Don't worry, being an idiot is no big deal," or "It doesn't actually matter which spoon you use," but her humor, her heavy pink lipstick, the way she called Tony "Papi" and how delicious my three-dollar Cuban sandwich was all reminded me that I'm one of those writers who needs new things to be happening ALL the time.
This mandates that I create and invite these moments, but it also mandates that I occasionally leave town, or go to a new part of town, and sit still with my journal and camera and watch, and watch, and watch.
We walked up to a park at The Cloisters and marveled at many walls of gorgeous melting ice clinging to the rocks. We stood in the bright orange twilight and stared across the river at miles of winter trees. I'm lucky to be in New York.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Hi, um, Mr. Twain? Your metafiction is showing.

See "The Adventures of Mark Twain." Now. If you need more description to understand, read this: (it'll only take a minute)

First of all, who ever decided it was okay to stop making Claymation? The opening seconds of this film involve a total deconstruction of the visual world and our attachment to the infallibility of bodies and objects. Nothing is as it seems. A book spills forth a river, moss and grass transform bookshelves into trees. In this world, a frog turns into a green droplet in the air as it jumps, then reforms itself as it lands. We are reminded that everything we "recognize" is made of malleable material.

Listen to the levels of reality here:

Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher, all characters in Twain's books, find Twain about to sail away in a fantastical balloon/riverboat ship to catch Haley's Comet, in order to die with it. They stow away and find an Index-o-Vator aboard the ship, which transports you to (a) anywhere on the ship or (b) into any of Twain's stories, plus Twain's own notebooks.

Pirandello couldn't have dreamed up a more tension-filled situation, considering that all the while Tom and Huck seem completely unaware that they are Twain's creations. In fact, they perceive themselves as having mortality, and attempt to sabotoage Twain's meeting with the comet because they feel they are "too young to die." Hence, it's only sensical that when Twain transcends at the end (merging with his "darker half" and ascending to become part of the comet) the characters are free to live on, in the balloon (imagination? world of literature?). Characters too have mortality, and we forget this because we are so lazy and careless in our reading. We can condemn them to death by never opening the books, by not listening, by forgetting.

In addition to visual stimuli that delighted me as much as a mild mushroom trip in a rhododendron garden, there were moments in this movie where the statements about what is art and what is "real" were perfectly Baudrillardian. Huck, Tom, and Becky use the Index-o-Vator to find "The Mysterious Stranger." (If you want to completely derail your notions of what is authorship and what is the inherent identity of a short story, read the history of this piece.) The "man" they meet has a body but no head. He holds a white mask on a stick in one hand, which functions as an eyeless, but terrifyingly expressive, face. This "man" is named Satan.

"Come on!" says Tom, and the three kids play a game with Satan where they make little people out of clay (!) and then Satan gives them life. He grows bored of the creations, starts raining down lightning (like Zeus, guys, like Zeus) and the tiny clay people are sucked into cracks in the earth, while the "real" Claymation people, who are actually characters in another, more "real" character's imagination, watch, horrified.

"We can always make more if we need them," says Satan to Tom, Huck, and Becky.

Meta-claymation meets meta-fiction. Total, beautiful, insanity.

Tom, Huck, and Becky also stumble upon an alter-ego Twain, alone in a room stacked with manuscripts, loudly proclaiming to no one that he is "the only one who can explain human nature." The kids lock him to a chair with an enormous chain. Yet, when they return to the ship deck, "real" Twain is there already, reminding us that it's useless to punish genius for it's apparent hubris.

Indeed, Twain's "adventure" here is actually a beautifully orchestrated suicide, and in an incredibly anti-Christian, anti-American moment, he "goes out" with Haley's Comet, on purpose, melded with his Dark side, completely in control, uninterested in the rewards of heaven. That this movie was syndicated for many years on television blows my mind, and gives me hope.