Shaun Levin

What We Can Teach

In Writing, Writing Exercises, Writing Workshops on April 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm

We can teach how to open up a story, how to explore a moment, to make it last, to make that moment feel like time is important, that time passes slowly and quickly. That you can make leaps in time and that you can make a second last for three pages. There is a section in a story called “The Rainy River” in Tim O’Brien’s brilliant The Things They Carried where he does this with the kind of grace that leaves me breathless. It’s a moment when he’s deciding whether to jump off the fishing boat, swim across to Canada, and not go to war in Vietnam.

Here it is in full:

Bobbing there on the Rainy River, looking back at the Minnesota shore, I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver waves. Chunks of my own history flashed by. I saw a seven-year-old boy in a white cowboy hat and Lone Ranger mask and a pair of holstered six-shooters; I saw a twelve-year-old Little League shortstop pivoting to turn a double play; I saw a sixteen-year-old kid decked out for his first prom, looking spiffy in a white tux and a black bow tie, his hair cut short and flat, his shoes freshly polished. My whole life seemed to spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be. I couldn’t get my breath; I couldn’t stay afloat; I couldn’t tell which way to swim. A hallucination, I suppose, but it was as real as anything I would ever feel. I saw my parents calling to me from the far shoreline. I saw my brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor and the entire Chamber of Commerce and all my old teachers and girlfriends and high school buddies. Like some weird sporting event: everybody screaming from the sidelines, rooting me on—a loud stadium roar. Hotdogs and popcorn—stadium smells, stadium heat. A squad of cheerleaders did cartwheels along the banks of the Rainy River; they had megaphones and pompoms and smooth brown thighs. The crowd swayed left and right. A marching band played fight songs. All my aunts and uncles were there, and Abraham Lincoln, and Saint George, and a nine-year-old girl named Linda who had died of a brain tumor back in fifth grade, and several members of the United States Senate, and a blind poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and all the dead soldiers back from the grave, and the many thousands who were later to die—villagers with terrible burns, little kids without arms or legs—yes, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, and a couple of popes, and a first lieutenant named Jimmy Cross, and the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War, and Jane Fonda dressed up as Barbarella, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and my grandfather, and Gary Cooper, and a kind-faced woman carrying an umbrella and a copy of Plato’s Republic, and a million ferocious citizens waving flags of all shapes and colors—people in hard hats, people in headbands—they were all whooping and chanting and urging me toward one shore or the other. I saw faces from my distant past and distant future. My wife was there. My unborn daughter waved at me, and my two sons hopped up and down, and a drill sergeant named Blyton sneered and shot up a finger and shook his head. There was a choir in bright purple robes. There was a cabbie from the Bronx. There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe.

(from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried)

We can teach what you can do with words. How you can start a sentence in an infinite number of ways, how you can say whatever you want and people will believe you. We want to believe what you put on the page and it is up to you to entertain us and transport us and do things for your own enjoyment, the way the poet dances naked when everyone is asleep in William Carlos Williams’s poem “Danse Russe”. You are here for your own enjoyment. Do things with words that delight you, that surprise you, that make you cry, the make you giggle.

We can learn how to do all these things, but we can only do them if we’re prepared to do soul work. The soul work of writing. And by that I mean that everything exists inside us, deep down, and in order to write honestly and with integrity we have to go to that place that is visible only to us, a place that is devoid of cliché, that is not drowned out by the voice of society and civilisation and television and the crowd. It may be a tribal voice, but it is so deep that it feels like it is only ours, because it is our memory placed on top of, or mixed with, wrapped up in tribal memory, all those stories and voices that we are born with, that exist in our DNA.

How can we teach a writer to go there, a person who wants to be a writer, rather than a person who wants to write. That distinction is one of the challenges of the teacher in any creative writing class or workshop, because so many people come because they want to write, or they want to try it out, but very few come because they want to be a writer, yet to teach well, you have to treat everyone as if they wanted to be a writer, give them a sense of what it means to be one, of what writing is actually about, of what it means to write. Teach them how to look, how to do things with words, how to create an effect, how to play, how to let go. Teach them about perspective and observation and how to slow down. The main challenge of writing is how to slow down, how to be in a story, in the world that you are creating.

It is technique. And it is soul work. It is individuality, and it is an acknowledgement of the context we’re working in, the centuries of writers, of people who have tried to make sense of the world, and entertain, and stay sane through putting pen to paper alone in a room. And that is the atmosphere you want to create in the classroom, the feeling that we as safe here in a group around a table as we are in our rooms, alone at our desks.

The more a teacher knows about their own process of writing, the better teacher they will be. You can teach best from your own place of struggling with the craft of writing, of translating the sensual into words. A workshop is really about making a space for people to write and experiment with words in ways they might not do on their own. Surprise them so that they will surprise themselves with what they write. Take them to a park and give them blindfolds and let them touch the plants and the grass and the barks of trees, then get them to write about that.

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