Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the pleasures of reading, pt. 2

Before we discuss the advantages of discussing writing in terms of pleasures, it might help to describe my lesson plan for the first day of intro to CW. What I'm going to do is, I'm going to bring my laptop and speakers to class. I'll have these set up when everybody comes in. Maybe, if I'm in the right mood and the timing is right, I'll have something playing. More likely I won't. We'll do the usual stuff -- read through the syllabus, distribute our first stories, solicit questions, explain my approach, get to know the students -- and then I'll use the laptop. I'll listen to music with them. I've got a playlist ready, though I've been messing with it a lot, swapping songs out, and most of it won't probably be heard.

I should note that students at NMSU do not typically like my music. In my intro comp course I've always had one day a week where the first thing students did was sit in silence and write whatever they wanted while I played music for them. They tend to complain, and also to assume that all the stuff I listen to is really old (because, I guess, one of my fetishes is stuff that sounds like it comes from the '60s/'70s [BUT NOT THE '80s]). I've learned, though, how to accommodate their tastes. For the purposes of this exercise, I won't be doing that. Instead I'll focus on the extremes of my collection, the really weird stuff, the things I'm sure that half the class at least will loathe (and one or two will love).

I'll explain to them that I truly love every song I'm playing for them. I'll tell them how I've spent about ten years now broadening my tastes such that I can genuinely enjoy such disparate sounds. And then I'll ask them, if you did like this, why would you like it? Why would anyone?

From there, of course, it's hard to say precisely what will happen. One of the really great things about teaching is that the students will surprise you, that they will not do what you wanted them to do, and that you will (if you are alive to them, if you are listening) give them better learning for it. And you learn. Then it's not a lecture, it's a class. Anyway, the idea toward which I will generally steer things is this: that if you liked Titus Andronicus, it would be in part because they were angry and loud. And if you liked Stars, it would be in part because they were quiet and sometimes sad, sometimes happy. If you liked Sunset Rubdown, it would be in part for the complexity. If you liked The Tallest Man on Earth, it would be in part for the simplicity. If you liked Stars Like Fleas, it would be the nervous energy. If you liked Bon Iver, it would be for the calm. If you liked Shit and Shine, it would be for the harsh noise. If you liked Tim Hecker, it would be the sweet fuzz. And so on.

The hope being that they will quickly catch on and take over, telling me why a person would like this song or that one I play for them, if they did like it. I will write some words down. It should become clear very quickly that one can and should like opposites -- that we love each band or musician not for their perfect implementation of The Elements of Music (rhythm, melody, harmony, voice, timbre, whatever) but for their pursuit of their own sound, feeling, vice. And that you can afford, if you're not a musician, to focus on a narrow subset of music, a certain zone of feeling and noise. But if you were a musician, or if you considered yourself a true devotee of music, you would have to broaden your tastes and learn how to love so many things.

The lesson here is not objectivity but exuberance. It is the joy of learning and knowing things not yourself.

From here I plan to segue to a discussion of the pleasures of reading. I'll ask them, what are some things that feel good when we read? Someone might say "character." Someone else might say "beauty." Someone else might say "happy endings." Someone else might say "funny jokes." And so on. I'll write down the things they say on the board. I may categorize the pleasures they name. I may broaden or refine them. I'll suggest some of my favorites too. We may discuss examples. I will name opposites. We will spend as much of the class naming pleasures as we can.

There are a few goals here. One is to give my students permission to write what they want to write. Another is to prepare them to read, from our outside writers as well as our class, a wide range of material. Another is to help them begin to see the potential for more complicated pleasures than happy or sad stories. Another is to allow the students a sort of agenda-setting power: in naming the pleasures they know and love, they will prepare us for their own work. The next day I'll bring in a list of everything we talked about (with perhaps some additions), and this way we'll have a sort of shared vocabulary, and a reminder of the many ways to read, and love.

Another goal is buy-in. When you let students name and define things themselves, they better understand and retain what they've named.

But again, it comes back to exuberance, which is in many ways the main thing I want to teach in this class. I don't think the goal of an intro CW course should be teaching the right way of doing things. I don't even think it should be "craft." I think my job at the outset is to bring them to life to the spark of art, to help them see the beauty in minimalism and the beauty in excess. To make them more like musicians, who make a sound they like first and ask why later, and less like city planners. There are probably more and less successful strategies for writing. But there is also writing itself. The emphasis of writing programs should more often be, I think, on the latter.

More on this soon.

1 comment:

  1. This was an incredible post.

    For a long time now I've been thinking about problems I bump into with my writing through musical analogy. I suspect that using music to explore the appreciation and creation of art could be really useful for you students. . . .