Straight Through the Heart
By DEAN BAKOPOULOS
As each semester begins at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school nestled in the Iowa prairie, I get numerous e-mails from students pleading for a spot in my fiction workshop. The wait list is long, and as much as I’d love to take credit for the course’s popularity, I’m learning it’s less about the teacher and more about the way fiction writers approach the teaching of literature.
Many of these students aren’t English majors — in our dynamic department, majors tend to geek out on theory and critical reading courses from the start. And unlike most M.F.A. students I’ve taught, these undergraduates tend not to consider writing a career choice. They never ask for my agent’s e-mail.
Instead, each semester, I meet students who might be afraid of traditional English courses, but are drawn by the oddly warm and fuzzy phrase “creative writing.” In most academic work, we teach students to discuss other people’s ideas, before they attempt to formulate their own. We withhold the challenge of creation. But in creative writing, we read a few books and then we’re off. By semester’s end, a seeming mystery, I have a roomful of young people in love with reading stories and telling their own. Almost all of them write better sentences and cleaner paragraphs too.
I realized that what I’m really instructing them in is reading as a process of seduction. Consider how one falls in love: by fixating on certain attributes of the beloved. The way he looks in his brown cords. The way she flips her hair from her face. The flecks in her eyes, the twitch in his smile. We do not yet know the whole person, but we are lured by primal responses to a few details. We get to the classic final lines of “The Great Gatsby” or see Lily Briscoe finishing her painting in “To the Lighthouse,” and we want to go back to Page 1 and start again, to know the novel more deeply.
It took a while for me to figure out how to offer students any kind of instruction in this. As an undergraduate myself, when it came time to write an essay on Aphra Behn or Theodore Dreiser, I found I had no idea what to say about it. My professors, and their graduate assistants, usually agreed. They pointed me to secondary texts, which confused me even more. Later, as a teaching assistant in one of the nation’s best English departments, I still had no idea what to say about a piece of literature. I only knew to teach the works that I liked to read. And so that’s where I began with my students. Not exactly a strong teaching philosophy, perhaps, but now that I am both an author and experienced teacher, I still ground the discussion of a well-known work of fiction in that basic question: What did you like about this story? Show me your favorite lines.
A cynical friend of mine calls this the Book Club pedagogy, akin to treating literature as a string of Facebook statuses about our feelings. But think about the first work of literature that blew your mind. Whether it was Salinger or Ellison or Austen, or a Munro story you came across in a waiting-room copy of The New Yorker, there was most likely a moment, a snippet of dialogue or flight of lyricism that exploded in your squirrelly little heart. Perhaps you put an exclamation point in the margin and yellowed the sentence with a highlighter. You felt real energy there — a stirring in your soul, and you wanted more. Excited to find a kindred consciousness, you wanted to understand how a writer could make you feel that intensity with nothing more than words on a page.
In my classes, we read great fiction obsessively, and then attempt to see how a writer managed to affect us. We try to understand which elements — diction, syntax, point of view and so forth — made us feel that way. After we spend several weeks reading this way, wondering how the author made us shiver like that, we try our own hand. I ask students to begin with “green lines,” to isolate writing so good it makes one writer envious of another. Which parts do they wish they had written themselves? Students start to understand how their own writing works, where it ripples with energy.
Obviously, this is great fun for a pack of aspiring novelists, but why does such a motley assortment of computer science majors and chemistry students flock to these classes? For one thing, there is, at first, no reason to understand the historical significance or theoretical implications of a given work. It begins with a reader in the room with a story. Reading like a writer, as we do in workshops, provides a ground floor for any student. The question “What was your favorite moment in a story?” is an easy entry point for both a student schooled in the finest prep academy and a science major straight out of a substandard district. Anyone can find a favorite line. Placing further pressure on those lines — Why did you like it? What changed at that moment that brought energy to the text? — can help students trust their instincts: they were on to something! It’s a less intimidating approach to literature, free from the burden of historical background and devoid of grad-school jargon.
Back when I was teaching first-year composition at a large state school, I’d often lament with my colleagues that so many of our incoming students hated to read (we were instructed not to use texts more than a few pages long). We bemoaned the fact that many had left high school without even knowing how to write a sentence.
But how can you teach someone to master language or read literature until he’s fallen in love with it? Maybe in place of first-year composition we should be teaching first-year fiction. In a creative writing workshop, students begin to think about literature as stories to love, the way many of them did as children. Instead of deconstructing a text (that terrible word, text), they begin to understand the well-crafted sentence and the way it energizes and adds power to a larger story. After reading masterworks and feeling the effects a writer can have on their own souls, they want to get out their laptops and try doing the same thing.
What they really want is to have some kind of firsthand, visceral relationship with a book — to see what it’s like to take a work apart and put it back together — using great stories as structural models, just the way the kids I grew up with in Detroit fell in love with cars by spending weekends trying to make derelict Ford Mustangs run again. When the engine finally starts, when you figure out how to make it fire, it’s an incredibly powerful learning experience.
Love, after all, isn’t a passive process. Just as a chemistry student doesn’t want to lean back and watch an experiment in class, my students don’t like to be told to sit around and admire something simply because it is theoretically or historically significant. They want to formulate their own theorem, to write their own code.
By teaching the pleasures of writing our own stories, we remind them of the pleasures of reading and of the power of literature, something they may have experienced with Harry Potter but lost when they wrote a five-paragraph essay about Hawthorne. For one semester, at least, we do the work because we grow to love the work. After that? Well, with love, all things are possible.