Every time I go away for the summer (whether “away” is England, Colombia, the U.S. or all three), this blog dies a quiet little death. I am behind on everything. I injured my foot three weeks ago but I THINK (hope…?) that I’ve mostly recovered. Unrelated to said foot injury, while running in D.C. three weeks ago I tripped and landed on top of a tree root and got an IMPRESSIVELY humungous purple bruise on my leg that is still there (albeit faded), but I guess I won’t deal with it until I get back to England & free health care in September. I am also like seven books behind in my reading schedule. BUT! I am learning a lot here in Amish-country, observing lots of different teaching styles and teaching classes of my own (one popular lesson: I had the students read Anne Lammott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and then write their own versions of The Worst Story Ever. Several parents told me at the semester-end conferences that many of the students called it their favorite activity : ) #teachinghumblebrag). Will I ever be a teacher myself one day? Will I have a quiet little house on the hill in the country, as in this wonderful poem? Will I do this, will I do that? Will I have that, be that, go there, stay here? Questions, questions. At least fuckass Mercury Retrograde is finally over. (It’s times like this, when I type a sentence like the former, that I pause, stare into space and ask myself questions like Wait… did I really just sincerely write that?) Let’s… not go there.
One of the fun things about teaching is getting to daydream about my own Ideal Fancy Future Teacher Syllabus. As in, what I would love to have on my dream syllabus. The works I would love to share with others, discuss in class, and basically freak everybody out by getting EXTREMELY OVEREXCITED. Such a syllabus would primarily consist of short stories, since that’s what I’ve spent most of my time thinking about for the past two years. So what are the Dream Short Stories that I would include on my Dream Ideal Best Teacher 4-Eva Syllabus?
Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”
Probably one of my favorite short stories ever. What an example of characterization. What brilliant plot execution. The location is limited, there aren’t that many characters, and yet, and yet, and yet. Is the ending happy, ambiguous or tragic? Is Arnold Friend a liberator or abuser? What to make of Connie’s character? It was especially fascinating teaching this story here in Pennsylvania, where so many of the students related to it SO MUCH, especially the parts about Connie’s relationship to music. It was also great getting to play them Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and hearing them ask in incredulous voices, What’s wrong with his voice?
Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Wait, okay–this is definitely one of my favorite short stories ever, if not the top pick. The peculiarity of the ending! I think this is what I love most about the short story form–how the endings can just feel so LIFE-CHANGING and EARTH-SHATTERING. Like, everything we think we know about the Grandma and the Misfit is completely turned upside down, inside out and battered to death by the story’s end. Who’s good? Who’s bad? IDK. But this story is pretty much perfect.
Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”
A story that is SO SHORT and yet SO EFFECTIVE and tells us SO MUCH in so few words (see all the capitalizations I just used there? That means I am being EMPHATIC…!). The beauty of the ending, in which the main character’s love of poetry and rhythm and language is summed up in one final American Beauty-like dream passage: They is, they is, they is. This would also be fun to read aloud in class.
Lorrie Moore’s “How to be a Writer”
A classic. Would be a good segue-way into a 2nd-person exercise. Not to mention a good way to prepare for the experience of being workshopped, heheh.
Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”
I’d love to use this in a lesson about unreliable narrators. Or to talk about the effect that short stories can have on us–how more than anything else, you know that a short story has done its job when a) you want to keep reading and b) it’s created some kind of FEELING in you. Any emotion, period. Not to mention the way the narration is full of constant twists and turns, to the man with the knife in his eye to the angels in the movie theatre to the hitchhiker at the end–Johnson creates a wonderful sense of absurdity and unexpectedness, in which we never know what is going to happen next. Another reason to teach this: I love it. Also: it is hilarious. Also: I could show the film clip of the bunnies getting squashed, which I believe I have already posted on this blog, but whatever, here it is again.
These three stories I have stolen directly from the syllabus of the short story class I took in graduate school, because a) I loved them and b) do I need another reason other than that? I guess I feel like they are masterful texts, and (in the case of Packer and Hemon especially), hilarious. The Wallace and Packer pieces would feel especially relevant to the age group I am currently working with, while Hemon I find simply hysterical in the darkest of Herzogian senses (I swear to God if I ever have a fulltime job teaching literature/writing one day my students will ALL be converts to the Church of Herzog by the semester’s end, srsly).
KAFKA, Cortázar & Borges
Oh my goodness, three of my all-time favorites–how to even begin? “The Metamorphosis”? (Too long?) “The Judgement”? (Too out of context?) “The Hunger Artist”? (Too… weird of an introduction?) What about Cortázar–would I go with “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary,” my current favorites, or the more commonly taught “Axolotl” and “Continuity of Parks“? And how on EARTH would you introduce Borges? (Perhaps this hilarious article would work best.)
We used these two stories in one of the most memorable classes I’ve had as a graduate student–after reading them, we had an interesting discussion about the role of the editor (how would we personally feel if an editor COMPLETELY CHANGED the majority of the story, even if it made it better? What about the editor WRITING HIS OWN PARAGRAPHS and inserting them into the text?). Then we passed out pieces we’d written ourselves and had classmates edit them by slashing them in half, i.e. cutting 50% of the words, Gordon Lish-style. It was an interesting exercise and its primary lesson lingered with me to this day: when in doubt, cut cut cut.
Lydia Davis! Amy Hempel! More Kafka! I’d love to use this as way to talk about expectations & satisfaction: is a short story meant to provide some sense of satisfaction or completion to the reader? If not, what then? And I’d especially love to use this book, leftover from my own youthful student days!
Poetry- Richard Siken, Jeffrey McDaniel, Tony Hoagland — ahh, who am I kidding, I know nothing about poetry apart from my own gut instinct about what I like vs what I don’t : )
Ali Smith would have to go on there somewhere too, but with what story? The tree one? The meeting-Death-on-the-tube one? The awkward dinner party surrounded by dead River Phoenix photos one? What about Alice Munro? Aimee Bender? Judy Budnitz? Junot Díaz? Sherman Alexie’s “The Toughest Indian in the World”? Isn’t J.D. Salinger a must-have? Would I have to include Edgar Allan Poe in order to have something “old” represented? Will I ever appreciate Chekhov? Should I include Helen Simpson? Deborah Levy? Do I need to include Barthelme in order to have the white male postmodernists represented (if I did include him, I’d use this story)? What about Sebald? Can I include a stand-alone chapter from Buddha in the Attic, one of the best novels I’ve read recently, as an example of innovative historical fiction? Am I a bad person for “not getting” Karen Russell? How about Ben Marcus, another recently discovered favorite? What about someone like David Means, whom I’ve never even read? Is there a way I could sneak the short film “Plastic Bag” onto the syllabus, if only to have Werner Herzog’s voice boom throughout the classroom at top volume?
Aaaaah! These will all be such good in-the-future problems to have!