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a community writing center

As a writing teacher and a college writing center director, this project by Dave Eggers really caught my eye. He set up a storefront in his neighborhood in SF to help kids with writing. I saw Eggers last March at a conference in SF. He’s a smart and motivated guy (and a helluva good writer). This project of his is awesome. I can see myself doing something like this one day. Sometimes I feel like my life as a teacher can be a little bigger. I teach college writing, direct a college writing center, and help my son with his learning (some call that homeschooling), but expanding that to an even larger community might be really nice. I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately, and service, and a distinct lack of it in many places. Anyway, this project got me thinking. Check it out.

I’m a homeschooling parent. (Lately I’ve taken to calling that life learning, not homeschooling, but that’s another conversation.) When you say you home school (and the like), people take that as kind of criticism of mainstream schooling because, well, at least in my case, it is. There are many problems with the mainstream system, I think. The idea that it is a system in the true sense of the word is part of the problem. But I don’t think that means one should completely separate themselves from those within that system. Sometimes we life learners catch ourselves perpetuating a kind of homeschooling snobbery–most likely as a kind of defense mechanism against the prejudices we sometimes face. Of course, that is not the answer.

One thing that has attracted me to what Eggers is doing is that he’s bringing to public school kids what many life learners and homeschoolers strive for everyday–a real sense community, purpose, and authentic voice. The kids at 826 Valencia Street are really there–doing real and rewarding work, letting their voices be heard, enjoying the respect of adults who are really interested in what they have to say. These kids are participating in what Egger’s refers to as cultivating democracy and enlightened lives through the participation in community (and in the case of 826 Valencia via the primacy of the written word). These values are closely aligned with those of my family as we negotiate this thing called homeschooling and learning with others.

conflict: the stuff of life, the stuff of storytelling

My fiction writing students and I often argue around the matter of what makes for a story. The debate usually begins when I encounter either one of two stances on the issue: 1) sometimes nothing happens in a story, there is no particular conflict, and the characters never change, or 2) everyday life is boring, so stories must have some kind of twist or something sensational to make them interesting. (Sigh.) I encounter these stances more than I care to think about. What I feel so many of my student writers don’t at first get is that the human experience is about conflict–and so any story that hopes to relate to the human experience must, too, have conflict. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a wonderfully subtle story in the tradition of Nabokov or Chekhov where life is not methodically presented along a clear, linear plot line only to be neatly resolved in the end. I love a story where more is implied than outright said. There is a beauty to this. But even the subtlest of all stories has conflict. I think the debate I find myself having with my students stems from a common misunderstanding of the nature of conflict–both internal and external. It doesn’t need to involve laser blasters, car chases, or zombies who want to eat brains, for god’s sake. The seed of all conflict comes from striving and falling back again. It can be as simple as that. It is the stuff of life.

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?
  –Robert McKee from Adaptation

Anyway, when my students hold tightly to their notions that real life is either too boring to write about or that stories about life do not necessitate conflict, crisis, and change (presumably because that’s not the stuff of life), I am tempted to show them this clip from the brilliant Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Of course, the screen-writing guru Robert McKee (a real guy) is being parodied here and throughout the film as much as Kauffman, himself, is, but just the same, in this clip, he speaks a basic storytelling (and life) truth. Check it out.

I just wonder what my dean might say if I took the same tone with my students that McKee takes with Kauffman. Perhaps I’ll give it a try one day soon in the spirit of better fiction. It couldn’t hurt.

writing with my students: a philosophy of art

Each semester, I tell myself that I will write with my students–that I will complete each of the assignments that I ask them to complete (particularly in my creative writing classes). It makes sense, and after a number of semesters not doing this, I begin wondering if I am a bit of a hypocrite for not doing so or if I can even do the very assignments I assign. The tough reality is, though, that by the time I’m done planning my classes and developing the assignments (not to mention responding to and grading them), there is very little time for me to do much else. Just the same, this semester, I’d like to try again–at least for a couple of the assignments even if it’s just rough work.

One of the first pieces I ask for in my fiction writing class is a response to a number of questions about why one pursues fiction writing. My hope in having students begin to articulate answers here is to raise some awareness of their own philosophies as artists and writers. I want them to recognize the possibilities of their art beyond it being a pleasant pastime. Here’s what I prompt them with:

Why do you write, or why do you want to write? What do you hope to achieve with your writing? What do you hope to gain from this work? How do you hope to affect others with your work? What will they gain? Can you describe your philosophy towards your art? (I know this is a hard one. It’s really the bigger question that we will be working towards, but give it a shot now. Just play with it. Think through writing.)

So here goes my rough and rapid response…

I write because I breath. The act of truly living requires that I consider my relationship with the people around me, within the natural world, and within the webs of significance that we, as human beings, weave to create meaning during our time on this earth. I write to keep my eyes and heart open. As distant images of distant suffering flicker across my television, I write so that I can feel something, to know that other’s pain is not so distant, to save myself from the perils of indifference.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” asked E. M. Forster. I write to think, to know what I know. It helps me literally work out problems through writing–to figure stuff out. As I sit scribbling late into the night, or alone in my car before braving the parking-lot walk to my office in the dead of winter, I write to surprise myself.

I write to say what I otherwise couldn’t. There are words I don’t dare utter for their sound afloat in the air would surly shatter the glass threads that bind me to others–or some–and crack the facade of composure I maintain. I write to face my fears or to hide from them.

I write to tap my “wild mind,” an image Natalie Goldberg brings to our collective conversation on writing,–to seek refuge in the wildness that saves me from the suffocating illusion of order that I force on my day-to-day life. Through writing, more is possible; change is within my reach.

I write to connect with others, to express my humanity, to seek human communion…

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