Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Brain Surgery

Dear Governor Ducey, 

A fundamental element of the dissolution of support for Higher Ed comes is the attack on the Liberal Arts of which Creative Writing, which I teach, is definitely a part. I do love to teach creative writing but sometimes I wish I could teach lessons that have a more palpable outcome. Teaching someone to ride a bike is awesome. You run. They pedal.  You run. They pedal. You let go. They fall. Rinse. Repeat until you let go and they ride on without you. I like to teach my kids how to read. How to cook. I would like to teach brain surgery or mushroom identification. It’s obvious how they turn out. Patient lives! Good job. Mushroom tastes good and patient lives! Another good job.
            Teaching writing is more nebulous. I tell the students as much concrete information as I can. I show them Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap.” Doyle describes two people jumping out of the window of the Twin Towers on 9-11. I read this sentence aloud as I walk the steps as if in on a floor in an office with windows looking onto Liberty Street: “Maybe they didn't even reach for each other consciously, maybe it was instinctive, a reflex, as they both decided at the same time to take two running steps and jump out the shattered window, but they did reach for each other, and they held on tight, and leaped.”
            I stop at what would be the edge of the windowsill. I pause and then keep reading. I feel like if I can make their bodies imitate what they read on the page then they can put on the page what they want their readers to imagine other bodies to do. It’s not the same as teaching brain surgery where I can put my hand over theirs and guide the knife, but I hope I give them something palpable—something they can hold onto with those visible footsteps and audible breath.
            I was teaching Max to ski last Sunday. I screamed for him to slow down. He kept speeding up. I clicked my skis together, pointed my toes downhill and tried to catch up. I couldn’t. His head hit the ground first. I saw one ski fly off. Then the second. He was crying when I finally reached him.
            “I am not putting my skis back on. I hate skiing. I hate it I hate it.”
            “Come on,” I said. “Let’s try it again. If you do this run one more time, you will hate it less.”
            “I won’t. I won’t,” he repeated all the way up the chairlift and all the way back down the mountain.

            The next day, 23 students stared at me as I pulled three oranges out of my bag. It looked like I was going to give them each one. I wasn’t. I only had three. I was trying to cure my cold. Instead of filling them with vitamin C like a good doctor, I started talking about my forthcoming books, Micrograms and Egg, which was embarrassing, but then we started to look at the essay “Swerve,” by Brenda Miller, we’d read for this week & it stopped being embarrassing because my students had smart things to say. Phoebe pointed out the images of lights and Hannah pointed out the images of darkness and Zia pointed out the tone. Allison noted the glass. Andrea read the piece aloud. I pointed out the eggs. Since I couldn’t give them each an orange, I gave them each an assignment: Write two paragraphs. The first should be a close up scene, cinematic, like a movie. The second paragraph should read like a collage to make it feel like time has passed. Choose an image register like building materials. Like oranges or snowglobes or lemon fresh scent. Make them as palpable as surgery. If you note one of your images comes off in the first paragraph, take that image off in the second like mountains take skis off six year olds. Weave a thread from the first part of the essay through the second part of the essay. I know you will hate it at first but when I notice you on the lift again, crying but writing about bricks and stones and citrus, you will hate it less and less and, although I am not that kind of doctor, you have learned a practical lesson about the effects of oranges on students in winter.

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