One of the happy accidents in my life was when the chair of the Santa Monica College English Department, Nina Theiss, had called me out of the blue and asked if I’d consider teaching English at the college. She said she’d heard I was a great teacher, and I had been recommended by a colleague. That eventually led to my discovering new things in reading and writing fiction.
At the time of Dr. Theiss’s call, I was teaching creative writing at CalArts and was the full-time Institute Writer there, eagerly writing about the arts. I was also penning plays that were getting produced. Thus, Theiss’s offer came when I was already very busy.
However, I was up for trying something new. As for teaching English, I had not been an English major, but a double major in film and psychology at the University of Denver. I earned an MFA in creative writing from USC.
It was when I’d spent my junior year abroad in Denmark, feeling isolated at first, that I started reading novels voraciously, and the local Danish library had only classic books in English. Thus in Denmark, I discovered how great Fitzgerald and Hemingway were, among others, and I’d wondered how my English professors had made them so boring.
When I received the offer to teach English, I knew I didn’t want to be like my former professors. I decided that contemporary fiction was the way to go in hopes the students could connect new novels to their lives. Recent works, too, wouldn’t have Cliff Notes. We’d have to discover what was great all by ourselves.
When I’d written up a list of my favorite contemporary novels, I saw most were by male writers. I thus gave myself the added challenge of teaching contemporary novels each semester by one male and one female writer. That in itself expanded my universe. I discovered Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, among others.
(For a list of the books that have worked best in my classes, click here for this Amazon Listmania list I created.)
I happen to encourage the students to mark up their novels as they read. If they have questions, write them in the margins. If an event or realization is particularly big, highlight it. If there are words they don’t understand, underline them. In other works, interact with the book: make it their own.
One other thing I ask them to do: bracket or highlight truths. Anything that speaks to them is a truth. In our discussion, students often bring up some of the truths they’ve found.
Presently, my English composition class and I happen to be reading A Widow for One Year by John Irving. Most of the students have read ahead of the assignments because they've become so caught up in the story—the sign of a good book. Below are five truths of the many truths I’ve underlined in the book. Irving’s main character, Ruth, is a writer, so some of the truths are about novels themselves.
MY LIST OF FIVE
1) A novel is always more complicated than it seems at the beginning. Indeed, a novel SHOULD BE more complicated than it seems at the beginning.
I switched from playwriting. I’m writing my fourth novel and preparing the second for publication, and a) it always takes longer than I expected because of complications, and b) I need to do draft after draft to draw out and reconcile the complications. Yet for the reader, the initial jump into the novel has to seem simple.
2) If you’re a writer, the problem is that when you try to call a halt to thinking about your novel-in-progress, your imagination still keeps going; you can’t shut it off.
Isn’t that the truth? I typically have my best realizations when I’ve driving, when I’m in the shower, and just as I’m falling asleep. I now keep notepads nearby in all those places.
3) It was for children that one wanted heaven.
When I was around seven, my mother had left me in the car in a parking lot while she dashed into a church. I then realized that someday I would die. It wasn’t that the car was hot or I was uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the church because we’d rarely gone to one beyond funerals. When she returned, I’d asked about where did we go when we died. She told me heaven—and that after we were there for a while, we were reincarnated, which she explained as coming back. That was reassuring to me. When I had children of my own, however, I couldn’t tell them that there was for sure a heaven. I had to be truthful and say only that maybe there was.
The religious of you who are reading this are certainly shaking your heads, but to me if there is no God, we’d have to invent him for the comfort.
4) The very idea of someone saying to someone else, “You don’t know what grief is,” or, “You don’t know what love is,” struck Ruth as outrageous.
I was once in a faculty meeting when two faculty members fell into a public argument of who had deeper traumas. One person said she’d been raped, and the other said she’d been in a car accident where a loved one had died. They each argued that they felt things more deeply than the other. These things cannot be compared. The fact either trauma happened is sad.
5) Many people encounter moments in their lives that convince them to change.
I’ve had many discussions where people tell me that “People really don’t change.” The man who has serial relationships because his obsessions eventually drive his girlfriends away can easily be seen. The woman who never understands that she talks too much can be found. Even so, self-reflective people may consciously decide to change their behavior after an event. It happens—such as when I decided to teach English after my call.
In all, I try to get my English students to write creatively, and I try to get my creative writing students to read. A balanced person needs both.
Causes Christopher Meeks Supports
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