Monday, October 12, 2020

On graduate student interviews (of each other)

 The class is English 625D: Foundations of Creative Writing. The general purpose of the class is to think about writing / being a writer. I had the students interview each other about their writing lives. Here are my general comments to them after they performed them on zoom for each other:

Susan Schultz (

Sun, Oct 11, 10:31 AM (22 hours ago)
to me

Aloha everyone--sorry for the delay on my end in responding to your performances of interviews. They are thoughtful, profound, troubling, full of doubt and faith: all the good things. The performances were good and yes--as someone noted--they sounded more spontaneous than scripted.

One issue that came up around the edges was this: what were you inclined to edit out of the written interviews when you performed them? I think several of you did some editing, while others welcomed the potential conflict. (And sorry if I went on too long on that last score. Teaching, too, is about feeling as much as thinking, sometimes.) Another is: how does it feel to hear your voice emerge from the interview? Are there things you'd "correct," or shift, or want to think through more? Did you feel that you were well represented in your interview? If anything troubled you in the interview, did you say so to the interviewer? (The conflicts are how we learn to communicate better. We hope.)

I picked up some threads of issues in the interviews themselves:

--There's lots of material about family. Cultural and linguistic issues; PTSD and issues of mental illness in families; generational trauma; the role of mothers (and fathers) in giving us our work. I think of Deedee's mother assigning her the task of writing, how daunting that is, and yet how helpful in many ways. Like one giant life-long writing prompt, if you accept it. Having just gotten yet another year older, I can say that the issues stay the same, but our angles of approach shift, sometimes dramatically, over time. Sometimes this involves a change in style, but it always involves a change in inner perception.

--And there's that word, "trauma." A lot of writing does come out of trauma, our own, others', and historical and cultural traumas that wrap themselves around us like poisoned blankets. Then again, there are ways to write of subject matter other than trauma. You can write about joy, or thinking, or even just red wheelbarrows (I used to hate that poem utterly, but it's grown on me). Ocean Vuong's new novel (memoirish as it sounds) makes beauty out of trauma; Samuel Beckett made trauma absurdly funny. That's _On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous_, by Vuong. So many other examples, too. Thuy da Lam earned a ph.d. from us and has a new novel about her family's exile from Vietnam; it's called _Fire Summer_ from Red Hen Press.

--There's culture, self-hatred born of inhabiting what is seen as the "wrong" culture, there's resistance to that oppressive feeling. There are languages, and the way they mix, or refuse to. There's the issue of translation. If you're writing in a language not English, do you translate or not? What does this mean for audience? What audience do you want to have? Damn, I lost the tab I had up for an article on "The Resistance to English," about a Japanese and American writer who moved away from English. Recommended, if you can find it!

--The question of generations (and generation, as in fertility). What does it mean to be in a particular generation of writers? Which earlier generations seem closer to your vision of the world, and which far away?

--Of political and cultural resistance in literature. Native rights, civil rights, free speech rights, all of it. How can we activate our language, and how effective do we expect it to be?

--The power of titles and names. Names as words that enable us. Names as words that close us down. To what extent do we want to be categorized by the identities that are assigned to us by others, then re-assigned to us by ourselves? What are the links and conflicts between names and power. Power under whom? Power to do what? Can we be free if we are named? Can we be coherent selves if we are not?

--What does it mean to have a home? What does it mean to be a reader and never see that home in published literature? What does it mean to write that home down? What if your home is on one side of the border or the other, or what if the border itself moved? If home is Mililani, then what? (See Wendy Miyake's work for that!)

--What is the relationship between writing and passion? Writing and suffering? (And are these sometimes the same thing?!) Do you write because you have to, as you have to love someone? Do you write because you have to, as in you don't want to, but you see purpose in it? If you feel "foreign among writers" why write? (On the other hand, if you don't, why not?)

--What role does humility play? Is there something to be gained by writing someone else's life, rather than our own? What is that something? Whose biographies are worth our time and effort? Why?

--What is the role of other methodologies in creative writing practice? We have an anthropologist, a rhetorician, a PR person, etc., in the class. And we all have lives apart from our writing and our studies. How do these methods affect us as writers? How might those methods benefit from contact with creative writing? What are the roles of our jobs, whether in the Peace Corps (representing the USA) or in business, and how can we use and abuse them in our writing?

--Name your mentors. In what ways have they helped you through obstacles in your lives, your writing? What is important in a mentor? In being mentored? What are your lineages, and how do they intersect?

You might engage these and other issues more closely in your final projects. The projects are "intellectual memoirs," but the intellect contains so much more than thinking, includes feeling, spirit, dream-worlds, and more.

Thanks so much for your thoughts and provocations. I'll get you more detailed commentary soon. In the meantime, I'm grateful.

aloha, Susan

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