calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!

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Calling all fans

I submitted a proposal for a panel discussion on fandom as part of my university’s English Department Colloquium Series for next year, and last week the selection committee gave me the go-ahead to begin planning the event.  I started by emailing a number of colleagues (including my thesis student who just graduated, and whom I’m proud to call a colleague now) I thought might be interested in participating, and within a few hours of sending the email, I had more than enough people to make up a panel.  And these weren’t just “sure, I’ll help an academic sister out” responses; these were “OMG I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR SOMEONE TO ASK ME ABOUT THIS” responses.  That’s only a slight exaggeration–I had co-workers coming to my door within minutes to share their thoughts; I got email replies filled with multiple exclamation points, and I even had one student (now alum, as of Saturday’s commencement) who is so keen on participating that he plans to fly back here from Texas to be on the panel, even though I told him we could easily Skype him in.

So if I wasn’t already excited about the panel discussion, I am now, and I’m even wondering if this could turn into a conference eventually.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The reason I’m telling you about all this, dear readers, is that I need your help.  I posed a number of questions in my proposal, but they’re very broad, so I’m looking for more specific questions that I can actually ask the panel–as well as other questions on fandom that I may not even have considered.  If you have questions you’d like to hear the panel address, comment on my blog or tweet them in my direction (@Tessarama).  I’ll see if we can get the discussion live streamed or recorded, and if for some reason those options don’t work out, I’ll definitely write a summary post.

Here are the questions I posed in my proposal, along with some off-the-cuff and by no means exhaustive answers from me:

  • Why do people become fans (of texts, fictional worlds, celebrities, teams, etc.)?  Another version of this question: Why do some people/things seem to inspire fandom more than others?  One possible answer to the second question, in the context of stories: The stories that have major fan followings often, but not always, have a large cast of characters, meaning that even if you don’t connect with the supposed protagonist, there’s almost guaranteed to be a “minor” character that you can identify with, fall in love with, or otherwise latch onto.
  • How does people’s fandom contribute to their identity construction? A very intricate psychological question, of which I’ve merely scratched the surface in previous blog posts, but here’s a personal answer: I am proud to identify myself as a fan of Harry Potter, especially.  It’s one of the first things I tell people about me when I meet them.  And at some level, I consider it integral to the person I’ve become over the past eight years.  (Harry and I are going to celebrate our eight anniversary this summer.)
  • Can a person be both a fan and a critical scholar of the same text or cultural phenomenon? Yes, as I’ve striven to show in my own academic work and on my blog.  See also Henry Jenkins’s much better blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  • Are fans passive consumers or active contributors? Often, and contrary to early, negative assessments of fandom, the latter.  See Henry Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers.
  • What is the relationship between fans and authors, especially as traditional notions of authorship become blurred? Oh, jeez.  This is a big one.  See my dissertation. 🙂
  • As Christian scholars, what can we learn from fandom about belonging, passion, and critical engagement, and how can we best minister to people (including each other) who strongly identify as fans? I posed this two-part question not only because Christian worldview engagement is expected in my English department, but also because I think it’s important to think about this.  Without viewing fans through some sort of distant, haughty, anthropological lens (“let’s study these weirdos who are totally Other than us”), I think it is important to think about fan communities as “people groups” (“unreached people groups,” in some cases) who need Jesus’ love just like everyone else, and who can be ministered to in unique ways.

Send me your thoughts!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

on listening to presentations

I just came from the penultimate session of a class I teach (facilitate, really) during which students complete the research and writing of their senior honors thesis.  Today I listened to the seven students in my all-female class (the Magnificent Seven, as I’ve been calling them in my mind) give short presentations about their thesis research and post-graduation plans.  These are students from majors as diverse as journalism, exercise science, and English/Spanish with teacher licensure, but they crossed disciplinary divides to convey their passion for their topics.

Earlier this afternoon, I served as a judge for five presentations (from history, English, and theology) that were part of our university’s Research Week competition.  Yesterday, I was a moderator in a room of presenters from exercise science and sports management.  Although the topics diverged widely, all the students, in spite of limitations in some of the presentations, showed a clear enthusiasm for their research and its implications in the real world.

On Tuesday, I watched my first master’s thesis student (i.e., the first student for whom I’ve served as thesis chair) defend her project, on moral maturity in the Harry Potter series, with flying colors.  It was a delightful meeting not only because we shared cookies and baked apple bars, not only because all three committee members and (of course) the student herself were Harry Potter fans, but primarily because I got to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work and my student’s relief as she realized that she knew her stuff really, really well.  It was as if I could see her becoming an expert before my eyes.

Finally, three of my children’s lit students gave in-class presentations on nonfiction books yesterday, and four more will do so tomorrow.  So I’ve spent most of this week listening to students talk.  And although there’s a significant difference between a 10-minute undergrad class presentation and an hour-long master’s thesis defense, I love hearing students at any level talk about what they love, especially when they’ve done the work to know what they’re talking about.  In fact, I love hearing people in general talk about what they love.  Maybe we should all do more asking and listening–we might hear something really cool.

my discussion board post

I’m teaching my first real graduate class this week (it’s in a one-week intensive format), and let me just tell you that I’ve been having major imposter syndrome (i.e., that voice in your head that tells you you’ve fooled everyone into believing you’re smarter than you actually are and that the truth is about to come out) all weekend and into today.  Fortunately, these graduate students are kind and understanding and (since most of them are graduate student assistants) know something about feeling unprepared to teach, so today went pretty well.

I teach at a Christian university, and tonight I’m having my students write a discussion board post about how their Christian worldview impacts their scholarly career.  (These are English M.A. students, many of whom will go on to careers in academia.)  So I thought I, too, should do what I’m asking them to do, but since I don’t want to crash their creative party by becoming the awkward authoritative presence in the virtual room, I’m writing my thoughts here.

  1. How my Christian worldview has impacted me as a writer and researcher.  As Gilderoy Lockhart once said, “For full details, see my published works” (flashes award-winning smile).  All I mean by that is that I won’t take the time to go into great detail here because I’ve already written about this at length in the introduction to my dissertation.  In summary, I said that I’m more comfortable than a secular scholar would be with talking about authors as real personalities, not merely constructs, because I believe that God, a very real personality, inspired the Bible and had a clear authorial intent in mind when he did so.  Therefore, even though I know that a degree, perhaps a large degree, of uncertainty is inevitable when we interpret texts (even when we interpret the Bible with our finite rational capabilities), it is imperative that we respect the text–any text–and its author and do our best to understand the intention, even if we don’t agree with it, and even if we see interpretive possibilities that may not have been in the author’s conscious thought.  That’s not a popular view in literary criticism, but I think it’s a Christian view.
  2. How my Christian worldview has impacted me as a teacher.  In many ways, I hope!  I hope my Christian worldview, along with the Holy Spirit inside me, has helped me to see the value of all students, to be patient with them, and to listen to them before I start telling them what I think they should think.  (I don’t always succeed at all of this.)  I know my Christian worldview has helped me to see teaching as a meaningful calling, not a frustrating but necessary side effect of being a scholar.  My Christian worldview also has a direct impact on what I say in class, something I’ve been focusing on more deliberately in the past few years as I’ve come to realize that not all of my students a) are Christians and b) understand the Bible and their faith well.  I teach English, not theology, but there are so many opportunities to speak Jesus’s name and the truth of the gospel in my classes, whether we’re looking at the triumph of grace over law in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the resurrection symbolism in Much Ado about Nothing.  (A lot of the depressing short stories I assigned in English 102 were great purely for their clear demonstration of how badly sin has messed up our world.)

There it is, my discussion board post.  I’ve written twice as much as I asked my students to write, but we teachers are known for being a bit long-winded. 😉

for your New Year’s resolution to read more children’s lit

Because if that isn’t one of your New Year’s resolutions, it should be.

When I was grading my children’s lit students’ response papers on contemporary realism, for which at least five of them chose to write about Louis Sachar’s Holes, I realized that I had never read this novel, though I had seen the 2003 movie (which is excellent, and which I’ll address shortly).  So during my Christmas break, I decided to spend an afternoon reading it.  Now, I’m pretty sure I’ll use it as an assigned text if I teach the course again next fall.  Let me tell you why Holes is so good.

In slightly over 200 pages, Sachar weaves a five-generation family saga together with a hundred-year-old mystery and the story of a teenage boy’s developing self-esteem and moral consciousness.  In the process, he meaningfully addresses the penal system, homelessness, and race relations in America.  Yet there’s nothing pretentious or alienating about this novel.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, and it’s perfectly pitched toward that elusive reading demographic, elementary to middle school-aged boys.

When I get around to teaching Holes, I’ll have to comb through it to find all the symbolism, parallelism, and other literary devices that Sachar uses in such a not heavy-handed way.  For now, here’s one example: the situational irony.  I love the little detail at the end of the novel that tells us that Camp Green Lake ends up turning into a Girl Scout camp, a wonderful conclusion to all Mr. Sir’s lame jokes about how it isn’t a Girl Scout camp.  As ironic reversals go, this ranks right up there with Haman’s nasty shock in the book of Esther, my current go-to example of situational irony.

I’ll also have to find time in the course to show the movie, which is one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen (not that I valorize faithfulness; I understand that books and films are two totally different media), probably because Sachar himself wrote the screenplay.  (He also appears in a brief cameo–he’s the balding guy that Sam the Onion Man tells to rub onion juice on his scalp.)  One thing I appreciate about the film is that all the characters from the book are in it; none of them are collapsed together for simplicity’s sake, as so often happens in adaptations.  I also think it’s important that each of the actors who portrays one of the boys in D Tent is the same race as the character in the book, since race is such a major (though relatively subtle) theme in this novel.

The one place where the movie diverges significantly from the book is also one of its areas of strength: the casting of the protagonist, Stanley Yelnats.  Shia LaBeouf plays this role with great sensitivity and humor (whatever he may be now, Shia used to be a really good actor), but he doesn’t fit the novel’s description of Stanley as a very overweight kid.  Stanley’s weight is important to the themes and even the plot of the novel, and it adds painful overtones to scenes that are already emotionally fraught (like when ZigZag tries to force Stanley to eat his cookie).  I wonder if some young fans of the novel were disappointed that the movie didn’t address this element–especially, perhaps, some kids who identified with Stanley.  I was a little disappointed myself, but it’s my only complaint about the film.

In conclusion, you should read Holes, watch the movie, and let me know what you think.  And get working on that New Year’s resolution.

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.