Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From Powell's interview with George Saunders:

Dave: Give one example of something you've found that works in the classroom.

Saunders: The last grad class I taught at Syracuse, we committed to having no outside reading. We would read one story in class and talk about it for three hours. We also committed to keeping away from an academic approach. That was really interesting.

I would try not to read them beforehand. I had read them at some point but not recently. We would say, "Let's treat reading as truly experiential. Let's actually talk about what happened as we read it. If we can." Almost meditation-reading, where you're watching your own mind. And be comfortable being quiet.

It was amazing how deep you could get into stories that way, when you didn't have the option of bringing up four other stories. You'd read a six-page Salinger story in class, and you had to talk about just that one. And then when someone would make an observation, you'd have time to say, "Let's go back and see if that's true. Where exactly did you start to not like Character B?" And you could track it down, literally, to mid-phrase, which is really empowering. You realize that the emotional effects you were experiencing didn't happen out of the blue. You could literally trace them to lines in the text.

Also, you'd see where different young writers would be totally divided about the way a piece was working, and how that mapped their aesthetic values. As someone who wasn't really educated in English Literature, I have that insecurity about going into a class and having nothing to say. This worked against that. Fine, I'm going to go in and we're going to read this son of a bitch. If we have nothing to say, we won't say anything. And if we start to say something full of shit we'll stop.

That was a really productive class. You see that all the stuff you'd normally talk about, character and theme and all that, it only comes at you a line at a time. It's empowering to see that you don't have to have a big theory about theme or character; you just have to keep the reader going from line to line. Literally, when the mind shuts down, you've lost them, you're done. But if you can keep that alive, you're a storyteller, and all those other things will slot in.

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