2005-09-09 / Columnists

School Scope

What I Did on My Summer Vacation
By Norman Scott


  • Sept. 9, 2006
  • Welcome back to school daze. It’s been a refreshing summer away from the educational scene. Well, not totally away, but more about that later.

    I decided to take a 10-week fiction-writing course at the Gotham Writers Workshop.

    Aside from the fact that my non-fiction writings and opinions are often branded as fiction, this was really about writing fiction. There were seven people in the class (Gotham has a maximum of 14) – talk about a low class size – a topic we’ll be addressing in depth in future columns. I’m sure the enjoyment we all seemed to get from the experience had a lot to do with low number, plus the fact that the teacher, Sandra Newman (author of the innovative and daring novel “The Only Good Things Anyone Has Ever Done”), gently led the group through the trials and tribulations of character development, theme, voice, settings, and all the other accoutrements that fiction writers must master to develop their craft.

    And craft it is.

    The building of a character out of parts of people I’ve met (those who know me better watch out – you may recognize yourself one day) made me feel like Frankenstein creating his monster. Writing descriptions of people and places was so much more difficult than I expected. I found myself looking furtively at people on the subway and then trying to describe them. Dissecting every room I entered, I watched the sheer curtains waft in the breeze over the mauve-colored furniture. I’m not even sure what color mauve is but it sure sounds good.

    We were expected to produce two short stories that would be read by everyone in the class and critiqued in the workshop section of the class. I know just hearing the word “workshop” is making teachers, who have had the Teachers College model shoved down their throats by the DOE in NYC, cringe, but – and here we go again – the class size was seven.

    And we were adults.

    And we were there willingly.

    And we paid to be there – not exactly the model in NYC classrooms – so the workshop was very illuminating for both the writers and their classmates.

    And people really bent over backwards to be nice, even after one participant asked everyone to drop the

    kid gloves and hammer her story. We didn’t.

    In my struggles to create – I guess that’s why it is called creative writing – I found the process so much more complex than writing non-fiction, where it is easier to just let things fly. Fiction requires a lot more thought and planning – where to put precursors of events, keeping characters consistent, making sure events take place with some sense of logic and order. While working on one of my stories I was repairing a section of my deck. Going back and forth between the two projects, one so cerebral and one so hands-on, the construction of a work of fiction often was more taxing. I was struck by the similarities in the process of solving both sets of problems.

    One of the most complex problems is creating dialogue that reads as if it’s real. At a special dialogue-writing workshop the instructor, a professional screen-writer, made the point that the dialogue of the characters should reflect their educational backgrounds, their life experiences and so on. Hmmmm. I was wondering why the 10-year old girl and the 50-year old man I was writing about sound like the same person. I think I need to register for a few more courses.

    Maybe it’s my memory banks being shot, but I don’t remember learning any of the stuff I learned this summer in all the years of creative writing in school where the focus was more along the lines of “What I did on my summer vacation.” See – old habits never die.

    Many young people I meet (college-age plus) are telling me they do not read fiction other than what they were forced to read in school. Have they been turned off by the literacy mania where they have to come up with the main idea of everything they read? Or the parsing of paragraphs that goes on as part of the mania to raise test scores?

    Killing the joy of reading in the service of the political movement to raise test scores so some politician (not that I’m talking about anyone in particular) can claim votes, doesn’t seem to be bothering too many people outside the anti-high stakes testing crowd.

    It’s the old “cure the patient even if you have to kill him” syndrome.

    “Why read something that’s not true,” my young friends say? “If I read anything it would be non-fiction.” Or people look to read historical fiction so at least they feel they are getting some extra knowledge out of the time they spend reading.

    Trying to learn to write fiction at a time when the youngest audience may be abandoning the genre may be like opening a video store in an age of downloadable movies. But the experience has certainly made me more sensitive to the fiction I have been reading and has led me to attempt to upgrade from my usual low-grade spy and detective thrillers to a higher quality of writing. It has also made me more sensitive to the craft used by these writers and, as I struggle to come up with even one apt metaphor, very appreciative of their skills with language.

    One thing is clear, to be a good writer, one must be a sensitive reader.

    In one of our exercises, we read a few pages of a piece of fiction and had to write a few paragraphs in the style of that author. My luck – I got Virginia Woolf. What do I know of Virginia Woolf other than that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton weren’t afraid of her in some movie? Anyway, I muddled through writing one long sentence, which was the way Woolf seemed to write to me.

    The point is that “creative writing” has often separated from “reading” in school and my recent experiences would point in the direction a merger of the disciplines. This may be happening as the concept of “literacy” is pushed. I sat in on a few lessons when I was mentoring where the teacher very effectively implemented “The Writing Workshop” in a 2nd grade class (class size was 21 in Park Slope.) The children used the genres they were studying in reading as part of their creative writing. We’ll know more in about 10 years when we ask a college student if they like to read fiction and they say “yes.” Even better, they will hand us the most recent piece they wrote.

    Education stuff doesn’t all go away in summer

    I attended the Panel for Educational Policy meetings at Tweed (the Department of Education HQ for those who are neophytes to “School Scope”) in July and August. These are monthly meetings of Bloomberg’s handpicked panel that rubber stamp his policies (except for the five people chosen by Borough Presidents) presided over by Chancellor Joel Klein.

    The August meeting dealt with the bogus issue of “ending social promotion” for 7th graders.

    We’ll get into why it’s bogus in future columns, but let’s see – we’re leaving them back in the 3rd, 5th and 7th grades. That could give us, hmmm, I need help with my math here, 16 or 17 year olds in the 7th grade? That will really work out well. But, oh, yes, they are going to get extra help. I’m sure these students will be thrilled and teaching them will be oh, so simple.

    It’s amazing how the September school clock, reinforced from the age of five until the end of college for most of the population, especially for teachers, never seems to disappear from consciousness. There never fails to be a few days around Labor Day where a bit of fall weather reinforces a growing discomfort in the pit of the stomach – even for a retired teacher. Maybe it’s just mother nature calling as the days get shorter and darker.

    Speaking of nature, readers of this column know that we were out in front on the evolution vs. intelligent design debate. I’m waiting for President Bush to endorse the teaching of alternative theories on the rotation of the earth and the revolution of the earth around the sun just to be fair to all points of view. Can we really be spinning in space without getting nauseous or being thrown off? Scientists claim it has to do with something called gravity. Can they show me some gravity?

    They claim they can show the effects of gravity, but not gravity itself. That’s like those nuts that think humans and chimps are related and try to use the fact of the commonality of 97% of the DNA as proof. Some guy named Einstein said stuff about gravity being bent by time. Or maybe it was light being bent by time. No, I think it was something about time being different on the 10th floor than on the 1st floor. Ridiculous, my cable TV program goes on the same time as my neighbor. And people actually believe that quack even on the 100th anniversary of his bogus discoveries.

    Speaking of the President, start keeping track of all the states beginning to challenge the follies of No Child Left Behind – 47 at last count. Connecticut was the first to actually go to court to sue. Most states are fearful of federal retaliation led by attack-dog Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. States are claiming that NCLB forces them into spending many millions on a testing program with no financial support from the feds. These states can be so unreasonable. How can we expect the federal government to pay for tests when more tax cuts for millionaires are necessary?

    Speaking of which, we made note of the President giving up the last two days of his vacation to deal with the New Orleans horror. Just hearing those words was one of the few reasons to smile in midst of the continuing tragedy. I think the President needs a union to protect his vacation days. Maybe the UFT could organize Presidents (maybe not, considering the wonderful job they are doing for teachers). I’m quite concerned about what will become of all the uncut brush left on the ranch.

    Speaking of which, I’m experiencing withdrawal symptoms over the fact Bush hasn’t invaded a 3rd world country in over two years. I’ve been itching to invade something so the other day I went into my neighbor’s yard and started cutting brush and burning it. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

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