Friday, February 16, 2007

Reading as Writers; Writing as Readers

Today I decided to take my sophomores Back to Basics. The other day in class we were discussing our most recent reading, Ian Parker's New Yorker profile of controversial philanthropist Zell Kravinsky, and I had asked one of the small groups to make an effort to "read as writers," considering not so much the "what" of the article as the "how." The group seemed to have trouble figuring out how to proceed, so I thought today we would backtrack and work together to practice reading one particular section from the article from a writerly point of view. Here's the passage we looked at: feel free to skim or skip down to the followup text, since I'll be returning to the example text as we go along.
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, is a mixed-income community of about four thousand people which tries to maintain a small-town character within the sprawl of housing developments and shopping malls just north of Philadelphia. I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November, parking in front of a wooden-shingled house with a broken photocopier on the front porch and a tangle of bicycles, tricycles, and wagons. A handwritten sign by the door, a marker of spousal frustration, read, "Put Your Keys Away Before You Forget."

Kravinsky came to the door several minutes after I rang the bell. He is slight, and looked both boyish and wan, with pale, almost translucent skin. He wore sneakers, a blue plaid shirt, and tan trousers with an elasticized waist. He seemed distracted, and I realized later that the timing of my visit was awkward: he knew that his wife would not want a reporter in the house, but she had gone out, and two of his four young children were home, so he could not immediately go out to lunch with me. He invited me into a house crowded with stuff, including a treadmill in the middle of the living room. He cleared away enough books and toys for me to sit down on a sofa. His daughter, who is nine, came into the room to say hello, but when Emily Kravinsky came home, a moment later, she walked straight past us into the kitchen, taking the girl with her. Kravinsky followed. He came back after a few minutes and picked up his coat, and as we left the house he said, "She wants us out of here."

We drove to a restaurant in a nearby mini-mall. He ordered a mushroom sandwich and a cup of warm water that he didn't touch. "I used to feel that I had to be good, truly good in my heart and spirit, in order to do good," he said, in a soft voice. "But it's the other way around: if you do good, you become better. With each thing I've given away, I've been more certain of the need to give more away. And at the end of it maybe I will be good. But what are they going to say-that I'm depressed? I am, but this isn't suicidal. I'm depressed because I haven't done enough."

Within a few minutes, Kravinsky had talked of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the Talmud, and, in less approving terms, of the actor Billy Crudup, who had just left his pregnant girlfriend for another woman. ("How do you like that!") Kravinsky's mostly elevated range of reference, along with a rhetorical formality and a confessional tone, sometimes gave the impression that he was reading from his collected letters. "What I aspire to is ethical ecstasy," he said. "Ex stasis: standing out of myself, where I'd lose my punishing ego. It's tremendously burdensome to me." Once achieved, "the significant locus would be in the sphere of others."

His cell phone rang, and a mental switch was flicked: "You have to do a ten-thirty-one and put fresh money in on terms that are just as leveraged . . . going eight per cent over debt. . . . I think we should do it. It's nice to start with a blue chip."

These contrasting discourses have one clear point of contact. In our conversations, Kravinsky showed an almost rhapsodic appreciation of ratios. In short, ratios are dependable and life is not. "No number is significant in itself: its only significance is in relation to other numbers," he said. "I try to rely on relationships between numbers, because those relationships are constant-unlike Billy Crudup and the woman he impregnated. Even if the other relationships in our lives are going to hell in a handbasket, numbers continue to cooperate with one another."
I began by trying to sketch some ideas based on the assumption that writing is a series of moves. The writer does something first, and keeps doing that until he stops doing that and starts doing something else. "Reading as a writer" involves tracking those moves, figuring out what sorts of decisions the writer is making as the piece of writing unfolds, and then trying to figure out which of those moves might be useful additions to one's own repertoire of writerly moves.

All pieces of writing start the same way: with a blank page (or, perhaps, a blank screen.) And in that moment, the writer is faced with a decision: how to begin. There are lots of familiar off-the-shelf starting patterns: "Once upon a time..." immediately signals we're entering the world of a fairy tale. "Yesterday as I was..." promises a factual first-person narrative. "Dear Grandma..." suggests that a personal communication in the form of a letter will be taking shape. Students generally have no real problem getting started when they write, but the selection processes, the moves they make to begin, are most often sub- or pre-conscious. One of the purposes of this particular exercise is to float some of those subconscious decisions to the surface, where they can be (re)considered.

So I think it's always instructive to look at points of entry. In this case, we begin with "Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, is a mixed-income community of about four thousand people which tries to maintain a small-town character within the sprawl of housing developments and shopping malls just north of Philadelphia." As I explained to the students, I have read something like 342,792 student papers in my career, and not many of them sound like this. So what makes this writing different? What kind of writing is this? What's the opening move?

Well, it's reportorial, for one thing. It starts by reporting demographic facts about a particular town. If we had only the first sentence to go on, we might well expect that this was going to be some kind of sociological analysis of the town itself. But we'd be wrong about that, as the next sentence, busting a new move, immediately makes clear:

I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November, parking in front of a wooden-shingled house with a broken photocopier on the front porch and a tangle of bicycles, tricycles, and wagons.
Now this is a sentence that bears close examination. I asked the students to tell me how many parts the sentence has, and the consensus answer was "two." (Other answers are also instructive, for perhaps slightly different reasons.) The first part of the sentence ("I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November") is interesting not only because it signals more clearly the real intention of the piece (it's not, in fact, going to be a sociological treatise about Jenkintown, but a first-person narrative about the author's visit to Kravinsky's house), but also because it is the kind of sentence that might have appeared in any of those 342,792 student papers. The second part of the sentence, however, shows the writer busting another move, one that I am at more or less constant pains to get my students to practice: the move toward specificity. 342,790 of my theoretical student essays would have continued with something like "and the yard was a mess." But Parker does something more artful, and more helpful, he gives us a selection of details that allow us to picture the yard. The old writer's cliché is "Show, don't tell." Here Parker is showing us how that works. It's also worth noting that the selection of details is not random. He does not mention whether or not the mailbox was open. He does not mention whether or not there was a bird in the maple tree by the front door. Instead, he gives us a selection of details which have a particular significance, and that significance is related to his purpose in the article, which is to tell us what sort of a person Zell Kravinsky turns out to be. The details give us the impression that Kravinsky is a guy who does not pay much attention to his physical surroundings. Parker, in his next sentence, nails that impression down:
A handwritten sign by the door, a marker of spousal frustration, read, "Put Your Keys Away Before You Forget."
This sentence is interesting as the clincher in a series of details that allow us to begin characterizing Kravinsky—as Parker himself is doing as he tries to "read" the situation he's walking into—before Kravinsky has even opened the door. Furthermore, the interpolation of that innocent little authorial inference ("a marker of spousal frustration") suggests that the controversy surrounding Kravinsky and his way of doing things extends even into the confines of his home.

Having walked with the students through the series of writerly moves in the first paragraph, I then asked them to work through the rest of the passage individually, looking for the fault lines, the turns, the places where the author stops doing what he has been doing and starts doing something else. I asked them to pay particular attention to anything they see Parker doing that in the normal course of writing they would have been unlikely to do themselves. After about ten minutes, I asked each student to turn to a partner and share one thing move that they noticed or found interesting. A few minutes later, I asked for volunteers to share something their partner had said that they thought was interesting.

We wound up talking about a number of interesting moments in the piece: the part where Kravinsky orders food but doesn't touch it; the interpolation of the parenthetical expression ("How do you like that!") in the paragraph of indirect quotations, the logic of the selection of the particular direct quotations from what must have been a longer conversation.

At which point, I gave the students the homework assignment which represent the inversion of the exercise of reading as a writer: we follow up by writing as readers, trying to use what we have observed to come up with a piece of writing which is different from, and potentially better than, what we might have written if we hadn't gone through this exercise:

Your assignment: do an interview with someone of your own choice and write up a report on the interview that uses whatever techniques interest you from Parker's article. Your goal is to present a profile of the person you are interviewing, so that we get to know something about that person in the same way that we get to know something about Kravinsky from reading Parker.
So that was English class on Friday February 15. I'm looking forward to reading the students' responses.


Chris Lehmann said...

Funny, but somewhat tangential comment. I took the course on Milton at Penn taught by Dr. Kravinsky that is referenced in the New Yorker article. He was a truly brilliant teacher, and for years, I started my classes on the first day the same way he started his, "In this class, we are governed by the laws of loving-kindness."

A said...

To follow your tangent... I took one of Zell's classes at Penn too. His deep and sincere love was inspirational. He wrote full page handwritten comments on papers that were full of praise and love.