Saturday, January 20, 2007

Avoiding Talking Heads & Dealing with Death

Because of the MLK Holiday, I only got to meet with my Imaginative Writing class and the seminar once this week. For the IW class, I put together a powerpoint presentation which took them through the construction of an entire short story. The story shapes were "the bear at the door" and the "quest." A "bear at the door" shape involves some force being exerted on the main character, forcing the character to act (or the character chooses not to act). In other words, something is at the door. Do you keep the door closed and ignore it or do you open the door? Somehow, I can't think about this story shape anymore without remembering that Saturday Night Live skit where the shark is going door-to-door trying to gain entrance so it can eat the inhabitants. The shark used many tactics, such as claiming it had a telegram or a candy gram. Once it said it was "Just a dolphin, ma'am." And isn't that just like all the trials that come to humans? These trials come dressed in many guises, don't they? I used "quest" to mean that the character goes on an exterior and interior journey towards self-realization.

The point of the lesson was to show them how to avoid the "talking head" story, the disembodied head who goes on and on with no attachment to the sensory world. One student said of the "talking head" story: "Yes, it's like being shut up in a dark room with someone who's talking." And I said, "Exactly! Not fun."

So I set up a scenario in which they could choose a male or female character. The character has been told to either pay the rent or get out. The character then goes on a foot expedition through town, pausing to eat, to dream in front of store windows, to remember events at certain landmarks, etc. The story ends with an image, a sensory experience expressing some longing the character has.

In the seminar, I treated the students to an episode of How Art Made the World, with Nigel Spivey. I showed them the episode about how ancient peoples used art to both comfort and terrify the onlooker regarding death. The point of the documentary was to show that humans are the only animal (that we know of) that knows it will someday die, so humans needed to find ways of accepting that. Art is one way humans chose to express their thoughts and beliefs about death. In an online Interview, Nigel Spivey talks about a poem by D. H. Lawrence, which I think must be "Ship of Death." Lawrence wrote it as he was dying. It is one of my favorite poems, and I've dealt with it in a blog entry before. Here is the first part:

Now it is autumn and the failing fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves and exit from themselves.

and it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one's own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.

This documentary was relevant to us because so many authors have death themes. It really is one of two grand themes in literature, the other being love. It is fascinating to read the psychological underpinnings of how humans deal with death.

Anyone who is interested in the Nigel Spivey documentary can go here: How Art Made the World.

My used copy of John Berryman's letters to his mother, We Dream of Honour, arrived this week. I've been collecting artists'/writers' letters for a while now, and Berryman's letters are among the best of what I've collected so far. Very rich, insightful, sometimes tormented, sometimes striving, always intriguing letters.

All in all, it has been a pretty good week.


beths front porch said...

I so enjoyed this entry, Theresa; the class presentation, the DH Lawrence poem, the Spivey documentary, the Berryman letters. It's so rich! There's lots of material here for me to mull over, a veritable garden of earthly delights :-) Even Saturday Night Live! Well, excuse me, there's a a nightmare at my door, and I'm going to answer it...

Virginia said...

We received How Art Made the World through Netflix and really enjoyed it.

Peace, Virginia

Erin said...

It sounds like a good week. I bet students in both classes were delighted!

The "bear at the door" concept makes me think of a movie I saw last weekend--"Stranger Than Fiction". Did you see this? I thought it was really interesting, and well done (perhaps because I didn't go in expecting a lot). At one point in the movie, the main character tempts fate by inaction--to see if he is controlling his life (or his story) or if it is being controlled by an outside force.

I enjoyed this entry!

Tom said...

I enjoyed this entry, too, Theresa. It helped me to gain insight into my own writings, which are filled with intense love and death themes lately. I'm not sure if any of my tiny works are "talking head stories" or not, but I know now to try to avoid doing it.

Erin said...

Theresa--thanks for your comment about my entry on the accordion. I really like your idea to turn it into a story. It's amazing how you can sometimes have a story idea in front of you and not see it until someone else points it out! Thanks.


PS: Thanks, too, for comments on genuineness. This gave me a lot to think about! (Especially in terms of threshhold.)

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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