break for a personal update: on teaching

Whew. I’ve finished my first week teaching writing composition classes to freshman (and a couple of sophomores) at a little liberal arts college in West Virginia. This is a big change for me. Aside from Hops’s ugly shock at being left home alone for hours every day!, I’ve been wrestling with lesson plans, reading and writing assignments, and managing a class full of variously bored, overanxious, and sleepy 18-year-olds. It is simultaneously maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and potentially one of the most rewarding.

For our second class meeting, I had all my students write me a letter of introduction, sharing as much of themselves as felt comfortable. This allowed me to judge the writing skills and grammar they entered with (not perfect, but often not terrible either), and see them as individuals with their own interests and concerns. I was touched at how much some of them did choose to share. And I learned how many of them are genuinely nervous about passing my class (with a C or better, required to move on to the next one). I’ve been trying to communicate to each of them that I’m here to help them pass – every last one of them – as long as they’re putting in the work and asking me for the help they need.

It feels kind of overwhelming, the idea of having readings, writing exercises, grammar lessons, and class discussions (etc.) ready for every class meeting between now and early December. All their faces and needy brains out there in a sea of challenge. Just learning their names! (I have my smallest class down; the next one, pretty much there; the last, still kind of a mess.) I am trying to remind myself that even though I’d like to be perfect every day, professional and polished, that’s not a realistic goal. I’ve pointed out to them that I’m not perfect, either, but I don’t want to overstress that point, lest they worry that I’m nearly as much at sea as they are!

At this point, for better or worse, I’m committed to the syllabus, schedule, and textbook I’ve set. So we’ll just venture out together, me and these 47 kids. Wish us luck.

I have scaled my book review work way, way back. But I also have a backlog of work ready for this blog into the month of November as of now. I think we’ll make it into the new year easily enough with a three-day-a-week schedule; come January, we’ll see. This work remains important to me, as I think it always will. But I obviously have some day-to-day priorities right now that take precedence.

And January sounds a long way off still. Lots of essays to shepherd and grade between now and then; lots of individual conferences and who knows what little crises to face. I’ll be out here learning as I go.

Teacher friends, if you have words of wisdom for me, I’d be grateful to take them in the comments below. Or just send me your good wishes. I’m headed back into reading my students’ words and figuring out what’s next…

“Road Writing” at Heartwood blog

My MFA alma mater’s lit journal, Heartwood, also hosts a blog for program-related news and such. Check out my recent guest post.

Thanks! (Remember you can always read my travel-related reporting at Foxylikeaturtle.)


Housekeeping: yes, it’s Monday. I’m having to switch back to three posts per week now, as the backlog grows! Good problems; semi-retirement is working! So, look for posts on Monday-Wednesday-Friday for a while now. I’m sure when I start teaching in the fall things will dry up again…

marginalia: Blue Highways: A Journey into America

He may have thought I was joking, but here I am, writing about the highlights, marking, and marginalia of Matt Ferrence in the copy of Blue Highways that he gifted me. (Reviewed here last week in two parts.)

thanks, buddy.

We’ve exchanged some text messages as I read the book, and I’ve found it interesting to see where Matt marked (rarely where I was moved to), and where I thought the earth shook and Matt made no note at all. Not once did we mark the same lines. Go figure. I’m also intrigued to hear that he’s tried to teach this book to writing students who were left cold. I wish I could be in that class; I wish I could be that class; I wish I could co-teach that class!

If I buy a used book and it comes to me with someone else’s markings in it, I’m annoyed. It changes the way I read the book; someone else’s signal of what is and is not important gets in my way. This was different, though. Rather than a stranger, this was the hushed voice of a fellow writer I like and respect, nodding to me. I’m curious to see how he reads. There are highlighted sections; there are (only a few) marginal notes; and there are a number of dog-ears marking those pages that show highlighting or notes, but not all marked pages are dog-eared. I don’t know if that’s significant, or an oversight.

For comparison, this is what it looks like when I take notes:

Matt does not believe that Heat-Moon recorded all the dialog faithfully; he thinks that a lot of dialog reads in Heat-Moon’s own voice. (But he carried a microcassette recorder! I am most curious at this accusation! Matt also highlighted “I played a tape recording of the last few days and made notes.”) My favorite page marking is the one that reads, large in highlighter at the top of the page, Monks! (Exclamation mark!) Monks, indeed!

Matt (teacher of creative nonfiction writing) highlighted the phrase at the beginning of a sentence on page 131: “I’m an authority because…” and oh, the richness of that assertion. Classes have been taught on the voice of authority and the way a narrator achieves authority over a given subject. Hint: rarely does he claim it outright.

I love these highlighted lines:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force in spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Amazing. The inexorability of soft forces.

Matt highlights the line, mid-paragraph: “He was starting to ruin Cave Creek.” A man has visited Heat-Moon’s camp, unexpectedly and, it turns out, unwelcomed. Usually our narrator welcomes company, but this man is a complainer, and ruins the idyllic natural setting. I hadn’t remarked it without the help of this pink highlighter mark, but now it reminds me of the travels of Huck and Jim on the Mississippi, and how the river was always a place of calm and safety, while anytime they went inland and interacted with humans, they ran into trouble. “Man,” as Heat-Moon would have it, ruins what is desirable about the state of nature.

I’m glad I got this copy of this book. I learned some things. As Heat-Moon writes (and Matt marks):

I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.

And maybe that’s always the most instructive thing.

Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, part 2

Without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth. And worse: knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless.

Today I continue my review of Blue Highways begun on Wednesday.

The above quotation refers to a literal labyrinth, a maze the narrator walks that is too obvious. But clearly its meaning applies to the mad trip of life: the joy and pathos and point is not in knowing but in discovering.

Unavoidably, in the deep South, Heat-Moon finds racial tensions, which he follows to Selma to ask what’s changed since King’s march. He has a totally chilling experience there: this question is not welcome among the whites of the town he encounters, although the Black citizens have a little more to say. He is shaken down in the middle of the night by cops who, he’s warned, didn’t like him talking with Black residents at all. He’s curious about the experiences of Native Americans everywhere he goes, which is unsurprising considering his own heritage; he is also sensitive about his status as a “mixed-blood.” “Let his heart be where it may,” such a person “is a contaminated man who will be trusted by neither red nor white.” This feeling of not quite belonging inhibits his investigations on the road, which happens but rarely, and usually only out of concern for his immediate safety. The reader feels this “mixed-blood” identity is a pressure point for the narrator, and I’m curious whether he’s explored it in his other works (there are several, but this is all of his I’ve read to date). I accept that this book is not where that material belongs, but it does seem like something he has to write about.

I appreciated his exploration of environmental concerns, although as a topic for this book, the natural world is at least as obvious as racial issues. “Everyone believes what the dredge and bulldozer can do, they can also undo; but a Cajun named Cassie Hebert told me he had yet to see a bush-dog make a mink.” Part of what Heat-Moon is out for is a view of a changing world, to grasp the last of the real, the old, the rural, before it is corporatized and made same – a process much completed between his trip and my own. “I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected,” he writes (and as always, the use of ‘men’ pisses me off, but on with it). Places where change did not mean ruin. One of my first thoughts about this book, in its earliest pages, was: I cannot visit the places this man visited. I can go to towns with the same names, which occupy the same spaces, but the diners he judges by the number of past-year calendars on their walls have surely fallen to Subways and Sonics by now.

When Heat-Moon gets into the question of where “the West” begins, I am intrigued. I’m not sure where I’d say, but maybe somewhere west of San Antonio, in my home state of Texas, which is where the question arises for him. “Texans say the Brazos River,” he asserts, and first I want to state that I’ve never heard of an agreed-upon general Texan answer to this question; but I would personally argue hard against the Brazos. Why, that’s east of Austin! His generalizations about Texas fall short for me, because it’s too big a state to generalize (I’d argue that probably even Delaware is too big to generalize, but that’s a different story. Also I’ll be in Delaware soon and let you know). I was tickled to see several of my own homes appear in these pages: for example Johnson City, Texas (“truly a plain town”), where my friend lives who sold me my van. And a little trivia about Fredericksburg, Texas, another town in my old neighborhood: “Main Street’s wide because an ox is stupid,” Heat-Moon is told, although there is a little longer story to it than that. Go buy this book to read it on page 144. Much later in the book – in its final pages – we encounter Elkins and Buckhannon, West Virginia, giving me a thrill, since I’ll be teaching in Buckhannon this fall and taking a rental home maybe as far out as Elkins (not far).

Heat-Moon travels largely spontaneously and by whim. He may study his atlas the night before he drives; he may turn the wheel when he sees a sign that looks interesting. Exceptions to this seat-of-the-pants rule are made for major destinations and to visit friends. This is very much the way I travel, too, and I was frequently pleased and sometimes flabbergasted to find us so much in sync.

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d never have found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of [the author’s father] Heat Moon’s – believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.

Etymology: curious, related to cure, once meant ‘carefully observant.’ Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitable creeps toward the absurd. Absurd, by the way, derives from a Latin word meaning ‘deaf, dulled.’ Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means whereby the outer eye opens an inner one. STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, the old railroad crossing signs warned. Whitman calls it ‘the profound lesson of reception.’

New ways of seeing can disclose new things: the radio telescope revealed quasars and pulsars, and the scanning electronic microscope showed the whiskers of the dust mite. But turn the question around: Do new things make for new ways of seeing?

Coming early, on page 17, this felt like a lot to consider at the time I read it – so new to Heat-Moon – and it still feels like a lot to consider now. But it also feels like the essential question. Later,

She longed for the true journey of an Odysseus or Ishmael or Gulliver or even a Dorothy of Kansas, wherein passage through space and time becomes only a metaphor of a movement through the interior of being. A true journey, no matter how long the travel takes, has no end. What’s more, as John Le CarrĂ©, in speaking of the journey of death, said, ‘Nothing ever bridged the gulf between the man who went and the man who stayed behind.’

Maybe this is Heat-Moon’s subtle point, but I want to ask the question outright: doesn’t the Le CarrĂ© line apply equally well to more worldly journeys? Forgive the self-reference here (so sorry), but I wrote early in my creative thesis about moving into the van: “I hope to return home from these travels as someone else. But is that not also the scariest thing imaginable: to jump into a crucible hoping to be transformed, not knowing what will spill out the other side? How on earth does one pack for such a trip?” How are we changed by the things we do and the places we go?

This book is a source of many one-line philosophies, koans even, that a traveler could spend her time on. Part of me thinks I should put them on note-cards and consider one every morning as I set out.

There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t.

A Brooklyn-police-officer-turned-monk says (among many other wise things),

I learned to travel, then traveled to learn.

Heat-Moon again:

A rule of the blue road: Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find.

On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension – change is.

Let me tell you, never in life have I lost track of time like I have out here.

In a hotel room at the geographical center of North America, a neon sign blinking red through the cold curtains, I lay quietly like a small idea in a vacant mind.

This line, coming a little past the center of this book, is immediately and obviously sad, and poetic. And I so sympathize: I too have sat sad and poetic in a rundown hotel room. But look more closely. Like a small idea in a vacant mind? Well, the idea is small: maybe this is a bad sign, the smallness of the idea. But maybe it’s hopeful: in a vacant mind sprouts something small. A beginning. I don’t know. I’m still deciding.

Before I left home, I had told someone that part of my purpose for the trip was to be inconvenienced so I might see what would come from dislocation and disrupted custom. Answer: severe irritability.

I do so sympathize. And yet, only a few lines later:

I built a little fire, cut some sausage, and put it in the skillet with two eggs. The pine popped and snapped in the flames, the sausage hissed like serpents, the warm air moved, and I was washed. Nights like last night made for mornings like this. I could stay on the road forever.

This too I’ve experienced. Move a few miles down the road and find new life.

On this topic, though, I confess I’ve felt some of the same malaise, aimlessness, and sadness that Heat-Moon has; in fact, it sometimes feels like he conjures his experiences again in me. When a full day’s rainstorm keeps him holed up in Ghost Dancing reading his atlas, the same rainstorm kept me holed up in Foxy, reading Blue Highways. When his mood turns dark, mine does as well. I’m not sure I should blame him – coincidence, causation, correlation? Certainly, if he has cause to feel morose at the America he finds, I can only have more cause. At any rate, it makes me feel his words ring truer.

I gained so much from this book. For one thing, I added a number of places from Heat-Moon’s travels to my own map of maybes: Crater Lake in Oregon, Selma (how could I have passed this by?) in Alabama, Manteo and Wanchese in North Carolina. And I hope to be goaded to my own increased writing by his prodigious output. A mere three months gave Heat-Moon this book of 420 pages, which began as an 800-page manuscript. My five months have given me mere notes and jottings (and copious blog entries, of course, as McKibben warns against).

But its value is vast, and not just for fellow van-dwellers. Blue Highways teaches about America, a place in time, or a series of small places in relationship to time. It teaches how to live in the world, how to relate to strangers. It’s an extraordinary series of sentences, gorgeously and wisely and hilariously written. It’s an absolute classic.

Matt, thanks again.


Rating: 7 for objective value and 9 for its commentary on my life right this minute, so call it 8 spontaneous redirections.

And come back next week for my examination of Blue Highways marginalia!

Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, part 1

I am eternally grateful to Matt Ferrence for sending me this book at the right time (and then I goofed and waited three months to read it, but that’s on me). Matt is the author of Appalachia North, which I am also carrying around in the van and not getting around to as early as I’d like (I swear I’m just saving it for a special occasion). And he is a very fine teacher – check out this awesome talk on Big Hair Drum Fills, one of the highlights of last winter’s residency at my school.

First, the personal significance of this book cannot be overstated. Matt sent it to me near the start of my own van travels cross-country; Blue Highways is Heat-Moon’s travelogue of the same sort of journey. It will be hard to separate my experience of this book from my similar life experience. I will try, but it will be hard. I have so much to say about this book that I’m breaking this review into two posts, starting with general comments and moving into selections and closer looks.

A brief foreword by Bill McKibben was most remarkable to me because of McKibben’s significance to me and (more so) to my father, who points out that this book was “published and lingering on the NYT bestseller list in the year of your birth; and the author was the age you will be when you hit the road again a year from now.” He didn’t catch the foreword, though. That’s okay: there’s not much to it. It amounts to McKibben’s praise of this classic, and some cursory observations about how the world has changed since 1978 when Heat-Moon took to the road. Books have been written about the changing world; I think it’s to McKibben’s credit that he doesn’t try to write that book in the preface to this one. He gets out of the way quickly, which I appreciate.

So, in we go. At his opening, William Least Heat-Moon is in some crisis. He learns he’s lost his job teaching English; he calls to check in with his wife, from whom he’s been separated nine months, and she lets another man’s name slip. And he finally breaks, and takes off in a way (he later realizes) he’s always been tempted to do. He moves into a truck he calls Ghost Dancing, outfitted with bunk and other gear, and heads out. (This already holds many parallels to my own life.)

Heat-Moon travels the nation in a great loop, some 11,000 miles of it, and in a mere three months. (I have decided that he’s a little cagey about his timeline, although it’s there if you read closely. I’ve been out nearly twice as long now as he was, but I’ve traveled only 9,000 miles or so. And written very little.) His goals for his trip are vague, and he’s generally a little put out when asked to articulate them (something he’s asked to do rather more often than I am, possibly because dogs [see below re: dogs]). These goals get a little clearer – or a little clearer in their muddiness – as his trip progresses. This makes perfect sense to me. He had to take the trip to figure out why he had to take it.

the Blue Highways route (click to enlarge)

Along the way, he talks to people and sees the sights. He seeks out small towns with interesting place names: Nameless, Tennessee; Whynot, Mississippi; Dime Box, Texas. He wants to eat good Cajun food, and authentic diner food anywhere; he wants to hear what people think, of their place and of the changing world. He sets out to record (literally, he carries a microcassette recorder, and a camera and backup lenses), and conducts what I think I’ll call interviews, although he clearly wouldn’t call them that – not to his interviewees, who think they’re just having conversation. Heat-Moon picks up hitchhikers, of course, including a proselytizing Bible-thumper, and they match quotations: Whitman versus the Bible. It is an invigorating episode, actually, although I would not have had quite the patience Heat-Moon shows. (Maybe this is why I travel with a dog!) As McKibben advises, “If at any point these passages look like blog posts from someone’s summer trip, read them again more carefully. Savor them. Because this is about as good as writing ever got.” (I love the implication that writing is not still getting, but has got.) Well, the passages in question are blog-like: they read like journal entries, and they are chronological. But McKibben’s point is well taken. These are not mere journal entries. They add up to a greater sum. (I’m already giving the lie to what I said about the insignificance of McKibben’s foreword, aren’t I. Well, so be it.)

When a waitress in Gainesboro, Tennessee insists, “Cain’t travel without a dog!” Heat-Moon replies: “I like to do things the hard way.” If you’ve been following that other blog, you know my instant reaction to this. He continues: “It isn’t traveling to cross the country and talk to your pug instead of people along the way. Besides, being alone on the road makes you ready to meet someone when you stop. You get sociable traveling alone.” And you know, that’s true. I keep to myself quite a bit; because I’m not really by myself at all.

Hops in a van on a boat

Among the enjoyable features of Heat-Moon’s writing: he writes a hell of a phrase, often causing me to guffaw aloud in public. Indiana 66 is “a road so crooked it could run for the legislature”; Sulphur Spring, which the Shawnees believed was curative, tastes “bad enough to cure something.” “Golden Styroform from Big Mac containers blew about as if Zeus had just raped Danae. Shoot the Hamburglar on sight.” “Muddy holes a small man on a small unicycle would have disappeared in…” “Note to mapmakers: without a gas station, cafe, water tower, and stoplight, you don’t have a town.” And a coinage: he spots something with a toothy grin looming in front of his truck “just before I smunched it.” I like a good, onomatopoetic coinage. Note that, aside from the indictment of McDonald’s, these phrases are pleasing in themselves, purely for their words, and not for their greater meaning.

I love his descriptions of the strange and the wonderful in the everyday – McKibben praises this too, although he chooses different passages to highlight – me, I’m partial to the one with the bicycle in it. Driving up a steep rise in Arizona,

I shifted to low, and Ghost Dancing pulled hard. A man with a dusty, leathery face creased like an old boot strained on a bicycle – the old style with fat tires. I called a hello, he said nothing. At the summit, I waited to see whether he would make the ascent. Far below lay two cars, crumpled wads. Through the clear air I could count nine ranges of mountains, each successively grayer in a way reminiscent of old Chinese woodblock prints. The Mogollon was a spectacular place; the more so because I had not been anesthetized to it by endless Kodachromes. When the cyclist passed, I called out, “Bravo!” but he acknowledged nothing. I would have liked to talk to a man who, while his contemporaries were consolidating their little empires, rides up the Mogollon Rim on a child’s toy. Surely he knew something about desperate men.

I will forgive the dig about the child’s toy (especially since I didn’t see the bicycle in question), and recognize that the final sentence I quote here hints at a mostly unstated theme of Blue Highways. At least not until late in the book does Heat-Moon begin to address the pain of his failing marriage, and the fact that he is, on some level, running from something (its failure) or seeking something (its salvation). The desperate man who may have something to teach our narrator is one of the subtle through-lines of the book, and this moment with the leather-faced cyclist points it out. It is not til page 327 that he puts it plainly: “Some men take their broken marriages to church-basement workshops. I took mine to the highways and attempted to tuck it away for nearly eleven thousand miles.” I think it a charming touch of realism, that the reader must wait for thousands of miles, along with the narrator, to learn what the hell is really going on here.

As McKibben points out, Heat-Moon “is fluent (unobnoxiously) in the literature of our language).” Our narrator quotes Whitman and Black Elk (from Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks) most frequently, I think, as well as Heat Moon (the author’s father), and (naturally) Thoreau; I also appreciated reference to Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (which I read before this blog was born, and I regret that, because I’d love to compare the two. I remember it fondly). Likewise John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. Here’s Gertrude Stein, too: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes American what it is.” Now, I have visited Big Bend and I hear tell of the wide open spaces of Montana and Alaska, but I wonder if this statement is still true at all. The quotation is credited (not here, but I found it) to Stein’s 1936 The Geographical History of America, more than 80 years ago now. I can believe it was true then. When I read this line, I stopped and put down the book to sit with it and ask myself: is this what I want? Space where nobody is? It’s part of an ongoing and important series of questions I’m asking myself these days. This is not necessarily material for this book review; but it’s significant, I think, that a book makes one stop and question.

I love an author who will teach me new words, too. Heat-Moon had me look up quodlibet, which is either “a topic for or exercise in philosophical or theological discussion,” or “a lighthearted medley of well-known tunes.” The usage here is “a mockingbird knocked out a manic of quodlibets,” so I guess we’ll go for the latter definition. He had me look up mochila, which turns out to be (prosaically) Spanish for ‘backpack.’ He teaches me conterminous, which means ‘sharing a common boundary,’ as in the conterminous or contiguous United States. Tallywhacker: slang for penis. Arrack: distilled spirit made from coconut flowers or sugarcane. Swiving: having sexual intercourse. Cockahoop: as a verb, to carouse, basically, but used here as an adjective it means something more like ‘extremely and obviously pleased.’ Whilom: former or erstwhile.

On the other hand, Heat-Moon can be a little creepy in his appreciation of the bodies of young coeds, and in his sympathies with other grown men and their appreciations. I know this is a sign of the times (as Pops pointed out, the year of my birth, this book was published – that’s four years after Heat-Moon took his trip). It’s something I’ve noted with Abbey, not to mention Hemingway – two of my all-time favorites. But still, ugh.

On the other other hand, Heat-Moon impresses with his openness to consider any- and everything put in his path, and he deserves credit for his sensitivity to issues of social justice, racism, and environmental concerns. That’s where we’ll start up again on Friday with more on Blue Highways. Now go order your copy.

another new beginning: pagesofjulia in the classroom

I am honored to announce that I’ve received one of two Irene McKinney Fellowships from my MFA alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College. This is a nine-month teaching appointment there on campus in Buckhannon, WV; I’ll have three sections of writing composition in the fall and three sections in the spring, one of the latter possibly being a literature course. So, I’ll be pausing my van travels there this summer, with the option to restart them the following May.

I am excited and intimidated; I think it will be great.

Again (are you accustomed to the fluctuations yet?) my work for Shelf Awareness will decrease to give me more time for my day job. I don’t yet know what this will mean for the blog, but we always work something out, don’t we? Stay tuned… it’s still some months away, but I wanted to share my news. On to the next big thing.

traveling

Happy holidays, y’all, and a reminder that I am off and traveling for school – for the last time, my fifth and final residency. I’ll be back in Texas the second week of January, to pick up my dog and my van and carry on down the road. And let you back in on my readings. Again, I’m super fortunate to keep my job reviewing for Shelf Awareness, so you’ll continue seeing those posts. And who knows what else the future holds!

As usual, I’ve got posts scheduled for you in my absence, but comment response time may be a bit slower than normal while I’m away. In fact, there may be a slower new-normal, as I live in a van from here on! Also as usual, thanks for your patience. I hope you have a lovely holiday season & a hopeful new year.

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