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Category: Teaching and Fantasy Literature

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Heroic Struggle and the Taxonomy of Meanies

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Heroic Struggle and the Taxonomy of Meanies

Bedknobs And Broomsticks-smallThe preschool teacher tells me my five-year-old is doing much better at not hurting his classmates when he gets carried away with his pretend play. This might sound like faint praise, but after the week we’ve had, I’m thrilled to hear it. As we cross the parking lot, Gareth says to me, “I hate everyone at my school.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“There’s too much world peace in it.”

I try not to guffaw. I rarely learn anything new while in the act of guffawing. Instead, I say, “Do you know what world peace is?”

He says, “Of course I know. What is it?”

“You said you knew.”

“What is it, Mom?” He sounds a bit frantic. It turns out he’s been singing songs about this thing, sitting at circle time with his classmates to hear books about it read aloud, and doing little craft projects about it, but nobody has checked in with him about whether he knows what it is. His behavior lately has not been conducive to it, as he has been given to understand. My impulsive five-year-old, of whom his teachers say he’ll probably be running some illustrious lab at Princeton one day unless he lands himself in juvie first, is not a man of peace.

I have told him that meanies are to be resisted, not suffered in silence. I’ve told him stories about knights defeating meanies. The long video that we save for rainy days is Bedknobs and Broomsticks, with its comical/supernatural defeat of a Nazi invasion. It was my first attempt to explain what Nazis are that gave us our taxonomy of meanies.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Taking the SAT? Montag to the Rescue!

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Taking the SAT? Montag to the Rescue!

When I was my students’ age, the SAT had two sections, not three. The verbal section was heavy on analogies, which the College Board has long since purged from the test. They added an essay in 2005, which to me feels like last week, but to my students, that’s a time when their ages were in single digits.

Read too many SAT essay prompts in a row, and you begin to think your head will explode, even if you’re not taking the test yourself: Can success be a catastrophe? Which is the stronger motivator–conscience or the will to power? Has technology outpaced our ability to put it to good use? Do ends justify all means? What is the good? How shall we construct our civilization? How must we live? There’s a slight tendency toward the grandiose, which I quietly remedy by imagining Scarlett O’Hara working for the College Board on essay prompts–Where shall I go? What shall I do? All the real essay prompts are more entertaining in Scarlett O’Hara’s voice. My students, however, claim never to have heard of Scarlett O’Hara. Imagine being that young. Now imagine that you have 25 minutes to bluff your way through a response in five-paragraph essay form with specific examples, and that your parents have half-convinced you that your entire future depends on how you answer. Twenty-five minutes to put your civilization right, with unfailingly correct use of commas and with diction in the formal academic style.

One way to arrive at the starting line for that sprint is to have a handful of versatile works of literature in your head from which to draw examples. I’ve lost count of how many students I’ve worked with who found ways to use Macbeth, The Catcher in the Rye, and Fahrenheit 451 for every single practice essay, no matter what the prompt was about.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: So I Guess It’s My Blind Spot, Too

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: So I Guess It’s My Blind Spot, Too

The closest thing to a sports movie I can recall enjoying–apparently far-future dystopia and maiming injuries are what it takes to make a football-like sport watchable for me.

Last week I wrote about trying to understand sports writing as if it were a subgenre of sword and sorcery. For my students’ sakes, I’ll read just about anything–and usually when my students entice or implore me to leave my comfort zone as a reader, something good happens.

I said something myopic last week, and I’m actually glad to have said it here, where it drew thoughtful, friendly responses that have not only helped me get further into my students’ favorite reading, but have also helped me understand what it is about genre fiction that turns off some litfic-only readers. I said:

And what monster does the athlete vanquish in most sporting events?No monster, just a fellow athlete. What threat does the fellow athlete pose, to anybody other than the athlete we’re reading about? In most cases, none at all. In a boxing match, two potentially decent guys beat the snot out of each other, with nothing at stake that truly matters. In a football game, dozens of young men bludgeon their brains against the insides of their skulls, and for what? For bragging rights and cash? How much patience would I have for a fictional character who did as much harm for something as trivial? The more a sport resembles sword and sorcery combat in its results, the less interested I am in it. Conflict will only get you so far when the motives are shallow. Am I a prig? Maybe I’m being a prig.

Nobody said, Yes, Sarah, you’re being a prig. So, um, thank you for your patience and forbearance.

What happened instead was a conversation about conflict and its stakes generally, a conversation I’ve continued having with myself all week.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Babe the Barbarian (Ruth, That Is)

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Babe the Barbarian (Ruth, That Is)

sword-and-sorcery-anthologyMy newest students beg for sports writing, and cannot abide either dragons or spaceships. They’re good kids, 8th graders who used to read voluminously for pleasure until junior high. Their parents are desperate to get them reading again. The boys are desperate to read freely again. So now I get to be desperate to learn about sports writing.

Meet the students where they are. They can’t very well meet you where they’re not.

Fortunately, I had just started reading, on my own time, The Sword and Sorcery Anthology, edited by David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman. At first, as I pulled likely prospects from the sports shelves at Barnes & Noble, I grumbled quietly to myself about how I was going to have to set The Sword and Sorcery Anthology aside, perhaps for weeks, and for what? For Babe Bleeping Ruth and Joe Bleeping DiMaggio. I settled in at the cafe to cull the candidate books in my pile and tried to find a bright side. Some of the masters of the golden age of pulp also wrote boxing stories, or stories that happened to be about boxers. For people who see athletes as heroes, sports writing might hit the same sweet spot as heroic fiction. If I had to sink my time into this stuff, I would find some way to make it serve my writing.

Something David Drake said in his introduction to The Sword and Sorcery Anthology helped me cull that pile of books, and has been with me as I’ve started picking my way through the essays.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Weird Things My Students Have Been Told About Writers

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Weird Things My Students Have Been Told About Writers

The classic flippant answer to “Where do you get your ideas?”

Most of my students and their families have perfectly ordinary misperceptions about how books come into the world. They ask what non-writers ask–where do ideas come from, that kind of thing. They’re not sure whether they expect all writers to be starving or loaded, but they’re pretty sure it’s all one or the other. Writing professionally is something that other people do in some other world, not something mere mortals who stand in their kitchens might do. That’s okay. They’re kind people who care about being literate in the best, most expansive sense. Yay them.

And then, there are the outliers.

Allow me to introduce the Client Mom from Hell.

It was my first freelance tutoring gig. My student was a charming sixth-grader who had somehow talked me into reading Redwall with him. There are people who love Redwall, which is fine, but it’s just not my thing. So my student asked me how I would write about a book I just didn’t like, since he had to do that at school all the time. A good, practical question.

“I try to set aside what I want in a book,” I said, “and to think about what the author was trying to accomplish. He didn’t write this story the way I would have, but he must have had a reason for writing it the way he did.”

The Client Mom from Hell dropped whatever she was doing in the kitchen and blustered into the dining room to interrupt our lesson.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: The Strange and Mysterious Unit

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: The Strange and Mysterious Unit

I’m secretly haunting an 8th grade English class at Hammarskjold Middle School. I tutor some students who are in the same class, so I get to see their teacher’s assignments, comments on student writing, and most recently, study guides for midterm exams. I glimpse the teacher through the fog of my physical absence from the classroom–I even forget from week to week whether the teacher is a man or a woman–but traces of my spectral influence may be detectable in my students’ work.

Did the teacher allow himself a moment to enjoy the name he gave his last series of assignments? Every time I looked at his study guide and saw his sentences about “the strange and mysterious unit,” it cracked me up. Of course, he was referring in a straightforward, lower-case-letters way to a packet of short stories by Poe, Asimov, and Lovecraft that centered around strange and mysterious incidents. I, however, pictured a battered, much photocopied document that emanated a cloud of green miasma and the wail of a theremin, with voiceover narration: No middle school teacher would ever be the same after she attempted to teach…the Strange and Mysterious Unit! Cue thunder and lighting.

I don’t know whether the Strange and Mysterious Unit has affected the way anybody else thinks about fiction, but it’s clarified my thinking about conflict in tales of the fantastic.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: When All Stories Were Fantasy Stories

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: When All Stories Were Fantasy Stories

Kids under age six are not lying to you, not exactly. When they want something to be true, they genuinely cannot tell that it isn’t. When they fear something might be true, no amount of reassurance is enough, because whatever they project onto the world is indistinguishable from the world itself. My five-year-old really believes his classmate told him it was okay to cut her hair with craft scissors, and he is not trying to manipulate me when he says the monster will emerge from behind his dresser if I turn off his bedroom light. His imagination is as real to him as anything he can touch.

Of course, adults are not always able to distinguish between the world and their mental projections upon the world. We all slip sometimes, a few of us slip a lot, and a very few cultivate slippage deliberately. We like imagining that we could shuck this dreadful adult ability, or avoid developing it at all, as the protagonist of  Michel Gondry’s gorgeous film The Science of Sleep does. The thing is, for all of us, there was a long time in childhood when any boundary between reality and fantasy always seemed more like an arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the adults in our lives than like an externally real fact we had to cope with. Why must my son hold my hand when we cross a parking lot in the dark? He believes he is impervious to cars, and can say so using the word “impervious,” so clearly the hand-holding rule must just be Mommy’s power trip.

It doesn’t help that the real world is weird, and so complicated that grown-up attempts to explain it at a child’s level only pump up the weirdness.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I confess: I’m horror-illiterate. Being horrified on my way to some other reading experience is often worthwhile, but reading just to poke my amygdala with a stick is, for me, a joyless enterprise. Some horror writers are manifestly brilliant; I’m still not their audience. Chalk it up to an inherited predisposition to PTSD.

And yet Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of my favorite writing books. It’s unusual among writing books for its combination of memoir and manual. The memoir could have stood on its own; the manual could not. King knows that most of the true and useful things that can be said in a book to a beginning writer have been said many times, so he finds a way to say those things in a context that spins together cautionary tales, zany vignettes, and roaring triumphs. When he talks about what a writer needs in the way of work space, he shows us the corner of an attic where he wrote his first stories as a child, the laundry room in a trailer where he wrote his first novels, the uselessly enormous and overcompensating desk he bought during the early coke-snorting days of his wealth, and the study-turned-family-room where his kids lounge on couches while he writes contentedly in a corner. There’s something practical, and something human, to be learned from each of those workspaces.

The book is structured in four main movements: two central sections of advice on craftsmanship, bracketed by two sections about the writing life in general by way of King’s own writing life. The opening movement is cheekily titled “C.V.” A C.V., or curriculum vitae, is what an academic has instead of a resume. For a writer who has been so many times disdained by academics to appropriate the term, and then interpret the Latin curriculum vitae literally as the course of his life, is gutsy.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them

No wonder the writer I was back in college never finished anything big. She lacked the patience for the kind of slog I’m slogging through now. She knew some nice tricks — could turn out a kickass sonnet in two hours by writing backwards, last line to first — but if she had ever managed to produce a complete book-length draft, she would have wandered off to a next never-to-be-finished project once the revision got tough. She would not have been game for as many rounds of tightening, fact-checking, and continuity repairs as I have had to do for the novella collection I’m sending off to its small press publisher next week.

Most of my college-self’s potential novels never made it past the preliminary notes stage. If my current teacher-self were saddled with that girl as a student, what on earth would I do with her?

Different preoccupations drive different teachers. I’ve been told I teach because it’s as close as I can get to going back in time to rescue myself from various mistakes and misfortunes. It’s probably true. A more virtuous person might teach out of a desire to change the world, or lift people out of poverty, or whatever. Instead, I wander around offering the help I wished I could have found when I was younger — or a variation of that help wrapped in a concealing layer of SAT preparation.

That girl I used to be understood the why of late-stage manuscript drudgery. If asked, she could have explained that a work of fantasy has a greater need than a work of realism for verisimilitude. She’d have quoted Marianne Moore about the “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” but she could not have kept to her seat long enough to make her toads real.

Not that it’s easy now, twenty years later, this sitting still until the job is done. When I sent my protagonist into New Jersey’s notorious Pine Barrens, land of mob hits and mass-hysteria-induced monster sightings, that was thrilling to write. Now that I’m tracking down every reference , however oblique, to gravel roads, because it turns out the back roads in the Pine Barrens are sand, not gravel, it’s not so much fun. If I don’t get the sand roads right, a sizable chunk of my audience will be lost before I ever get to the scene where the Jersey Devil makes its appearance. Unless the toads in my imaginary garden are real enough, nobody will believe my monsters.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Assignments and Other Artificial Emergencies

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Assignments and Other Artificial Emergencies

Binge readers beware!

“Finishing one Henry James novel a week is like trying to chug a pint of Bailey’s Irish Cream a day,” a favorite professor declared when I mentioned the reading pace of another professor’s class. “You can’t absorb it, you certainly can’t enjoy it, you’ll never want to look at it again, and there’s just no need to do that to yourself.” He regarded it as a violence against the books and their author, too, to demand that a class read them at a pace that could only make them repellent.

My mentor’s advice saved me from Henry James, and Henry James from me. I still think of that day often, when my students gorge themselves on dense books they’ve put off reading until their school deadlines are imminent.

For that matter, I think of it some weeks when I face the deadline for this blog column and realize I’m still not ready to talk about Stephen King’s On Writing or whatever other nebulous notion for a post hasn’t quite coalesced yet. The more worthy a book is of patient consideration, the more likely we are to attach some kind of assignment, an artificial emergency, to it.

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