My most often used phrase on this blog: It’s been a while.
I’ve been busy.
For the first time, I’ve taught what can be considered a “full load” for a working college teacher. Nine semester hours, three courses. In total, just under seventy students. And none of these courses were anything with which I am intimately familiar: Tolkien, Fantasy Writing, Foundations in Creative Writing.
Let me amend that. I’m not familiar with teaching those classes, though I have some familiarity with the basics in each case.
But I had to put each course together by scratch, no matter who had taught it before or under whatever circumstances. I can’t teach someone else’s course any more than I can wear someone else’s clothes.
And I had to put each course together as online classes.
Thank you, Covid-19. Teaching online is never my first choice, though I’ve considered creating online courses before. Considered.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Be assured, it’s more work than you would bargain for.
Never in my wildest dreams (and my dreams can get pretty wild) would I have imagined myself teaching a course on Tolkien. I mentioned that before, when I was dragooned into finishing Jana Tuzar’s course for the spring semester.
But here’s what I learned (other than that I know little or nothing about Tolkien): when you teach in an arts college, allow your students to make their final projects art projects. Let them paint their final exams, or design them for the stage, or interpret them musically, or through oral interpretation, or re-stage scenes from The Lord of the Rings as comedy sketches. These students won’t let you down.
The course Foundations in Creative Writing is supposed to acquaint students with many aspects of the creative writing world. Apparently, it’s also supposed to acquaint them with the lingo that will make them sound like grad students in an MFA program.
Find some interesting exercises and let them go to town. They won’t do what you think they’re going to do, but you’ll be surprised with what they come up with.
And give them interesting things to read. My students ended up reading a lot of science fiction because, since I’m not teaching any science fiction courses this term, I had no one else to give them to. Chances are they’ve never read anything like it before, and the stories present the notion that they can write in ways that they hadn’t imagined they could try before. Not always, but it’s worth a shot. In many ways, my Foundations students were the best ones I’ve had in a long time.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from teaching all these courses this term has to do with the inclusion and/or intrusion of some critical language in the creative process.
You can’t go far into reading Tolkien studies without running into the term “secondary world.” That, according to critics, is where the fantasy world is. The primary world is “our” world, which runs by the rules Nature set out for us. The secondary world is Wonderland, or Oz, or Narnia, or Neverland – the place that follows its own rules and can contain magic, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, shape-shifters, and whatever else you can come up with.
One of the students in my Fantasy Writing Workshop is very interested in writing fantasy set in current times. In the bookstore, you’ll find all sorts of books shelved together or labeled as “urban fantasy.” We’d hit upon a quote from Flannery O’Connor: “I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein – because the greater the story's strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.” (from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners).
Suddenly it occurred to me: what you need to do is take these convenient labels, primary world and secondary world, and turn them around. What we think of as the primary world is actually the secondary world, and it is contained in the world of fantasy. The “real” world, of magic and dragons and all the rest, is all around us, in hiding, in disguise. What the author, through the characters, has to do is see through the veil that the “mundane” magic-less world throws around us.
I’d given the class an exercise, “Magic All Around You,” based on that premise. I wanted them to come up with a fantasy story based on what they could see out a window. A closed-up doorway to an abandoned warehouse might just be a “portal” to another world (“portal” is another word you’ll find is popular with critics). The woman at the window in the building across may be a sorceress. Statues may come to life at three a.m. A box of candy may contain the souls of the damned. What we see may not be all there is to see in any given place at any given time.
We played around with this a little in my Tolkien class, too. So much is made of Tolkien’s secondary world of Middle-earth. So I brought in the work of “outsider” sculptor Tom Every, AKA Dr. Evermor, and the music of Sun Ra, and how these artists assert their secondary worlds into our primary world.
Most of us, in fact, have lived with secondary worlds in our imaginations most of our lives. It is a survival skill in a universe that demands our sublimation into a conformity we’re told is necessary but really is no such thing.
To quote Luis Buñuel: “Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.”
The important thing is to get past the labels. Or reverse them. Or stretch them out of shape. I used to quote Damon Knight about science fiction not being a literary category but a point of view – a way of looking at the world. The same is true of fantasy. And it may as well be said that it’s true of “realistic” fiction too.
And if I ever get the chance to teach this course again, I have a better handle now on where I should take it.