Category Archives: Teaching

What I Said Last Night About What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Last night, at the new student orientation in the Low Library Rotunda at Columbia, all of us teaching in the university’s graduate writing program got up to introduce ourselves.

When I write “all of us,” it’s an awe-inspiring list: Deborah Eisenberg and Richard Ford were sitting next to each other, just to name two fiction writers.

We were all asked to respond to the prompt “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” and to keep our remarks under a minute; to accomplish that, we were urged to think about what we wanted to say in advance, or even to prepare some notes on paper.

Out of a few dozen writers, all lined up in a row, I went second. Here’s roughly what I said (and what I didn’t say):

My name is Tom Hopkins, and I’m teaching a seminar this fall that I’m calling “Faking It.”

I* spent a week this summer on an island off the coast of Maine. I stayed in a cottage on a lake. The cottage had a canoe. One day, I took the canoe out in the water until I came to an island—an island smaller than** about exactly the same size as this room. I found a place to come ashore, and a tree branch where I could tie up the canoe. I walked on paths soft with pine needles up a slight hill. Then I came to a clearing, a small vale.*** At the bottom of the vale, [I]n the middle of the clearing, I saw a loon. I realized that it was nesting. It was facing away from me, but then it turned its neck, slowly and deliberately, until one bright, burning-coal red eye was aimed right at me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been that close to a nesting loon, but she looked ready and able to take me out if she wanted to.

I got within ten feet of something as precious as new life, protected by love that fierce, a beautiful thing, protected by layer upon layer, hidden in a vale clearing on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean.

And that**** is what I’m hoping my seminar this fall is like.*****

* It was actually my son and me, the first time I saw the loon. But I thought the story would sound better—more fairy tale-like—if I told it in the first person. (It’s not factually inaccurate in the first person, but it is not as true as it could be.)

** I’d never been to the Low Library Rotunda before. What an incredible room! And it seemed about exactly the same size as Rum Island, in the middle of the northwestern finger of Long Pond, on the western half of Mount Desert Island, which was where we found the loon.

*** When I wrote down my notes, I wasn’t anywhere near a dictionary, either electronic or hard copy. I wasn’t completely confident that I was using the word “vale” correctly, so although I wrote it down in my notes, I didn’t read it out loud. I think the clearing where we saw the loon was too small to be a vale, technically, so omitting the word in the reading was probably the right decision.

**** I tapped the podium when I said the word “that”; the microphone was either jostled by the tap, or picked up the sound of the tap. Either way, it was audible through the speakers.

***** This feels right—it feels intuitively true—although I don’t know if I’m able to articulate the connection in a completely rational way. Since the fiction we’ll be reading in the seminar is work that either makes use of not-fictional forms within a work of fiction, or that takes on another form entirely, it seems like it’s not wrong to say that the truth or the meaning of the work is thereby buried an additional layer deep than it would be in a work of fiction that does not costume itself that way—that takes on the form, rather, of conventional storytelling (which is itself a costume or mask, but one that strives to be invisible to contemporary readers).

Addendum: the loon! Thanks, Madeline! More photos of Maine here and here.

(photo by and © Madeline Stevens)

My Live Server is My Dev Server

By which I mean: if I have a dev server, I don’t know about it; or if I’m capable of creating a dev server, I don’t recall how to do it.

For the first time in a long time, I have some free time. (Hooray!) So when I’m not working on preparing my syllabi for this fall, I’m going to (try to) overhaul this Web site.

One step at a time. On my live server. Which is to say, on the page you’re reading now.

It might get ugly along the way; but I’m hoping that any ugliness will be temporary and toward the goal of the site being prettier, swankier, and more up-to-date.

Here goes.

Addendum: I failed to do as much as I’d hoped to do—I had the dream of making this site look as close to a mimeographed piece of paper as is possible using just HTML; e.g., I signed up for a free Typekit account, and tried to use their John Doe typeface as the font for most styles in my css. But WordPress, as it’s become less like blogging software and more like a CMS, has gotten, well, harder. I may try again to get fancy with this thing, but for now, I’m sticking with the simplicity of the plaintxtblog theme.

I’ve accomplished one big thing on my to-do list, though: I’ve added a bunch of new stories—or rather, older stories, published in print, now also published here in digital form.

For now—in the current theme—you can get to them all using the navigation in the left-most column.

Faking It

Here’s my course description for the seminar I’ll be teaching in Columbia’s writing MFA program this coming semester:

Faking It

In the Preface to Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe presents the book as a completely true story, one for which he is merely serving as editor and publisher. He believes, he writes, “the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel in the form of a 999-line poem, plus its editor’s foreword, commentary, and index. Both are well-known examples of what E. L. Doctorow refers to in his essay “False Documents”: a text that mimics the shape of an accepted not-fictional form, presented as, or in the context of, a work of fiction—potentially adding to the perceived legitimacy or seeming truthfulness of that text by the reader through the subconscious recognition of the realness, and therefore trustworthiness, of the textual form itself. How do we, as readers, perceive truth? How do we, as writers, fake it? This class will read, as our principal text, David Shields and Matthew Vollmer’s new anthology Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), but we will also examine other instances of “false documents,” undependable texts, literary frauds, and other fakery, including Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Michael Martone’s Michael Martone, and Q. R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets. Although the class will focus on examples of fakery achieved with words alone, contemporary and historical examples of non-literary fakery (e.g., the culture jamming movement) and their cultural and political import will be discussed. Students will be expected to write four short (2- to 5-page) pieces over the course of the semester: all will be original, new texts, of the students’ exclusive authorship, although they may (or even should) not be presented as such.

At least, I believe I will be teaching this seminar; perhaps it is the other one, the one called Hopkins, who is the one adjuncting appointments happen to. I see his name on a list of professors… I’m the one with a car, though, so I’m hoping he can come up with some valid pages while I’m down in New York City on Thursdays this fall!

Sarabande, Tumblr, Sarah Lawrence, Yale: or, Another Good News Omnibus

—Salvatore Scibona selected my short-story collection manuscript, The Crypto-Jew’s Dilemma and Other Conversion Stories, as the runner-up in the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. This doesn’t mean publication by Sarabande Books—but still, I’m very proud of the honor.

Addendum: This isn’t a blurb, but in an e-mail, Scibona kindly described the manuscript as “a hilarious book that had me spitting with laughter”! (I added the exclamation point.)

Chris McCormick, I don’t know you, but I am grateful for the tweet and the kind words on your one way to talk about contemporary fiction blog!

—I’m teaching at Sarah Lawrence this summer, on the faculty for Writer’s Village: A Creative Writing Intensive. If you know any writers “entering the 10th, 11th or 12th grade in the fall of 2012,” I believe that, as of this writing, there might still be spots available.

—I am teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale this fall.

(Previous good news omnibus.)

Notes on My Notes on the Teaching of Point of View in a Craft Class

Lower down on this page is a diagram I made in PowerPoint when I taught Fiction Writing: Level I at Gotham Writers Workshop five years ago, before Emily and I moved up to Kingston. (The JPEG is small, but if you click on it, it’ll open a larger version of the image as a new page.)

I can’t remember at this point if I ever actually handed this out in class. I don’t think I did. I did include the diagram in my lecture notes, so maybe I drew this on the chalkboard for my students? Possibly.

This was for my lecture on point of view in fiction. My notes start with this Mel Brooks quote: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Which I included, I think, as a way to start a conversation about how we tell stories. The meaning of a story is not just derived from the causal sequence of events that make it up—this happened, and then that happened—but also by who’s doing the telling, and the distance or proximity that the narrator claims to have had to those events. History may be written by the victors, but stories get told in the voices of everybody.

Maybe this is a variant of the question in the title of John Ciardi’s book on teaching poetry, How Does a Poem Mean?—which always baffled me as a kid; my dad used the book to teach middle-school English—in this case, how does a story mean? Not what is the meaning of a story, but how does it do meaning?

Sort of like the question by which a writer should always approach his or her peers’ work, in a workshop or elsewhere: What is this story trying to do? How can it do what it’s trying to do better?

Here’s another section of my point-of-view lecture notes:

Who is doing the telling?  
Whose story (action, plot, events) is it? these two questions, distance/difference between narrator and protagonist; narrative distance?
How long ago did the events occur? temporal distance
How do the events matter to the teller? emotional distance
Can we, the reader, and/or the intended listener, trust the teller’s facts? if not, unreliable narrator
Can we, the reader, and/or the intended listener, trust the teller’s emotions? first person jackass—my own invention, but still useful, I think
Who is the intended listener?  
Where/when is the telling occurring? Nat’s question; his idea re. Kinbote

About “first person jackass”: I’m sure someone’s named or described this idea more articulately and elegantly somewhere, but I came up with this to describe an as-yet-unpublished story I wrote where the narrator can be trusted for factual accuracy, but not for emotional truth—so the experience of reading the sequence of events is through the scrim of his misunderstanding of the meaning of those events.

And about that last question: Here’s what I wrote down on a 3″ x 5″ card on 7 July 2005, on a night when the writing group my friend Nat Bennett and I were in at the time met at Dempsey’s Tavern:


For writing a story in first person past tense, using the retrospective voice, but aren’t sure where or when the narrator is writing from. Nat says he always borrows the situation from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Kinbote is shacked up in a motel across the street from an amusement park, hiding from everyone, hiding from the world.

In other words, it’s a valuable trick, if you’re working on something new, to be able to picture the precise circumstances of your narrator (whether you ever let the reader know what they are or not)—and if you can’t quite picture them yet, use Charles Kinbote’s circumstances as your backup.

That same night, Nat also—while critiquing one of his own stories, I think?—said, “Where’s this guy’s Daisy?”

A Daisy, a Kinbote’s motel—in the same bag of tricks as Hitchcock’s MacGuffin? (Or is the device of a Daisy a version of a MacGuffin? A private action-driving longing—a Rosebud?)

Nat’s a really smart writer; he ought to be more famous, I think.

So, the diagram: in my lecture notes, I wrote that this was “borrowed from Chuck Wachtel and slightly modified.” I took craft from Chuck at NYU (the class that Emily will also be teaching next year—to NYU’s MFA students, I mean).

This is based on a drawing of Chuck’s on page 87 of his craft class course packet—at least, the course packet we had in the spring semester of 2005. (I know from the notes I took in class, which include a drawing of mine that is a kind of intermediary step between Chuck’s drawing and my PowerPoint diagram, that we talked about this on 22 February 2005. I love my notes; my notes make me think two things: 1) Hooray analog! and 2) Who but a mean-spirited ignoramus, possibly hell-bent on destroying the fabric of democracy, would ever deny the value of the teaching of creative writing?)

Underneath Chuck’s drawing on page 87 of the packet, I wrote:

Wicki-Wachi Gardens, Florida, underwater mermaid dance show, garden hose breathing tube analogy.

I don’t entirely remember what that means. I think Chuck was telling us about a show he saw once in which women performed underwater in mermaid costumes, for an audience that watched them through an enourmous pane of glass, like a glass fourth wall, like a human aquarium; the mermaids stayed underwater by breathing through a garden hose dropped from the surface down to where they were, at the bottom of the aquarium. Did Chuck mean that the writer is similarly tethered to the action of the story through the metaphorical garden hose of his or her narrative voice?

(Google corrects my spelling: it’s actually Weeki Wachee Springs, the City of Live Mermaids. And it still exists. Whoa.)

Back to the diagram: it’s a simple (and goofy, in my rendering) way of visualizing how you get from the action of a story to the reading of a story. There are a lot of steps, really, from Gatsby’s actions to Nick’s observation of them to Nick’s voice describing those actions in Fitzgerald’s words to the formation of images picturing those actions in the head of you, the reader.

Would this be useful to a student? I don’t know.

But I like looking at it.

It reminds me that I really, really hope my career lands me back in the classroom someday.