Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Yu, me and writer block

Yu is perhaps my most promising student this semester. I haven't been paying much attention to student work, wrapped up as I've been in my personal soap opera. I admit that I'm a lousy and careless teacher. Yu is Chinese, from the Gansu province, which I understand is as wild as it gets. She's married to a young computer science professor. Her prose is cautious and spare, obviously due to English being her second language, but this seems to complement her work. She's written a series of vignettes on the Cultural Revolution. There's no story in her work yet, but good fiction always starts with images. The procession is like this: Image > Story > Character > Prose > Plot, with Story ultimately being most important. For more commercial work, it seems to go Plot > Character > Prose, leaving off Image and Story altogether in many cases. I've no problem with commercial or genre work, though I can't teach it and know absolutely nothing about it. It's as alien to me as screenplays and writing for television.

In any case, yesterday during our "nature exercise" as I watched Yu wading through a clear stretch of Ballard Creek, I was enchanted. Redbud petals were drifting down around her in shafts of sunlight while she chewed on the eraser of her pencil and an expression of recognition bloomed on her face. She pulled out her notepad and began scribbling, nodding her head excitedly, the long braid of her dark hair bouncing. Evidently my silly impulse to relocate our class to the woods for the afternoon was having some sort of effect. I dreamt of this scene endlessly last night, and not only because Yu's an attractive young woman.

After our exercise we all walked back to campus. Yu came to me timidly and asked how I felt about "writer block." I told her that it doesn't exist. I said that what exists is an unwillingness to compromise. People don't get blocked, they just choose not to write garbage. You can always write garbage. Writing garbage takes discipline, though. If you write enough of it eventually you crawl out of the hole you're in. Sometimes the garbage gets published, and I know from experience that your career can suffer. Filing the garbage away and moving on also takes discipline.

She nodded, still chewing on her eraser. "Writer block is a choice, hmmm, I never think of it like this before," she said. Her speech is more hesitant that her prose, but grammar typically does sort itself out in the writing. I'll have to keep an eye on Yu this semester. Now that I haven't heard from Mr. Clayhouse, and lovely Shirleen has moved on, and Nawaz is getting married, I need to find a new reason to keep my head in this job or I'll be fired for sure.

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