Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Memory in the Classroom

In this age when artificial memory has become so important, it is common to find students bringing their laptops to class to take notes.  In fact, when they are told not to do so, as Dan Rockmore did, it tends to make news. Of course, he wrote about it, and the responses to his piece on Andrew Sullivan's bog the Dish today caught my attention.

A few years ago, in one of my senior literature classes, most of the students had their laptops and seem to make good use of them. But I had mixed feelings about this intrusive technology.  A few were apparently sending messages to friends or surfing the Net or doing something other than listening.

And listening well is often a problem, not only in school. That prompts some respondents to Rockmore's piece to sing the praises of old-fashioned memory.

One of these says his or her literature professor forbade even note taking. "He wanted us to use our memories and so we had to become good listeners."  As a result, forty years later, he can still recite passages from Chaucer, Milton and other poets to impress his friends.

Yet the purpose of memory work, often neglected in today's schools, is not to impress others but to allow something like poetry to remain part of us, its cadence and imagery stored of the vast collective bank we draw upon as we move on. This is especially valuable for those who write.

I can remember my Latin and Shakespeare passages from many years ago, and being an English professor and writer, I am grateful that they have stuck in my brain. I am grateful for the Jesuits who insisted on these unpopular assignments. But they did not forbid note-taking.

That seems to be an extreme reaction to the conflict between memorizing and note-taking that goes back many centuries.  In the larger oral culture of the medieval university, where written texts were scarce, lectures were delivered rapidly so that the students could take them in "but the hand could not," according to one of Sullivan's respondents.

As my work on Matteo Ricci (d. 1610), the Jesuit who amazed the Chinese with his memory skills, indicates, education in earlier times and in cultures other than that of the West has long relied on memorizing vast amounts of material. This is a skill we have lost.

Ricci could recall long passages of material he had learned as a young man in Rome and was able to translate these into Chinese, which he mastered because of his training in the art of memory.

Shakepeare and other writers of his era, while relying on source books for their plays, could easily recall lines and passages from Ovid or Virgil that they had been required to know by heart.  Poetry is essentially an oral medium, even now, and the sound of language is something writers of prose often forget about when they revise their work.

Knowing things "by heart" has a lot to recommend it, even at the time when artificial memory dominates most of our communications media. Don't  both kinds of memory have a place in the classroom?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

'Open Wider'

As I prepare to teach a six-week writing workshop, I decided to repeat a few comments from an earlier post, "In praise of long sentences."

Pico Iyer, among many other prose stylists today, has written in favor of long sentences that are expansive: they open the reader, he says, to various levels of meaning, enabling him or her to go down into herself and into complex ideas that can't be squeezed into an "either/or."

I was glad to see Iyer sing the praises of the long sentence, something I regularly do with my students, even if they are puzzled or turned off by sentences (like this one) that seem to ramble, like speech, or even if they fear that a long sentence like this might be ungrammatical (it ain't) or worry, in the way every writer worries, that such writing is confusing, artificial or pretentious, which it may be if it isn't done carefully, with balanced clauses and phrases and perhaps a dash of humor. And if it isn't balanced by shorter sentences.

Am I showing off? Yes, for good reason.

It's not that I want students of writing to imitate the sometimes unreadable sentences of Henry James; it's just that I want them to have options.

So much depends on a writer's purpose. A descriptive sentence, if it opens a travel article, might be suitable for a long, cumulative sentence (which begins with the main idea, then accumulates modifiers). It would catch the reader's attention. Or it might suggest simultaneous action in a story in a way that a group of shorter sentences could not.

No one would recommend using a lot of really long sentences, just as no one would use James Joyce's Ulysses as a model of prose style.

There are times that a writer might prefer a trailing, expansive sentence that tells the reader, "open wider, please," like a dentist, "so I can more fully explore this thought with you."  But we have to be careful not to overdo such long, trailing sentences and to balance them with simpler ones to allow readers to catch their breath.

Writers at all levels learn a vast amount from reading carefully and paying attention to how skillful writers shape their sentences.

P.S. Here I want to put in a word for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, who has her own blog:  You might like to check out her style and see how it differs from mine. She has written a number of books for children, available on Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Still Learning (after all these years)

After more years of teaching and writing than I care to admit, I am still learning new techniques.  No surprise: Those who stand still, atrophy.

Having turned to fiction writing in the last two years after a lifetime of doing mainly non-fiction, I see over and over the importance of bringing a page to life by revising it with descriptive details.  I look at what I have written and see what's missing, and what's missing are the specific details that, along with dialogue, make a scene come alive.

Consider a few details from a short (non-fiction) piece in The New Yorker (June 2) by Emma Allen. It's a profile of the actor Hamish Linklater that I would not have read except that its descriptive detail--original and concise-- caught my eye.

For example: "Linklater--who is thirty-seven, lanky, toothy, with tousled curls--selected a seat next to his mother (white hair, polka-dotted socks), and slid into a slouch, arms crossed, black boots stuck straight out in front of him."

In one sentence, Allen has given me a snapshot of this man on a particular day. She does not waste words in long, fancy descriptive paragraphs: just a few deft touches are all we need.  The tone of this sentence is fresh, smart, and original.

I like writers who stick interesting details between dashes or parentheses (as long as the interruption of the main sentence is not too long).

Later in the article we read: "A student with gelled hair and ripped jeans raised his hand."  A fair amount of description is built into that neat little sentence. Quite often, less is more.

Someone said long ago, the truth is buried in the details. Writing without vivid description is dull, and description without sharp details is weak.

The challenge for me as a writer is to keep refining my sentences until they have been stripped of anything trite and have enough sparkle to make the reader want more.