Teacher to Teacher
Talking with ... PAUL BOGARD
Interviewed by Magdalen Dale
After spending the last "thousand" years as a student (BA in religion from Carleton College, MA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico, and PhD in literature and environment from the University of Nevada-Reno), Paul Bogard moved back to the Midwest and to the other side of the desk in September of 2007 when he joined the faculty at Northland College in Ashland, WI. Northland, well-known as an "environmental liberal arts college" has proved to be a good fit for Paul as his recently-released book, Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark, and the courses he enjoys teaching all fall within the intersection of literature and nature studies. On a cold fall afternoon I made the familiar thirty-minute drive from my home in Bayfield, WI to meet up with Paul at my old high school hang out, The Black Cat Coffee House.
MD: As a teacher, you are constantly influencing the students in your classes. As a student, who were the teachers that were influential to you--both in how you write and how you teach writing?
PB: In terms of teaching writing, I'd start with Greg Martin who I studied with at the University of New Mexico. Greg has a book called Mountain City. It's a memoir that takes place in Mountain City, Nevada, a really small, thirty-three people small town, in northern Nevada. Greg came to New Mexico my second year there and really made my experience. He had studied at the University of Arizona and developed his style there and then came to teach at New Mexico. I took several classes with him and did my Master's study with him. His way of teaching writing has totally influenced the way that I'm teaching my workshop class at Northland this semester. Everything from terminology (what are the words we use to describe what we're talking about), to format for the class, to the published essays I have had my students read.
What was unique about his teaching style?
When I was working with Greg he told me he wanted me (and this was his goal for all the people that he worked with) to get to the point where you can know that your stuff is good enough to send out, that you don't need a workshop or a professor to say, "Yeah this is ready." That you learn when it's ready to go. Greg is kind and has a great sense of humor, but he is also completely serious about writing. He is always willing to, as he says we must do with our writing, "say the toughest thing." There were times when I would come away from talking with him just totally inspired, and other times when I would come away feeling completely frustrated. Which is probably about right when it comes to writing.
Do you have a favorite writing prompt or exercise that you have done in your workshop class?
When we workshop I have everybody read everybody else's essay and then I provide the class with what I call a "peer response buffet" which is a list of twelve or thirteen different craft features to pay attention to and I ask the students to write a peer response looking at one to three or four of those craft features. It could be anything from persona, to narrative arc, arc of change, to what did you like about this and do you want more of it. It's just a list of specific questions that students can go through and address, a lens through which to see the essay that they're workshopping, so they're not just saying, "Oh yeah this is really good. I like it" or "This isn't really working for me, but I don't know why." Because it's not really helpful, frankly, to have somebody say, "Yeah, this is great."
Is this a list that you developed yourself?
No. The list is one I mostly stole from Greg, with some adjustments to it of my own. And I think Greg probably stole it from the person he worked with at Arizona, but I don't know that for a fact, so you probably shouldn't quote me on that. [Laughter.] But I think that's fine. I think that's how teachers begin their careers--to take what they've learned, and put their mark on it. I'm at the beginning of my career as a creative writing teacher, so I'm taking what I've learned and putting it in to action and it's fun to be able to do that and to think about in five years or ten years or fifteen years, if I'm still doing this, how will I have evolved, as I take what I have learned and then try and put it into my own language? At some point, I will have my own list and I'll ask people to work from that.
I also like to ask teachers about what they have learned from their students. I know this is only your first semester teaching, so you have a shorter period to pull from, but as a young teacher, I'm guessing you also have a lot to learn and that part of this is coming from your students. Would you say this is true?
I think I'm always learning from my students. I mean, that's one of the greatest things about teaching--that the learning curve just continues to climb. So hopefully I do a few things well, but I also love that I'm constantly learning and constantly becoming better. Part of it is gauging what students want and what they need. In this class, I've really had to push them to be tougher on each other and in that I'm learning about where a 20-year old writer is, you know. What I've been sensing lately is that they're resisting my efforts to get them to be tougher on each other and I don't know why that is I guess and I don't know if it's something they are even capable of at this point in their life. I know at the Graduate level, in a workshop in an MFA program, most everyone there is willing to do what you have to learn to do, but can I expect the same from juniors and seniors at Northland?
What I'm really hoping they see--and what I've told them several times--is that when I'm pushing them to be tougher on their peers, I'm really pushing them to be harder on themselves. The reason that you workshop, yes, is to provide feedback to your peers, to help them, but the larger reason is because you are learning how to look at your own material, to learn why is this working, where is it working, where is it not working, what has it done--I want to give them that skill, to be a good self-editor. I think it's important to be tough and I don't think it's too soon, when you're twenty years old to be doing that, frankly.
I feel like I'm constantly saying, "Here's another tool for you to use. You've got a toolbox to be a writer. Here's another one. Put this in your toolbox." as we're talking about different craft techniques, different things to be thinking about, you know, and then they build up this box. Bill McKibbon came to speak on campus and we read an essay by him and in class I asked them, ‘What do you notice as a writer with McKibbon and his craft and all the different things that he's doing?' Here's a professional writer that's using all these tools that we've talked about, and probably without even thinking about it. Maybe he does think about it a little bit when we revises, but mostly he's just learned that stuff and can just do it. Where we're still in that stage of saying, "okay here's another tool I can use."
To counter that, do you feel that students ever get to the point where they are over-thinking they're writing, or worse yet, not writing at all? And if so, how would you go about addressing that?
At the beginning of the semester we read a piece by Annie Dillard ("Notes for Young Writers") that is essentially a list of things for you to know about writing and at the end of the list she says, you need to know all this stuff but you also need to forget it all and just write. You're interviewing me two-thirds of the way through the term, but I think that maybe my next move will be to say, "I've been pushing you on all these things--craft features, peer responses, getting you to be tougher on each other--but now just write, just go for it."
And lastly, where do you see, and/or would you like to see, creative writing teaching headed?
There's been an explosion in the last decade in this country of creative writing programs and it seems everybody's doing it and sometimes it's easy to think if everybody is doing it, why should I do it, I'll never get a job or whatever, but I sort of also feel like, everybody should be doing it, everybody should be writing their life story or their family story. Yeah, a handful of people are going to make lots of money, a few more people are going to be able to find teaching jobs to make money--it's that pyramid where up at the top are a few people, but everybody should be writing and we should spread the idea that everybody can be a creative writer. I think as a teacher, that's one thing that I'm still learning about. Especially with undergraduates, not everyone in the class is determined to get in to the Iowa Writer's Workshop and make writing their life, some people, they just like writing. How do I help direct them so they continue to write? That's probably the most important thing, that they continue to write and that I help them along to their goals whatever their goals are.
My background is a mix of creative writing and environmental literature and so if I could bring those things together that would be what I'd really like to do. For example today, discussing Bill McKibbon, we were talking about how the environmental movement has just been too practical, so focused on being serious and practical, and he said one thing it would really benefit from is more creativity, more involvement with the arts. And it makes me think of what Barry Lopez says in his essay, "The American Geographies," about how all over this country there are--and always have been--people who are writing about the wild world around them, writing "eloquent evocations," as Lopez says. It's just that no one ever reads these, usually. I have that essay with me, actually. Lopez says of these "evocations," "The great majority are to be found in drawers and boxes, in the letters and private journals of millions of workaday people who have regarded their encounters with the land as an engagement bordering on the spiritual, as being fundamentally linked to their state of health." I think that's so great. And I think that this is exactly the kind of writing that we need to hear more of, that we need to get out into the open. We need to encourage people to share their creative writing about the natural world, to share their love for this world. And we need to do it now.
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