Literature & the Working Dude

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Fourteen

Literature & the Working Dude

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A few years back I taught an English literature class to a group of twenty rowdy chefs-in-training at a Le Cordon Bleu cooking institute that was about as close to the 1987 Carl Reiner film Summer School as I hope I ever come in real life.[1]

Le Cordon Bleu had an associate’s degree at the time that required every student to take an English literature course for some reason[2] and absolutely none of my students wanted to be there. A bunch of beefy, good natured jokesters[3], these cooking students weren’t too interested in reading anything other than a menu, much less surveying classic and modern literature. They’d come to class in their chef whites, fresh from a baking class or a meat prep class or whatever, and once their day at Le Cordon Bleu was over they usually had eight hour shifts at various restaurants to look forward to. They were exhausted and busy and some of them had kids at home. They didn’t want to be in my class but they weren’t total jerks about it, either—they were used to discipline required in a professional kitchen and more or less towed the line, with the occasional loud interruption or blatantly digressive turn.

Teaching this Le Cordon Bleu literature class required a detailed lesson plan, lest it go off the rails entirely, and the class was two hours every morning, four days a week, for six packed weeks. It had its own massive hardcover textbook called LITERATURE which was like a simplified Norton Anthology with pictures (!) in it. A friend of mine, who’d taught the course several times at Le Cordon Bleu was very enthusiastic about it and given me his lesson plan, which I more or less followed while adding my own personal adjustments. Every day the chefs-in-training and I covered a new aspect of literature, such as the sonnet or the limerick, or something more abstract, like feminist literary theory, and every day after class I was required to register the day’s attendance at the Le Cordon Bleu staff office with an eye toward making sure nobody missed more than seven or eight classes, lest they fail the course. It wasn’t stated explicitly but I got the main feeling my true job was to really make sure my students showed up, didn’t roam freely around campus during the class period, and managed not to set anything on fire (which is a very real possibility in a cooking school).

Every evening, after I’d returned home from my own part-time job, I’d put the next day’s lesson plan together and read the next day’s required reading. Here’s a sample of my lesson plan for one class with the day’s reading assignment listed first:

Tuesday May 22nd

Thinking about Literature

Story – “The Tell-Tale Heart” p. 36

Poem – “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” p. 963

Essay – “Dickinson and Death” p. 970

Glossary of Literary Terms p. 2059 (Just scan & familiarize yourself with this section)

Lecture

The heart of literature is story

Beginning Conflict-Rising Conflict-Crisis-Falling Action-Resolution

Upside down checkmark

Analyze Cinderella on white board

Group Activity-Analyze movies, present analysis to class

Break

Read “A Tell-Tale Heart” aloud.

Group Activity

Analyze “A Tell-Tale Heart”.

Have a student read “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” aloud.

Discuss poem, introduce literary analysis.

Literary Terms p. 2059

 

­ Looking back at this lesson plan, nearly three years later, I’m struck by how clean and neat it appears to be on paper in comparison to how raw and exhausting it felt to actually run. I’d taught a few fiction classes by this point but I’d never taught any type of class-class, with lectures and everything, and I was terrified I’d be found out for a fraud and locked in the school’s walk-in meat freezer (my friend had warned me to never, under any condition, admit to the class I was new to teaching—good advice, Aaron!).

We made it through the all-important attendance phases of each class and I more or less got the rowdy class to settle down but each day it was soon apparent that only or two students had done the reading at all and that I’d have to use some serious showmanship to keep the class’s attention on the subject at hand. In effect, I became a cheerleader for literature, the defense lawyer for its value in the modern workaday world. I was forced not only to explain it in terms of criticism and analysis but to argue for its inherent worth to a bleary-eyed, exhausted audience that just wanted to go have a smoke in the parking lot.

Why was “The Tell-Tale Heart” important?

Why was literary theory important? Why was psychological criticism, or gender criticism, or historical criticism important?

#

In college I once hiked around the tropical island of St. Lucia with a group of St. Olaf students and our genial, British–born professor Jonathan Hill. We were on a J-term trip studying English literature written by Caribbean writers like Earl Lovelace and Derrick Walcott (we met Walcott in a prearranged visit on St. Lucia and we later randomly encountered Lovelace[4] in Trinidad hanging out at the beach with his family in one of those strangely serendipitous moments in which everything feels mysteriously connected). I found myself walking beside Professor Hill as we hiked about the beautiful volcanic terrain and we began discussing death. Professor Hill’s brother had died not too long ago and my mother had passed the previous fall, only three months earlier.

As we walked along the lush bumpy ridgeline of a volcanic formation, looking down at the beautiful deep blue of the Caribbean Sea, the warm air as soft as butterflies around us, I asked Professor Hill something to the effect of what was the meaning of writing in the face of death (the quintessential college student question to ask, I know). Professor Hill paused and took a deep breath. He was wearing a baggy salmon-colored shirt and I could see a bead of sweat arc across his forehead.

“Art is consolation,” he said.

“For what?” I asked.

“For everything,” he said.

As I chewed on this, Professor Hill started walking again. We had a lot of island to cover and the sun wasn’t going to relent anytime soon.

#

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, literature has provided a type of escape and consolation I have found unmatched anywhere else.[5] As I continued teaching my Le Cordon Bleu students I realized every smartass thing I’d ever said and done in my own school days was being revisited upon me, if in a comparatively small dose. I also started feeling sorry for all the super-Christians I’d laughed at during my St. Olaf days, those chipper blond dunderheads and their earnest belief they had something so amazing to share with you, if only you opened your heart and paid attention. I wanted to share the Word, too, but my word wasn’t just one long fiction parable but all the fictions in all the genres. I wanted my Cordies to not only do the reading, not only turn in their papers on time, but to realize what an enjoyable thing reading was and how easily it could enhance their life (if only they Believed! If only they sat down with the Text!).

I knew on a conscious level that it wasn’t me the Cordies were rejecting (they didn’t even know I was a published author until the last week of class) but my identity was so wrapped up in writing and the writing life it was hard not to feel a little sting when they fell asleep in class or didn’t bother to show up at all. You want what you do, whatever it is, to be meaningful, and the more you’ve invested in it the more meaningful you hope it is. But a writer has to let go. You have to find that meaning in the process of creation itself, in being alive and engrossed in making something new, something that wouldn’t have ever existed without you. Not everybody likes to read no matter how pretty you make the words. Not everybody will understand or care how much effort goes into producing a book. If you’re a writer looking for a cloud of warm reassuring fuzzies to follow you around all day you’re in the wrong profession.

As the six week term (was it only six weeks? Or six years?) drew to a close I overheard one of my favorite, most engaged students say to his buddies how happy he was going to be when the class was over and he could throw his LITERATURE book in the trash. The same LITERATURE book which contained stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Jack London and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dorothy Parker. The LITERATURE book that contained “The Death of the Salesman” in its entirety and which we’d read aloud together for an entire peaceful, often funny week. The LITERATURE book that contained five hundred pages of poetry and prose from many of the greatest writers who ever lived.

I could choose to let that comment drag my writerly soul over the hot coals of futility but I think I’ll pick another memory to focus on instead. I’ll pick the day we covered sonnets. I lectured about sonnets using a power point presentation and then we read a few together, going over all that crafty use of iambic pentameter, discussing the difference between the Italian sonnet and the Shakespearian sonnet. Then I turned my students lose to compose sonnets on their own in small groups sprinkled around the classroom.

I expected my rambunctious Cordies to focus for about ten minutes on their sonnets before they inevitably started getting loud and making Anchorman jokes and then I’d have to kill the rest of the period by reading something from the textbook aloud. Instead, to my happy surprise, they remained huddled together intently for over a half an hour, intently working together in earnest and debating each line of poetry, twenty future chefs crafting new recipes.

[1] The weird interview for the job should have tipped me off. It was with a portly silver haired fellow who, once he discovered I wrote fantasy and science fiction, proceeded to spend the rest of the interview talking about his son, who’d taken over a very well-known fantasy series after the death of its initial author. I pretended to be a big fan of the series though I’d never read it and probably never will. Luckily there was no quiz.

[2] As well as an economics course, which at least had practical real-world application for chefs looking to start their own restaurants someday. Judging solely by the carnival atmosphere in my class, that econ class must have been something.

[3] Sixteen dudes and four dude-ettes. I took a poll of everyone’s favorite books and the winners were Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, “the movies” and, oddly, several dudes picked Hatchet, the excellent young adult wilderness survival novel by Gary Paulsen. I guess cooks love a properly utilized tool?

[4] Lovelace’s novel The Wine of Astonishment is fantastic.

[5] But I’ve never tried heroin, it’s true.

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