Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ask the Dust and Dating Tips

My creative writing class is drawing toward the end of the semester. We hit that awful end-of-the-semester question last Tuesday: How do you make this work in the real world? After 12 weeks of getting them to follow their own lead, dig for their own inspiration, and express their innermost freak outs and tender moments, I turn around and dare to bring up the fact that they'll be writing for other people if they stick to this.

Writing for other people sounds like a drag at first. In fact, it can be a drag. Not every idea is a winner, but you have to pursue it faithfully. You have to find someone else's voice, and then proceed from there.

Now, every week I expose these unsuspecting teens to literature that they probably would not otherwise see. There's a value to pushing them a little out of their comfort zone. William S. Burroughs, it turns out, was a lot out of their comfort zone. Still valuable, if slightly traumatizing.

Last class we read an excerpt from Ask the Dust by John Fante. In chapter 12, Arturo Bandini, a self-proclaimed mix of Casanova and Rimbaud living on the cheap side of Downtown LA in the fifties, slithers his way through the bedroom of an aging, self-hating bachelorette in an attempt to build himself back up for another shot at the woman he's stalking. Then he sits on the beach when an earthquake strikes -- which he's convinced is the earth buckling under the weight of his guilt. Arturo's a real prize.

So, I had them imagine they came upon a writing job on Craig's List or guru.com -- posting to Arturo Bandini's dating tips blog. In other words -- a truly dreadful way to make a living.

Except, well, it's not so bad if you approach Arturo Bandini, employer, with the same respect you would any character. There's a way of thinking yourself into another voice. It takes practice. But it frees you up. There are how many different voices in your script? How many employers to write for? Now you've got it.

In three hours we had several months' worth of dating tips, all written fairly convincingly in the style of Arturo Bandini. Mr. Bandini took on a life of his own -- a kind of weird feedback loop between the original text and the different students' take on him. After weeks of fiddling around with character -- theoretical approaches, free-writes, structural techniques, backstory-driven, dialogue-driven, on and on -- I think I hit on something valuable just when I expected it least.

1 comment:

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