John Updike’s story “A & P” is the first story I remember reading that seemed like I could have lived. It’s about a kid who works in a grocery store and three girls about his age come in wearing bathing suits. I worked in a grocery store as a teenager. It was a family owned store called Russell’s Old Trading Post, and one of the things I remember about that was almost no one my age ever came in to the store. In Updike’s story the manager tells the girls they aren’t dressed appropriately. The kid in the story tries to stand up for them, a chivalrous move probably intended to impress the girls. The girls don’t seem to notice the kid’s attempt. They leave. The kid gets fired.
Updike’s “A & P” appears in the collection Pigeon Feathers
Having read the C.S. Lewis Narnia series and a bunch of Louis L’Amour Westerns on my own and then stories like Beowulf and “The Monkey’s Paw” in school, those stories didn’t trigger anything inside me from the standpoint of thinking about the sort of story I might tell. Lewis caused me to check the inside of closets for secret passages and Star Wars prompted me to try and move objects in my room with the force. With Updike’s story “A & P,” there was just the start of looking at the world to see what stories could be told and for what reason.
7 min free write word count: 231
You can read Updike’s story by clicking here.
The first story I remember writing was about a dragon that spit out water instead of fire. I remember this being in the 2nd grade, although that could be off a year or two. On the merits of the story, I was selected to go read my story at the high school auditorium in Logansport, Indiana. The dragon was an outcast. No one would play with him. Eventually he saves the town with his freakish ability to spew water. Now, I can see that the story clearly follows the plot structure of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Looking back, I can see my elementary story was a version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Second grade was also memorable for my teacher identifying what she thought were motor skills problems I had. She said I didn’t swing my arms correctly when I walked. I remember staying after school to draw circles on the board. I’d hold a piece of chalk in each hand and draw circles trying to get my hands to move in synch. Then I’d draw circles with my hands moving in opposite directions. It reminds me of what the mind and body have to do to dribble one basketball high and one basketball low. I just accepted my motor deficiency skills and did what I was told. I don’t know what my mom and dad thought of that teacher, but they mostly were teachers who supported my teachers.
I meant to focus on the story of my reading and writing. Maybe I’ll come back to that soon.
7 min free write total: 243
Today is the first day I’ve sat down to write without knowing what I would say. Obviously, I could have just not written, but if I ask students to write regularly, they are going to be in this same spot, and I want to try and do what I will ask them to do: write when they don’t feel like they have something to say.
Is it my job–as the writing teacher–to help students make words come? Last school year, I noticed that many of the students in the classes I taught had trouble making words come. According to something Greenwood High School called the Senior Capstone Project, the students had to write twelve 200-word reflective journal entries. Lots of students could only come up with a sentence or two. I worked with many of these during free time at lunch or after school. I found myself asking questions like this:
- Before the year started, what did you think about the project? Did you have any idea what your topic would be? Did you know anyone who had worked on the project? What did they say about it?
Students would write something like this: I went to see my mentor. The meeting went well. He showed me a project proposal.
facing the blank page
I thought I could get the students writing more toward their 200 words. I’d ask them where their mentor worked. I’d ask them where they met. I’d ask if they were nervous. I’d ask who talked first. I tried to get the students to just go into more detail and make what they were writing a story of the meeting. I would tell the students that the answers to my questions should be put into the writing.
I thought my questions should fire the catalyst to write 200 words, but I found that I had to keep asking questions until the student reached the minimum writing requirement. The students hadn’t had much practice making words come when they needed words to come. Is this something that matters?
7 min writing word count: 337
Maybe next time:
- Vonnegut’s writing desk
- Memorable or useful experiences in the writing classroom
- Somewhere to Live.
- Places I’ve Lived.
- Gluten for Punishment.
That phrase content consumed strikes me as on the crude side when it comes to reading a work of art created by a writer or watching a film that is the vision of a director. However, I’m going to share some of the content I’ve consumed and want to consume as the beginning of a conversation with you all about some of the good stuff you have watched, read, or listened to. My lists are below and I hope you’ll add some of what you have watched, listened to, or read in the comments section at the bottom of this page!
I hope to make this a regular Torg Stories post.
the podcast app on my iPhone
Content I listened to, watched, or read…
- “The Fix is In” on This American Life podcast. About price fixing. It was the Matt Damon movie called The Informant. Didn’t see that one but thinking about watching it. Hard to fit movies in these days unless they are 8 and 10 year old girl appropriate.
- Longform podcast “The Really Big One” podcast. About the imminent earthquake in the Northwest. After listening to this, I also read Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article of the same title. Click here to read that.
- Graeme Simson’s novel The Rosie Project. A researcher who probably has a degree of Asperger’s Syndrome devises a grand plan to find a wife that involves passing out questionnaires to women at parties. Hilarity ensues! I highly recommend and thanks to my friend Katie for sending it my way!
- I’m reading The French Broad by Wilma Dykeman as I begin a writing and film project something along the lines of “On the French Broad.” If that’s too broad (pun intended) then maybe “Asheville on The French Broad”? I hope to take a look at who is on the river, how I might navigate it with my family, and the political and social issues that surround the water. While reading this book published in 1955, I have learned to think more complexly about where men fought during the Civil War in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, AND I learned a really interesting story about how Dr. Mitchell lost his life on the mountain that now bears his name.
I want to read, listen to, or watch…
- Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong and maybe watch her accompanying TED Talk. Given the number of views the talk has, looks like I’ll be about the last one to see this one.
- Rob Sheffield’s book On Bowie. I read the first 20 pages while my family browsed in the local bookstore. I skipped ahead and read the last ten, AND I’m still going to buy this book and read it all again. I really loved Sheffield’s book Love is a Mix Tape, and I liked Talking to Girls About Duran Duran and Turn Around Bright Eyes about singing karaoke. I like Rob Sheffield’s writing almost as much as I like Nick Hornby’s writing. I also often suggest the fill in the blank “On ________________” to students who can’t think of a title. For example “On Being a Father to Girls” or “Notes On My First Trip to Madison Square Garden.”
- I can’t wait to watch Lorne Michaels on Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. One of my fantasies for myself is to be a sort of Lorne Michaels of Asheville in putting together a local version of SNL.
And finally, what I’m working on…
- I’m 9,000 words into an essay about my experience participating in what is called The 48 Hour Film Project for the third straight year in Asheville.
- I’m planning to reshoot a few scenes, hopefully in the next week, to clean up the Torg Stories short film, “Captain Ice Cream.”
- I’ve scheduled an interview with a representative of MountainTrue and a man who is the French Broad Riverkeeper about issues that surround the river in Asheville. This is the beginning of work that I hope will lead to a writing and film project about The French Broad and the people who use
- I taped an interview for an upcoming Torg Stories podcast with Peter Gregutt. I met Peter when he worked with me as an editor on a piece published in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress titled “How Christopher Mello Sows Peace and Community in his West Asheville Garden.” When I learned Peter had climbed volcanoes in Guatemala, trekked the Himalayas, and spontaneously took a boat to Africa, I wanted to get him on the podcast. I was interested in his time in New York City studying English at Colombia, that he’d spent decades as an editor, and grabbed hold of the phrase Armpit Traveller as a title for a travel themed collection he’d written.
In the comments section below, let me know what you’ve read, watched, or listened to that I should take a look at. Thanks for joining the conversation!
When I’m looking to give my friends who work 9-5 jobs a hard time, I send them texts like this one:
Before texting my buddy, the plan for this post was to go on to explain that even though I technically don’t have to be back on campus for another 238 days, there’s actually a lot of work to be done. That thought was inspired by those who say to my wife, “Since Bill’s not working…”
There is an online course to teach this summer that involves a lot of preparation before it begins, and once it starts a lot of reading and responding to online texts and emails. I always say I like to read student writing, but sometimes there is just too much of it. However, nothing like a glimpse into my friend’s Office Space work life to spur me on to try and make the most of this opportunity I have to be away from campus.
one of my fav scenes from 1999 film Office Space
At St. John’s University where I teach, we faculty are fortunate enough that we still have the opportunity to be granted research leave. I was granted leave for the fall semester, and I’m feeling pressure to get myself organized to make sure I don’t misuse my opportunity. I know that I can be productive, but I want to be the right kind of productive. Below are some of the lists I’ve been working on so far.
Three Big Points of Emphasis:
- Family time including coaching lots of girls basketball
- Build Asheville creative connections: writing, film, comedy, performance
- Write or edit film first thing each morning
- Professional development
- Experiments in building online conversations around this website and the Torg Stories podcast
Projects to Work On:
- Short documentary film about students who come to the United States to study
- Article based on interviews done with students who are studying abroad in the United States
- Essays for a collection perhaps titled A Yankee in the South: Tales of a Native Hoosier… I don’t know what the end of that title is. When I first started dating my wife Megan, her mother used to tell people her daughter was “dating a Yankee.” I’ve since learned that if you’re from places like Alabama, then the folks in Tennessee might be thought of as Northerners.
- Pitching films to friends that might involve juice cleanses and lawn mower races.
Items for the Daily Schedule:
- Write new stuff or edit film
- Work the girls out
- Teaching prep and reading student work (for summer)
- work out
- Write reflections on reading
- Podcast/blog work
- Professional development (Final Cut Pro X, sound mixing to start)
- look for publishing opportunities for written not published work
- Go out and about and meet people in Asheville
the master plan for research leave is still evolving