Thesis Statements in Stories

I had the choice of a couple of different textbooks to use for one of the college writing courses I am teaching. Today, I’m reading in it about narratives and how stories should have a thesis statement. While I do think sometimes I can point to a sentence in some of the stories I love that captures what the writer might have hoped to convey to readers, I can’t support the idea that a story needs a thesis and that’s something that can always be found in a story and marked.
 
I remember teaching freshman high school students in Charlotte when I thought I was ignorant because I couldn’t find all of the points in the story for a plot diagram. I had to start writing for myself before I realized that all the points on the diagram weren’t in all of the stories that were in our textbook. I hadn’t yet realized that the people who put together the textbooks and wrote the state tests didn’t really understand stories because they weren’t people who tried to write stories anymore.
 
I also doubt that all writers have a point or purpose to the stories they start. I have talked with a lot of writers who don’t start a story without knowing the theme of it and their reason for writing, but I have also talked to a lot of writers–and usually I’m in this camp–who discover why they are writing during the process of composition. The theme or purpose for the writing is fleshed out while writing.

Home Till January: Plans for Research Leave

When I’m looking to give my friends who work 9-5 jobs a hard time, I send them texts like this one:

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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.

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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:

  1. Family time including coaching lots of girls basketball
  2. Build Asheville creative connections: writing, film, comedy, performance
  3. Write or edit film first thing each morning
  4. Professional development
  5. Experiments in building online conversations around this website and the Torg Stories podcast

Projects to Work On:

  1. Short documentary film about students who come to the United States to study
  2. Article based on interviews done with students who are studying abroad in the United States
  3. 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.
  4. Pitching films to friends that might involve juice cleanses and lawn mower races.

Items for the Daily Schedule:

  1. Write new stuff or edit film
  2. Work the girls out
  3. Teaching prep and reading student work (for summer)
  4. work out
  5. Read
  6. Write reflections on reading
  7. Podcast/blog work
  8. Professional development (Final Cut Pro X, sound mixing to start)
  9. look for publishing opportunities for written not published work
  10. Go out and about and meet people in Asheville
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the master plan for research leave is still evolving

 

 

 

 

Alone in New York City

I mostly live in Asheville, North Carolina with my wife and two daughters, but for about thirty-two weeks a year, I spend quite a bit of time in New York City where I teach First Year Writing Courses at St. John’s University. In NYC, I rent a 400 square foot studio apartment in Kew Gardens in the borough of Queens. The place is just a bit bigger than most of the hotel rooms in which I’ve stayed.

 

People–and these are often people who have a lot of daily family obligations–want to know what I do with all the time I have to myself. Well, for example, here’s what I did last Saturday:

 

Work / Write

For almost a decade, I was nearly an everyday writer. I’d do an hour or two first thing each morning and that work allowed me to complete a book-length manuscript each year. After all, even with some missed mornings at the writing desk, a page a day allowed me to write over three hundred pages a year. There’s much more to finishing a book than enough pages, but that schedule gave me a manuscript to work with.

Lately, I have not been an everyday writer, but instead I have wrote in binges. Because I’m gone so much during academic semesters, I feel guilty about holing up in my home office to write. I’m also often flying twice a week. This involves catching morning trains or driving about ninety miles from Asheville to Charlotte, and so writing first thing in the morning is often not an option. For the last year, I’ve been writing essays. This lets me take some days off and then spend many hours for a few days in a row to pump out drafts of essays. If I’m writing novel, I need to write everyday to keep my head in it. When I’m doing essays, it’s not so hard to start from the beginning the next time I have a few days in a row to binge work.

On this particular Saturday I’m telling you about, I spent the morning sending out essays (and one story) for consideration of publication.

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in the small studio apartment, naps are always a threat to writing goals

Exercise

At home in Asheville, I get up to see everyone off to school. Indy the dog needs walked. She needs to be told to be quiet when she barks at everyone who ever walks by our house. There are dishes in the washer to put away. Dry cleaning needs to be picked up. One of the cars needs an oil change. The grass needs cut. I think I’ll paint lines on the basketball court. I’ve got plans for a green-screen wall in the garage. You get the idea. You probably know what its like. There’s a lot that asks to be done everyday.

In New York, I often wake up with no obligations other than to answer email and read student work. The small studio is clean. I already washed the one dish and glass I used the night before. All that awaits are long hours at the writing desk, something every writer says they crave. I’ve learned that I can’t do much more than three hours straight at the desk. I can do more than one three hour stretch a day, but I need a break and usually my breaks are working out.

I run and lift weights. There’s a little gym in the basement of my building. I often go down there twice a day, once to lift and a second time to walk on the treadmill or ride the exercise bike and watch sports. I figure riding the bike and watching sports beats (at least long-term) drinking a beer and eating nachos in my studio while watching sports. You might be surprised what a great place Queens can be to run.

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this road in Forest Hills Park is closed to cars

 

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the pull up bar marks the halfway point of my regular run

Stand Up Comedy

I like comedy, and I think that’s because of the writing. I’m interested in what makes a story funny and the creative process that takes an idea and evolves it into something that a comedian performs. My favorite places for comedy are the Comedy Cellar and both locations of the Upright Citizens Brigade.

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the train rumbles right outside my studio apartment window, that’s the station just down the tracks

On this night, I took in a comedic double header. First, I saw Mike Birbiglia perform his “Thank God For Jokes” at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in the East Village. Mike’s act is heavily informed by his Catholic education. He says something like, “I did the program,” by which he means Catholic high school and college. Here’s a memorable line from Mike’s show:

Jesus was the original Bernie Sanders.

-Mike Birbiglia in “Thank God For Jokes”

Mike notes that Jesus, like Bernie, was a Jewish Socialist. Before this performance, my favorite stuff from Birbiglia was his film (available on Netflix at the time of this writing) Sleepwalk With Me. I thought the performance I saw was Mike’s best work yet, and I highly recommend the show.

To get to Manhattan, I took the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station. From there, I walked the two miles from the station to the East Village and the theater.

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there was plenty to see on the walk from Penn Station to the East Village

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Cooper Union (college of architecture, art, engineering)

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the banner out front of the Lynn Redgrave Theater 

Comedy Part II

The back half of my night of comedy was at the improv at the Upright Citizen Brigade’s East Village location. I saw a show called “What I Did For Love.” The troupe brings up an audience member for an interview on stage about their love life. Then the performance is based on information derived in the interview. The whole thing felt like a relative to my novel Love on the Big Screen and my enthusiasm for the decade of the eighties.

I feel at home with the people who attend shows at UCB. They feel like people who like to talk about making stuff, and they enjoy attending a performance where people make stuff on the fly. I’m especially interested in the structure that informs improv. I recently obtained The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. I think this summer will probably bring some improv exercises for the whole family in the living room.

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Out Front of UCB in the East Village 

The Saturday night I’ve described above is a bit uncommon for all of its late-night activity.  On most days in New York, (sorry to disappoint) I meet my teaching obligations, write, workout, write some more, workout again, and then I read or watch movies in the evening.

The not-so-great part about going into the city is either waiting for the train to take me back out to Queens or the long ride back on the subway that can take up to an hour. So I figured that while I was making the trip into Manhattan, I take in two of my favorite things about being in New York.

Thanks so much for checking in on the site and reading my post. It’s fun to make stuff, but it’s also fun to have a few readers. I appreciate you!