Where Sime and Gen Meet, Creativity Happens
Workshop:Conflict and Thesis in Real Life
by Jean Lorrah
Addendum by Jacqueline Lichtenberg on Louis Alvarez
In the past few days I have had the interesting experience of watching two candidates interview to teach in our English Department here at Murray State University. As everyone in the department has to teach the required Humanities course, each candidate was asked to prepare a lesson for an actual class in progress.
The candidate who came on Friday was asked to teach Antigone. He came with some scribbled notes, no more, and wrote his outline on the chalkboard before class. He appeared to teach spontaneously, throwing out questions to the students, and proceeding to deal with their responses.
The candidate who came on Monday was asked to teach "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from the Canterbury Tales. She came prepared with a typed outline, transparencies for the overhead projector, and slips of paper that she handed out to students with lines from the text for them to read aloud. She also based her lesson on the concept that we were all attending a party at court, where Geoffrey Chaucer was reading from his work in progress.
Which one was the more effective teacher?
You would expect it to be the second, wouldn't you? Doesn't she seem far better prepared than the first? It was eminently clear that she had spent more time and effort on her lesson than the first candidate.
Yet I sat in agony and watched that poor woman's chances of a job go down the drain as she was unable to generate the least interest in one of the most delightful characters and stories in the history of literature! The regular instructor of the class will have a terrible job now, convincing those students that Chaucer is not deadly dull, no matter how much you try to dress him up.
But on Friday I watched the first candidate cause Antigone, a play not exactly famous for inspiring laughter and spritely commentary from undergraduate students, to do exactly that!
What was the difference? The first candidate had a thesis, or what is called in fiction writing a conflict line. The second candidate did not.
The first candidate put his outline on the board, where the students could see it, and kept returning to it, showing them that he was leading them through the conflict between Antigone and Creon (the because-line) while filling in the background that might give modern readers difficulty understanding it. He didn't need gimmicks or decoration--he knew where the conflict lay, and that that is what is so interesting about this play.
The second candidate tried to substitute bells and whistles for a clear thesis, a clear outline. She had worked hard on her presentation, gotten together a great deal of interesting background material on Chaucer and on Medieval readings, on Medieval women, on the argument of experience vs. authority. She also had a gimmick: she kept reminding us that we were supposed to be listening to Chaucer doing a reading. She had slides to project to illustrate her points.
But she forgot all about the story!
She had no thesis, no point to her lesson. No conflict line. She never did get to the story the Wife of Bath tells, and what she had to say about the Wife's Prologue was just a mishmash of disorganized information.
Where did this poor, well-intentioned candidate go wrong? She did what every one of us has done at some time, whether on papers we have had to write for school, or on stories we have tried to write: she lost the conflict line in a mass of information and hard work. She mistook a gimmick (imagine you are listening to Chaucer read from his work) for a thesis (Antigone and Creon represent two sides of the same conflict). Sensing that something was missing (she probably watched other classes go to sleep when she did her presentations, and decided she needed to spice them up), she decorated her work with colorful graphics.
While Friday's candidate knew where he was going, and was therefore able to ask questions that led students along the because-line of his lesson, Monday's candidate had no because-line to try to lead students along. Therefore she attempted to engage students artificially by asking them to read lines aloud. Is there anything students hate to do more than read poetry out loud? The only saving grace is that we do use a modern English translation, so she was not asking them to read in Middle English.
So, what is my point in comparing these two candidates? It is that pouring great effort into a writing assignment, throwing information at it, decorating it, and creating a gimmick for it does not substitute for a clear thesis. Friday's candidate obviously didn't work nearly as hard on his presentation as Monday's candidate--and yet his lesson was successful because he had a clear thesis. The students knew immediately what his lesson was about, and I don't mean "about Antigone." Monday's lesson failed despite all the work thrown at it, because it lacked a clear thesis.
Readers want the same thing in a story that students want in a lesson--they want to know immediately what this story is about. That is why we are trying to teach you to identify the protagonist and the conflict, and bring them together in your very first scene. All the colorful characters, all the interesting information, all the sensational events, all the marvelous illustrations in the world will not compensate when your readers fall asleep because you have not engaged them in your conflict.
Jacqueline Lichtenberg's addendum to Jean Lorrah's "Conflict and Thesis in Real Life"
Jean is a Professor of English, and teaches these great works of literature herself. She also has to sit on committees -- very often committees searching for people to hire to teach.
I, on the other hand, am a recycled bench chemist whose main experience is in commercial writing and publishing.
I went to the University of California at Berkeley, and graduated from the School of Chemistry. I amassed enough physics and math credits to minor in both. I have had a lot of teachers and I've done a lot of teaching, with and without pay.
As an undergrad, I was a student of the Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, Louis Alvarez, for 4 semesters. In High School, I had had a Chemistry teacher who very closely resembled Hal Clement in thinking style. My HS teacher prepared me to learn from the Alvarez style -- which is Jean's Candidate #1's style.
Louis Alvarez made up his lesson plan for Physics over breakfast with his wife, or sometimes while driving to campus. He never gave it a thought until about an hour or two before class. Once in a while, he'd turn up without any idea what the text chapter was about or what to tell us about it.
He would start the lesson with an anecdote about how this or that common thing (burned toast, a sunrise, a dog shaking raindrops off his fur) illustrated the law of physics we were learning.
He expected we had read the textbook chapter and done the problems in the book before coming to class. He assumed we therefore understood everything in the textbook, and never even mentioned any of that material. He would simply build on the understanding he assumed all the students had acquired by studying on our own -- and show how to apply that abstract textbook knowledge to the everyday world.
Alvarez made physics relevant and fun, delightful, intriguing, stimulating, and REAL, worthwhile, profitable, rewarding, and engaging. He stood in front of the class and played with Physics, just as my HS Chemistry teacher played with Chemistry. That's what Jean's Candidate #1 was able to do for his class -- because he was Master of his material. And only a Master can play with his material.
To pass Alvarez's courses, you had to listen to and understand those extemporaneous anecdotes because on the exam, you would be asked to calculate something mentioned in the anecdote (rarely if ever did problems from the textbook appear on his exams, but you had to know how to do them in order to do the exam problems) -- and never once did he, or the textbook or the syllabus show you how to do that calculation. You had to pay attention to the stories and think for yourself to pass that course. I got the best grades I ever got in my life from Alvarez.
Today, I use Alvarez's method to write my column and my series of Tarot books. I use the same method to write novels or writing lessons. I just pay attention to the world around me and wait until I recognize a pattern (a because-line connection among improbable things) -- then I explain the pattern I have just found.
In order to use Style #1 you have to sit and wait quietly until a PATTERN you recognize emerges from the general noise of the world around you. That requires that you have full mastery of the PATTERNS and an ability to observe what's around you. It takes years to fully internalize the patterns to the point where you can recognize them buried in the noise of daily life. It takes only a few hours to research a subject and throw together a multimedia presentation about it.
If you go out right now and research some difficult subject, some historical era, some quirk of physics, in order to write a story tomorrow, you will come off performing in Style #2 and your story will be about as gripping and interesting as Candidate #2's seemed to be to that class.
If you research something today and use it offhandedly in a story you write ten years from now, you will use your knowledge of the subject in style #1 -- offhandedly, casually, with a point, a thesis, and a because-line. People will be interested in what you have to say (in your story's THEME -- in the because-line connections you've discovered create an intriguing pattern) because you are interested in it - because you are playing with it.
And people will look at you and comment about how you don't work hard at writing -- you didn't put any effort into it -- you must not care much about it -- you ought to get a real job. (always remember, writing like teaching is a performing art)
It's a whole lot more work to be spontaneous and casual than it is to be well-prepared and formal when explaining something. But spontaneous and casual is the style that best reveals the because-lines you see in the world around you. And that's what artists do for a living -- reveal and explain because-lines buried in the chaos of reality.
Live Long and Prosper,
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