|Sky Lantern Festival, Taiwan|
I’ve been hearing Ray Bradbury’s voice in my head this week as I teach my summer writing workshop. It is not just that I use his New Yorker essay, “Take Me Home,” (June 4, 2012). I will forever connect him to this most youthful of seasons because of his great story, “The Sound of Summer Running.” Bradbury wrote amazing description and often his stories and essays read as prose poetry. I would love to inspire my students to sink into the adjectival universe like he did, time after time, in every sentence he composed.
Check out this opening sentence, quite possibly the best ever written, from Bradbury’s short story, “Tomorrow’s Child”: “He did not want to be the father of a small blue pyramid.” If that doesn’t make you want to read on, you are not alive.
Or, how about this opening from “The Sound of Summer Running”: “Late that night, going home from the show with his mother and father and his brother Tom, Douglas saw the tennis shoes in the bright store window. He glanced quickly away, but his ankles were seized, his feet suspended, then rushed. The earth spun; the shop awnings slammed their canvas wings overhead with the thrust of his body running. His mother and father and brother walked quietly on both sides of him. Douglas walked backward, watching the tennis shoes in the midnight window left behind.”
Those are some magical tennis shoes, and Douglas has quite an adventure ahead of him.
The essay I use with my students is a simple recollection of a special moment with his grandfather on long ago summer evenings when they launched fire balloons into the sky. Bradbury creates not just a scene for us, but a lost world, all in a few sentences. “While I remained earthbound, I would time-travel, listening to the grownups, who on warm nights gathered outside on the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce. At the end of the Fourth of July, after the uncles had their cigars and philosophical discussions, and the aunts, nephews, and cousins had their ice-cream cones or lemonade, and we’d exhausted all the fireworks, it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons.”
Bradbury evokes joy and sadness in the same moment, the way all of us look back on the best time of our lives. His metaphor is the fire balloon, the tissue paper construction that is inflated by the warm air from a tiny box of fire hanging beneath it. “Once the fire got going,” Bradbury writes, “the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside…It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, across the night among the stars.”
What I have already seen in my students, and what surprises me every year, is the often accidental beauty of their spontaneous prose. We do a series of writing exercises to open each session. I’ll ask them to write about a journey they have taken, or a special place they remember, or the moment when they realized they were grown up. These are college freshmen on the cusp of a new chapter in their lives. Almost all of them spoke another language first, not English, so when I hear their writing, I can tell they are thinking in one language and writing in another. It is a struggle now, but being fluent in multiple languages in the future will help them have an advantage in the job market, especially here in the diverse cacophony of southern California.
The juxtaposition of languages leads them into some interesting constructions. For instance, in English we say “I had a dream about my grandfather last night.” Many of my students will write, “Last night, I dreamt with my grandfather.” Prepositions in English are odd words—their usage is based on context. One can memorize a list of prepositions, as the nuns made me do back in elementary school, but in a given sentence, which preposition to use is not legislated. Dreaming about someone or something is the standard construction. To dream with someone is to do it in concert with another, as if you and your grandfather had the same dream at the same time. However, I like the construct of I dreamt with my grandfather last night. I think it sounds more poetic.
I also marvel at the wisdom of my students that comes through their writing subconsciously. Many live in neighborhoods known for crime and violence, as well as poverty and desperation. All of us have an image of a gang member, the picture portrayed so often in culture and the media. These students know more than the abstraction; these gang members are their neighbors and sometimes their friends, lovers, brothers and sisters. When I ask them to write about their neighborhoods, one said that she encounters gang members several times a day when she walks her dog. “I just stare them down and say hi. If you show fear, they’ll be on you in a minute.”
Another wrote about her neighborhood as a parallel universe to the one people see when they drive the streets. “The crazy people hang out at the abandoned mental hospital, just living inside the empty buildings,” she writes. “The homeless go to the park and live there. My preschool is next to a cemetery.” Her city is filled with the poetry of juxtaposition.
My students are also natural storytellers. In their voices, I hear echoes of Sandra Cisneros’s The House On Mango Street, a classic text of the high school classroom. In their writing, as fragmented and error-prone as it is in its raw form, I hear the voice of the places from which they have come, the neighborhoods, the countries, the languages. My job in some ways is to remove such distinctions and teach them the conventions of “good writing,” of “academic writing.” Yet, what makes their voices unique is the personal, and I hate losing that.
My plan is to teach them research techniques, formats, and structures. I’ll prepare handouts and presentations on the parts of an essay, the construction of an academic paper. But in these first days I want them to find a comfort zone with their writing. I want them to gain confidence in sharing their words with others, and hopefully discover the power of story. Writing is such a revealing and powerful art, and often academic composition drains the blood out of the page, leaving dry husks of words that convey only facts and regurgitated ideas.
Years ago when I was a struggling student like them, a teacher I admired summoned me outside into the hallway before class started. He had given me a poor grade on my recent academic essay on Ernest Hemingway’s work. At the time, I was deeply in love with being a novelist or short story writer. I did not have time for the academic stuff. To the teacher, I just said I wasn’t comfortable writing essays, something I laugh at now since the essay is my favorite form. “All writing is writing,” he said. “In an essay, you are still telling a story. The story is your analysis, or what you found in your research.”
I want my students to include the personal, their unique take on the topic of the paper—history, science, or literature. Good writing is good writing, whatever the subject. So my goal in the next few weeks is to keep their natural inclination to tell a story, and bring in the concepts of academic and rhetorical composition. In this brief summer of writing, if I can bring them to a point where they are prepared for the next four years of research and composition while avoiding the fear and dread that often accompanies picking up a pen or opening a laptop to begin a paper, I will be happy. I do wonder, though, if I might do more good with my workshops by simply firing up students to write and setting them free to commit to the page whatever they choose. By overburdening the process with endless rules and structures for academic writing, do we anchor students to the ground while they wish to float like Ray Bradbury’s fire balloons? I want my students to soar into their writing lives, “all fired and bright, adrift above a dead sea,” as Bradbury wrote at the end of his essay. I do not wish to stamp out the soulful poetry that comes so naturally from the fire of their lives. That is the sound of summer writing, and it should be our only goal.