Shifting Gears

Last week, I went on vacation. My family put 2000 miles on our new car, learning about the ways road tripping is different when people are sitting close enough that they can all touch each other. (Our mileage was great, though!) Only one of the trip’s six days did not feature at least three hours of driving as we shuffled first north, then south. Along the way, we took in a museum where a T-Rex shares a name with my son, a production of Cirque du Soleil’s new Avatar-inspired show, and an awful lot of corn fields. And family.

Some of the transitions from car to family visit to car were seamless. We arrived. The kids exploded out of the car. They ran amok (sometimes with cousins) while the adult-types prepared food and caught up. We ate hamburgers and, because the sweet corn is coming ripe, plenty of fresh corn. The weather was very not-Texas, which we appreciated.

A few times, the explosion of kids out of the car was too explosive. There was too much energy to sit, even with the relative novelty of eating out. It meant going outside and finding places in or near gas station parking lots where my son could run and jump and otherwise do activities to help him regulate his body.

And of course, many transitions were preceded by “are we there yet?” Variations on this were my daughter’s favorite, sometimes hours before we closed in on our various destinations. By the time “getting there” meant being home, we were 15 minutes into August.

So, end of summer break…are we there yet?

We must be getting close. Monday, my boss called me to discuss my class assignments for the upcoming year. Earlier in the summer, he’d said that, pending enrollment numbers, everybody would be teaching what they taught last year. The purpose of the principal’s phone call was to explain that some things had changed. (It almost always changes.) Last year, I taught English intervention (for students who have either already failed or are at risk of failing the end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate) and on-level English IV (for seniors who often think they’ve already finished high school). Last spring, intervention was full entirely of freshmen. It was…challenging (especially the section at the end of the day, which was almost entirely boys and almost entirely disinterested in anything academic by the time class started at 3:05). I had hoped that we’d hit numbers for the creative writing elective I was listed to teach. I’d also hoped, vaguely, to escape teaching intervention. (It has its benefits; I feel like it helps keep me honest as a teacher and really pushes my pedagogy. It just wears me out.) Neither happened.

This year—which for teachers in my district starts next week—I’ll still be teaching intervention. Instead of on-level seniors, though, I’ll have the Advanced Placement (registered trademark of the College Board) seniors. I’ll be inheriting my colleague’s summer assignment, which means hurriedly reading the assigned novel (thank you, grad school, for preparing me!). I need to pull a syllabus together, one detailed and tidy enough for the College Board to approve it. I need to shove the vague plans I had about rearranging the on-level English stuff to the back burner. I need to think about what worked with the intervention classes last year, particularly in the spring, that I can adapt to the different group of students I’ll have in the fall.

It’s a lot to get ready in the two and a half weeks before students show up. On the plus side, I won’t be waiting on HR to decide whether or not I exist. It’s another opportunity to improve my teaching, which is exciting. None of my classes should be huge. There’s a lot to like.

Earlier, I mentioned that we got a new car. It has a continuously variable transmission; there are no “gears” to shift between. My first car was a manual transmission. I’ve driven automatics since then, but even those train you to a pattern of shifts. You learn when you need to jam on the pedal to make the transmission downshift, when to let up a little to get the upshift. You listen to the patterns of the RPMs. The new car doesn’t do that. It has paddle shifters and a sport mode so you can pretend, if you want, but mostly the transmission just runs. The changes are gradual.

That’s how this summer has felt, and it’s a change I’ve been able to notice mostly because so many other pieces of my life are stable. As an undergrad (and before that), summers were summer. Whether it was a job or just a lot more ultimate, I had a sense that summer was different. Not all of the summers were lazy. Not all of them were good. They were, though, decisively not-school. During my masters, I took a fair number of summer seminars to grease the wheels on my dual degree. It still felt like a distinct season, though, because we had a lot of teachers pursuing masters degrees, because the rhythm of the day was different, because the weather was different.

I didn’t take summer seminars during my doctoral work. They weren’t part of the program. I took care of my kids. I squeezed in research trips. I wrote. The research trips have been replaced by professional development, but those other things have continued. My school year lines up imperfectly with the kids’, so there were some hazy patches at the beginning of the summer, with another coming up when I go back for inservice next week. There have been trips and camps and many visits to the library. Not once did I have a sense that things had slowed down. They must have, though, because I can feel them speeding up again now, even without a noticeable shift in gears.

Continuously variable transmission, indeed.

Hiding the Joints

“Good writing is that which hides the joints.”

That’s one of my favorite pieces of writing advice. It came secondhand, back when I was at school in Wales. The words might not be exactly correct, but we were talking about transitions, about moving from idea to idea. Carpentry’s a good metaphor for it. Mediocre writing can look a lot like the kind of bookshelf I’d build, even if the ideas are good. I know how to measure, and I know how to use a saw properly. I’m confident I could build a fully functional shelf. A practiced carpenter can cut the pieces and fit them together so well that the joints, while not disappearing, don’t catch the eye.

Writers develop plenty of tricks to hide their joints. Transitions can be as simple as using parallel phrase structure in the sentences bracketing a paragraph change. They can be more complicated, of course, and a well-written paper or story can flow as smoothly as the unfurling of a flower or as inevitably as the ticking of a watch. Structure counts. The little things count, too.

Sometimes the little things can hide the joints too well, disguise them so thoroughly that we don’t notice structural flaws. I mentioned a timeline problem in my NaNo project a few weeks back. That was a smooth transitions/flawed structure problem. Reading the first four chapters of the novel, everything flowed naturally and made perfect sense…right up to the moment you stopped to think about it. As soon as you did that, it became obvious that one character had to have gone backward in time. I was able to untangle things, but it was a messy example of the way fluency can obscure problems. Yet another reason to avoid falling in love with your own prose.

Most of my thinking about transitions and structure has been on the academic side of my writing life. How can I lay out an argument to make it convincing? Which concepts are so fundamental to my project that they need to be explained fully and immediately? As I work with long form fiction, I’m having to adjust that thinking. Characters ought to develop, both over the course of the story and in the readers’ understanding. The plot has to unfold smoothly enough that the joints stay hidden…or at least elegantly enough that any breaks are convincingly abrupt.

There can be as much legerdemain as carpentry in hiding transitions. Movies have reminded me of that. I took my kids to see Despicable Me 2, and I was astounded at how brisk everything was. The movie is only ninety minutes. It’s got set pieces in it, too, that eat up screen time while contributing minimally to anything else. There’s hardly any exposition. Things happen, it seems, mostly because they happen. We don’t need motivations. The bad guy is the bad guy. Gru doesn’t want his daughter seeing boys. The minions are wacky. Doctor Nefario of course changes sides. Twice. Zip zip zip. There’s no time to figure out why they do any of these things.

Importantly, there’s no need to figure out why the characters do any of these things. We experience the movie like we experience music: in time. We don’t go backward. If the array of writers, actors, directors, and editors are doing their job, we stay suspended in the movie’s now. One of the easiest ways to realize a movie is bad is that it has given you the time to notice it’s bad. (That doesn’t mean movies can’t inspire reflection while watching them—there were parts of Django Unchained, for example, that were profoundly uncomfortable and made me think without jarring me completely out of the movie.)

The next night, I saw Thor: The Dark World. It was longer, and not in such a hurry, but there was a lot of the same sleight of hand. The characters are what they are. Holes in reality are placed conveniently to propel the plot or just to look cool. The Asgardian defense forces become bad shots when the bad guys invade for exactly the same reason that storm troopers can’t help missing the heroes of Star Wars. We get the bones of a story and a lot of hammer swinging and explodey stuff. It’s fun.

In both movies, the transition-hiding sleight of hand relies on convention. Despicable Me 2 ends with a wedding because of course the girls need a mom. The Dark World ends with the evil dark elf getting smashed up because that is what happens to bad guys in comic book movies. I enjoyed both of the films. What’s interesting to me, though, is how convention and thumbnail sketches of plot work to whisk us past the joints more than to hide them.

How much can we do that with our writing? When can we use convention to avoid the parts people skip? When can we hide the joints with illusion rather than carpentry? I read a piece a while back by a “serious” author doing Young Adult projects that highlighted the challenges of keeping all the attention on the story. Flowery descriptive digressions or psychological submarine expeditions nudge the readers out of the book. She was talking about young readers, but it goes for adults, too—part of the reason Y.A. writing has so many adult fans. The focus is on storytelling rather than being “writerly.”

Gene Wolfe is the best writer I know at managing both of those things. He’s a master of showing rather than telling, even when, in The Sorceror’s House, the whole book is a collection of explanatory letters. He manages economy without creating the forced briskness of an action movie or kids movie. He hides his joints superbly.

What about you? How do you hide your joints? How often do you allow yourself to use a little of legerdemain to obscure what might not be fixable?