Tag Archives: The Great Gatsby

Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Organized Chaos


Well, to begin with, a Wally boy who shall go nameless (after doing an absolute killer reading from his new novel) came down to the porch at about 10 o’clock last night wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, and for the rest of the conference, I predict we will be asking him over and over what a friend of mine asked this practically naked Wally as he appeared on the porch last night: “You going for a swim?” No, he was not going for a swim. He had locked himself out of his dorm room. His rescue, or his reunion with his room, was not an easy task. Were there spare keys? Who had them? Call the college. Not outside business hours. Call the Wally organizer. Not on campus. He lets us know over the phone who has the spare keys. But where is she? We haunt her floor. Calling her name. Knocking randomly on doors. She must be asleep. Finally, we learn her room number. She wakes, produces a key, and all is well.

Today I’m thinking about organized chaos, in particular, the organized chaos of a first person narrator who is, essentially, like Huck Finn, like Nick Carraway, like Holden Caulfield, talking all the time. Of these three representative narrators, perhaps only Huck and Holden could be said to be “talking,” whereas Nick’s formality and philosophical musings seem to represent the more deliberate and intentional act of the written word. My narrator is talking—all of the time. He’s not the kind of guy who would write a book, but he’s got a lot of stuff to say.

Realistic talk, even storytelling that appears to us in the course of conversation, is rarely neat and tidy. There are disruptions, interruptions, distractions, tangents, repetitions. And composing a work of fiction around this type of point of view can be taxing, especially in the earliest stages of drafting. If the narration wants to feel spoken, there’s a degree of chaos that ensues. And of course it’s kind of a ridiculous conceit: who talks non-stop for two hundred pages? And who’s listening? Who’s the audience? And how might the speaker organize that chaos so that the writer’s hand in it is negligible or invisible. A first person narrator like Faulkner’s Benjy is probably not even viable in today’s publishing and/or reading climate. I sometimes wonder what’s becoming of our contemporary Faulkners. They’ve probably all gone the way of Shakespeare’s sister from A Room of One’s Own, nuts and then dead. That’s terrifying. I don’t want to go there. So I am trying to organize my narrator’s chaos. I am trying to help him get back into his dorm room so as to not have to haunt the halls of Ham, nearly naked, calling the name of the key-keeper.

Today, I did a lot of cutting and pasting, moving text around, trying to remember what this guy has said already and where he said it, trying to make sense of the chronological sequence. Once, I fell asleep in a chair. I watched a Pomplamoose video and then I jumped up and down, danced a bit. Then, instead of going back to my narrator, I started to write this. See, it’s not only that my narrator is telling his story; his story, in fact, takes a bit of a back seat to the stories of two other characters who have told their stories to him. Unlike Fitzgerald’s Nick, my guy is speaking and not writing, but like Fitzgerald’s Nick, my guy is what we call a peripheral first person narrator. His job seems to be to tell somebody else’s story. But he tells it, is compelled to tell it, because it has touched him in some significant way, but he’s got to speak in order to make sense, and as he speaks, he decides (sometimes on the fly) what to reveal and in what order, and hopefully, he lets me in on the plan. My job is to listen. Who’s holding the key to organizing this chaos? My narrator has the key to my dorm room. Luckily, I am fully dressed.

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Filed under Literature, Writing and Reading

#34: How Discussion of The Great Gatsby Gets Totally Derailed by a Big Spider

wolf spider

How Discussion of The Great Gatsby Gets Totally Derailed by a Big Spider

It’s happened before:
bug gets into the room
and distracts the students,

rightfully so, because
it’s like, you know,
a bug.

Today it’s a spider,
a really big one,
as the teacher tries to tease

out this delicious bit
in the novel when Gatsby
requests a secret audience

with Jordan Baker.
What do they talk about?
Why is Jordan so dumbstruck afterwards?

And then the spider shows up
and it’s a big one and it makes
(I’m sorry to say)

the 17 year old girl scream,
get up from her chair,
and scurry across the room

while the boys in the class
figure out what to do
and the teacher tries

and fails
to regain control and focus.
One boy looks for a thing

to put the spider in
to presumably save its life
or maybe to preserve it

for further study
while another boy
does the stereotypical

guy thing and moves in
for the kill
while the teacher alone

pleads mercy for the bug.
Teacher is ignored
and spider is summarily

squashed. The teacher
is angry, appropriately
ridicules the killer

and makes him clean
the gore from the tile floor.
A few more minutes

and the teacher might
have made an object lesson
of the death of that spider

and perhaps asked
students to think about how
in the Gatsby novel

the strong abuse the weak
and deepest desire, sometimes
just to live a life,

is often snuffed or snubbed.
But the bell rings
and class is dismissed,

a strong finish spoiled
by the fleeting distraction
of a really big spider.

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Filed under Poetry, Teaching

#32: Gatsby? What Gatsby?


Gatsby? What Gatsby?

is what Daisy says
when she hears Jordan Baker
mention the name to Nick,
and it’s what teenagers
used to say before they
knew Leonardo DiCaprio
was starring in the new
Baz Luhrmann film.
Suddenly, now, they
want to read this novel
because they recognize
the name and because Leonardo
is starring in the new
Baz Luhrmann film.
And as I read the opening pages
to my students today,
we wondered together
how those words might
be rendered in 3-D:
Here’s some advice my father
gave me–in 3-D.
Here’s me, the victim of
a few veteran bores–in 3-D.
Reserving judgements is a matter
of infinite hope–in 3-D.
The fundamental decencies
are parceled out unequally at birth
–in 3-D.  And that’s just
the very first page.
We all agreed how exciting
it will be to see the foul dust
floating in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams
come alive on the screen in 3-D.
And somehow, I’m thinking
that a much better movie of
The Great Gatsby would
be to capture on film what
that one guy did on the stage
in 7 hours:  he read or recited
the whole damn novel out loud.
There we might have a film
of an American classic.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Poetry, Teaching