Friday, January 8, 2016

Clean Sweep 2015:
Dorothy Allison at Paideia in October

Gosh, it's just become 2016, and there are a bunch of things I meant to write about way back in 2015 that never made it to the blog. Do you ever get paralyzed by having too much going on in your head at the same time, so nothing ever makes its way out?  Kind of like a logjam in timber territory.

So here we go -- making a clean sweep of 2015, and onward with 2016!


Back in October, acclaimed author Dorothy Allison spent time with classes, and gave two talks in the theater (a morning talk/reading at a student assembly, and an evening reading for the public).   My notes are something like this:
- a compelling speaker,  teenagers actually paid attention for an hour.  Many (including me) were leaning forward to catch every word.
- she definitely goes for shock value; topics & vocabulary not used in public often (even at Paideia!!)
- Allison spoke directly to the students (flattery ;-)
- she's very funny
If Dorothy Allison wrote poetry, she'd be a slam champion!  The roots of her writing are definitely in storytelling and performance, which comes through brilliantly when she's on stage.  I went to elementary and junior high school in northeast Alabama, and felt as though Allison could have been one of the girls I went to school with -- maybe my best friend, maybe an academic competitior, maybe (in honesty) one of the girls the others talked mean about.  Somebody I knew.  Whatever it is, she is able to really connect with her audience. Oh, and she's got a killer smile!

There were significant differences between morning and evening talks:
• in the morning she kept coming back to the idea that "all writing is about revenge"
• in the evening the theme was more about "grace & glory," growth and acceptance

I mention this because it came up later in the week when we met with our advisee groups to discuss Allison's visit.  My tiny group of four 9th graders met with Magnus' larger group for better discussion dynamics.  We started with sharing reactions to the assembly -- the "shock value" was definitely noticed -- and discussed the value of talking about stressful events.  Does writing or talking about such events cause greater stress by re-living it over and over, or does it release stress by processing and controlling it?   A couple of students got stuck on the notions of anger and revenge and had negative reactions to the author, so I was glad I'd attended both and could talk about the wider, gentler themes of the evening talk.

So what did Allison mean by "revenge is a good place to start, but not a place to stay?"  In her introduction to the anniversary edition of her short story collection Trash, Allison writes that sometimes she wrote for revenge, sometimes out of rage, sometimes to refute other authors' stories of ignorant poor Southerners, of stupid, morally deficient white trash -- but also that "I grew up [while] writing these stories. I made peace with my family. I forgave myself and some of the people I had held in such contempt . . . in large part through the writing of these stories."

We talked about writing prompts & catalysts,  then moved to personal writing, writing for an audience.  Teenagers write ALL the time, for all kinds of audiences -- Facebook, Instagram captions, Twitter, lit papers,  test essays.   Do they think of who's likely to be reading their words while they're transmitting what's in their heads into a public statement?  Should they?

We have these Dorothy Allison books (2 novels and the short story collection) in the Paideia Library.

The morning after Dorothy Allison's visit to Paideia, an 11th grader, slightly out of breath, came into the library before school to check out Bastard Out of Carolina.  "Are they all gone?  Is there a copy left?" she asked.   She'd spent 3 hours listening to Allison the day before -- in her lit class where the author spoke just to her class, then in the high school assembly, and then in the junior/senior gathering with the author after the all-school event.  The student was blown away.  Me too.

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