Rich girl finds joy in simplicity; guilt-ridden executive finds eternal damnation; love knows no time or distance. These are among the themes that my Creative Writing students settled on for their short story projects; universal ones to be sure.
For the past seven weeks (at the suggestion of former New School President and friend Bob Kerrey our semesters consist of two seven week modules) we have covered the fundamentals of creative writing; character, plot, setting, theme, point of view and the all-important “voice” of a story. We began with the Grinch, moved to “Tell-Tale Heart “and swiftly traveled to Tom Sawyer, “Snows of Kilimanjaro”, and “the Things they carried” before winding down with “Interpreter of Maladies” and “Death is not the end”. Dr. Seuss, Poe, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Tim O’Brien, Jumpha Lahiri and David Foster Wallace with touches of Kerouac and Orwell, a canon worthy of any American college course, let alone one set in Vietnam.
While struggling with grammar, spelling and vocabulary (the downside of technology is that words like “convexo-concave” and “ebulliently” swim trippingly and indecipherably off the tongues of non-English speakers) students mastered the idea of the short story and did this teacher proud.
A number of students surprised me with the themes they chose for their final stories. The gaps between rich and poor, the religious and those without faith, urban elites and the rural majority, reflecting the real life dramas being played out in Vietnam as the country evolves in the 21st century.
Of all the authors and works covered in class the 800 word essay by David Foster Wallace, “Death is not the end” resonated with the most students. The shallow nature of celebrity, accolades from fans, awards from prestigious organizations, ring hollow in the empty life of “the poet”, overweight, balding, stretched out in his recliner, surrounded by trees, his pool and silence, alone.
“He has nothing” one student tells me “nothing that matters. He is alive, for sure, but has no wife, no children, no family or friends so in a sense he is already dead and for him, death is not the end”. In a land where family matters most of all, that truly is death. But it is also death for anyone living in any land and it so much better to be alive.