Wednesday, October 31, 2007


For the last time, friends, none of our Part 3 texts are 'surreal'. Stop saying that - it only shows that you don't understand what 'surreal' really means.

In Term 3, we explained to the HL classes that true surrealist texts experiment with “free association, a broken syntax, nonlogical and nonchronological order, dreamlike and nightmarish sequences, and the juxtaposition of bizarre, shocking, or seemingly unrelated images”. Salvador Dali's Premonition of Civil War above is a good example of surreal art.

Siddhartha might be written in a non-realistic (epic, legendary, etc) manner but it is NOT surreal.

Writing 101: Clarity

The problem:

Your essay seems crystal clear to you. But, when it comes back after assessment, your teacher has written 'Unclear' or 'Huh??' in many places. What do you do now?

Suggested solution:

Ask yourself: "When I write, do I write with a reader in mind?" i.e. are you writing for yourself, or are you writing the essay for a teacher/examiner-type person?

- If you're writing for yourself, stop doing that. An essay is NOT a diary entry. You are NOT the intended reader.

- The reader you must keep in mind is someone like me, or like Mr Quek.

You know how Siddhartha has that "clear and certain inner voice" that "had always guided him in his luminous time"? (p.70) That is what you should have.

Ideally, when you look at your essay, you should not only look at it through your own eyes. The clearest writers are able to imagine reading it through their intended reader's eyes. They can critically assess whether their essays are clear by imagining Mr Quek or I reading it, and they are able to see where we might have more trouble understanding the progression of an argument, a sentence, etc.

When I write blog entries, I imagine some of you reading it. That's why I break my writing up into shorter, coherent paragraphs - it's easier on the eyes and the understanding. That's why I write short sentences - they are easier to grasp. If you have not really consciously thought about your reader(s) when you write (your blog, essays, whatever), start doing so now?

First, the good news

Some of you have got it. Your essays completely bowl me over with their intelligence and insights. Absolutely amazing. If you are getting a '7' from me at this point, you belong in this group.


If I can possibly find ANY time this weekend (between marking essays and being in school for a camp), I will type out a couple of these essays and put them on LMS (if I do, I will inform you on this blog).

In the meantime, I leave you with this comment that someone made after reading one of these mind-blowing essays:

'I read XX's essay, and her way of looking at the text seems so much more in depth... like she not only talks about the things I talk about, she'll go on further to say "another way of looking at it.. .." or "not only does it suggest [something that everyone will write], it also [...]'

That's one of the distinguishing marks of a Grade '7', goddess-level sort of essay.

And - I can't teach it. It's unteachable (like that guy's enlightenment). YOU have to DO it. There's no use asking me for any more pearls of wisdom or advice. I've given you everything I have. You have to jump in and start swimming, or get on that bike and start riding. It's all you. You know what you must do, and you just have to practice till you get there. Enlightenment, as you all know, will not come from your teachers.

Or, I guess, you could also corner one of these folks with that enigmatic smile and kiss them on the forehead until you too 'get' it.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Of all the essays I read and marked this week, the ones that showed the most promising improvements (i.e. grade 6' nudging a '7') were the ones that were honest.

Remember what I said in class? A good reader is one who is involved with the text, intellectually and emotionally. He responds honestly to what he reads, is aware of his intellectual and emotional response, and is curious about how this writer has managed to make him react in this manner. He thinks about the ideas on offer, thinks about what his stand is - does he agree with the writer? (completely? partially? grudgingly?) And then, he considers the strategies that this writer has used to affect his intellectual and emotional response - much the same way that any intelligent person, after watching a good ad or listening to a political rally or watching a good movie, analyzes the way the director/speaker has evoked certain responses in him. An intelligent person knows that it is not magic that made him indignant during a speech or weep during a movie. There is an author behind those works, and at least some of the effects can be attributed to the choices that this author made.

A lazy reader does little of the above. A lazy reader is a couch potato. He prefers easy books/movies that don't challenge him too much. Books/movies are either 'great' or 'boring'. He doesn't like to think that hard about the book, or to react in complex ways. Ambiguous endings are a pain - why doesn't the writer/director make things less complicated? Tell us the good guys won and kill all the bad guys spectacularly. He doesn't bother to think about how the writer/director made him breathless with suspense - it was fun, but now it's over, let's get to the next one.

Now, a lazy reader, when asked to write a thoughtful essay (about how a novel engages him, for example), will substitute generally accepted ideas for his own (because he doesn't have many to start with). The teacher and the smart kids in class have said that certain techniques, when used, engage the reader - so all he has to do is (1) memorize those techniques, and (2) repeat those arguments. This is not an honest response. It is a learned response - a mugged response, a rehearsed response, there is little that is heartfelt about it. There is nothing morally wrong with doing this. But just realize that a student who does this is not our idea of a good student (obviously). So he gets a well-deserved '5'.

I understand that some of us are not lazy people - it may be that we are not sure of ourselves. Our ideas may have been shot down in class, so we think it's better that we take the smart kid's ideas than to venture into uncharted waters with our own ideas that have never been validated and approved by the teacher. You can do this. But - I just want to tell you - you can take a calculated chance these 2 weeks and write me a couple of essays that convey your own POV. Take a chance on your own interpretation. Think hard about how you understand the books, think honestly about the question, and write me an honest essay. You may be surprised - as some people have been - at how much easier it flows, how much more natural it sounds and I might be pleasantly surprised at how much more convincing you are when you are not repeating memorized points you may not necessarily believe.

It's not easy to think for yourself, but this is something that gets easier with practice. And - lastly - please do not complain about English A1 because it is not a subject where you can mug and get a '7'. If all you wanted was to memorize your way to an 'A', you needn't have - and you shouldn't have - joined the IB. Having joined the IB, please do not disgrace yourself by complaining that we are making you think.

If you need assurance that your ideas are not way out there, email me your thoughts/essays and I can give you feedback. Go on, be brave. Say something honest (and relevant). :)

An Interview With Roddy Doyle

Here's an exercpt from Dave Weich's interview with Doyle on October 4, 1999.(Taken from it's primarily about his new book "A Star Called Henry", there are parts relevant to Paddy Clarke - you'll recognise a bit of it in the brief write-up in the book. Hope it helps!

Dave: A Star Called Henry is filled with some very violent scenes. Paddy Clarke is violent, too, but in a very different way. I'd read it years ago, and rereading it, I felt that it was one of the most subtly achieved powerful endings I'd ever read.

Doyle: Thank you.

Dave: It's little things, like when they light Sinbad's mouth on fire. Around sixty pages later you say something in passing about how his lips look. All of a sudden, as a reader, you realize he's still suffering from that.
Page by page, that felt like one of the least linear things I've read.

Doyle: That's the challenge, trying to capture the world of a ten year old kid. If it works, it's because every word he gives us is true, dead and earnest. The violence was easy to achieve in some ways. It was a gradual process, remembering what it was like to be a kid at ten or thereabouts. The freedom, but also the fear. The gang: one would never be a leader, but one had to make sure one was close enough to the leader to avoid being hammered. It came back quite clearly to me.
If I feel guilty at all about things in my life, it's that I used my humor maliciously a lot when I was a kid, in some ways to save myself. I was never a fighter and never going to be. I used to compose silly songs about people, give them nicknames, things like that. When I came around to writing the book, I began to imagine how they must have felt. But you move on, you know. I think it would be ludicrous for me to hunt down a forty year old man with four children to apologize for a rhyme I wrote about him when he was eight; we'd both be equally embarrassed by it.
Gradually, it came back. That book took a year and a half. There wasn't much in the first half of that time. It was very slow. The biggest achievement of that book was putting it all together because it was all sorts of little episodes. I knew there was a shape, but I couldn't find it. It took a long time, putting pages together. I was trying to capture a different kind of link. It wasn't a logical one, not in the adult sense. It was a bit like subtle film editing. I was doing that a lot more than I had in the past, constantly going over things again and again.
I've told people that a good day's work is often a page. That's because I spend a lot of my day going over other pages.
You can feel that reading it. Because it's not as if you took a bunch of fragments, tossed them in the air, and laid them out into the book randomly. Any particular passage in the book contains bits from three different strains of the novel - which is where I thought it became more effective, more true to the unpredictability of a ten year old's mind, more of a craft.
One of the reasons I liked the ending so much was that you avoided all the easy cliches. You see Patrick's loss in those moments, but looking forward - reading between the lines, what you don't say - there's a lot of hope. It's balanced in a very credible way.

Doyle: I think all the books have that to a certain extent, they show a certain resilience. Part of the human package is loss. We can try to protect our children as much as we can, but that would be the biggest loss of all in some ways; you'd end up with them in the chicken coop - becoming chicken. An essential part of living is that loss, fear and cruelty, confronting it and triumphing over it. It seems like there's a balance that has to be achieved, a certain protection, but letting-go at the same time.
He's unleashed into the world just a little bit early. It's no tragedy, though. Parental breakdown, it's sad, but it's so common. Most people survive it quite intact. And other than that, he's just growing up. So the drama had to come from somewhere else.

Consultations and essays

A good number of you have been coming to see me, with essays that show clear signs of improvement - thank you very much.

For the rest who have not made appointments so far:

- If you have been scoring '7's consistently, that's fine. Practice on your own. Send me an essay if you like.

- If you've been scoring '6's, please send me at least 2 essays. I will give you feedback over email if you don't want to come back to school.

- If you have been scoring '5's and below, email me NOW for an appointment. That means YOU, Shahir. And if I don't get an email from you for an appointment by next week, I will be calling your parents to let them know the grade they should expect to see on Jan 7 next year. If both your parents and you are perfectly happy with the '4' or '5' you are getting now, tell me and I too will not ask anymore of you.

Thank you.

A message for SL students

I have just upload these documents onto LMS:

- Nov 2006 paper, markscheme and subject report (thanks Chris for the reminder!)
- May 2007 subject report
- Jennifer's brilliant Paper 1 essay from the Prelims
- the PwPt used for the SL paper review (I edited it a little)

Please note that I have uploaded the complete subject report this time, which starts by talking about WL, then IOC, then HL Paper 1 and 2, then finally SL Paper 1 and 2. So please scroll to the last few pages for the relevant information. Please read their feedback on Paper 1 too! It will help enormously.

Jennifer's essay on 'To Help a Monkey...' was everything I said it was in class. Please look at how she responds carefully to what is on the page in front of her - no pre-conceived notions, no attempt to make the poem say what it doesn't, etc.

That's it for now. More comments will come this weekend!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two roads

Postmodern Literature

All I can say is:


- Aristoitle

Friday, October 12, 2007

55 Miles to the Gas Pump

(A short story from Annie Proulx's Close Range - in its entirety.)

Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Croom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom's padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab of peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom's paramours - she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN - some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with the remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

"Miss Cutie Pie"

Oh, Oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard,
"What a big book for such a little head!"
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink!
Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more:
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1923


Is "sweet" the only available epithet for a girl?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Allegorical Matters

Let's say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let's say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts,
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let's say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can't get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author's sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author's fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to achieve imaginative dominance
over the reader - basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don't we become blind to the world around us?
Isn't what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn't our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I'm mistaken;
let's forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it's gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn't let it escape so easily.

- Stephen Dobyns, from Common Carnage (1996)