Monday, February 13, 2006

Atwood teaches, Benchley sails on

An intruiging essay. Atwood travels to a barren section of the Canadian arctic to teach writing to Inuit women, as part of a two-week retreat, and runs up against a rather common problem:

The next day, the women met with the elders and teachers in a large round communal tent, where they received the skins they would work on. "What do you want to make?" they were asked. Then, "Who's it for?" (Sizes vary according to age, patterns according to gender.) Sheree and I, the writing instructors, faced a difficult task. Sheree told me these women might be afraid of writing because of negative experiences at school or they just might not see the use of doing it at all. We also knew that the standard approach for college courses -- plumbing the depths of the inner you and so forth -- would not be very effective in a culture that places sharing well above self-regard. But this sewing question -- "Who's it for?" -- gave us a way in.

A good notion to keep in mind. It's always preferable to write for yourself, in a way, but at a certain point you have to ask who else is going to be interested in it.

Benchley came from a prestigious literary family, a fact which many used against him when he penned a series of sea-monster stories like Jaws, The Deep, The Island, The Beast, et al, most of which, it should be said, were relatively disposable; the Times' comparison of Jaws to The DaVinci Code is fairly accurate. Still, Benchley was a committed environmentalist, and man's innate lack of respect for nature served as a strong backbone for his work. And he kept you turning the pages.

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