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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Video: Creative writing professor Chang-rae Lee


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Novelist Chang-rae Lee, director of Princeton's Program in Creative Writing, brings the meticulous nature of his writing style into the classroom. Read more.


Video Closed Captions

(music)

Student:
So what I found interesting was his

Student:
interaction with Lexie.

(music)

Chang-rae Lee:
Yeah, I like Janet's idea that that could be a way

Chang-rae Lee:
to get right into the moment.

Chang-rae Lee:
Because that's what story really is:

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character in the moment.

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The journey was nearly over.

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The night was unusually chilly, the wind sharpened by the

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speed of the train as it rolled southward through

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the darkened valley.

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The cotton blanket June had stolen was large enough to

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spread as a tarp and at the same time wrap around her

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younger brother and sister and herself, but it was threadbare,

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and for brief stretches the train would accelerate and the

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wind would cut right through to them.

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It had not been a problem the night before, but now they were

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riding on top of the boxcar, as there was no more room within

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any of them, even as the train was more than

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a dozen cars long.

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The opening chapter has a basis in a family story.

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My father lost two siblings during the Korean War.

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His sister died of pneumonia and his brother was

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run over by a train. There wasn't any room

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inside the train. That's why they were on top.

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In the middle of night the train lurched, his brother fell

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off, and his leg got caught under the wheels of the

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train as it moved forward.

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He tried to carry his brother and catch up to the train

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as it was rolling away.

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I didn't have any intention of writing that story as part of

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this book, but once I did, and once I wrote it, I realized

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this is a wonderful and perfect overture to

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the rest of the novel.

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Chang-rae Lee:
All literature is a record and celebration of trouble.

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Stories naturally want to explore what didn't go

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right: poor choices, wrong ideas, wrong emotions.

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We're fascinated by those things.

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What I try to tell my students is that they often want to

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celebrate life and in that mode of celebration, I think, forget

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that it's very hard to celebrate life, as in a party, in

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literature. And the true celebration of life is when -- in

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fiction, which is not like life at all -- is about

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identifying those moments at which everything has gone

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wrong, where the characters are challenged to their core.

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So that's what I'm constantly asking my students: to put

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their characters in situations in which the exact wrong

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thing will happen to them. And what I try to do in

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class, I try to unpack all those writerly choices.

(music)

Chang-rae Lee:
What I thought was one of the real interests of the

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story was to try to, of course, capture the sense of this

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micro-culture of the orchestra, right?

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And so that's why I thought Jim was actually a good choice as

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someone to tell this story, because he's an outsider.

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He's looking at this in the position that we

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might look at it.

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I don't think an "I" narrator should just be a video camera.

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You know it's just -- if that's the case, then it

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should be third-person. And then third-person in this

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story would be advantageous in another ways.

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Chang-rae Lee:
Yeah, I'm often asked how one teaches writing, and I always

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say that I don't teach writing.

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I don't think you can. I really believe that

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writers are essentially wonderful readers.

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They understand how literature happens -- not because they've

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written it -- it's because they've read it.

(music)

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