Getting to know you (thoughts on the literary profile)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today in class, following our review of four student memoirs, we'll look ahead toward the literary profiles that the students will be writing as their final project. My instructions for the assignment are, as usual, simple enough (I include them below). Not quite as simple is shaping, with the students, standards of excellence, or measures against which such profiles might be judged.  I loved, for example, Patti Smith's profile of Johnny Depp in a late 2010 issue of Vanity Fair precisely because of the rugged, empathetic nature of her questions; Smith knows fame, she knows yearning, she knows loss, and she knows Depp, and by going beyond what she already knew (by asking the piercing personal and philosophical questions) she gave us an indelible, original portrait.

In Misgivings:  My Mother, My Father, Myself, the poet C.K. Williams brings psychological acuity and a poet's ability to parse to his intimate renderings of those who shaped his world.  We know Williams's mother, for example, by what he tells us she withholds, and why.  "When my father was undergoing his illnesses, his absentmindedness, his depressions, (my mother) somehow managed never quite to submit to them:  although she sympathized with him, wished he were better, was, you could tell, a little offended without ever saying so by his not being better, she still never manifested what was happening as something that really possessed her; she always kept back that corner of her feelings that might have made her suffer too much."

In her introduction to The Possessed, Elif Batuman yields a portrait of the "first Russian person I ever met" that (by choosing just the right scenes, the right snips of dialogue, the dead-on, tell-tale italics) gives us an immediate sense not just of a man's infuriating but perhaps endearing idiosyncratic tics, but of the effect those tics had on Batuman herself.  "Toward the end of one (violin) lesson, for example, he told me that he had to leave ten minutes early—and then proceeded to spend the entire ten minutes unraveling the tortuous logic of how his early departure wasn't actually depriving me of any violin instruction. 'Tell me, Elif,' he shouted, having worked himself up to an amazing degree. 'When you buy a dress, do you buy the dress that is most beautiful...or the dress that is made with the most cloth?'"

Oliver Sacks, especially in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, makes effective use of clinical language and telling dialogue to bring his real-life characters to the page.  Frederick Busch uses a novelist's touch—vivid, unexpected details, the lean of impression against the stacking of facts—to invigorate portraits of people like his father and Terrence des Pres.  In The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff juxtaposes known facts against purported ones to give us a man, his own father, who sought to deceive all on every topic save for the power and importance of love.

I'm going to be reading segments from those books to the students today.  Additionally, I've asked them to read, on their own, Lynn Hirschberg's New York Times Magazine profile of Lee Daniels, the so-smart, so-sensational, and (to use her word) audacious director/part producer of the Oscar-winning film "Precious" (among other things).  The students have downloaded the Hirschberg story (in these waning days of being able to download NYT files, though, hey, I am a paper subscriber and will still have privileges) and, I hope, they've played the video of Daniels on that same NYT site.  Does Hirschberg successfully capture the man in the camera's eye? I'll ask.  Is his beauty on the page, his way of remembering, the look he gets in his eyes, his deep knowing?  If she has succeeded, how? If she hasn't, what more might she have done? Has the right balance been struck between transcript and seeing, research and conjecture, data and impressions?

The assignment, then: 
You will be asked to write a literary profile of a person whose work or life is of great interest to you.  You will have to conduct at least one in-depth interview of the person him or herself as well as one secondary interview with someone who knows that person (works with them, taught them, is related to them, etc.).  The profile subject can be anyone—someone in your family, someone working in a profession of interest to you, a favorite past teacher, a chef, a friend, a work-out king, a bio-engineer, a world traveler, a physician, an actress or actor.  But you will have to have a compelling reason for choosing that person.  Think of this as an opportunity/excuse to have a conversation with someone with whom you’ve always wanted to have a long conversation.


Anna Lefler said...

What a spectacular assignment! I would have an awful (but fantastic) time deciding on a subject.

I've said it before, but your students are SO LUCKY!!

:-) A.

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