Publishing Genius Press
May 28, 2013
Reviewed by Joe Sacksteder
I could write a review about how Gabe Durham’s FUN CAMP kills it on so many levels – but I want to specifically examine how creative writing teachers might use this book in a classroom setting… specifically an Intro section… specifically one that, because it fulfills a gen ed requirement, means you’re not usually looking out over a room of faces eager to explore how words might wring tears from the stars.
No, I am not in the employ of Publishing Genius Press. I don’t have submissions pending at the same. I’ve never met Gabe Durham. I’m trying to let you in on a secret here – so stop getting so suspicious.
Since FUN CAMP is told in “monologues, speeches, soliloquies, sermons, letters, cards, and lists” (back cover), the currently beloved buzzwords all apply: hybrid, cross-genre, polyphonic, non-narrative. The vignettes range from one sentence to three pages in length, accreting haphazardly to portray the joyous train wreck that is a week at summer camp. Some forms recur enough to become familiar – WARM FUZZY, QUESTION, DEAR MOM, and GROGG CORNERS A CAMPER – as do certain characters, providing unifying threads for the novel’s vast variety. When I was halfway through the book, someone asked me if its sectional arrangement into the seven camp days was helping to give the randomness a sense of direction. At that time my answer was a not-disappointed “No.” However, towards the Saturday and Sunday Morning sections, I felt a growing sense of desperation – for the campers to drain the last dregs of an experience that had turned from misery and fun, and for me as the reader to lament over the diminishing number of remaining pages.
But back to teaching. Basically, the climate of the aforementioned Intro to Creative Writing experience is quite a bit like a summer camp. Just as this book exposes the counselors as wry ringleaders, eager to help but admittedly human and admittedly self-interested, so does it help me pull back the curtain Wizard-of-Oz-style on my position of authority at the front of the classroom. “More rules to come as you create the need for them,” (76) I quote on the first day of class when we get to the VARIOUS section of the syllabus. “Best to think of the rules as opportunities,” (3) I could – and now will – quote the first line of FUN CAMP if students grumble at my injunction against hard end rhymes in the poetry unit. Interesting advice from a book that violates its way into genre unclassifiability; I want my students to explore this contradiction, to live there forever.
Of course there will always be what Durham refers to as “unfun campers,” students who are impervious to all exuberance and feedback. As healthful revenge, I force them to train their eyes over a lampooned description of themselves: “In our experience, persistent avoidance sends the message, ‘By absenting myself from fun, I will provoke you to retaliate. Your stern retribution will prove that you counselors are not as fun as you profess to be. Hence, you cannot help me.’ Bullhonkey. What the child really fears are his own boring impulses. And they will be broken” (9). Like all the wisdom in this book, it is both asshole-ish and true. And allows me to be the same as long as I’m hilarious and/or self-deprecating enough.
Some of the vignettes additionally have very direct applications to the life of a creative writer. YOU GOT TO GIVE TO GET is about camper-to-camper “warm fuzzies,” but its advice works if you’re interested in clawing your way into the lit journal world: “Remember, you campers with less personality, it really is a numbers game – if you write enough notes, you’re gonna get a reply. Even telemarketers make a sale now and then” (7). It also offers a warning against brown-nosing: “Dear Madeline, Quit sucking up to the staff and write a note to someone your own age. I don’t need your validation, and neither does Fun Camp. It was here before you were born and will remain long after we’re both dead” (7). Like AWP, for example, or The New Yorker.
The vignette FUN TREATMENT PEDAGOGIES is a perfect “Intro to Workshopping” lesson:
Direct: “I’m trying to pay attention to your story, Peter but your subject is boring and your delivery uninspired.”
Olfactory (All-Male Company Only): “Interesting point, Peter.” Then rip a huge fart to communicate it was not actually an interesting point.
Ethical Appeal: “Peter, your current personality taints the week of everyone you encounter. How do you live with yourself? That is, how do you wake each morning the same Peter when yesterday’s Peter was so unsuccessful?”
Good Cop: “Let’s call it a day, Peter. Remember – I wouldn’t be putting in the time to mentor you if there wasn’t potential in you somewhere, a flaccid brain muscle begging to get flexed.” (33)
Of course, both the lit journal submission and workshopping vignettes would require practical advice to sober the hilarity into usefulness. But I’ve found that making students laugh over irreverent truth sticks with them more significantly than handouts and powerpoints.
Many of the vignettes translate easily into freewrites. LISTEN TO ME is just a list of reasons why campers should do exactly that: “Because I memorized the verbal fallacies and blow this whistle whenever I hear one […] Because I could trick even the savviest among you, and have already. And will […] Because I’d do alright in the wild for a time” (127). Aside from a sly pitch for verbal fallacy awareness and yet another sarcastic commentary on teacher/student power relations, this vignette could allow students to explore different voices by titling a freewrite any command and then just listing all the reasons why; for example, “STOP POSTING PICTURES OF YOUR DINNER ON FACEBOOK, or LET US RHYME IN THE POETRY UNIT.
Sometimes a writer gets so drunk on an idea that the work seems automatic, almost inevitable. This effortlessness is often far from the truth, but what FUN CAMP will highlight is how important the concept really is in conceptual writing. It will make students consider what happens when a narrative arc looks more like a spastic EKG. It will show them how to build momentum and end pieces with a thud. “You are what you memorize,” Durham tells us in LADS OF THEIR NUMBER, the “anti-memorization generation” (123). I guess that makes me Hamlet and Tobias Fünke… and now Gabe Durham; I’ve memorized lines in FUN CAMP without even trying – I always quote “There’s only so much one counselor can do to drown out a kid’s brain’s wants” (93) – and Durham’s book is such a fun sledgehammer to the stomach that you might be able to trick yourself (or a classroom) into stowing their iPhones long enough to notice something truly memorable.
Well, first you’ll have to get back on your iPhone to pre-order it on the cheap (very limited time only) from PGP. . . .
Joe Sacksteder teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and is thinking about MFA / PhD programs if you know of any. He begs you to check out his Werner Herzog sound poems on Sleeping Fish, The Collagist, and textsound. More work appears in/on Booth, Rio Grande Review, and Fourteen Hills.