Yes, Writers Can Be Wrong About Their Own Stories

Of course, as my friends pointed out to me, it depends what you mean by “wrong.”

As Joseph says,

“[Rightness or wrongness in literature is] about properly understanding it–just like I can be wrong about what you’re thinking, even though in doing so I’m not necessarily “wronging” you. If a moral element sometimes creeps into our language, it’s because misunderstanding someone often involves “wronging” them morally, and works of art, while not persons, are kinda like persons; we like pretending they’re our friends. (See comment in previous post)

I like the idea that works of literature are sort of like persons. We can be mistaken about them. We can be mistaken about them even if we ourselves gave birth to them–if we were their authors.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the whole J. K. Rowling regretting her Ron and Hermione romance was making me think about the relationship of authors to their own writing, and that I believed this has something to do with God’s relationship to Creation.

Theologians often say that we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis) insofar as we have free will–we can choose to love or not to love. The more we choose to love, the more like God we are. In other words, we, as creatures, are better the more we conform to our Creator.

1) Now I think that being in the “image and likeness” of God has lots of other repercussions as well, and I am starting to wonder if literature is one of them. Not only do human beings share in God’s creative act when they beget children–they also share in God’s creative act (analogously) when they “beget” literature. Like God, they create entire worlds, possibilities, lives and choices. Unlike God, human beings are not capable of bestowing free will in a true sense on their characters as God does upon us. Whether they like it or not, characters conform to the will of the human author.

2) God, obviously, is always “right” about his creation. He is right in the sense of composition–how He created us. He is right in his perspective–He sees us as we truly are. Though some people quarrel with the whole “free will” plot element, since that leads to sin, suffering and death, Christians nevertheless believe that this plot twist is essential to God’s greater story for us, and will make sense when we finally arrive at the last chapter. (See also the chapter on the crucifixion and resurrection.)

3) Human beings, however, are not always right about their “creations”–whether we are speaking about real children or fictional characters and plots. They can be wrong in the sense of composition–how they raise their children or what qualities and techniques they use to make their characters. They can also be wrong in their sense of perspective–human beings do not see their own children, or their own stories for that matter, as they truly are.

Again, Joseph:

The question of composition is an entirely different one from interpretation; the author who misunderstands her work is like the parent who misunderstands her child after the child grows up, while the author who errs in writing her work is like the parent who raises her child poorly. Can a compositional choice be incorrect? Yes, if it makes the composition worse than some other easily accessible option. Works of literature are often wrong, that is, worse than they could have been. (Ibid)

It is in this last sense–interpretation–that I believe J. K. Rowling is mistaken or “wrong” about Ron and Hermione. It is in the former sense–composition–that I believe she is “wrong” in her resuscitation of Harry in book seven.

But Amanda raises an interesting question:

But […] Rowling wasn’t talking about being wrong in her understanding of the Harry Potter books, she was talking about being wrong in composing it. Of course anyone can misunderstand a work that’s written, but can you misunderstand it when you’re writing it and then say you wrote it wrong afterward? Being wrong in her compositional choice is what I think Rowling meant… being wrong in some technical aspect of her writing. But Maura seemed to be positing that authors can be wrong about their works in another way, and I’m curious what way that would be. (Ibid)

In response, I would also claim that while J. K. Rowling believes her error lay in the composition of Ron and Hermione’s romance, I believe she is actually wrong in her interpretation. This is rather a bold thing to claim, because obviously I am not J. K. Rowling and she knows better than I do why she was motivated to create the story that she did. Maybe those reasons were “personal,” as she stated. Yet whatever they were, I think her composition of that particular romance was, in fact, successful and appropriate, even though she believes now that her composition was flawed.

I could write an entire post or two on why I believe she is wrong, but I will contain myself to just a quote from Rosenberg’s article:

[…] It’s so sad that Rowling appears to be treating Ron and Hermione’s relationship as a kind of fan service that she was too weak to resist. Love isn’t always immediate, and it doesn’t always come from a place of strength. Sometimes love is strongest between people who have seen each other at their ugliest and most damaged. […] Ron knew Hermione when she was a priggish scold and a coward. Hermione knew Ron when his privilege was exposed and his will broke. That they love each other anyway, and that they help each other become heroes, is a truer illustration of the power of love than the idea that it’s magic. (Rosenberg)

But apart from enjoying Rowling’s books, what actually gets me interested in all this is the question of authority: who has it in literature?

In some ways, I am inclined to the think the author of a work has more credible authority on the meaning of that work than most readers. I see this all the time in the classroom. There are many letters in which Flannery O’Connor expresses her frustration at the lack of understanding among her readers.

And yet, in both the Rowling and Woolf example, and in others, I am finding that oftentimes authors don’t know their creations quite as well as they may believe.

This seems to me to be rather mysterious but also very natural.

When Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know,” she is hinting at a rather remarkable truth about language — that it is not only expressive, but revelatory. The one who speaks–or writes–has just as much to discover in the process of writing as the reader does in the process of reading.

In some ways, the finished work has a kind of integrity apart from the author. It is a created thing, and while it does not exactly have free will, it does have a kind of independence.

This is why readers can find things in a work an author never intended to put there. But sometimes those things are very much there. Sometimes the reader sees things the author does not.

It is very amazing to me that works of literature can actually contain truths that the creator did not intend or even understand. We see this most especially with Scripture–because of hidden Divine inspiration behind the human authorship–but we can also see it in more ordinary pieces of literature.

The truth about human relationships can be discovered in J. K. Rowling’s work even if she herself has not discovered it.

Serena brought to my attention a wonderful article that follows this line of thinking:

“What J. K. Rowling’s Ron and Hermione Bombshell Tells us About True Love and Harry Potter” by Alyssa Rosenberg

A taste:

[I]t is interesting to me that Rowling apparently regrets what I see as some of the most sensitively written and emotionally well-realized passages in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as an error of judgement.

Brianna also found a great article about this whole shenanigans you should read:

“Why we shouldn’t care who Hermione Granger dated” by Marama Whyte

A taste:

Following the bombshell, many Potter fans have divided angrily along the old shipping lines – Harry Potter vs Ron Weasley. But one character has been distinctly overlooked in the heated debates that have followed – Hermione Granger, the woman at the centre of both (potential) relationships. It seems like everyone has their own opinion on who Hermione is best suited for.

But why do we care?

Yes. Why indeed?

Can Writers Be Wrong About Their Own Stories?

*Spoiler alert if you have not finished the Harry Potter series. You have been warned.*

So, apparently J. K. Rowling shocked the Muggle world today by admitting that she is second-guessing Ron and Hermione’s relationship:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she adds. “I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.” (via CNN)

Um, what?

jk-rowling-ron-hermione
You’ve got to be kidding me.
source: hypable.com

So, apart from the fact that this interview will probably be the cause of much consternation amongst some of my students, it also got me thinking.

1) First of all, though I have some reservations about the series, I have always been a big fan of Ron, Hermione and their relationship. They seemed to me to be two of the most lovable and best-drawn characters–surpassing Harry himself by far. Their relationship, too, always struck me as endearing and authentic.

2) What never seemed authentic to me was something even more central to the plot: the whole Harry sacrificing-himself-at-the-end-and-dying-but-not-really. It seemed like a very poorly executed semi-Jesus-like resurrection that had none of the gravity and devastation of the real thing. The way the Potter series built to its final climax, especially within the context of its semi-pagan magical universe, it seemed proper for Harry to die for his friends, and stay dead.

In fact, I believe the series would have been much better if Harry had died. (Most of my students protest vehemently).

3) I think Rowling is wrong about Ron and Hermione, and about Harry’s cheap resurrection at the end of the series.

4) But can authors be wrong about their own stories?

I am usually inclined to say no.

On the one hand, I despise any kind of literary criticism that attempts to explain a story in terms of its author’s own psychology, history, and sexual/social/economic/political anxieties. Furthermore, I am usually much more aligned with the New Critical school’s attention to the dignity and authority of the text itself than most other approaches that seem to foist their own agendas on a text.

But Rowling herself seemed to apply the very sort of literary criticism I hate to her own work:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” (emphasis added)

So, according to Rowling, she was wrong about her own story. She gave into personal wishes and ignored the demands of “literature” by putting Ron and Hermione together.

I think this personal wish fulfillment (or, perhaps, pressure from her readership?) was much more obviously the case when she resuscitated Harry from the odd limbo-esque train station.

But apart from all of this, what about the real question?

It first occurred to me in a meaningful way in college when I was reading Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. There’s a strange moment in that story when I really thought Woolf might be wrong about her own character. I was afraid to say this outright in my paper, so I raised the question and moved on without really answering it.

I add this because I believe Woolf to be a far superior writer to Rowling (obviously) and I don’t think the answer is simply: mediocre/bad writers are often wrong about their own writing, good writers never are.

There’s a curious relationship between a human author and his text that reflects something of God’s own relationship to creation that, I suspect, is involved in all this.

More to come.

Thoughts?

UPDATE:

See also Leah Libresco’s take: “Fantastic News! (with one bitter note)” over at Unequally Yoked

And Elizabeth Scalia’s take: “Harry and Hermione, Agape and Narrative Thrust – What Do You Think?” at The Anchoress

Oh so many thoughts.

 

UPDATE #2:

See the really long comment I added for this post, in which I copied and pasted a bunch of awesome thoughts from friends who commented on this on Facebook. I plan on replying and incorporating some of these into my next post, so I thought it only fair for you to see the lively discussion.

Book Review: Someone

someone
source: washingtonpost.com

I have been meaning to read Alice McDermott’s work for several years now– my father has been continually recommending her–but it was only a few days ago that I finished her newest novel, Someone.

In fact, I started it and finished it within twenty-four hours; it engrossed me in a way no other book has in many, many years.

Like most of her stories, Someone is about an Irish Catholic family living in the Bronx during the first half of the twentieth century. Well, actually, it’s about one family member in particular, but in a recent interview McDermott tells us that her novel did not start out that way.

Originally, the novel was going to be a much “bigger” project, but towards the very end of writing it, McDermott realized she had missed something. She wanted to tell the story of Marie–a rather plain and nondescript character, especially in comparison to some of the others.  But in order to do that she had to change the narrative pretty radically:

[…] [T]his is the first time in my writing career that I wrote a novel mostly in third person, and then very, very close to finishing the novel, I thought, no one’s listening to her and neither is her author. […] I need to give her the first person. I need to let her tell her own story that directly. (PBS Interview)

And Marie does tell her own story. The details are sometimes breathtakingly intimate–the ordinary events of her private life laid bare for us to witness in beautiful but sometimes relentless detail. The two main love affairs of her life ring–painfully–true. Her experience as a child, the slipping away of years, her aging, all described so movingly not because they seem “universal” but because they seem so specific. She is not just “anyone”–as the title suggests.

What I love about the story is how the setting is so lovingly drawn–it is as essential to the plot as the characters are. And in this sense McDermott does what Flannery O’Connor does. (You knew the comparison was coming.) The setting is not incidental, but central, to the action of the story–and the careful description of physicality in the novel is not a materialistic explaining-away of mystery, but rather a profound hearkening toward it. Like here:

The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining room table where the cloth–starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s cross-stich–had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. (McDermott, Someone 10)

This description of the family apartment will be revisited later in the novel as the years go by. McDermott weaves together Marie’s memories and sometimes moves us forward and then backward in time, though the thrust of the main narrative is consistent.

O’Connor, I think, would appreciate that this novel is so deeply entrenched in a particular time and place. It isn’t hovering vacuously in a vague American somewhere, with “universal” characters untouched by their birthplace and their family. There are even, I noticed with some surprise, a couple of rather “grotesque” characters, whose physical and emotional deformities remind me of a few O’Connor characters. And there is a lot of emphasis on the human body in this novel, in all of its manifestations: living, beautiful, ugly, sick and dead. This also reminds me of O’Connor and other “sacramental” writers (whether Catholic or not).

Yet McDermott is not of the “violent intrusions of grace” school of Catholic literature. The grace she intuits is far more subtle and easy to miss–rather like the  sort present in most of our own lives: ignorable but nonetheless persistent.

I think it would be easy to think of this as a gentle story. In many ways it is. But I think if you read it and close it and say to yourself, “How lovely and touching that was,” you’ve rather missed the point. Though I believe anyone who has really confronted death and lost someone they loved would not say such a silly thing.

If you’re interested in this novel or in Alice McDermott, read this fascinating piece she wrote ten years ago about her own fiction and the rather troublesome label, “The Catholic Writer.”

“The Lunatic in the Pew” by Alice McDermott

A taste–that I believe Flannery would savor:

[O]urs is a mad, rebellious faith, one that flies in the face of all reason, all evidence, all sensible injunctions to be comforted, to be comfortable. A faith that rejects every timid impulse to accept the fact that life goes on pleasantly enough despite all that vanishes, despite death itself.

What I have to say about being Catholic, then, is simply this: Being Catholic is an act of rebellion. A mad, stubborn, outrageous, nonsensical refusal to be comforted by anything less than the glorious impossible of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. (McDermott)

McDermott’s characters will accept nothing less.

Stuff You Should Read

I have been meaning for a while to write about the Common Core, since it has been causing such an uproar in certain Catholic circles. Yet I do not think I have researched it sufficiently to say anything extensive about it yet. I know the Common Core standards for high school English (since I’ve had to try to implement them for two years), and I have spoken to “higher ups” in the ACE program at Notre Dame for their opinions on the matter–which so far seem strangely genial and un-curious.

Here are two articles that present pretty different views. To give you an idea, I am actually much more inclined to agree with Rocha, but I’ll let you decide:

1. “Why I’m Not Too Worked Up About Common Core” – Sam Rocha

2. “Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards” – Anthony Esolen

Note: Stay tuned for an upcoming post on why I think Esolen is very wrong about his theory of teaching writing–at least at the secondary level. His claims might work better for the more sophisticated college student who already knows how to write, but from my own experience, as much as I appreciate his ideals, I think his comments are irrelevant for the high school English teacher.

Students - Death_to_high_school_English
source: rovalocity.com

I just discovered a new blog (new in the sense that it is “new” to me), and I am quickly becoming a big fan: Artur Rosman’s Cosmos in the Lost. Literature, philosophy, theology – you name it – all of my favorite things seem to be here.

He has two particularly helpful posts for my English major friends out there about contemporary writers who actually take religion seriously and who aren’t suffocated by “nihilism,” which according to O’Connor is the very “air we breathe” these days:

3. Fresh Caught Fish: Part I

Note: The best part about this list is that Rosman actually gives you substantial pieces of his favorite poems by these poets, so that you can get a feel for them. I am already adding names to my Christmas list.

A taste:

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;

like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete

with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

(Les Murray)

4. Fresh Caught Fish: Part II

Note: For me, more of these are familiar names, but I am still looking forward to exploring new landscapes.

And, thanks to Rosman, a beautiful Advent reflection by my favorite theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar:

5. “Into the Dark with God” – Hans Urs von Balthasar

A taste:

Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in utter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers. (Balthasar)

Lastly, because this Advent has been so dark — with the shootings at nearby Arapahoe High School, a major accident on LA 1 which I took every day for the past two years to drive to my old school, the anniversary of Sandy Hook, the suffering of my friends who are grieving the untimely loss of loved ones so close to Christmas… need I say more? Because it has been so dark:

6. Presence as Absence – by Marc at “Bad Catholic”

Especially this: “We feel the missing person like an atmosphere, not gone so much as everywhere, the whole world crowded as a Parisian metro with their nearness.”

Dissecting the Frog

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids want the first option. My students don’t want to have to observe because observation demands patience and attention and time. Dissection, on the other hand, requires only a scalpel and something to clean up the mess later on. (Kern, “Flannery O’Connor On Teaching Literature,” The Circe Institute)

I found this to be true even more so of my kids in Louisiana than my kids here in Denver, though I am not quite sure why. The honors students, in particular, seemed to suffer from this empiricism-obsessed affliction (though not all of them). A lot of them hated reading “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” yet they did not recognize that Mr. Shiftlet was really talking about them:

“‘Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart‑the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day‑old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay‑colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.” (O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”)

risingactionfixes
Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater observe Lucynell – rather like the doctor observes the human heart in his hand.
Source: oliviawhen.blogspot.com

Mr. Kirn, in his essay about this problem in teaching English, goes on to say that “literature isn’t science and I don’t believe it should be treated like it is.” Which I definitely agree with, and I could discourse at length about how our technology-obsessed culture is suffering from an appalling suffocation of our artistic and literary desires.

But then he says, “Literature is best learned through experience and experience is driven by observation and observation doesn’t cater to this instinct, this desire.” Notice his conflation of terms – and notice also his reversal of what one would normally expect. “Experience” and “observation” are associated with “literature” and “desire” — not science. I found that very interesting – especially in light of my own belief (discussed in this post) that reducing knowledge to experience is part of the very problem Mr. Kirn is describing.

He describes it very well here:

“For to examine only the parts of a thing is to examine only what that thing has, not what it is. If I want to know what a frog is I should go to the pond and watch it do, and be, and inhabit. If I want to know what a frog has I should dissect it.”

Unfortunately, so many of my past and current students don’t really care about the frog. Nor they do not care what the frog is. The struggling students often do not care altogether, about the frog or its parts, and the strong students often only care insofar as they can gut the helpless animal for the correct organs they need to pin onto their test for an A.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh here. I’m not blaming my kids. I’m not even blaming their parents. Maybe I’m blaming bad English teachers – or, perhaps, the culture at large. Or the devil who has taught us not to care anymore about being, but only about doing and having.

Yet Flannery O’Connor–whom Kirn is following in his article–is not entirely “impractical.” I think Regina kept her on her toes too much for that. I think Flannery would agree that you can’t just sit gaping at a frog–or a story–all day. You need to find a way to train your eyes to see it properly, and that does involve skills, tools, and all the rest of it:

The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft.  They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story. (O’Connor, “On The Teaching of Literature.”)

My recent lesson plans on reading strategies are my own attempt at this. So is my (in)famous unit on essays and my “Writing Fridays” (formerly known as “In-Class Essay Fridays”).

And–oddly–most of my students, at least in retrospect, respond well to these parts of my teaching. And I am very happy about this. And yet… These skills I insist upon so forcefully with my kids are indeed essential, but they are only meant to move my students toward the Real Thing itself. I do not know if I have done so well in helping my kids to contemplate the mystery in literature. I do not know if I have really been able to help them simply observe the story as it is–and perhaps hear the Logos speaking through the logos of the particular poem or myth.

williams-2-190
source: nytimes.com

Flannery says, in her characteristically incisive way:

English teachers come in Good, Bad, and Indifferent, but too frequently in high schools anyone who can speak English is allowed to teach it. Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. (“On the Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners)

Some of my kids would protest her harsh characterization of them here. I think they would mention Harry Potter and The Hunger Games in an effort to refute her– a response which, unfortunately, speaks for itself. For as much as I enjoy Harry, and as much as I appreciate the fleeting moments of true greatness in Rowling’s enterprise, I know that Harry and Katniss and these others cater to my students–not the other way around. If my students do read on their own, I am happy, but I am not satisfied. They usually read the kind of book that bends over backwards to please and entice them–and judging by the Reading Autobiographies I had them write recently, they actually believe that literature ought to do this. As if a story owed you something. When really you owe the story something – your attentiveness.

If you prefer a “tame” frog that hops around after you and abhors nasty places like swamps, well, you don’t really like frogs at all, but toy frogs.

If you prefer capturing real frogs yourself and cutting them up so you can “understand” them, you understand only a very little about the frog. You possess the frog, so you can figure out what it possessed while it was alive– but not much else.

Or, you could go out to the swamp and wait and see if you can catch a glimpse of a real live frog doing real live froggy things. You may see one, and you may not– but either way you’ll understand the frog far better. And maybe yourself as well.

You Need to Read This II

How is it possible that in a matter of days, there is something else about Flannery that you MUST read?

But yes, it is true.

Here are PRAYERS that she wrote in her journal, starting in 1946. Even I, who have read almost everything there is to read about Flannery, have never read these. A taste:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine. Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. – See more at: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2013/09/09/oconnors-prayers/#sthash.nsWgFlRg.36YlIte6.dpuf

I find it intensely interesting that she writes these in the form of letters – almost as if He were another Correspondent among the many in The Habit of Being — though of course, her primary Correspondent.

Read more here:

First Things

The New Yorker

*UPDATE

I cringe though, at her reaction upon discovering that somebody has posted her private journal entries. I think he or she may even have earned a short story out of it – and if you know Flannery, you know what having her write a short story about you would mean…

 

On another note:

Apparently a couple of my new students inadvertently found my blog online, and they were worried that I would be upset. Don’t worry, I’m not! I understand that anything I post on the internet like this is public and thus may be read by anyone … even some of my student’s parents (gasp)! So, hi, guys!

And, to all of my former students who may be reading this blog as well, hello and (clearly) I miss you!

Home, and Other Destinations

One of my favorite movies growing up, but one I have not seen in a long, long time, is “The Wizard of Oz.” Our version was taped from a TV special hosted by the wonderful Angela Lansbury (“Mrs. Potts,” for those of you who don’t know her) and was interrupted by long commercials from the ‘90’s for cars, soap, and McDonald’s (thus I’ve somehow always associated those things with the Emerald City, scarecrows, and munchkins).

Anyway – the line I have been thinking of so often lately, as I drove from Louisiana back to Massachusetts, stopping in Athens, Tennessee one night, Washington D.C. the next, and later flying back to Notre Dame, Indiana, and as I now look forward to moving to Colorado next year, is: “There’s no place like home … There’s no place like home.”

Image

Home.

Since writing this post on Setting and World Making, I’ve been rather preoccupied with the concept of place and how it shapes us, just as setting affects plot in a story. This week I have been teaching setting to little middle school students (they are SO small!)–a simplified form of what I did with my big kids a few weeks ago. These incoming sixth graders were especially intrigued by how setting establishes what is possible and impossible. After using lots of adjectives to label various parts and objects of our classroom with sticky notes, we then made a chart discussing what COULD happen in our room (“we could have fun,” “we could learn,” “we could write”) and what COULD NOT happen (“we can’t have a circus–the elephants wouldn’t fit” “we can’t cook a pizza–there’s no pizza oven” “we can’t be underwater–we couldn’t breathe/the water would escape through the door and windows”).

Image
You have to see them to believe them.

And I thought about what is possible–and impossible–for me, being back here at Notre Dame for the summer. I can write a lot more. I can spend time with ACE friends. I can pray in the beautiful basilica, and run around the Saint Mary and Saint Joseph lakes. But I cannot be with my high school students. I cannot observe alligators slipping slyly into the Mississippi river. I cannot enjoy drive-through daiquiris (read about these unbelievable establishments here).

Reunited with other ACE teachers here at Notre Dame, I am able listen to new stories about their kids—spread all over the country—and the funny phrases, the accents, the struggles, the absurdities and delights of all the different places that have shaped them. “Do your kids say ‘swaggin’?” “Yes they do!” “I’ve never heard of ‘cuttin’ up’ before.” “Well, neither had I!” And I thought, my goodness, we have become a part of new settings and some of us have even found ourselves at “home” there.

Yet my decision to leave my ACE school and to move to a new place, to a new state–to uproot myself, as it were, for the third time in three years–has me feeling rather homeless lately. I haven’t lived in Massachusetts for more than a few weeks at a time since high school. As much as I would love to, I cannot become an undergraduate in Dallas again. And although I plan on visiting Louisiana next year, I will be doing just that: visiting. I will be a visitor, in someone else’s home.

ImageMy Dad told me about a new book by Rod Dreher called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, reviewed here by Michael Hannon. It’s very much about home,  one’s sense of place, community, and belonging. And, in our restless and mobile age, it seems also to be an appeal to us to re-evaluate our relationship with our homes, wherever they may be.

Hannon’s description has put this book at the very top of my reading list this summer: “The book tells two distinct stories, beautifully interwoven: an autobiography of Rod himself, and a hagiography of his sister Ruthie.” Rod is the restless one—who wants to leave his native Louisiana behind, to seek home elsewhere. Ruthie is the opposite—content to remain and to grow in her beloved little community:

An involuntary outsider from a young age, Rod never wanted anything more than escape. Philosophical by nature and restless by temperament, he annoyed his sister and the St. Francisville community at large with his constant curiosity, asking probing questions about ultimate realities that they were happier just to take for granted. Despite knowing that they loved him, he never felt understood by his family or accepted by their small-minded local community. Without disparaging the simple lives they led, he always longed for something somehow grander for himself.

Whereas Ruthie was born into the place she knew she belonged, Rod always felt like a stranger in their hometown. So after college, he left Louisiana in search of a place where he too could fit in, pursuing a career in journalism and wandering all over the Atlantic coast. But even there, from Washington to New York to Philadelphia, Rod never found the sense of at-homeness that Ruthie had always known in St. Francisville. (Michael Hannon, “Small-Town Saints for Our Placeless Age”)

As I read Hannon’s review (you should too), I found myself feeling a little sad, and even a little guilty. In a way, I’m like Rod–bouncing around the country, encountering new places, meeting new people–and always wanting in the back of my mind to find home. So many of the people I admire most, like my Grandma, my Mom, my Dad, my sister, Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, all seem to have a very strong sense of place, of home. My Mom still has a strong attachment for Oklahoma where she grew up. My Dad, my Grandma, and my sister are New Englanders through-and-through. O’Connor, Tolkien, Dickinson, and Wilbur are great because their reverence for place helps all of us understand what home really means.

And yet strangely, in ACE, part of our job is to be displaced and a little homeless. And our foreign-ness is often a gift to our students, many of whom may never leave their home-state and may never experience, first-hand, the adventure of travel as we have. Sometimes over the past two years I found myself tempted to encourage my students to branch out too and to see new parts of the country, to apply to that reach-college out of state, to accept the adventure. And there is good in this. As Bilbo says to Frodo, “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Yet of course this is a warning as a well as an invitation.

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created by Shaylynn on her blog “Shealynn’s Faerie Shoppe”

There is that distinctly “progressive” tendency to despise insularity, to belittle the prejudices and notions of small-town America, to complain that some people refuse to widen their horizons and see the world in new ways. It is one of the many temptations of the ACE teacher, I think. And I think Bilbo’s warning should be considered. We may encourage our students to leave–but where are we encouraging them to go? Where are we hoping they will be “swept off to”? The journey is important in and of itself, but so is the destination.

I have been swept off to many strange and wonderful places in the past few years, but I am beginning to feel what Rod Dreher describes in his book, a longing for home. And so I recognize there is a wisdom in the people who choose to stay–to go to the local college, return for your high school reunions, live near your family, remain in your home-town. It is not the popular choice nowadays.

Having cut the ties that bind us geographically, we have become in many ways a placeless people. We have lost what St. Benedict called “stability,” man’s permanent attachment to a particular home in this life. “St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all,” Dreher recounts. “They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility, they could never be happy.”

For Rod, the realization of this Benedictine truth required him to go home: “[If] I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves.”

[…]

“There has to be balance,” Rod reminds us. “Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.” (Ibid)

O’Connor also insists upon seeking “harmony within the limits of what we are given.” We are all invited to some courageous act, and for some it is the task of staying, and for others it is the task of leaving and starting somewhere new. I think my fellow ACE teachers can relate. Some of them are staying at their schools. Some are leaving. Some, like me, will continue to be teachers. Others won’t. We all carry the gift and the burden of whatever setting we have been shaped by for the past two years, though.

I guess I am still looking for home. But I am grateful that over the years, different people have opened their homes to me.

“My Way Back Home” by Dawes:

Teaching and World-Making – Or, the Importance of Setting

So I’m finishing up my unit on short stories with my sophomores. Our last lesson has a relatively simple goal, but it gave me a lot to think about: SWBAT analyze the effects of setting on plot in short stories.

We define our terms first:

Plot = what happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)

Setting = when and where the plot happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)

This is what Eudora Welty has to say:

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…

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Eudora Welty was a photographer as well as a writer. This is “Home by Dark.”

I don’t think we often think about this potential power of place over character and action. Setting is one of the things all teachers talk about in English class, along with plot, characterization, exposition, climax, resolution, etc. But I think it is sometimes left in the background.

(Pun intended. Go back if you didn’t notice it… )

Yet Welty insists upon the importance of setting, and even that events and characters somehow depend upon it. Or, as my students had to write down in their notes: setting defines the logical possibilities and limitations of plot.

It defines what can or cannot happen in a story.

I think Southern writers have a particular sensitivity to the importance of place or setting. The setting IS the story. Think of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. Or Katharine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (the setting is both exterior, the rural South, and interior, the wandering mind of Granny). Or Flannery O’Connor in “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor, largely due to her sacramental view of reality, expands the traditional notion of setting so that it transcends the physical:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

hogwartsI gave my kids a different example that I thought might work better for them. The reason why the Harry Potter series works so well, I believe, isn’t so much because of the plot and the characters (although of course these are important). The plot and the characters work because Rowling spends so much time in the first book carefully developing her setting, creating her place, defining the possibilities and limitations of the Muggle world and the Wizarding world.

Think about the detail given to describing Privet Drive, and Diagon Alley, and of course Hogwarts itself. Her world is magical but consistent – it has it’s own logic and it’s own rules. Indeed, really what made me read book two, and three, and all the others was this sense of wanting to return to that place. Yes, I cared about Harry – but I cared about returning to Hogwarts even more.

middle earthI think one of the very best examples – that really sets itself apart from any type of comparison to other stories –  is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What is so good about The Lord of the Rings isn’t just the wonderful characters, the stirring struggle between good and evil, the languages, the recalling of myth. Rather, it’s the fact that all of these things are at home in Middle Earth itself,  – a world we believe in, and want to return to, or learn about, because it feels like our own history.  I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time when I was little just looking at the maps in the opening pages of the book.

There is Narnia, too. What we really desire, why we keep reading, is because we want to go back to that place created by Lewis.  I checked every closet in my house, several times, just to be sure. “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

narnia-map

I was thinking about all of this as I sat in my empty classroom during 5th hour, normally the seniors’ class. I was sitting in one of the student desks in the middle of the room. I like to sit in the student desks sometimes so I don’t get completely locked into my teacher-desk perspective. The room looks pretty different out there.

And I realized that teachers are engaged in world-making, too. We create a setting – our classrooms. And, in a way, we help define what is possible in our classrooms by creating a particular environment, unique to our personalities and our teaching style, but also hopefully open to our students’ personalities and their learning styles.

This year I have worked hard to make my classroom more accessible. Places for papers, folders, essays, are all labeled. I try to keep the space as clean and organized. This is a setting for listening and discussing and writing and reading and writing and revising and writing and writing and writing… and the classroom has to reflect that just as much as my words and actions do. My kids need to know that as soon as they walk through my door they have entered a place for learning.

I have substituted this year in many rooms where there a papers on the floor, dirty desks, and bare walls. I remember my own classroom last year – “disorganized” is a gentle way to describe it. And I think such classrooms limit the possibilities for students. Carelessness, even in the details, suggests a lack of thoughtfulness and purpose. A question I found myself unable to answer a lot last year was, “Ms. Shea, where do I put this?” “Um… I’ll just take it for now…” This year, I love when the kids don’t  have to ask me that any more. They know where to go, where to put things, when to do it… setting setting setting.

Anyway –

To what extent does the setting affect the plot in your favorite stories… in your classroom… in your home?

If you really want some tough but tasty food for thought on setting, you should go read O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person.”

Sacramentality and the Short Story

Here are my rambling (key word: rambling!) thoughts on sacramentality and short stories, inspired by my students.

I just started a unit on short stories with my sophomores. As an introductory lesson, we’ve been learning about the 6 characteristics of a short story according to Edgar Allan Poe:

poe

1. A short story should be able to be read in one sitting. (About one half hour to two hours)

2. A short story should have nothing in it that detracts from the design (no extra or un-necessary stuff).

3. A short story should aim for truth. Although most stories are fiction, and many of them include fantastical elements (e.g. “The Fall of the House of Usher”) they should nevertheless remain “true to the human heart.”

4. A short story should strive for unity of effect – one ambience or mood.

5. A short story’s effect should begin with the very first sentence.

6. A short story should be imaginative, inventive, and experimental – it should be trying to do something.

Then we read “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor as a class on Tuesday. I encourage you to read it, too. I tried my own unique versions of Southern accents for the voices of Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater, to help them hear how funny O’Connor is. They loved it.

But they stopped loving it when we got to the end of the story.

“What? That’s it?”

“What’s that random boy doing at the end?”

“You mean he just left her there?”

“That don’t make any sense, Ms. Shea.”

“I don’t get it.”

“What does it mean?”

“It don’t have no meaning.”

“This is stupid.”

I had, of course, tried to warn them beforehand. On our guided notes sheet I had included this interesting quote (below) by O’Connor about the art of storytelling. But it’s one thing to read a quote that challenges traditional notions of “theme” and “message.” It’s another thing to be put through a whole short story–which you enjoy–only to be disappointed at the end by confusion and–gosh darnit–mystery.

Also, they’re in high school. As much as they protest otherwise, they like to be told the meanings of things by authoritative adult sources.

In this quote I gave them, however, O’Connor pretty much dismantles traditional notions of figuring out the “message” lifeyousaveor “theme” of a story, and the very notion that one can simply be told what the meaning of a story is. I can understand why my kids are frustrated, though. Aren’t they expected to explain the message of stuff they read in high school? If the story doesn’t yield that message easily, isn’t it understandable that they be angry or annoyed? After all, we’re talking about my grade in this class, here!

I should just let O’Connor speak:

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

–      Flannery O’Connor

This is, of course, what our beloved Dr. Lowery of the University of Dallas Theology Department would call “the sacramental view of reality”–or, in this case, the sacramental view of storytelling. The meaning of a story is “embodied” and “made concrete” in it, and as such cannot be pulled out of it. For O’Connor, if you can say in a statement or two what a story “means,” then the story probably isn’t “a very good one” to begin with. It’s a mere moral dressed up in fancy garments.

I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”

“The body and blood of Jesus.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”

“Yeah you have to eat it.”

“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”

For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.

life you save 3One of my very best students–a devout Protestant–was particularly offended by O’Connor’s view of stories. Not the Eucharist part, but the meaning part. She (very rightly) pointed out that O’Connor was basically saying that not everyone can figure out the meaning of a story. If the meaning is so embedded in the story itself, then it’s almost impossible to get it out. (O’Connor would say that it IS impossible). My student firmly believes, however, that stories should be accessible to everyone. If the message of the story isn’t clear, then why bother reading the story? Authors should make their messages understandable to us. God and Jesus, of course, make their messages understandable. (Do they?)

I did not say this in class, of course, but I was strongly reminded of sola scriptura and the Evangelical Protestant notion that individual Christians should be able to read the Bible and understand it without the mediation of Magisterial Authority or Tradition.

And then there is this, too. In my students’ essays I have long combated their habitual use of cliches–things that everybody already says or believes, therefore there is no point in saying them again–but I saw the other day that they not only write cliches, they look for them in stories. If a meaning is to be found, then it is most certainly a cliche meaning. Mr. Shiftlet, although he appears to be kind of a nice guy at the beginning, ends up abandoning Lucynell and stealing Mrs. Crater’s car. The high school student says, “This story shows us that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.”

Well, yes.

But such a trite moral doesn’t justify O’Connor’s story.

And that is what the high school student DOES understand. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” “Don’t steal,” “Don’t be a hypocrite” — all of these things they already get. And they don’t want to be put through the emotional grinder of a Flannery O’Connor story if that’s the only thing they are going to “get out of it” at the end.

The hard task is to get them to see that there is more in the story–much more. It is THE hard task because I don’t fully understand what that”more” is. It’s mystery. It’s–as O’Connor says elsewhere– “pure idiot mystery,” and that’s what the modern gnostic cliche mind cannot stand or understand. The high school student in particular struggles with accepting and entering into mystery. It’s frightening.

I think this story by O’Connor is “true to the human heart” as Edgar Allan Poe would say–and indeed there are lots of images of the actual human heart in this story, being cut out of people’s chests and held by doctors–but I’m not exactly sure how to explain why.

But O’Connor told us it would be that way:

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

So, if you haven’t already, you should just go read her story.

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