Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How Teaching Literature Changed the Way I Read (and Write)

Sometime over the course of my development as a writer I started asking myself how an author captivates readers. I left behind notions of the written word as an anthropological artifact of culture and focused on reading texts as a writer. I became concerned with the decisions an author made in order to draw the reader in. How could you capture someone's interest? What events need to develop by the end in order to fulfill the promises you make early on in a narrative? These and other questions filled my mind as a I read. The social relevance of a text to audiences played a secondary role to drawing readers in. My taste in reading drifted as well toward authors who would most complement my style. I sought out Kafka and Camus initially, followed by Calvino, Cortazar, Borges, Murakami and Atwood. Lately I find my taste to be less specialized. I seek out authors with a more robust audience. People like Chekhov, Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce are canonical figures in the craft of writing. Their work has appeal that has lasted through generations. It's as if I were a child suddenly learning the nutritional value of spinach and subsequently craving it in the hope of becoming a literary Popeye.

More importantly, I think I've been looking for works of literature that are more accessible to readers. Not everyone will have a taste for Borges. His writing is more scientific than most. While I find his imagination fascinating, introductory readers may be discouraged by something with a form they do not recognize. The changes in my taste in literature are directly tied to my teaching it for the first time.

I'm most surprised by how my insight into a text changed. Instead of instantly going to the points in the text that I find most engaging, points that demonstrate a technique or style I have yet to grasp, I find myself fixating on the moving parts of a story. I'm teaching The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz this semester. Instead of focusing on the slapdash tone of the narrators, the numerous pop culture references, or the footnotes that in my opinion distinguish this book stylistically from others being produced today, I look at the struggle of Oscar's mother Beli. I look at how characters embrace and defy tradition. I see the mother's plight mirrored in her daughter Lola. I see conflict passed on from generation to generation. I see Abelard struggle under Trujillo and how Abelard's trauma influences his descendants. I try to understand why Oscar escapes from the world of New Jersey. I examine the influence of the Dominican Republic in New Jersey and vice versa. These are all conflicts that are clear on first reading. If you are teaching a text however, you must understand how each part operates throughout the text. Overall, teaching literature demands a more complete understanding of how a text works. On numerous levels, you have to be prepared to discuss not just plot and character but how these elements come together to create a unified work. It's almost as if you have to look at a piece of writing through a telescope and extrapolate an understanding of the cosmos based on what you observe. The task can be arduous, yet I find that greater understanding of how works of literature function results from such study.

As a teacher, I have to be prepared to discuss not just the aspects of a text I find interesting, but all aspects. The interest of students in the classroom could be on gender relations, identity, of the social context of a work. There's no way to determine what will capture a student's interest before walking into the classroom and seeing what people have to say. As a teacher, you have to be prepared for all eventualities, and to pursue discussion down the avenues that best bring light to the young readers in the classroom.

The change in perspective doesn't run contrary to being a writer. Having a broad comprehension of how writing works on a systemic level opens up new possibilities for being aware of my own writing. I can take a step back from the line I compose and examine how that line plays a role in the development of the narrative. It's a way of multitasking, of keeping your focus on a specific point while looking at a story as a unified entity, one with its own logic and rules that govern how the text should develop.

Teaching literature has changed the way I read. I feel like a more thorough reader, one who sees not just the innovative mechanisms at work in a piece of literature, but understands the system of literary devices working as a whole. It is a more comprehensive picture of writing that I achieve. It's like a clockmaker seeing not just the individual cogs, but seeing how gears turn one another to make a clock maintain its time. The change in perspective is a dynamic one. Rather than write with a drive that compels me through a narrative, often blindly, I can create with an idea for how a piece works on a larger scale.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Travel Scholarship to Southeast Asia

Rough Guides is offering a scholarship to Malaysia, Bali, and Singapore. All you have to do to is send them your writing convincing them that you'd be a good travel writer. It seems a good opportunity to build some travel writing pieces.

More information can be found here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jane Friedman's Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published

In keeping with recent posts, I thought readers might like to take a look at Jane Friedman's Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published. It covers query letters, e-publishing, finding an agent, and more. I saw Jane speak at a panel on new media at AWP. She seemed well informed about current an emerging trends in publishing. Take a look around her blog for further information on technology and the writing life.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Finding an Agent II

Another useful link on finding an agent. Here is a step by step guide with examples on how to write a query letter.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

AWP: A First Time Visitor's Perspective

Once a year, writers gather in large numbers. They migrate from all over the country. Some travel internationally. Poets, novelists, nonfiction writers - the participants come from different genres. Some are established authors with numerous publications. Others are emerging. Only the glimmer of the writing life exists in their hungry eyes. What is this nexus of writers? It's the Associated Writing Programs conference, of course.

When I first heard about AWP I wasn't sure what to make of it. Writing is a solitary task. What need would I have for surrounding myself with people milling in every direction? At the conference writers run everywhere. They move from panels to the book fair to readings to launch parties and back again. The cycle repeats for three days until the participants dissipate, exhausted but with a renewed energy for the writing life. They spread forth just as strangely as they congregated, seemingly drawn by some otherworldly force. Each returns to isolated lives as writers in remote places far away from all of their kind. New friends and contacts are made. The occasional row and late night hookup make for good stories in their regular lives. Each in turn waits for next year when writers convene en masse and the stories begin again.

In all, the experience is an intense one. No writer is fully prepared for the madness that ensues. As I said earlier, writing is a solitary task. Being surrounded by so many others can be taxing, but it's exciting as well. Anytime thousands of writers come together, an exchange of ideas occurs. You can see the lights going off in people's heads. There is a palpable hum that accompanies you as you walk through hotel meeting rooms and hallways. Cafes brim with ideas uttered and met with understanding. Individuals recognize similar beliefs in other people's eyes and words. You leave happy to have met others like you, people who share the same tastes and goals. You share a common language with the people at AWP. For someone who spends the majority of his or her time writing alone, the experience can be overwhelming, yet there's a strange euphoria in the hyper-stimulation of the senses. It's as if you meet what you sought after years of writing and found it was too much to take in all at once.

I must admit, the stories I had heard about AWP resembled MFA Spring Break more than a meeting of literary luminaries. All the cliches about two weeks spent in Cancun seemed to apply to this convergence of writers. You see the young literati drinking pbrs, sporting beards, dropping names of who they met at readings, all while looking wolfishly at each other through a haze of alcohol.

That culture exists at AWP. There certainly is a festive element to the atmosphere as friends from school reunite from the various paths they took in their writing lives. Others take part their pursuit less seriously and see the conference as an excuse to leave their literary ambitions behind in order to party.

What surprised me was that genuine exchanges do occur. The panels are actually informative. If nothing else, participants learn the landscape of the writing world they hope to traverse. It's like seeing a field map to the literary life. Readings are everywhere. Emerging authors and established figures all have moments where they share their work with audiences eager to hear what is being written today. The host city must collectively increase its literary awareness by the sheer number of spoken words alone. It's in the air.

I sat in on panels on independent publishing and new media. The indie panel spoke to the attention you receive as an author with an indie press. You get to work on the design and layout of your book. The publisher actually edits it as opposed to the trade giants who basically act as printers. As an emerging author, I had questions about how agents place your work in someone's hands as opposed to the slush pile. It sounded as if most panelists had agents at some point in their careers. They opted to move to indie presses after being noticed because of the experience of having a hand in how the book is made. The new media panel focused on creating an online presence for authors. More often these days writers need to establish their own following in order to get noticed, either by publishers or readers. Some of the useful ideas are to post readings of your work online, write about literary issues on your blog, or share literary links with the online community.

As a writer, I feel that you have to connect with the writing community throughout your life. How else will you get published? For me, AWP offers a useful meeting place to share ideas with other writers on a scale not normally available. You have to pick and choose how to wend your way through the conference. It can be exhausting going from panel to launch party to book fair to dinner to readings across the city followed by after parties in hotel rooms. You have to set limits for yourself. For the writer who chooses his time wisely, who follows his interests and explores the city, AWP can be a rewarding experience, one relatively free of the notion that AWP is MFA Spring Break.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Finding an Agent

You've finished a manuscript. After years of toiling away, you've finally gotten to the point where the characters are fully developed, the plot makes sense, and you're ready to send your book out into the world. One question remains: where do you send it?

I came across a guide to finding an agent recently on The Nervous Breakdown. Take a look for information on how to write a query letter and who to target. Also, the fiction self-interviews are quite funny.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Adjuncts and the MLA

The MLA president recently posted his reaction to a summit concerning adjunct positions in universities here. For those of you considering a career teaching in higher education, some of the issues broached should be taken into consideration before venturing idealistically into life in the ivory tower. Read on for further understanding of the realities facing adjuncts in the university.