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.