"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eng. 252: Star of the Sea, Day 1

We start the real part of our collaborative project today! I got to Skype with Dawn Duncan's class at Concordia College and I'm really excited about how it went, though I don't know if her students were able to take too much from it. Part of it is just the thrill of today, that we're starting Star of the Sea in my class and her class is starting the book as well and I'm really excited about the discussion that I'm anticipating will be awesome. Part is caffeine. Good morning, world!

So, I asked my class (Intro to Fiction) what they thought Dr. Duncan's class should know about what we're doing, how we're going to approach Star of the Sea. (Her class will do the same for us.) And the basic question is this, for both classes: What do we see when we look at a piece of writing? What's the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer?

The difference is important. As readers, at the most basic level, we want a story to take us to a place we've never been before, to meet new people, to learn of the world outside of our lives right now. As writers, we want to know what the writer has done to effect that reaction. For instance, I bet that Duncan's class will talk about fragmentation and identity in the postmodern novel (which Star of the Sea is) and how that plays into a postcolonial reading of the novel--but in my class, we'll talk about how O'Connor constructed that fragmentation. We'll talk about the shifts in POV, the shifts in form (from traditional narrative to ship's log to newspaper editorial and more). We'll talk about the way that O'Connor develops and constructs his characters to represent the questions of identity. The fact that it's a murder mystery is genius, of course, and something we'll talk about in my class as well. But a lot of our time as writers is spent at the sentence-level.

I asked my students about what I should tell Duncan's class and here are the top things:
  • The form of what is on the page is deliberate (the function of it is what the reader brings to the page). Diction and dialogue, even punctuation, is so deliberately considered through countless revisions that you have to assume it's deliberate, because nothing in writing happens by accident. So, for readers, if O'Connor is using semicolons frequently (something that is common to British/Irish authors), why would he use them, rather than other forms of punctuation? My students find themselves heavily influenced by Noah Lukeman's book A Dash of Style, which looks at the way that punctuation affects the reading of a text.
  • A reader will ask "what is happening?" and a writer will ask "how did the author create this?" A reader--and the scholars in Duncan's class--will talk about symbolism and other thematic issues; writers will ask how that symbolism and that theme is constructed. If Duncan's class is talking about identity as fluid in the text, my students will ask how O'Connor constructed the characters and the setting to affect that reading. For instance, how is the setting crafted through character in the preface, how the character of The Ghost moves through the landscape, a landscape that is also moving? How does how O'Connor craft both the character and the setting mirror the changing perspectives and the reader's understanding of those characters? And what does it mean that the movement is of a crippled character and a coffin ship?
  • And the final thing my students would like to pass on is the importance of place in fiction, that it is more than the physical description of a setting. Reading Eudora Welty's classic "Place in Fiction" is a good place to start. Setting involves atmosphere, the air a character breathes. Place, when it is done right, is as much an active character on the page as anyone who breathes. It's the reason that I was so disappointed with Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan, which I listened to on CD last week--and the reason I'm so in love with Dennis Lehane right now. Setting and place can never be neutral. (One of the reasons why last semester, the craft paper I got on William Kent Krueger's use of cold in Iron Lake turned out so brilliant.)
Her class asked some good questions too, about why they should read Eudora Welty, what was my best moment of studying in Ireland and how does that play out in my reading and writing and teaching, and other excellent questions. I talked about only being able to take history classes over there and how all classes feed the writing, no matter what they are. But history class, as well as others, just make the context of reading and writing richer. History and literature are so closely linked as to be nearly indistinguishable for me sometimes. Some of Duncan's students are studying abroad in Galway in the next few years--and I'm really excited for them.

Then, in my class, we started talking about the preface and the first three chapters. We set up the perspective shifts that the epigraphs provide, the realization that there is no one right way to tell this story--which is immediately followed by the "fake" title page, that this is a book within a book. We talked a bit about reliable narrators and how that is constructed, how we're not sure whose voice we're supposed to trust. We moved through the four chapters we read for today and some important questions we asked:
  • How many ways does O'Connor manipulate the landscape of the text, the actual form that the pages take (fake title page, footnotes, etc)?
  • What's the effect of switching POV so completely between chapters? Why does he choose to change form, rather than just change voice? How does the ship's log work a different perspective on place and setting? How does it continue to set up the ship as a character?
  • In the 2nd chapter, we get the first real dialogue of the book--and what purpose does the dialogue serve? How is it what characters do to each other?
  • In the 3rd chapter, another POV, another form: what purpose does this editorial serve that could not be delivered by any other form? On one hand it gives the reader the background information necessary to understand some of the characters, but it also serves a larger purpose of developing Dixon's character t00--how does that happen?
We almost ran out of time today and this brief synopsis isn't even close to mentioning all the things we talked about today. The class was pretty excited and engaged and thrilled and we were picking out nuances around every little corner, like the mention of the red sky in the morning during the Preface, the old sailor's ditty about danger coming--and we really came away at the end of class with a new appreciation for a writer's skill, how many ways a writer can take control of a text (we specifically talked about O'Connor's diction) and make it do exactly what the writer wants. I can't wait for Friday.

Here's the interview with O'Connor that we started with today--very interesting in a lot of ways, so feel free to comment and contribute to the conversation!

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