Sunday, December 2, 2012

Flannery O'Connor and Andre DuBus: Two Parables about Writing and Reading

We have been reading the manuscript of Mira Jacob's (remember this name, she has a great book coming out) new novel that was just purchased by Random House, and getting ready for our last authorship seminar of the semester. By this point in the semester we have established that there are, at minimum, three acts of "authorship" happening when someone is reading any text.

It is when students are reading in all three of these ways simultaneously that it creates a different kind of relationship to the text--one that is more transformational and life-changing.

The first is that we are reading what the writer wrote and looking at the craft--the conscious choices that any writer makes in practicing their talent--through an analytic lens. In this sense, we are using all the close reading techniques we have practiced and trying not to "dead frog" the text (click to earlier blog post for an explanation). We are also practicing our intuitive reading (more on this is an upcoming blog post) and making some predictions and guesses about what the author's need might be in writing this piece. What is it that the writer set out to explore, and how can you discern that need from the text they created?

And we have realized that there is a way in which the writer is "listening" to the story they are telling and are not in complete control of what is being written. In other words, that there is an "unconscious" quality to writing that happens, and that sometimes it seems to the writer like the story has a life of its own and the writer is almost transcribing what they hear the characters saying. And we have practiced that kind of "deep listening" with Lee Stringer (click to earlier blog post for an explanation). This idea of the story being "alive" was something I never really truly understood until I was teaching Native American students in Albuquerque decades ago. For them, in a way that I had never been exposed to before, some stories were sacred because they created something in their actual telling. In a sense, these stories had their own "authorship" independent of the writer or the reader.

Finally, we have realized that "to read a book is to author it," and that has created an awesome sense of responsibility and a commitment to a dialogic relationship with the text. This is probably the most revolutionary idea for most students. They are so used to being taught that authors are in complete control of their writing, and that everything has an symbolic intention that they forget what Paul Auster said to us once in an earlier authorship seminar, "reading is the only place where two strangers can meet so immediately and so intimately. Together the reader and the writer come together to make the book. I don't think of what I write as a book; it's a text. What I call a book is created when the reader and writer meet in the text."

Or, as novelist Danzy Senna put it in our seminar with her, “Once I have said what I have to say, then it is not as if I own the text anymore; the meaning becomes a joint venture (between the writer and the reader).”

This reminds me of two parables that relate to the act of reading and writing. One comes from my friend Buddy who relates the scene at a reading by Flannery O'Connor at UNC. O'Connor had finished her reading and was taking questions when one student posed what is perhaps one of the ultimate "graduate school" questions:

"Ms. O'Connor, I was wondering if I could ask you about the the symbol of the marble cake in your story 'Everything Rises Must Converge?' I was wondering if the swirling of the black and white parts of the cake that lightly touch each other but also remain distinct and separate, that were distinct in their own right, yet each partaking of the other as each of those colors do, acting as a kind of complimentary yet contiguous entity, forcing each to form boundaries yet not being able to ultimately exist without the other in order to form a whole, whether that was a commentary on black/white relations in the South, and that was what you were trying symbolize with that cake."


To which Flannery looked down and said, "Actually, my mother used to make marble cake; and it was always my favorite."

The second story is from a time when Andre Dubus came to visit the English department of the school where I first started teaching. The English department had read a story of his and there was a character, Anna, who did this very out of character (it seemed) action at the end of the story. As I recall, I think she robbed a grocery store.
My friend Frank, a hard core analyst of the highest order, opens the discussion with the following question after laying out his understanding of Anna's character prior to this action using copious textual references,

"So, Mr. Dubus, it kind of surprised me when she robbed the store at the end."

"That surprised you too, eh?" replies Dubus.

"What?" answers Frank.

"That surprised you, too, that she robbed the store?"

"Wait, what are you saying? You WROTE the story."

"Well, what are YOU saying, you READ the story. I was just listening, and she said she was going to rob the store."

And what ensued was a conflict about reading and writing that split the department concerning the act of reading between the "pro-Frank" and the "pro-Andre" teachers for the rest of the time I was there.

Now, I look back at them as two fabulous parables about teaching and learning.


  1. And they are great parables...whenever we begin reading we begin walking a narrative trail - who knows what we'll see? Count me pro-Andre (and Frank-phobic).

    Good to see your return to your zone; it must have been a busy fall.


  2. I am new to your blog, but am consistently enjoying your posts. How may I cite your stuff in my own scholarship and teaching? Any chance I can get your full name? I gather you are a professor of English?

    1. hello, andrea...nice to "meet" you. my name is david dunbar...i do a number of things but i am mostly at CITYterm ( a program i helped start in 1996). is a go
      ood way to find out about it

      i have taught at a number of places...and work with schools around the world...

      please feel free to use the blog in whatever way you want....right now, i am trying to figure out whether it is a book...some people think it might be..we shall see..

      lately i helped host a symposium

      where are you from?

      keep the faith