What’s the Point of Literature Class?

In 2013, I graduated with a Master’s in English and American Literature, and began teaching high school English. By the end of that first semester of teaching, I had started seeking answers for a set of questions, all related to each other and to this thing I was doing:

  • Why do we teach literature?
  • Why do we teach this literature (i.e. classics)?
  • How do we teach literature Christianly?

Because I’m me, I did what I always do: I started reading.

I started this blog, too. I begin to frame my questions and start my journey to answering them in this post, although I’m not sure how much I actually have discussed these questions in this space.

And depending on how you tell the story, my search for the answers to these questions led me first to a set of books, then to a renewed interest in classical education, then to a deeper interest in groups like the C.S. Lewis Foundation, which led to several (more) trips to England, then to another Master’s, this time in Humanities at the classically-minded University of Dallas, and finally to the PhD I’m currently working on, in early modern literature, because I’m still searching for the roots of things. (Or am I?).

This week I visited my mom’s school, a school at which I taught for two years while doing my second Master’s (and a different school from that first teaching job). I spoke to the sophomore and junior classes, who study British and American lit, respectively, about the timeline of English-Language literature, and about writing. Then I spoke with the senior class about college. I’ll talk more about these conversations as this little series continues.

I left the school yesterday afternoon, and on the hour-long drive home, I realized that I had just spent two days talking about the answers to those questions I had begun asking five years ago. Without realizing it, I had learned the answers to my questions.

While I have certainly not developed the most complex, most thorough responses to the questions above, I do want to share the answers I’ve developed, especially since this blog began to some extent to help me work them out. In each of the next three posts, I’ll look at one of the questions and share the answers I’ve worked out for myself. I’ll also share some of the books which helped me develop these answers, and some other places you can go to conduct your own investigations. Once the other posts have been written and posted, I’ll link them below:

This discovery has me thrilled and also a little unsettled. I can see how the search for answers has been a quiet propulsion in my life over the last five years, and what do I do now? This new question I’ll consider more fully, too, but already I can see that that IS the new question: What do I do with these answers?

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Cozy Spaces: A Lament

My own cozy space

It’s forty degrees out, and raining, cold and damp and grey. I want to go sit somewhere and read, somewhere that’s not my apartment, which I’ve been inhabiting alone near-continuously for too many days. I’m restless.

As I run through the list of places I might visit, it occurs to me how few cozy places I could visit.

In the early days of Starbucks, it was conceived of as a third place, somewhere not work and not home, a place you could work or do community. It had wide tables and plush chairs. I visited Starbucks with my high school friends, and my college ones. I’ve done ten years of schoolwork at their tables. But recently, Starbucks has become less cozy, more efficient. The chairs are less plushy, the tables shrink, the atmosphere feels cold and corporate.

That trend, towards accommodating workers, not friends or lingerers, has seemed to begin to influence even the independent coffee shops. While this certainly isn’t true of all of them, or even half of them, it is true of the ones near me. (That, or they don’t serve gluten free pastries, which is a big downer).

Maybe I’m overstating things, but it seems like even our social spaces are being turned over to productivity and work and disconnect, and the rest of us just have to deal. Chairs and couches take up space, and force you to sit near other people. Better two or three or four small tables.

I don’t have anything against tables at a coffee shop, or against doing work at those tables, alone or with companions. I do that frequently myself. All I’m saying is, let’s not be so focused on that role as to forget the other, more important role of these places as community places, as cozy places. Because if we begin to do that, we will loose a vital thread of community. And we shut out people who would otherwise use these spaces, people who only want the comfy chairs, or need them today, a refuge from the cold and rain of their lives.

The best option, of course, is to relocate to somebody’s living room. But that doesn’t always work (and I’m not planning to invite myself to a friend’s house to bury myself in a book).

But isn’t it interesting that, as we grow more disconnected, the coffee shops grow more work focused? Let’s fight that. Love your local coffee shops. Use them. Appreciate the comfy chairs, even if you’d really rather have a table today. Help them prosper so they can afford to inhabit the kind of spaces that make it easier to have comfy chairs.

And maybe invite a friend over for coffee sometime.

Advent and The Return of the King

Frodo and Gandalf chat with Mary and Joseph as they make their way to the stable.

About once a year, I re-read Lord of the Rings. I’ve been doing this since I was 12, so there have been many re-reads. This year, after hearing good things, I decided to listen to the audiobooks, and it’s been such an interesting experience. Encountering the very-familiar words in such a different context has led me to notice new things, and in some ways it has felt like a strange new-but-familiar encounter with the story. But that’s not actually what this post is about.

I’ve just reached The Return of the King and I’d forgotten how rough Book V (the first half) is. The first time I ever read Return of the King, I did it in one sitting and then cried. I’ve always thought it was because I’d finished the story and was sad that it was over, but I now think it was partially an emotional release from what is actually a really heavy narrative. Literal gathering darkness, a too-empty city, Gandalf muttering about Faramir, Merry’s loneliness, Eowyn’s despair, Aragorn’s desperate gamble(s). . . phew. No wonder I cried. As I listen now, I find myself wanting to cry again.

Emotionally intense books are popular right now, but a lot of (most of?) these popular books are emotionally intense because of an ever-increasing pitch of action and death that makes your heart pound and glues you to the page. It’s an action-driven intensity. While I enjoy a good read like this now and again (especially if the ending is ultimately good), they’re not my favorite. It can feel like things happen for the emotion, and I often come away feeling bleak and meh about the whole thing. The stakes were too high for the ultimate end, or the hardships felt piled on gratuitously.

ROTK is not intense because there’s a lot of action, but because there’s not. It has this quiet relentlessness, a lets-keep-fighting-even-though-its-probably-hopeless undercurrent. You have to slog through with the characters, and it’s rough, even leavened as it is with moments of lightness. There are several whole chapters of waiting for the storm to break. Once it does, there is plenty of action, (and a few very sad moments), but that’s not where the intensity comes from. It’s the waiting.

In the season of Advent, we talk a lot about waiting. There are all kinds of waiting, from the exciting waiting-for-Christmas to more emotionally challenging kinds of waiting. Waiting for a spouse, a child. Waiting for a diagnosis, a treatment, a verdict.

Waiting is hard.

Whatever it is you’re waiting for, it can feel like there is darkness slowly encroaching, that there will be no dawn, that you face overwhelming odds and probably will not win.

The waiting in ROTK is nuanced, too, because while everyone is waiting and working to defend Minas Tirith, and, by extension, Gondor, that’s not actually The Victory, in the end. All of those feats and battles are themselves waiting, fighting to preserve one corner of the world so that somebody else can win the victory for them.

Sound familiar?

That’s our Christian story, isn’t it? Fighting to defend, like Faramir, the world we love, while we wait for the real victory to be accomplished for us.

But waiting is hard, and in a season of waiting it can seem like it will never end, and no good will ever come. This is the despair Denethor falls into, and a number of other characters are tempted towards.

That’s what Advent is for, and the great stories. To remind us that waiting does, eventually, end.

In the midst the heaviness of chapters 1 and 2, I know, having read the book, that within two (story) weeks, it’ll all be over and won, and frankly, that’s all that’s keeping me from shutting the book right now. “Hang on guys,” I whisper to Pippin and Beregond, to Aragorn and Gandalf. “Hang on. Just a few more days, just the last, hardest battles, and then there is joy.”

I by no means want to diminish the pain of waiting, or to gloss over the fact that sometimes (too often), what we are waiting for does not come. That is a trial of its own, and there are other Great Tales that address that. This portion of The Return of the King looks at a collective kind of waiting, and models the experience of working towards mirth and joy in a dark world that grows ever darker.

In The Two Towers, Frodo says:

“You and I…are stuck in one of the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to ready any more.'”

“Maybe,” said Sam, “but I wouldn’t be one to say that. Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different” (TT 697).

Sam is right, of course. When we encounter bleakness and hopelessness in one of the Great Tales, we don’t ask dad to shut the book, because we know that if we keep going, good things will happen.

That big-picture focus can be helpful. It reminds us, as Sam realizes later in that same conversation, that we are in a Great Tale whose beginning is long ago and whose ending is far away. That’s also what Advent is for, as we look back to the Nativity and forward to the Second Coming.

And maybe the great tales–and Advent–can help us keep going when our tale isn’t over.

Things might not end up Hallmark-Christmas-Movie bright in the end, and that’s something I like about Lord of the Rings. There is great joy in the great victory, but it comes at a great personal cost and leaves a great work of healing and restoration to do still. It doesn’t diminish the suffering and pain required to bring about the victory. But although the ending is bittersweet, it is good.

I hope and pray that whatever you are awaiting this Advent season, be it Christmas day or something more personal, that you can see your connection to this Great Tale that enfolds us all, and draw hope and courage and maybe even joy from that.

Our Work like the Snow

Wendell Berry, in his poem “How to be a Poet (to remind myself)” concludes his reminder by telling himself to

make poem that does not disturb 

the silence from which it came.

Since I’ve encountered that poem, I’ve wondered what that means, to write something that comes out of silence, and that also does not disturb that silence. 

Around the same time Wendell Berry was writing that poem, Switchfoot released a song on their “Beautiful Letdown” album that had the hook 

If we’re adding to the noise, turn off this song

The song was about how saturated we are in media, and looking back across the years to 2004 from 2018, it’s clear that the world has only gotten noisier. 

Not only has social media begun to exist, but especially in the last few years our national dialogue has gotten louder, more vicious, more divided, more troubled. 

How do we write in a way that does not add to the noise, or disturb the silence?

By no means have I discovered The Answer to this question. But over the last two months, since encountering Berry’s poem, I have been working to re-orient my life and my attitude towards a solution. And in the last two months, I have begun to collect a glimmer of an answer, like starlight on snow. Perhaps, in time, I’ll find the sunrise, but until then, here are the silver beams I have to offer:

I think (I think) writing from the silence means, first, having a place of silence to write from. That means nurturing a place of quiet and contemplation in my own life. For me, that looks like diminishing the amount of time I spend on social media (oh, so hard). It  means continuing to develop a life of prayer. It means becoming once again more deliberate in my reading and viewing choices. 

In undertaking this process, still in the raw and early stages, I have begun to ask myself, is this adding to the noise of my life, or the silence?

I think you know what I mean by adding to the noise. It’s that frenetic feeling you get by feeling like you need more – more something. It’s the engagements online that leave you feeling dissatisfied. It’s the media you watch or books you read that leave you with a stronger sense of the fallenness of man rather than the sacredness. 

In cultivating a place of silence, I have begun to seek out books that nourish my soul: poetry like Wendell Berry’s, novels that are full of light rather than darkness. (I’ll share a list of these when I have a better one). As the days have gotten darker, I have found that an hour in my reading nook with a candle and a book is a source of light in oh, so many ways.

And friends, it has made a dramatic difference in my life. In the last month or so, I’ve felt more centered and at peace than I have in a long time. Even during the last weeks of an intense semester. Even then. 

But cultivating that place of silence from which to write is only one step. As I writer, I want to absorb light so I can reflect my own. As a writer of stories, this task of light-making is clear. I have so many models from which to learn (Lewis, Tolkien, Berry, Chesterton, O’Connor, Eliot…). My academic writing is a harder place. As I write essays for school, with limited time, often with limited choice of topic, I want them still to be little flames of life-givingness. And this is not a thing which is often done. 

Scholarship is filled with noisy essays, works that add nothing, or say nothing, or even mis-read works, miss the light in them. How can I unearth what has been missed, point out the stars pricking the night which is all that has been noted thus far, add to the conversation from the place of silence? 

Writing in a manner which is gracious and generous is one way of beginning, and writing in a style which is pleasurable to read is another. The topics one selects, the way they are approached, the subjects one determines are worthy of study, all of these are things that add to or subtract from the noise, the silence, the light. I hope and pray that as I work, my writing falls on the right side of all of these places. 

I have struggled with how to end this reflection, but really, this little poem says what I would, with a lot of words, fumble. So, in the end

Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out.

Wendell Berry, Leavings

 —

How do you cultivate silence in your life? Have you ever considered your work in this light? I would love to start a conversation in the comments; community is another thing that cultivates silence.

The Faces You Meet I: Evangelion

This past weekend I was at a small retreat in the Texas equivalent of Rivendell, and I have Thoughts.

Actually, I was already thinking in the neighborhood of these Thoughts, but this past weekend helped me clarify them. As I know they will continue to shape and develop (and as I’m about five weeks from the end of a semester), I’m not going to try to rush them all out in one fell swoop. Instead, I’d like to begin a periodic, irregular series in which I unpack these ideas. This post will serve as a sort of introduction.

Recently, I ate dinner at the home of some friends from church. Their one-year-old daughter is a born extrovert, but she doesn’t really know me. When I came in the door, she gave me a Very Serious Look, a kind of “who is this?” expression. But about five seconds later she realized I was a human person, and her skepticism was replaced by the sunniest smile. She set out to convert me, and continued the work until she was carried off to bed.

This interaction was delightful at the time, but has lingered, too. For here is the perfect example of a pure, simplified way we could interact with others. She was delighted by my presence, by my very existence, and wanted nothing more than to interact with me. She didn’t insist I come play, or ask for anything but my attention in return. A hand held out for her to place hers on. A smile in return for a glance.

The world around me has felt violently fractured, and its hard to see how it could possibly be mended. Perhaps this little soul is wiser than we are.

I’d like to think about faith and community, relationships and human interactions, from this context. I’m not sure how many posts I’ll write, or when I’ll write them (follow me to get them as they come, if you want).

As I don’t really have any big point to make with this post, I’ll end with a question:

When did you last engage uncomplicatedly with a person, and delight in their being? Not their conversation or their wit or what they can do for you, but in their existence as a human on this green earth?

College is not the End

Hello friends! I am back from my usual months-long sojourn to magical worlds I’m-really-busy-with-life hiatus. If you’re new here (hello!) this is frequent.

But that is not why I reappeared. I wanted to discuss a Thing. This Thing has made me kind of angry, and I’m feeling passionate about it, which equals a lot of words. Here’s the tl;dr version up front: college is not the end.

I’ll say it louder for those in the back:

COLLEGE.

IS NOT.

THE END.

The end of what? The end of life, the end in the archaic sense of the ultimate goal, the sole purpose, the thing that will drive your life in the right direction.

It’s not that.

It’s not even necessarily the defining moment of anyone’s life.

College has become this thing that we (parents, teachers, well-meaning advice-givers) have made The Goal:

School is important because you need good grades to go to a good college. And be sure to major in something Useful, that will Get You a Job, because heaven forbid you major in English in today’s economy, no, better to do a STEM major or something because then you will Be Successful and Make Lots of Money and Live a Happy Life™

If you don’t do the path right, you might end up in a Dead-End Job or be in Grad School, or live in your parent’s basement because you’re poor! !!!!!

I’m satirizing, but be honest. Isn’t this dumb? I think it’s really, really dumb.

Have you set up this expectation for a student lately? Can we stop freaking them out? Can we stop making College the boogeyman of the over-worked, over-tired high school student?

Can we stop assuming we know everything?

Anxiety among high school students has reached an all-time high, a worrying proportion, and I think this attitude about college is a major factor in that anxiety. It’s a wrong attitude by the way, or at least an outdated one.

See, for a long time, college was the End. It was the promise of a better life, in the world where a college degree and an entry level job got you retirement at 55 and a good pension. Starting with the millennial generation, that just doesn’t happen anymore. The world is different. The economy is different.

So  let me explain you some things. High schoolers, listen up. Adults, listen up harder.

In reality, college is important, but not in the way it’s represented to be. In college you have a chance to practice being an adult. You have the chance to take classes in subjects you’ve never encountered before, and to explore yourself and your choices for life. You have the chance to experience the world, through books and classmates and maybe some actual travel. This is all very important, valuable, and possibly life-changing.

Part of the problem of The Goal is that it assumes an intention that most teenagers don’t have. What eighteen-year-old really knows his or her life plan? Very few. If you, a high school student, are pretty sure you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or any profession that has a specific and required education path, then go do that thing. Be open to change, but do that thing.

If you have an inking, or no idea, then that’s okay! Explore. Take all the classes. Don’t worry too much about a job outside of college. The truth is, many (most?) graduates don’t even work in their major field. That doesn’t mean college doesn’t matter, just that there’s not usually a one-to-one correlation between Skills-Aquired-in-College and Job. A lot of skills that succeed on the job market are “soft skills” – writing coherently, research, problem-solving, collaborative working – which can be learned in a variety of majors.

Yes, even English.

So take something you like. Do that art major and transition into graphic design, or start your own business. Study history because it fascinates you, and leverage that understanding and those strong writing skills in your office, wherever that is. Or become an historian. Or go to graduate school. Or realize you really actually love three-year-olds and go teach preschool.

Remember, too, that America’s definition of Success™ may not be who you’re wired to be.  I realized my junior year in college that a nine-to-five cubicle job sounded like the most boring thing I could conceive of, and changed my minor, then my major, as a result. I like school and teaching. I’m nearly thirty and am just starting a Ph.D program in the fall, and am generally “behind” (I won’t have a “real job” again until I’m 35 or something). And you know what?

Who cares?

Seriously. I like what I’m doing, I’m not drowning in debt, I’ll be able to feed myself. So I’m not Successful™, but I’m also not miserable, so there’s that.

Since when was life a race? Since when did you have to arrive at the station of Grown-Up at 22?

I wish somebody had given me permission when I was 18 to do what I liked instead of what was the Right Choice. So let me do that for you:

It’s okay to go to technical school and be a mechanic if machines make you happy.

It’s okay to be a teacher, if you want to.

It’s okay to take five or ten or twenty years to figure you what you want to be when you “grow up.”

It’s okay. To take. Ten years. To figure out life.

It’s okay to go to graduate school.

It’s okay to forge your own path, and do something unusual.

You don’t even have to be the next Steve Jobs (who didn’t actually have a college degree, by the way). You can live a quiet life and impact a hundred people, or fifty, with your art or music or writing or whatever.

It’s okay to pursue a field or job you love that won’t make you super rich. Or won’t even “get you a job.” You would be surprised at how many relevant jobs there are out there for English or music or art majors (or whatever. I feel like the arts and humanities have gotten short shrift, so I’m defending). They’re just not obvious, so the people who are not English or music or art people giving you career advice might not know what they’re talking about.

The truth is, the world and the job market are changing so quickly and so dramatically that nobody who makes pronouncements on jobs actually knows what they’re talking about, and if they’re right today, by the time you graduate in five or six years (because I’m assuming you’re a junior or senior in high school), it will have changed.

Let me say THAT again: People who are saying “major in x, y, z because that’s where the jobs are” will be wrong in five years. The market really changes that fast.

College is not the end.

Study what you like.

STUDY WHAT YOU LIKE.

Your passion will make a place for you better than your “necessary” major will.

Some people go to college, get a degree, and find in five or ten years that aside from finding the possession of a BA necessary for job prospects, the actual college experience didn’t have a huge impact on them. For others, it’s the fulcrum of their lives.  People change majors, transfer schools, learn and grow, in those four years of college. They make important connections, and form lasting friendships, and find future spouses (sometimes).

So, yes, college is important. But what is more important is doing it your way, whatever that looks like. Make wise choices (especially financially), listen to your teachers and parents and well-meaning relatives, but feel free to also ignore their advice if it seems like they don’t know you at all. If you really want to study English, then just do it. Don’t get a business degree because it will “get you a job.” Don’t make choices like that. Don’t do it.

What are you good at? What do you love to do? What kinds of questions matter to you? What problems do you see in the world that you want to solve? Answer those questions. Those questions plus some solid effort will get you a job and “success” more than the Right Major or the Right College will. I promise.

College is NOT the end. Not even close. It’s more like a station-stop, a layover, in the journey of life. Not the end.

Short stories to order

For a while, I have been wanting to write more frequently and more diversely. Lots of short stories – one a month, one every two weeks – and with a variety of characters, settings, voices, and in a variety of genres.

Guys, this is really hard.

First of all, I’m just not great at holding myself to a short-story writing schedule. I have a hard enough time being consistent with the novel I’m working on.

Second, every short story I’ve worked on has, Leaf-by-Niggle style, become part of the larger universe I’m building. Not bad, at all, but not the goal.

As I was reflecting on how to fix this problem, I remembered that when I was in creative writing classes in college, I somehow managed to write a bunch of different stories. I just had assignments and deadlines.

So.

Premering the Short Story Order Form

Fill out the form, selecting various options for genre, voice, and character, and give me a prompt. Then, I’ll write the story (to the best of my abilities: remember, this is for PRACTICE) and send it to you, in an e-book/pdf form, all nicely laid out and designed. I’ll also be posting the stories to erinturnerwrites and to tumblr (link coming), unless you specifically request I don’t.

It will be fun!