A Day at Flannery O'Connor's House

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tomorrow is the first day of my summer class, so I thought I'd better squeeze in one more blog post before the craziness ensues. This is the first time I've taught a five-week mini-semester, so it is going to be a challenge to cram a 15-week class into 5 weeks. The class meets five days a week for an hour and a half, so that's going to present its own challenges. I haven't taught five days a week since I taught middle/high school, and I've never taught classes that were that long. Despite my reservations about this teaching schedule, though, I'm looking forward to this class. I'm teaching World Lit II for the first time in a year and a half, so I'm actually getting to teach writers and texts I'm somewhat knowledgeable about!

Because of the abbreviated nature of the term, I decided to teach a class devoted entirely to the short story, and I'm really excited about my syllabus. Over the next five weeks I'll get to share (and rediscover) my love for Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Chopin, and Edwidge Danticat, among others. Because this is a "world" literature class, I couldn't include all of the Anglo-American writers I wanted (including Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri), but I am getting to teach a wide variety of international authors I've never taught before-- Hanan Al-Shaykh, Can Xue, Bessie Head, and Ben Okri, just to name a few.  I'm also having my students do group projects on current trends in short fiction, and they will be presenting on topics like microfiction, flash fiction, and online journals. My ideas for the project are still developing, so if you have any topics you think I should include, please let me know!

The final reason that I'm excited about this class is that it will be my last one for awhile. That's right, you heard it here first! (Or maybe not, if you talk to me in person regularly....) I finally broke the Big News to my dissertation director this week: I will not be returning to Auburn in the fall. I'm not dropping out of school; I've just decided to "dissertate" from afar. So at the beginning of August I'm moving to Pennsylvania, where my fiance lives, and the plan is to take at least a year off from teaching.

This is a break that I really need. The past few semesters I feel like I've just been skating by, doing the bare minimum, and at times I've resented how much time I've had to dedicate to prepping and grading over doing my own research or writing. This is mostly my fault (there were semesters when I was teaching four or five classes split between two institutions), but it's also in part because I've spent the past year teaching only World Lit I, a class I tried to enjoy but got over really quickly. I was talking with another instructor the only day and was shocked to hear that during annual review he told the program coordinator that he refused to add any more women to his syllabus because that would require teaching works he had not studied before, and he could not devote the time to researching and prepping new texts. This shocked me especially because when I first taught World Lit I, I was teaching nothing BUT texts I'd never been taught or even read before: The Ramayana, Egyptian love poetry, Wu Chengen's Monkey, Lysistrata, Dante's Inferno, etc.

Every semester this is what I do. I teach almost entirely new texts, in part because I see teaching as an excuse to read things I otherwise might never push myself to read. But I know I'm also burning myself out with all the extra prepping and researching. I don't ever want to become the kind of teacher who refuses to teach new texts, so I think I need this time to reevaluate who I am as a teacher, who I want to be, and how I can sanely be that person when I have so many other obligations to meet. I also think I need the time to miss teaching, something I have done in the past but haven't done in a looooong time.

On a happier note, since today is officially the last day of summer for me, my brother and I decided to take one last little trip this weekend--we drove to Milledgeville, Georgia, to see Flannery O'Connor's house and grave. We are both big O'Connor fans, so it was nice to share the experience with someone else who has read most of her stories and novels.

O'Connor lived at Andalusia, her family's farm, for the last thirteen years of her short (39 year) life, and she wrote many of her most famous stories while living there. We were the only two visitors there, and we had free-reign to walk around the house (the unrestricted areas, at least) and the grounds. The house itself is fairly unassuming. It isn't some grand plantation house, but a modest white two-story with a screened-in front porch. The grounds surrounding it, including the pond, barn, and several out buildings, are not particularly impressive or memorable. I think the most inspiring part of the house was how uninspiring it was. Being at Andalusia really helped me to see that if you have a rich imagination, you don't need to live in Paris or New York or some other inspiring place to write honest, creative stories. Although O'Connor spent a few years in Iowa attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop, as well as time at Yaddo and in New York and Connecticut, the majority of her life was spent in the town of Milledgeville and living on that farm. Despite this "limitation," she used her background and experiences in the rural South to create stories and characters that have long out-lived her.

I've always been reluctant to write about the South, about the people and places where I grew up, but I think it's time I start digging into them a bit deeper, mining my memories and experiences for their story potential. I think, in many ways, that's what my stories have been missing, that moment of truth and authenticity that can only come from sharing a lived experience. Maybe it's time I start "writing what I know," as opposed to "writing what I've learned."

Me on the famous front steps of the O'Connor house
Flannery O'Connor's bedroom at Andalusia
O'Connor dining room
One of the peacocks on the farm. There were around 50 of them when Flannery lived here.
Barn and Milk House at Andalusia
O'Connor's grave at Memory Hill Cemetary


Tawnysha Greene June 27, 2011 at 7:29 AM  

Your summer class sounds AMAZING! I wish you were teaching when I had to take World Lit II!

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