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Writing

A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

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Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.

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A Very Short Story

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Image from Wikipedia: By U3173699 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81674970

 

I want to refer to a day many years ago, back when the world was normal and my kids were still at home. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was making chili for dinner, chopping up ingredients at the kitchen counter. My daughter, a high school student who was also taking classes at the local community college, breezed through the back door, walked through the kitchen, put her books down on the dining room table, and returned to the doorway to say, “Mom, the kids in my school are so stupid. I mean, they’re just so dumb that I get worked up about it. I actually think I’ve gone through the Stages of Grief about their stupidity.”

“What?” I had been dicing bell peppers, but I put down my knife and looked up at her. She had just come home from her college psychology class.

“Well, we were learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about the stages of grief, and I realized that the kids I know are so annoying and stupid that I’ve gone through all those stages about them.”

I asked her to explain, and she went on. “So, the first stage is Denial. I start out thinking, ‘I cannot believe these people are so stupid. Maybe if I ignore them, I won’t have to deal with them at all. The extent of their stupidity actually scares me, so I’ll stay away.'”

I nodded and said, “Go on.”

“The next stage is Anger. I get angry at their stupidity, because they frustrate me, and they make me anxious. I’m just mad that they’re dumb and they don’t care about changing.”

I waited for her to continue.

“Okay, then comes Depression. I seriously get depressed about how stupid they are. I begin to think that they’ll never be anything but stupid, no matter how much I — or anyone else — tries to help them. It makes me sad that anyone can be alive and so dumb.”

By this point I had nothing to say. It’s always a little overwhelming the first time your child shares a truly interesting thought that you didn’t plant in their brain.

“That’s when I start Bargaining. I say to myself, ‘Oh, they may be stupid in this class. They may be stupid in all their classes, but maybe they’re good athletes. Yeah, they’re probably great at football or basketball or volleyball. They’re in band, so maybe that’s what they’re good at. See, they’re really stupid, but there are ways to compensate for that, aren’t there?”

She paused a moment, then finished by saying, “But I always end up Accepting their stupidity. I just factor it into my plans, sometimes I even use it to get what I want, and then I move on to something else.”

She stood up, grabbed her books, and went upstairs to her room, leaving me staring after her. I had nothing to say in the face of such brilliance, but she didn’t even notice.

Every single thing she’d said made perfect sense, and I promised myself one day I would write about it.

And now, 15 years later, awake at the crack of dawn because I can’t stop thinking and fretting and worrying, I realize that we’re probably all going through the Stages of Grief about the Coronavirus, and I’ve finally made good on my promise.

P.S. If you’re looking for more stuff to read, check out my friend John’s blog: TomatoPlanet! at https://ininva.com/. John’s been doing this blogging stuff since way before it was cool, and he’s got some great stuff there.

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Writing and Authenticity, Part I

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Legacy’s Lady Camilla, fresh from her Crufts win in March, 2019.

You may notice, if you are a regular reader of this blog, that I have posted much less frequently in the last few months. The reason is this: I have taken some time to stop writing and really think about what writing does, what it can do, and what it should do. In other words, I have given myself a self-imposed sabbatical from writing while I contemplate the job of writing, and, more personally, how–and even if–I want to continue writing at all.

I have sorted some ideas out in my head, and I’m beginning to get to a point where things are making a bit more sense than they did a few months ago. One thing that galvanized me was an experience I had with a good friend, an experienced writer who kindly volunteered to help me with a short story I was working on. He gave me some excellent advice on how to make the story better: more polished, more focused, and ultimately more ready for publication. I could tell that his advice was spot on. I knew that he was right about the changes he suggested. And yet, almost as soon as I heard his suggestions, I also knew I would not take his advice. Despite knowing that he was right about these suggested improvements, I could not bring myself to make them.

Now, every writer knows that you are supposed to “kill your darlings”: writers should never get so attached to their work that they are not willing to chop it all up in order to mix it back together, or even trash it and begin anew if necessary. I knew that my story wasn’t perfect, so my reason for not making those changes wasn’t that I thought it was good enough as it was. At the time, I didn’t know why I resisted my friend’s excellent advice. In fact, as it turned out, I had to think a good, long time before I could discover why I had had such a profound and visceral reluctance to tinker with it. And now, some three months later, I think I have found the answer.

But in order to explain it, I have to refer to a world that is far removed from writing. My husband shows dogs (you can find his website here), and over the years we have noted something interesting about the way kennel clubs and dog shows operate. The winning dogs all correspond closely to a perceived (but not fully agreed upon) standard. No surprise here: this is, of course, to be expected. The dog who looks closest to the standard, in the judge’s opinion, is the dog that takes home the trophy. Of course, the key words are “in the judge’s opinion“: there can be a wide variety of opinions, which is why different dogs might win in different shows with different judges. Yet it is the corollary to this rule which is most interesting, and most troubling for the future of all pedigree show dogs. If dogs are penalized for deviating from the norm, then that inherently means all the show winners must look more alike–must be more alike–than different. And because it is largely the show dogs that are responsible for propagating the breed, then it naturally follows that the genetic diversity is always shrinking, because of this desire to create a puppy that follows the breed standard to a tee. In other words, the very act of judging the dog makes it so that all people participating in showing will want their dog to look just like the “ideal” dog–the breed standard–and they will take great pains to make sure that the puppies they produce, and sell, and buy, will be more similar to this perceived ideal than different from it. (This has dire consequences for the sustainability, and even the survivability, of pedigree dogs, but that is a matter for other blogs.)

It’s human nature to want to win, whether in dog shows (where surely the dogs don’t care if they are Best of Show) or in the world of writing, which we know as publishing. Publishers–and by extension, readers–are like the dog show judges: they are looking for the best combination of words and anecdotes to hit a home run in the marketplace. They have an ideal standard, which is why all the fiction published in literary journals and The New Yorker ends up feeling the same over time. In other words, what is published will always come to look a great deal more like everything else that is published than it will look like something individual and unique.

And so, being “good,” in the sense of getting published, means that a writer may have to close off options that will divert his or her work into an unfamiliar, perhaps even an uncomfortable, form. It could mean that a writer has to compromise on whatever artistic integrity he or she has developed, getting rid of archaic words, semicolons, and–yes–even adverbs in favor of a more widely accepted style of writing. In short, it means that a writer might have to second-guess his or her own writerly instincts in order to fit into a “breed standard” that is instantly recognizable and appreciated by publishers, readers, and critics alike.

I am not saying that writers should write what they want and not worry about revision. Nor am I saying that all writing is good writing. I am just saying that with the market set up as it is today, it could be very easy to miss unique and talented writing in favor of writing that resembles what we’ve already seen. The danger in this situation is that we may, tragically, fail to recognize authentic writing, and worse still, fail to cultivate writers who strive for authenticity.

It’s time for another clarification. I remember the first time I ever heard the expression, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I recall the momentary surprise I felt when I thought about it and then realized it actually made sense. One could be as good as possible, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luck, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, is often an integral component of success. I want to offer a variation of this saying for writers–or rather, for those writers who are serious about exploring the world of the imagination, about the craft of writing (whatever that may be), about creating something that is meaningful rather than successful. Here goes:

It is better to be authentic than to be good.

I’ve come to this maxim by thinking about the novels I love, those books that I have re-read throughout a half-century of reading: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Sun Also Rises, Never Let Me Go, Till We Have Faces, Mrs. Dalloway–and the list goes on. These books are not perfect. In some places, they are not even good. It is not difficult to find passages in any of them (with the possible exception of Never Let Me Go) that make readers cringe with frustration and/or embarrassment for the author. But each one of these novels is, to a certain degree, memorable and authentic, which is why I am compelled to read them again and again throughout the years. 

Certainly the term “authentic” is fraught, and I will need to define what I mean by it. I will try to do this in a timely manner; readers may look forward to a subsequent post in which I take a stab at my definition of authenticity in writing. But for now, I simply pave the way for that post by explaining why I am resisting the idea of writing good stories for the time being, even if that means rejecting the advice of a talented and well-meaning friend. And I invite my readers to weigh in on this topic, half-formed though it is at the present time, as I try to figure out just what it means for writing to be authentic.

 

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Mere Democracy

In 1952, OxforC.s.lewis3d don C.S. Lewis, famous now for having written his seven-book series about Narnia, published a book called Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular works. Lewis himself was no theologian; although he had a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1922, he never pursued the study of it, focusing instead on English literature. As a scholar, he is remembered for his contributions to Renaissance and medieval literary studies, not for his forays into theology. In fact, some critics find fault with his works on Christianity; while it is true that he successfully boiled Christian theology down to its most important features, his simplification of difficult concepts may have gone too far for some heavy-hitting theologians. And yet despite these criticisms, Mere Christianity is celebrated and beloved today for being the book that brought countless non-believers to accept Christianity.

I am not interested in Mere Christianity for its Christian message, however, but rather for its ideological goal and impact. I believe that what Lewis did for Christianity–boiling it down to its major premises, its essential elements–is a brilliant tactic and could, if used correctly, help save civilization as we know it. In short, I want to urge one of my readers to write a similar book. This book, however, would be called Mere Democracy.

Why is such a book needed? The answer is obvious: in the wake of decades of corruption, party politics, winner-take-all contests, and win-at-any-cost stratagems, American democracy is ailing. Indeed, some pundits have even declared it dead. Lewis probably feared the same end for Christianity, yet, instead of giving up, he set to work and succeeded in revitalizing the Christian religion with his book.

What would Mere Democracy look like? Here’s my idea: It would be a modest book written in plain language that spelled out the basic tenets of democracy. Rather than providing a lengthy history of democracy and a comparison of different types of government, Mere Democracy would explain to the masses–to those very people who should be safeguarding democracy–what democracy looks like without the corrupting shadow of gerrymandered districts, unlimited corporate lobbying, and mindless populism. It would work to educate and inform, in plain language, those people who are put off by elitism, arrogance, and entitlement. In short, Mere Democracy would spell out the very least a society must do in order to remain democratic. In doing so, it would of course be incomplete and reductive; in its drive towards simplicity and clarity, it would not satisfy political scientists or sociologists; but it could, like Lewis’s book, help millions of people see their world in a new and vital way and convert them into a new understanding of the best form of government humanity has yet discovered.

Somewhere in the blogosphere today is the person who could write this book. Is it you? If so, I urge you to get started. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time.

 

 

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Collecting Crumbs

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Why do we write? This is a question that few of us writers consider seriously. It’s a question we can amost always evade, because most of us feel compelled to write, almost as if this strange pastime were some kind of powerful addiction, driving us to write novels, poems, plays, and–of course–blog essays like this without any real thought about why we do so. Certainly there are plenty of answers to the question “why write?” For example: “Because no one can tell your story exactly you can”; “Because the world deserves to hear your story”; “Because you have a responsibility to engage in that great conversation we call literature.” I have myself discussed some of these answers in an earlier blog, but my favorite response to the question comes from Charlotte Bronte: “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.”

However, the awful truth–and it is awful for us writers–is that there is no good answer to this question, because our work is completely unnecessary. There are already enough novels, poems, blogs, plays–you name it–to keep the entire world busy with reading for generations. This is a hard truth to accept, but I am convinced that it is the truth, and that all writers know it; they just refuse to accept it most of the time. The world doesn’t need our writing, because there are plenty of people engaged in the same task we are, making our work completely unnecessary and generally unwanted.

If anyone doubts this, consider how much marketing and publicity plays into every book that we read. Things seemed different a decade ago, when self-publishing through Amazon became possible for writers. In that moment, it seemed like the locked gates of publishing were ready to be stormed and broken. However, although the iron bars may have been shaken a bit, the hinges were not broken, and the gates remain closed to those who cannot muster up the money, the resolve, or the chutzpah to play the marketing game. This means that most of us will continue to write in obscurity, never making it onto any best-selling list–indeed, never making it onto any list at all.

It’s been hard to school myself to accept this situation. The wisest thing to do would be to stop writing, but like all addictions, the writing addiction is a hard one to break. I have indeed taken a sabbatical from writing, that dangerous pastime that sucks up too much time and gives much too little in return. I hate the fact that I find it so hard to write in an echo chamber, but after all, everyone wants recognition; everyone wants, once in a while, to be noticed.

For example, in a pathetic letter to a teacher with whom she had fallen in love, Charlotte Bronte wrote, “Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger…” Yesterday, a good friend and neighbor remarked in passing that he really enjoyed my last novel. Startled, I did not thank him enough, and I’m sure he had no idea how much those words meant to me (though he might if he reads this). Yet through his simple words, I received a crumb of bread so big and so unexpected that I am still happily digesting it today, and will be, I’m sure, for weeks to come. Indeed, it was a large enough crumb to compel me to write this blog, to make me think of completing another writing project, and maybe–though I know it to be yet another futile task–to undertake new ones.

So let me end this blog by saying that if you know an indie writer and have enjoyed reading his or her work, take a moment and tell him or her so. It only takes a moment, and it may mean more to him or her than you’ll ever know. Scatter those crumbs, readers! Scrape them off of your table, take them into your hands, and toss them out as far as you can into the wind! By doing so, you may well  keep a person from starving.

And Marc, if you’re reading this, thank you.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 3

And now, as promised, the last installment on how I became a writer.

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I needed to read as much as I could, and, with an older brother in college who evicted me from my bedroom each summer when he came home and left his previous semester’s English syllabi laying around, it was not difficult for me to devise a reading plan to fill out my knowledge of literature. For example, I declared tenth grade the year of the Russian novel; during that year, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I neglected my math and science classes to achieve it.

But I worked hard at the task I set myself. For example, one day in Band class (I was an underachieving clarinet player), the instructor was going through a piece with the flute section. Earlier that month, I had found a fantastic copy of The Brothers Karamazov–hardbacked, with two columns of print on each page–and I found that it fit perfectly on my music stand.

Usually I would put my sheet music on top of the book to camouflage my reading, but I had reached a really rivetting section (a chapter called “Lacerations”) that morning and I was oblivious to pretty much everything around me. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wren had crept up behind me and was, along with everyone else in the band, watching me read. When I finally realized the entire room was silent, with no flutes playing dissonant notes and no baton clicking out a rhythm on the conductor’s stand, I looked up to see what was going on, and met Mr. Wren’s small blue eyes peering at me. I expected to be duly chastised, but all he said was, “Lacerations? Do I need to send you to the counselor?” Mortified, I shook my head and shoved my book beneath my seat.

This is merely a long-winded way of demonstrating that I was a dedicated reader at a fairly young age. I tried to create a system, a reading method, but when I reached college, I realized how very inadequate my system was. My subsequent years in graduate school were probably an attempt to fill in the gaps of my literary knowledge. That attempt also ended in relative failure. I got a master’s degree and filled in a few of the many gaps left by my undergraduate education, then continued on to the Ph.D. level and filled in a few more. I was still very imperfectly educated in terms of English literature by the time I received my Ph.D., but thankfully education has no definitive endpoint. And if one becomes a generalist, as one must at a community college professor, then one can continue to add to one’s knowledge year after year after year. Even now, some years after retiring, I am still working hard to fill in those gaps.

But of course all this reading derailed me from becoming the writer I had originally planned to be. In other words, the preparatory work I set myself that was designed to make me a good writer eclipsed the desire to write for a great many years. There was, after all, so very much to learn and to read! I decided that if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would opt for reading, because I wanted to know what was out there. I guess you could say that my quest to perfect my knowledge of English literature (certainly an impossible task) has never been anything more than mere nosiness.

I would still pick reading over writing any day. In fact, most days I usually do. There is still so much to read, so many gaps to fill. For me, reading comes first, and it always will. I write to show that I am reading, that I am paying attention to what is out there. In the end, I write not because I love story-telling , but rather because I love the stories we’ve told throughout the ages so much that I cannot keep myself from adding to the ever-growing collection of them that makes up human culture.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 2

As I recall, my first real attempt at critical writing involved a book review of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, written in third or fourth grade–I’m not sure which. Why did I pick an obscure novel by a largely forgotten American writer? I believe it was because I had read White Fang (or was it The Call of the Wild? or perhaps both?) earlier that year and felt that writing a book review about a book I’d already read seemed to be cheating, so I found another book by Jack London. Perhaps this was my first foray into literary studies. I didn’t really get much from The Sea Wolf, unfortunately. My book review basically argued that London’s use of curse words within the narrative was a distinctive feature of his writing. I have no idea whether or not this is true, never having gone back to read The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea Wolf again.

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Some more recent critical writing

This was, if I recall, the year I had requested to be allowed to bring in the Bible for independent reading. My request was denied, which was a good thing. Mrs. Cirillo (or was it Mrs. Moss?) was right to curtail my outrageous desire to be a precocious reader. No one who spells the word “universe” with almost every letter of the alphabet, as I did back then, has earned the right to be a waywardly precocious reader. As for writing, we were allowed to make a book that spring, and I chose to write an elegy about my parakeet Dinky, who had dropped dead on Christmas morning. (This, coupled with the fact that during the Easter pageant at my church that year I was chosen to play the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, may account for the fact that I later converted to Judaism.) The little book, which I can no longer locate, itself is nothing special, but it may be telling that the “Note About the Author” (written in a pretentious third person) at the end of the book refers to its author’s ardent desire to become a writer.

After this, there was a long spell of forgettable short stories, poems, and other forced writing assignments. But then, in my senior year of high school, I was nominated by my long-suffering English teachers to compete in a nationwide writing contest held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The contest had two components: first, a prepared story (mine was some atrocious story about Brian Boru, King of Ireland–even the passage of fifty years cannot erase my shame at having concocted it) sent in ahead of time, and second, an on-demand essay. I remember being pulled out of algebra class on a April morning in 1976, ushered into an empty classroom, given pencil and paper, and losing myself in an essay in which I mused on my relation to my birthplace–Brooklyn, New York–a place I had moved away from some nine years earlier. I also remember that I left the classroom feeling somewhat pleased that I had mentioned my grandmother, who still lived in Brooklyn, noting that she was in fact the last thread that drew me back to my birthplace summer after summer. Somehow, I was surprised but not shocked when, an hour or so after I got home from school that day, my father called to tell me that my grandmother had died that morning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had probably died while I was actually writing my essay. (Two days later, I received an Easter card in the mail from Grandma. She always had great timing.)

I won the contest despite my dreadful story about Brian Boru, and was chosen as one of 26 students from Texas to win the NCTE Writing Award in 1977. It wasn’t such a big deal. While it may have helped me get into college, I have to admit that I completely forgot that I’d won such an award until a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old papers. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that I had been involved with the NCTE years and years before I myself became a teacher of English and a member of that organization.

I have not gone into detail about the short stories I wrote in my high school years, because they are too pedestrian to stand out. Everyone writes those kind of stories. I was, however, quite a letter writer in those days, stealing funny bits from P.G. Wodehouse and other comic writers and inserting them into my letters to my parents and siblings. Below is a letter I found while visiting my mother last year. (Obviously, she recognized my genius–or she decided to save it as evidence that time travel really happens.)

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Once again, I’ve made less progress on this project than I had anticipated. That leaves one more post (I promise–just one more!) to bridge the gap between my young adult and middle age years, and how I postponed my writing career (such as it is) by making a study of literature and becoming a professor of English.

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How I Became a Writer, part 1

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. Perhaps I didn’t care about writing back when I was too young to understand what being a writer meant–before I’d really learned to read, in those days when, as a young child, I read only the books  that were placed in my willing hands, those rhyming, oddly illustrated children’s books that were so common in the 1960s. It’s quite possible that back then I didn’t have a hankering  to join what I have come to consider the Great Conversation, that I was content to look and pass, not feeling compelled to offer something–some small tidbit at least–to the exchange of stories and ideas that has gone on for centuries now.

My first memory of reading was from the Little Bear books, which my father, an accountant, got by the cartload, since he worked for the publisher (I think?). I am confused about this, however. It’s just as likely that we had a surplus of these books laying around our house. I was the youngest of three children, after all, so it makes sense that children’s books would pile up, and that they would be handed off to me. I don’t remember actually learning to read, but I do remember the laughter that ensued when I tried to sound out “Chicago,” as well as having to struggle with the word “maybe,” which I pronounced incorrectly, with the accent on the “be” and not the “may.”

But these books certainly didn’t enchant me. That would have to wait for some years. In the meantime,  I remember seeing a copy of Julius Caesar on our dining room table, with its cover illustration featuring a lurid, bloody toga attracting more than a mere glance at it, and although I didn’t try to read Shakespeare’s misnamed tragedy, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that I became enamored of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, to such an extent that I would wrap myself in striped beach towels and stomp through our Brooklyn duplex declaring, in all seriousness, “I wish to be buried with Mark Anthony.” My elaborately crafted Cleopatra-fantasy imploded, however, when I convinced my second-grade class to put on a short play about Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. (Is it possible that I wrote the play myself? That seems unlikely, but I cannot imagine that many age-suitable plays on that subject were available.) I was over the moon–until I got the news that I was to play Julius Caesar. And that was the end of that fantasy, much to the relief of my family.

The books that did grab my attention were a set of great books that my grandmother had20171225_142442 bought for her two children back in the 1930s: a set of all of Dickens, all of Twain, and some odds-and-ends, such as William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as a full set of encyclopedias. (I still have a few of the Dickens works, but most of the books were destroyed in a flooded warehouse back in the 1990s.) I am sure that my grandmother’s purchase was an investment in wishful thinking: I would swear an oath that neither my uncle nor my father ever read a word of these books. I am equally sure that I, feeling sorry for the books (which is something I still do–and explains why I sometimes check out books from the library that I have no interest in but will read because I think someone should pay them some attention), picked a few of them off the dusty shelf one summer and began to read them. I remember reading, and delighting in, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad long before I ever read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

As the youngest child in the family, I was frequently left to my own devices, and that was fine with me. But I think I might have been a little lonely, a little too strange for children my own age, and this was something that my parents wouldn’t have noticed, not back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was less attention placed on the lives of children. So it’s natural that the books became my friends. When I visited my father after my parents got divorced (there was no joint custody back then, which was delightful for me, as it meant that I was able to stay with my father in NYC for a huge swath of the summer vacation), I started reading through the set of Dickens. In doing so, I found a whole new set of friends and family. Even today, when I open a Dickens novel–any Dickens novel–I feel like I am at a family reunion full of quirky, oddball relatives. It is a wonderful feeling.

This oddly rambling blog post is doing a fine job of explaining how I became a reader, but it is completely missing what I set out to do: explain how I became a writer. That, I can see now, will have to wait for another post.

 

 

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On the Relationship of Myth and Story

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Image from the lotr.wiki.com

Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!

 

The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:

  • Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
  • Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
  • Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)

This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.

The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.

  • I want to know what it is and how it works.
  • Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.

Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.

  • Studies have shown that crows have memories
  • Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
  • Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness

But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man.  Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.

I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.

So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:

Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.

  • They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
  • Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
  • He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
    • But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
    • While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
    • Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
  • You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.

Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.

For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:

  1. It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
  2. It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
  3. There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.

The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).

I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35).  It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.

The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.

Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.

Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:

  • They are both meditative
  • They can both be transformative
  • They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
  • They both suspend our disbelief
  • They break the barriers of time and space
  • They both teach compassion

Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”

In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:

  1. It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
  2. It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
  3. It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
  4. It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).

In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird.  And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.

Anyway, back to our subject: a  modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:

  1. Frankenstein
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Wizard of Oz
  4. The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
  5. Casablanca
  6. The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.

In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:

Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?

And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138).  Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.

 

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