The Death of a Story

October 4, 2010

This morning, when I opened my Google Reader,  I saw a headline that I had to read. The title was, JK Rowling: More ‘Harry Potter’ books are possible.  Citing Rowling’s recent appearance on Oprah, the blogger writes this:

On “The Oprah Winfrey Show” Friday (Oct. 1), author J.K. Rowling says she could possibly write two more books in the series. “They’re all in my head still. I could definitely write an eighth, a ninth book,” Rowling says, setting Potterheads’ hearts aflutter. “I think I am done, but you never know.”

There is no shame in admitting that my heart gave a small flutter when I saw the words. For my part, it was half a flutter of consternation, half of excitement. Series that continue interminably tend to decline in quality and, like television shows, to “jump the shark” at some point. Restarting a series as beloved as Harry Potter strikes me as problematic in that regard.

What is more, as a writer, it would be difficult to distinguish clearly between fans’ expectations and personal impetus to write. I’m thinking of the prologue of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part II:

The general welcomes Tamburlaine receiv’d,
When he arrived last upon the stage,
Have made our poet pen his Second Part

On the other hand, more Harry and Hermione and Ron and Ginny would not be at all amiss…

What intrigues me about the article, beyond its powerful hook, however, is the tenor of the second part. Rowling talks candidly about mourning the completion of the series, and about the way the books work out and work from her own mother’s death.

It’s a provocative concept to think of finishing a book as a kind of death, not of the author, but to the author. I’ve spoken about turning in an essay or submitting a piece of creative writing as “sending a child out into the world” and feeling its rejection as your own; there is something about writing that lends itself to the metaphor of childbearing. But to think of the final keystroke as a moment of death has certain implications for the way we think about writing.

First, it lends a favorable light to the process of revision, which, in this paradigm, keeps the text alive and fluid. Although this practice fits well with academic and scholarly writing, reflecting the changing currents of thought and knowledge, it is not particularly conducive to fiction. When it comes right down to it, we want to know how the story ends.

To me, this bespeaks an underlying longing for finitude: and beyond that, for completion. If that longing is recognized for what it is, I think it can represent a healthy desire; if, however, it causes us to seek undue  or premature closure from our own relationships and in our own life stories, it becomes more problematic. I’m thinking in particular about romance novels that end, rather than begin, with marriage. The image of working out love loses something in story form.

Fittingly, as my thoughts are still in flux on this topic, I’m hesitant to come to a firm conclusion, but in closing, I’d like to refer back to Shakespeare and The Lord of the Rings.

“They have their exits and their entrances, and each man in his time plays many parts,” and “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”

However, “their exits” do not always designate the end of the play, and “his hour upon the stage” is but half the length of a typical play. What if the story does not end, but each of us must come and go in the telling?

If there is an element of death in a completed work, it seems to me that there is also a sense in which only by ending can that limited and incomplete story be drawn into the larger body of text and story that goes on around it and makes it new.



Taming the Big Shaggy

June 16, 2010

Last week, David Brooks’ editorial “History for Dollars” caught my attention. Citing the rapid decline in participation, funding, and support for university-level humanities, Brooks sets out to, as he says, “throw another sandbag on the levee of those trying to resist this tide.”

He defends the humanities on a range of fronts:

  • They improve your ability to read and write.
  • They give you familiarity with the language of emotion.
  • They give you a wealth of analogies.
  • They help you to befriend what Brooks calls “The Big Shaggy.”

If the last item confused you as much as it did me, you’ll be pleased to know that Brooks goes on to explain:

You can see The Big Shaggy at work when a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or when a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana risks everything for an in-office affair…

Those are the destructive sides of The Big Shaggy. But this tender beast is also responsible for the mysterious but fierce determination that drives Kobe Bryant, the graceful bemusement the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga showed when his perfect game slipped away, the selfless courage soldiers in Afghanistan show when they risk death for buddies or a family they may never see again.

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

As images from Monsters, Inc., Bigfoot, and Star Wars vie for dominance, Brooks says the humanities, by representing the “upheavals of thought that emanate from the Big Shaggy” in art, story, etc., “help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them.”

Brooks stops there. To me, what is left is an uneasy impasse.

The first three reasons are predominantly utilitarian: the ability to read and write well, use analogies, and market to the emotions produces  more effective employees. I can agree, but, like Brooks, find those reasons incomplete. The fourth, however, “The Big Shaggy,” gestures toward a study of humanity itself, but falls short of answering, “To what end?”

Although the concepts are difficult to define, and although they need to be unpacked and handled with caution, I think it is impossible to evaluate the humanities without eventually confronting another set of terms: “Truth” and “Beauty.”

For catchy nomenclature, however, “Big Shaggy” wins hands down.

Literature for…Counseling

January 11, 2010

It all comes down to words.

Reading a book and counseling someone through a period of grief may seem to have little in common, but both practices depend on words.

Many works of literature — poetry like that of Dylan Thomas or Derek Walcott, novels like those by Arundati Roy or Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo, plays like Greek or Shakespearean tragedies — are built around a central trauma or psychological breaking point. The words that construct their narratives are concerned with how humans deal with traumatic experiences.

Even as the characters come to grips with their situation or are broken by it, the narrative structure — how the trauma is portrayed — is also a way for the author and reader to make sense of tragedy.

Just as individuals deal with trauma in different ways, literary works also vary. Some express the unspeakable nature of trauma. The source is never identified, and tragedy is evinced only in what is never said. Others use an effusion of sensation and words in an attempt to bury the source–to forget. Some lash out. Others internalize. Some pretend indifference. Some seek answers. Some choose despair.

While a counselor may offer coping mechanisms and encourage a healthier response, his or her tools are predominantly words. It is up to the individual to choose a course.

In a similar way, works of literature cannot replace or force change in a reader, but they can offer perspective. They can offer catharsis or hope. They can offer alternative models and paradigms.

This is not to say in any way that novels should replace a conversation with a caring and skilled counselor: literature can offer hope, but it is equally capable of feeding despair. However, I think the links between counseling and literature are worth considering for several reasons.

First, as a reminder that authors, readers, critics, and teachers can have a real impact on others through the words they choose, especially when dealing with the experience of trauma.

Second, as a reminder that dealing with tragedy (whether global or personal) involves deciding how to tell a story: it is a verbal process as well as an internal one, requiring a listener as much as a pharmacist.

Finally, to suggest that our stories are not meant to be told in isolation, and to recognize the need for relationship and community in dealing with our own and each other’s periods of darkness and grief.

Doctor, Patient, Poetry

September 15, 2009

Being sick has very few advantages that I can name. Literary enthusiast that I am, I would not subject myself to illness simply to come upon insight about literature. However, it can happen.

Having been sick recently, I was reminded today how much of medicine is reliant on, first, self-diagnosis, and second, the communication between doctor and patient. As a result, the doctor’s role is far less different from a literary scholar’s than you might think.

The doctor can rely on certain objective (if all equipment functions and is used and interpreted correctly) measurements like weight, heart rate, lung sounds, blood pressure, and temperature. Similarly, literati can note (with some discrepancies) the meter, rhyme scheme, rhetorical devices, and shape of a poem.

After that, though, unless the diagnosis is serious enough to merit more tests, much of the examination is based on the patient’s response to questions:

  • Are you in pain?
  • How much pain?
  • How often do you cough?
  • Have you noticed improvement since you started the medication?
  • Have you experienced any side effects?

Even I, a conscientious patient, notice the ambiguity in my conversations with the doctor. I ask clarifying questions, but I’m not always sure that we understand each other. I’m not sure if I’m describing my condition accurately or in the right terms.

Like it or not, some symptoms are subjective and not as “scientific” as medical personnel would like. It is the doctor’s job to take what I’m saying and try to translate that into what it means for my health. A poet does something similar, looking not simply at the words that are used, but how they relate to one another to produce meaning.

I am not making the argument that analyzing poetry is the same or as important as diagnosing illness. As much as I love literature, I go to see a doctor, not a scholar, when I’m sick.

What I am suggesting is that the broadest divide is one of knowledge, and to a lesser extent, purpose—not method. Both jobs require thoughtful consideration of words and the meanings they convey. Both require judgment skills. Both require the ability to synthesize individual pieces of information into a deeper understanding of the whole.

And in that respect, Pre-Med and English majors may have more in common than the initial diagnosis would indicate.

Dear Frustrated Student…

May 21, 2009

For most college students, the year is over or shortly to be over. K-12 students might have a little longer. That being said, I’m surprised views of my site have yet to plummet, and have in fact risen. 

I would venture a guess that many students have been assigned last-minute papers on The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, or A Christmas Carol. How do I know? Word Press tells me what search terms have been used to find this site. Many are surprisingly similar; clusters are very specific, and even identical. 

I’ve been there too, trying to write a paper when I didn’t fully understand the intent of the assignment or the work on which it was based. (For me, the killers were Derrida and postmodern literature). 

However frustrated you may be, however desperate, however eager just to turn something in — think very hard before you take the easy route and copy an article from Wikipedia, buy an essay online, or use my blog as a starting point for your thesis. (The last would be doubly unwise, because I don’t even have an advanced degree in the field.)

Plagiarism is “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work” (Random House, 2009).

It’s not just copy-and-paste; it’s taking someone’s idea and calling it your own. It’s paraphrasing without giving credit. It’s claiming something that is not your own work. It’s cheating.

I’m not your teacher, your parent, or your guidance counselor. But as a fellow writer and student, I urge you to think about a few things before you click “paste.” 

     1. The chances that you will get caught are very good. It’s not an insult to your intellect to say teachers can tell a difference between your writing style and the essay you’ve copied from the Internet. If you can find it, so can they.

     2. If you don’t get caught now, you may later. What then? As a former member of the student-based judiciary at my college, I can tell you that you would fail the assignment. You would probably fail the class, meaning you would have to retake it or keep an ‘F’ on your transcript. You could face mandatory tutoring sessions or punative writing assignments. And you thought you were too busy to write the first paper! 

     3. If you put enough effort into disguising your cheating, you’ve probably expended more effort than you would have used in writing the paper yourself. Is it really worth it?

     4. Even if you never pick up a work of literature again, you will have to use critical thinking to analyze a decision, a project, a report, or a budget. You will have to write clear, concise reports, e-mails, or cover letters. The life skills you’re developing do have value.

     5. To me, what is most important is that by doing your own work, you are developing an ethic of diligence and honesty. You’re learning to ask for help if you don’t understand an assignment or are afraid you can’t complete it in time. You’re learning to work hard and manage your time, even if failure is the most effective way to learn.

At a job, down the road, you may have a heavy workload that seems impossible. Will you borrow someone else’s work and call it your own? Will you take shortcuts that may cost the company or your co-workers later? Will you take the easy way out? Or will you do your best, seek help when you can, and create a result of which you can be proud?

I hope, even if it means my blog will get fewer hits a day, that you will choose the latter not only then, but now.

Literature for…Psychology

January 8, 2009

The community of famous literary characters (here’s one designation of the top 10 – incidentally written by a psychologist specializing in the arts) includes suicidal introverts, individuals disassociated from reality, incestuous fathers, and drug addicts. Most of them seem like prime candidates for the oft-stereotyped psychiatrist’s couch.

Psychology Today

The gap between literary studies and psychology should be thin. And yet  in psychology, the study of books may be entertaining, but it does not begin to approach the utility of psychological studies and research papers. So how can the literati emphasize the crossover skills literature has to offer?

HamletThe simplest route is for students to anyalyze literary characters as if they were real people. Hamlet has been used (and, some could say, abused) in this role for decades: this page offers a good overview. But I think another route exists, a subtler and more realistic meeting point of the two disciplines. 

One of the most basic premises of a book report is that the student (a reader, an individual) will like or dislike the assigned book. What makes writing the judgment element of the paper so difficult is the need to give a reason.

  • “Why did you hate reading Moby Dick and love reading Harry Potter? – they’re almost the same length!” 
  • “Why did you sympathize with Hester Prynne and not with Roger Chillingworth?”
  • “I thought you hated Brothers Karamazov!” … “I did – at first.”

In psychology (and communication studies), students learn to look beyond instinctive reactions to the triggers that cause or invite them.

A new way to approach literature would be to evaluate the motivators that inspire like or dislike on the part of readers.  One method would be to establish a scale for like/dislike (say 1-10, with one being strong dislike, 5 being apathy, and 10 being strong enjoyment).  At the end of each chapter, students would rate their impression of the book, without looking back to see previous rankings.

After finishing the book, students would look for chapters that marked turning points in their attitude toward the book, return to those chapters, and look for variables that changed – a new character, a shift in style, or the onset of action, for example. 

To make it more interesting, students could compare notes to see if any parts of the book inspired universal distaste or admiration among their classmates. Those sections would be excellent fodder for a discussion on shared preferences among people in the students’ demographics, or even on Jungian archetypes

As I have said in previous posts, if this topic swerves from traditional literary criticism, bear in mind that the skills or principles are the same, just framed in different vocabulary.  In order to learn the skills, the student may need to complete more traditional analysis of literature.  In order to instill the drive and enthusiasm, the teacher may need to be willing to speak in terms the student can appreciate.

Atlas Takes Up Again

November 17, 2008

Today, when the word “forefront” is used in conversation, its companion is very likely to be a variation on the word “economy.” And in many circles, the idea of unmoderated capitalism has become an associated whipping boy.

In the midst of the fray, proponents of both perspectives and political-economic leanings have turned to literature as a battlefield, a rallying cry, or a pointed, “I told you so.”

aynAt the forefront of this economic stichomythia is 1930s-50s author and philosopher Ayn Rand, “the novelist who is to blame,” according to a headline in the Business Standard in India. A symbol of extreme capitalism, Rand’s works are rife with characters like John Galt, of Atlas Shrugged, who preach Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, laissez-faire, and self-interest.

True, literature has great influence, but how does the Business Standard journalist take the connection to such a dramatic conclusion? Here’s a synopsis, from the article:

Alan Greenspan, who, first as chairman of the Council of Economic Affairs and later as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the US, was at the center of economic decision making for two decades right up to 2006 was a great admirer of Ayn Rand and a true believer in the philosophy she espoused in Atlas Shrugged. […] When Greenspan took his oath of office at the White House for his first public policy job as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, he had Ayn Rand standing beside him.

(Also see Kansas City StarAlan, like Atlas, shrugged)

Others, defending the free market (see Grand Junction Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News), argue that the US, not purely capitalistic, cannot name current economic conditions as the inevitable result of Rand’s vision. They take a dark view of a future that promises more government involvement. Neither is the Ayn Rand Institute silent on current affairs.

Still others find camaraderie in the pages of Atlas Shrugged. On this editorial page from the southwest Florida News-Press, the third letter down points readers to a re-creation of “Galt’s Gulch,” the capitalist sanctuary established in Atlas

A recent poll released by Zogby International informs politicians that 8.1% of Americans have read Atlas Shrugged. What does it mean? and why does it matter? Perhaps the only point is that, as a classic, Atlas remains potent; but perhaps, on a broader scale, literature dealing with the history and philosophy of the American economic system is back in vogue.

Is it any wonder that a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged currently swirls around Hollywood?

In one sense, then, it does not matter if Rand’s writings are an example of a misguided system that has wreaked havoc in global markets or a manifesto detailing the consequences of excessive government intervention.

For whether Atlas shrugs or stoops again to the yoke, Rand’s revived prevalence in public discourse undeniably reminds us that strict boundaries between literature and society are like the “impenetrable” gateway to Galt’s Gulch – ultimately, an illusion.