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.

Thoughts?

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W.S. “Klings” to Popularity

September 23, 2010

Just when you thought Hamlet had ceased to be reinvented, the Washington Shakespeare Company has once again, in the words of a press release, “turned Shakespeare on its ear”. The clip below gives you a taste of what you might see if you visit the D.C. metro area theatre company this Saturday, Sept. 25:

That’s right: this weekend, WSC will feature “By Any Other Name: An Evening of Shakespeare in Klingon.”

Coincidence? Not exactly.

Marc Okrand, the current president of the board at WSC, is the linguist responsible for the creation of Klingon, the language of a fictional race of warriors in the Star Trek series.

As Okrand said, “Given WSC’s creative approach to Shakespeare, performing scenes in Klingon struck me as something obvious to try. The upcoming celebration of WSC’s 21st season presents a great opportunity to pull these elements together in typical WSC fashion – and to offer an evening that’s both serious and fun.”

Serious and fun does seem like an apt description, and one well-suited for the repertoire at WSC. The Arlington, Va. theatre company is known for its innovative and provocative presentations of classic theater, including an all-female Taming of the Shrew and a nude Macbeth.

What can I say?

I’m still waiting to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in elvish.

Nonetheless, kudos to WSC for tapping into the possibilities of language and exploring the way literary texts of all forms, including science fiction TV shows, can speak to one another and to a broader audience.

For more information, visit http://www.washingtonshakespeare.org/

(Thanks to Rachel for bringing this event to my attention.)


Easy Button for the Bard

August 3, 2009

Bt w8, wuz dat lyt n d wndw ovr der?
Itz d east, n Juliet S d sun.

Shakespeare in Text-Speak.

That day has come.

Shakespeare in text-speak may be funny. It may be a clever nod to pop culture. It may be a reminder that 16th century language is no stranger than 21st century language. But it is not Shakespeare.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favor of new ways to get students interested in great literature.  And as I’ve written before, I thoroughly enjoy a good parody or clever application of new technology to literature.

I do…as long as the point is still to draw students in to the original literature, to spark interest and encourage them to delve deeper. You might start a prospective chef-in-training with a boxed cake mix, but you certainly don’t stop there.

The subtitle of the original article is, “Bard’s language poses challenge for teachers.” Though I agree with some of the article’s points, I have to ask, when did “challenge” become a dirty word?

Yes, the language is unfamiliar and can be difficult. Yes, Shakespeare wrote for performance, not reading (another false step in the way the Bard is often taught). But is it impossible for a ninth or tenth grader to understand Romeo and Juliet as written? No. Is it hard work? Yes.

The easy button has become a familiar icon since its appearance in commercials for Staples. Perhaps too familiar. Though we laugh at the ad, we also act as though its logic is true. In doing so, we forget that there is no easy button for learning.

In the midst of widespread emphasis on self-esteem and self-help, we treat students as if they are helpless and incapable of meeting high expectations.

The same problem holds true in other subjects, not just literature, but when Shakespeare is reduced to “bt w8, wuz dat lyt n d wndw ovr der,” the effects of reductionism in education become a little clearer.

Must be all the light coming in d wndw.


Twitter, Wit, and Elizabeth

July 13, 2009

To many, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Sidney seem as far removed from modern society as crème brûlée is from peanut butter and jelly.

A few conventions of modern society convince me to argue otherwise.

Like Twitter. Bear with me.

England in the late sixteenth century enjoyed “an impressive, widespread growth in literacy; an educational system that trained its students to be highly sensitive to rhetorical effects; a social and political taste for elaborate display…and a vibrant, restless intellectual culture” (Will in the World, Greenblatt).

What are the characteristics of the United States in the twenty-first century? More and more young adults attend college, creating if not a vibrant, then certainly a restless intellectual culture, particularly as more and more college graduates find themselves without a job that uses ingenuity or creativity.

One side effect, I think, is a re-awakening taste for wit in the social realm. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the newest social networking phenomenon is called tWITter.

The exchange of brief, one-sided dialogues has progressed from instant messenger to Facebook to texting and Twitter. Humor and wit are the name of the game. And it is a game. These media are ideally suited for banter: light, quick-witted one-upmanship.

One difference is the skill for which Elizabethan courtiers were known. “Courtiers were highly gifted at crafting and deciphering graceful words with double or triple meanings” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol.1) Their wordplay was born of cultural necessity. The upper classes were classically trained in rhetorical devices, and court intrigue demanded careful speech.

Perhaps the United States lacks both of those spurs to rhetorical training. Perhaps social networking is becoming more attention-seeking and self-serving. Perhaps, though, we are also returning to a simple enjoyment of language’s subtleties and possibilities.

And lest we fall too deeply in love with the PB&J to the exclusion of fine cuisine, I think we have to ask the question, are these phenomena unique to our society?

My answer? Not a bit.

Or should I say, not a whit.

Or a twhit.


Shakespeare on Moving

July 7, 2009

Just for fun, I like to imagine how Shakespeare would add to the commentary of pop culture on unpleasant phenomena…like tax day. And moving.

If the Bard had decided to give a treatise on moving to one of his characters, my bet is on the Duke in Measure for Measure (Act 3, Scene 1) and I think it would probably run something like this:

Be absolute for loss.
Ev’ry box thus found shall thereby be the sweeter.
Reason thus with things: if I do lose thee,
I do lose a thing that none but fools would keep.
When moved, thou art servile to all the molding influences
that dost this habitation, where thou keep’st, hourly afflict.
Merely, thou art loss’s fool. For him, thou labour’st
by thy move to shun, yet runn’st toward him still.
Thou art not noble, for all th’literary books that thou bear’st
are nursed from yard sales. Thou art by no means valiant,
for thou dost fear the sharp and biting edge of broken glass.
Thy best of rest is cleaning, and that thou oft provok’st,
yet grossly fear’st thy move, which is no more.
Thou art not thyself, for thou exist’st
on many a thousand bags that issue
out of dust. Happy, thou art not,
for what thou hast not, still thou strive’st to get,
and what thou hast, forget’st. Thou art not well-packed,
for thy possessions shift to strange effects on the highway.
When thou art rich, thou art poor,
for like a truck whose bed with boxes bows,
thou bear’st thy heavy burdens but a journey,
and wind unloads thee. Friend, hast thou none,
for thine own fellows, who do call for help,
at mere repayment of thy proper aid
do curse the stairs, back-breaking, and the heat
for ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor space, nor bed,
but as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep, dreaming on both.
For all thy dancing floor is covered up
and doth beg the work of clearing space.
And when thou art old and rich,
thou hast neither grace, energy, friend, nor timing
to make thy spaces pleasant.
What’s yet in this that brings out fear of loss?
Yet in that loss lie hid more free square feet.
Yet moves, we fear, that makes these losses happen.

At least, that’s how I think it would go. The irony is that I wrote this piece before moving, packed the little slips of paper with it written down, and since moving, have entirely failed to relocate them. I’m sure the first draft was much more brilliant, but this is the best I can do for a re-write. Weep, literati, for what has been lost to mankind.


Shakespeare Goes to Court

June 10, 2009

This ProfoundNet may not seem, well, profound, but it illustrates perfectly that literary questions are not far removed from public debate. That’s one reason, besides pure humor, I’ve chosen The Court, Led by Stevens, (Mostly) Rules Against Shakespeare by Ashby Jones of the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a snippet:

Turns out the justices of the Supreme Court debate over more than just the outcome of high-profile legal cases: They argue Shakespeare as well.

Specifically, it seems that a handful of justices have gotten serious over the so-called Shakespeare authorship question—uncovering the true identity of the writer of Hamlet, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus…

You who are literati are probably familiar with the Shakespearean authorship question. Did William Shakespeare actually write the plays attributed to him? (For a brief summary of the debate, see Wikipedia).

According to this report, if the Supreme Court tried Shakespeare v. Edward de Vere, classic book publishers would have a lot of re-titling to do, as would curriculum writers, theatre companies, and programmers of robot teachers. Call in the MiniTrue!

The story doesn’t end there. A little over a week later, Jones wrote another blog post called More on Souter…And Specter and Shakespeare. Here’s a snippet:

When asked his views of the Shakespeare authorship question, Justice David Souter recalled the comment of the late Harvard professor George Lyman Kittredge, who in his day faced claims that Sir Francis Bacon was the true genius behind the Bard. “I’ll agree that Bacon wrote Shakespeare if you’ll tell me who wrote Bacon,” Kittredge liked to say, Justice Souter said.

As far as his own position, Justice Souter was far less decisive than he has been on recent cases involving the Fourth Amendment and punitive damages. “I have no idea who wrote the plays, but I’m glad someone did,” he said.

Well put.

Whether as a mind-sharpening activity, evidence of well-rounded interests, or simply a desire to seek truth in all matters, it’s refreshing to see  members of the United States’ most powerful court taking an interest in literary studies.

Nonetheless, since the outcome of Shakespeare v. Vere will not construct precedent for any pending Supreme Court cases, it’s also encouraging to see at least one justice keeping the debate in its proper perspective.

Thanks, Ashby, for a thought-provoking post. (For the original WSJ article, see Justice Stevens Renders an Opinion on Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays). 


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.