Monthly Archives: September 2014

Life as a Narrative

Last week at Eastern Illinois University, Dr. Catherine Belling, a Medical Humanities professor at Northwestern, came and spoke about Ebola and its effects not only as a disease of the body but also how it affects the narrative of humankind. Her interest in reading scientific information through humanist and literary lenses is unique, intriguing, and inspiring.

Reading life through a literary lens is a characteristic, I think, of many members of the literary community. Even simple tasks like doing laundry become less mundane when one imagines writing out the task to make it interesting. While we may just be throwing our clothes in the washer & slopping some detergent on top, our mind wanders to think of all the ways to make this more interesting—piling our heap of worn, faded blue jeans into the outdated washing machine. Carefully measuring out the blue liquid detergent and evenly drizzling it over the clothes. Listening to the water rush over the fabrics, smelling the clean scent of the soap, watching the machine shake as it spins the clothes round and round.

Even outside of describing our loads of laundry with flowery language, our lives are stories. Roger Fransecky wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post In it, he says, “we are the authors of our experience and at any given moment we are the sum total of all of our choices.” That’s powerful stuff! His point is that we control our own lives. We can dictate where we live, how we make money, and whom we spend our time with. Our life is a beautiful, budding story, and we’re the writers.

I’m currently in a literature theory class, and we read a compelling article by J. Hillis Miller entitled “Narrative.” In it, he argues that we build narratives around our life experiences but give them more order. This argument is true, especially when considering written biographies. I went to a conference my freshman year of college where a student talked about her experience writing her autobiography. Her editor wanted her to pull a common thread throughout the story, so she edited her life (slightly) to fit a narrative form. This draws a thin line—how far are we willing to go before we start molding our lives after narratives? Our life is most likely not a romantic comedy with a specific order of events, so do we look for people, places, and events to make our lives feel like a narrative?

I suppose everything can be read through a narrative lens. Whether it’s Ebola, our own lives, or a dirty load of laundry, everything has meaning and everything is a story.

Writing as a Real-Life, Grown-Up Job

When you’re little, writing is cute. After reading your short story about a dog or a superhero or a little girl, people say, “Oh, she’s so creative! What an imagination!” and smile enthusiastically.

And when you’re in high school, the enthusiasm is still there. You’re working on a novel—a book that expresses the angst you feel through your characters. Your teachers and parents admire your hard work and applaud your dedication, saying, “Maybe one day you’ll be a writer!”

But when you enter college, and your major is English and you still haven’t finished the great American novel, people get skeptical. When they ask what you’re going to do with your life and you confess “writing,” the response is usually a negative one—their eyes quickly shoot down, their lips purse, and their chin rises in a slight nod. “Interesting,” they say. “Well, how do you expect to make a living? Wouldn’t you rather do something more practical?” Suddenly, when writing transitions from a lofty childhood dream to hopeful reality, attitudes change. Smiles become sympathetic, eyes become narrowed, and minds become filled with thoughts of bills, supporting a family, and “real” jobs.

Brian A. Klems wrote an awesome blog post about whether or not writing was a hobby or a job. He writes:

“Writing is just too freaking hard to label it with a word that connotes relaxation and pleasure. It’s work. It may not pay you—so you can agree that it’s not a job, and let the other person feel like they’re winning part of the argument—but for your own sense of self-worth, and for all the other writers out there toiling away on their novels in their spare time, be sure you call it work.”

Of course there’s the money aspect to factor into whether or not writing is a job, but people who aren’t writers seem to think that writing is easy—that a story is something that just appears on your computer screen. Anyone who has ever written a poem or a novel or any type of creative piece knows that writing is hard. And while yes, there are times that the words seem to just flow out of your fingertips onto your computer screen, most of the time, inspiration is hard to come by. And even if the inspiration is there, the words may not translate correctly onto the page. Or the characters are flat, or the plot has holes, or the use of the word “barbaric” on page three doesn’t work the way you thought it would.

The writing you do as an adult is (hopefully) more developed and eloquent than what you penned as a child—so why are people so quick to praise the three-page story about a penguin but look down upon the writer who devotes his life to creating a novel that grapples with the meaning of life and how to cope with loss?

I want to end this blog post with a fabulous quote from Ann Patchett’s article “Resolved: Writing is a Job” from The Washington Post:

“Writing is an endless confrontation with my own lack of talent and intelligence, because if I were as smart and talented as I ought to be, I would have finished this book by now. I would consider avoiding work the better plan were it not for the fact that to have written a book, to have finished it, is such a glorious thing that it is worth whatever suffering is meted out in the process. And besides, it’s good to pry those stories out of my head from time to time and give them some sunlight and the breathing room of paper so they don’t all grow into one another and molder. Writing a novel not only means I have a book to hold in my hands, it means I have the space in my brain to think a new one up, and there’s every reason to believe that that novel, the one I haven’t even started yet, that one may well be brilliant. Now there’s a beautiful thought.”

“The Book Is Better”

After walking out of every book-turned-movie at the theatre, there’s always a chorus of teenage girls, college hipsters, and middle-aged women claiming, “oh, the book was so much better.” There’s a constant debate between whether film can capture the essences of book, and it always seems like books are the winners. Is there a reason behind the resounding support for books? Possibly.

Obviously, as an English major, books have a special place in my heart. Novels give more insight into the characters’ thoughts and emotions, and a true relationship is built through the connection the reader has with the narrator or main character. There is more room for interpretation regarding physical looks, body language, and general attitude of characters. The mind can imagine countless details about a person, and sentences and paragraphs can be dissected to reveal minute elements about a relationship, character, or event. The interpretation of books is never over. Perhaps that is because the characters are so personal; they become your best friend.

Movies, however, give sensory details that books cannot—sounds, sights, and body language are clear, giving a stronger sense of the atmosphere. An ambiance is established, and the mood affects the audience’s feelings towards characters. More is determined for you in a movie, and maybe that’s why audiences continually claim that “the book was better.” Their sense of control is gone once the characters are on the big screen; the blonde-haired jock’s nose is bigger than they imagined, and the heroine’s voice is too high-pitched. The world and characters they helped created in the novel are now determined for them.

Lydia Sharp wrote a blog post about how watching movies can help one write, and she lists out many characteristics of movies that were previously mentioned here. She writes, “There are two main reasons you describe anything in a story–to ground the reader and to highlight relevance. If you describe everything, you’ll lose the reader. If you don’t describe enough, you’ll lose the reader. Descriptive focus guides the reader in the direction you want them to go.” Writing a description of a place or person is difficult, and the perfect balance between what’s stated and what can be imagined is what makes a novel truly great.

A similar issue was addressed in the new movie Words and Pictures. The two characters—one an artist and one a writer—debate between the differences of expression in each artistic mediums. No matter the form, art is art. Literature, paintings, and feature films are all creative expressions about humans and our emotions. While some capture moments better than others, there’s really no better way to express our feelings than through art. Whether you prefer the imaginative quality of books or the mood of a movie, you’re feeling and thinking and wondering, and that’s all you can really ask for.

Reading Time

As a child, my mother forced my sister and me to have “reading time”—an hour-long period where we would have to sit quietly and read a book of our choice. I absolutely loved this forced reading; I devoured books and, like I was infected with a book-loving tapeworm, devoured even more. Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Little House on the Prairie, and The Indian in the Cupboard allowed my small central Illinois hometown to become a magical place full of adventure and wonder.

At the beginning of the summer, I told myself I would read ten books this summer—Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Woolf would be my friends, and I would read the classics I never had time for during the school year.

I read one half of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and a fourth of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

This is by far not my proudest moment. I’m an English major—I’m supposed to read ten books in the summer and come back with brilliant insights about A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Wuthering Heights and impress my professors with my outstanding knowledge of literature. I had friends who were reading lit theory and feminist critiques just for kicks, and here I was struggling to get through a #4 NY Times Bestseller. Don’t get me wrong, I still love reading. But after reading thirty-two books the previous semester, I was tired.

So when I found out I was going to have another thirty-two books to read this semester, I was a little upset. I loved reading, but I was burnt out, and I wanted to find that passion again.

Jim McCarthy wrote a short post on the Dystl & Goderich Library Management website about being tired of reading. While he is a professional who reads and edits for a living, he admits that “when it’s Thursday night, and you just want to eat Thai food and watch Project Runway, but you look at your Kindle and see 17 manuscripts waiting to be read, it can be kind of a bummer.” His solution is to, naturally, read more books—books that inspire him and allow him to clear his head.

Maybe this semester, when I’m sick of reading lit theory and Shakespeare plays, I will take back up my mother’s “reading time” to bring back my love affair with reading.