Monthly Archives: November 2014

Autobiographical Writing–Fact or Fiction?

Edan Lepucki recently raised a question on  on The Millions that I personally think about a lot. He asked, “If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me?” More specifically, I wonder if the author would have anything interesting to say about me or whether she would just pass me off as the girl the heroine sits next to in Psychology 101. This question is complicated even more when writing an autobiography—how do you portray your family members, friends, and more importantly yourself? How do you address this question if you’re the author?

A similar topic was raised at an honors conference I attended two years ago, where a student talked about her experience writing her own autobiography. She divulged that her publisher forced her to add information that would link together her story—a kind of common thread that would pull throughout her whole story. Even though she didn’t necessarily experience this one recurring theme, it made for a better piece of literature.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the perennially popular Little House on the Prairie series, wrote a biography that is just now getting published, and, according to , “it contains stories omitted from her novels, tales that Wilder herself felt ‘would not be appropriate’ for children.” The article addresses her portrayal of her father, lovingly referred to as “Pa” in her novels, and how he was “romanticized and idealized” in the series. Her autobiographical books needed a constant father figure that was a contrast to the harsh experiences of life on the prairie, so his character became what she needed him to be.

I personally find it hard to write stories that aren’t at least in some part biographical; it’s difficult for me to write about things I haven’t experienced. I appreciate honest writing, and my own writing comes across stale if I write about something that I know nothing about. But sometimes when I look back on the twenty Microsoft Word documents that contain snippets of stories that were never finished, the situations seems foreign to me. I reread the bits of a story I wrote based on a date and think, “Did that really happen, or did I add that for some unknown reason?” Even looking back on my own stories seems unfamiliar and otherworldly at times.

No matter what you’re writing, it’s hard to separate the autobiographical from the story you have imagined in your head—the story where the guy wears a nice-fitting suit to the date instead of cargo shorts and a t-shirt—but that’s the beauty and purpose of writing. Writing allows us to express or vent our feelings about situations that did happen but also to reimagine them into something that gives us a little bit of control in a world that gives us none.

–Hannah Osborne
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Banned Books, the Grimm Brothers, and Kim Kardashian

It’s always a crushing moment when you realize stories from your childhood aren’t what they seemed. Take Disney princess movies, for example. I remember reading The Little Mermaid for the first time and being horrified by the graphic imagery that the animated version so kindly overlooked. It all seems so romantic in the cartoon—a young girl gives up her voice to be with the one she loves! And he loves her back! And they live happily ever after! In the original fairy tale, though, the princess is in excruciating pain every time she walks (a side effect of her human legs) and turns into sea foam because her prince chooses to marry another. Not quite the neat, tidy story I grew up watching.

Within the past week, it was announced that Grimm’s fairy tales were being revamped—or, rather, retold. The stories went through several edits by the Grimm brothers, eventually resulting in the semi-tame stories we recognize now. The originals, however, have more “gruesome additions” but were toned down to “[reflect] sociologically a condition that exited during their lifetime,” as Jack Zipes was quoted in an article about the Grimm restoration. He notes that the brothers edited the stories to reflect Christian values and societal norms, so the latter versions were more culturally accepted.

Thinking about stories being censored is scary. Not just fairy tales and Disney movies—actual books where authors are trying to make a statement about something bigger than themselves. Normally, censorship is not the first thought on our minds, but there is a week dedicated to banned books (September 21-27, 2014) and an entire website devoted to the opposing of censorship in the media. It’s easy to wholeheartedly vouch for free speech in print—someone is making a statement! Someone is speaking his mind! We are America and we are free!

However, in 2013 alone, the there were 307 books that were banned or challenged to be banned, according to the American Library Association (ALA). Books from every genre were challenged—from Captain Underpants to Fifty Shades of Grey to The Hunger Games. The ALA “receives reports from libraries, schools, and the media on attempts to ban books in communities across the country.” Parents are the most likely to attempt to ban books because of inappropriate content, but any group of people can challenge books. According to the ALA, groups attempt to ban books because they violate their own personal beliefs. As a society, we like to think we’re open minded, but this exhaustive list of banned books suggests otherwise.

Also take into consideration the recent nearly nude pictures of Kim Kardashian featured on Papermag.com. Whether or not you agree with the photo shoot that was designed to “break the Internet,” it too raises questions about censorship. How far is the media willing to go to censor books, pictures, and breaking news to fit one group of people’s ideals? The Grimm brothers did it, outraged parents do it, and just about every media or publishing outlet is guilty of the same kind of censorship.

Who ever said Kim Kardashian didn’t inspire any thought-provoking articles?

–Hannah Osborne

Interpretation is Everything

The literature world (and general pop culture world, for that matter) was hit this past week with information from Lena Dunham’s new book, Not That Kind of Girl. Even if you haven’t read her book, headlines have been filled with scathing phrases such as “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister” and “Lena Dunham: Sexual Abuse or Sexual Exploration?”. I’m not writing this blog post to start a debate on whether or not Dunham crossed some invisible cultural line—I’m writing to point out that our words have power.

This past week at EIU, Dr. Brian McGrath gave three separate talks concerning politics and poetry. One of the articles he touched on besides his own was “Animation, Apostrophe, and Abortion” by Barbara Johnson. What McGrath and Johnson have in common is this: both argue that language and word choice affect our understanding of political moves, and both use poetry as support for their arguments.

Dunham isn’t writing poetry, and she certainly wasn’t reading McGrath or Johnson this past week like I was, but the way she framed her story negatively impacted a lot of people. Reading the comments on an article is always risky, but I ventured deep into the recesses of the comment section to see what people were identifying as the problems they had with Dunham’s story. Many indicated that it was Dunham comparing herself to a “sexual predator” that stopped them from viewing Dunham’s experience in a larger context, while others problematized her phrase that this so-called sexual assault was “in the spectrum of things I did.” Others expressed concern that if Dunham were male, the story would have been received with outrage instead of comments claiming, “she didn’t know what she was doing.”

How authors—and human beings in general—frame their stories is everything, and the words that are used affect our understanding of the story and the impression it has on us as readers and fellow human beings. Dunham’s perceived nonchalant-ness in her writing is what bothered many people in the ever-feared comments section, and perhaps that’s part of the reason there has been such an overwhelming response to this passage from her book. Dunham has responded (see her statement in this article from The Guardian), but that hasn’t calmed people down.

The bottom line is this: Language affects us. Words affect us. Writing affects us. It inspires every emotion on the spectrum of feeling. So whether we’re outraged or empowered by words, it’s important to remember that everyone interprets everything differently.

–Hannah Osborne

Is Dumbledore Really Gay?

Every time J.K. Rowling releases new information about characters in her eternally popular Harry Potter series, an uproar occurs.

There’s been quite a few revelations from Rowling after the series had ended that have caused either disturbance or celebration in the Harry Potter fandom. The announcement that Dumbledore was gay was received with general acceptance and exclamations of “I knew it!”, but the declaration that Rowling wanted Hermione to end up with Harry instead of Ron caused a division among fans. Her newest announcements about the series have been less controversial but have still inspired fans to reread the books to potentially catch small details originally overlooked about the magical professors or students. (See our previous blog post on rereading to see the value in reading again and again)

On Halloween, Rowling released a few more facts about the series on her website Pottermore, an interactive fan site that connects fans, Rowling, and the books. You have to have an account to see Rowling’s actual post, but this Washington Post article nicely summarizes what she wrote. She announced that Dolores Umbridge, a notoriously evil professor, was half-muggle (half-human, half-wizard/witch, for those of you who aren’t avid Potter fans) and was based off of a real person. This announcement isn’t quite as controversial as some of her others, but it still sparks debate.

Is Rowling telling the truth, though? Did she really conceive the character of Umbridge as half-muggle? I’m playing the devil’s advocate here, but she could have made Umbridge half-muggle after the series ended, or she could have made Dumbledore gay after the books were finished. It’s hard to tell what an author intended when she wrote the books or what she imposed on the characters after they were already created.

Of course there’s a debate on whether or not the characters can actually be controlled by the author or whether the author becomes controlled by them (See Erica Jong’s quote in A Bookshelf of Our Own: Works That Changed Women’s Lives where she claims “My deepest hunch as a novelist was to stick with what the character of Isadora would really do under the circumstances.”) Still, it seems that Rowling is, at least partially, adding new characteristics to characters after their stories have been completed. As a longtime Harry Potter fan, I’m always excited to get new information about the characters that I grew up with, but I can’t help but wonder what Harry, Hermione, and Ron would have to say about this.