Category Archives: Postmodernism

Words with Shadows

I do a lot of traveling and really enjoy it. Often, when I tell friends that I’m heading for the airport, they offer a send-off like “Be careful!” or “Have a safe trip, Jean.”

I know I’m supposed to feel reassured, as if a wish for safety could protect me from harm. But I always feel a shudder of nervousness instead. The word “safe” summons up all the things that can go wrong on a trip: kidnapping, a downed plane, a false arrest. My own preferred sendoff when friends are traveling is “Have fun!”

Many words come equipped with shadows. “There’s nothing to worry about” is something that people say only when a situation really is worrisome. “You can count on me” is a reminder that the person I’m depending on might bail out.

I’m remembering the look of panic on my husband’s face one time when we were leaving for a trip and I mentioned a phone call I’d made to our credit card company. “There won’t be any problem paying for our room,” I blithely told him. Big  mistake. He couldn’t relax until the desk clerk gave us our room key many hours later.

Shadows tend to make their appearance when we least expect them. Think of a parent who’s trying to warn a teenager about the perils of experimenting with drugs and sex. Hidden within your warnings is an ominous message: Doing these things is a possibility for you.

The same goes for religious parents trying to share their faith: implicit in their testimony is the possibility of not believing. And the same principle applies to atheists explaining why they don’t believe in a deity: their words are creating the very concept they’re trying to inoculate their children against.

 *  *  *  *  *

Today I’m going to talk about two words that can cast dark shadows: renewal and community. My point is not – of course – that you should avoid these useful words. What I’m hoping is to raise your awareness of the subtle and mysterious ways that words can complicate our lives.

Many years ago I was a member of a spiritual group that astounded me with its warmth and fervor…until things started to go wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t fit in. It was mystifying: I’d never had trouble making friends before, and no one seemed to know what was wrong.

I finally decided that this particular group of people needed to rethink the way they practiced their faith, and I didn’t last long there. But there was always a nagging feeling that I had missed something important.

Much later I realized that shadow words were causing many of the problems.

Many members had attended a three-day spiritual workshop that had an amazing impact on the participants: people positively glowed when they came back. But here’s the thing: the words that shaped those workshops – renewal and community – had shadows that undermined the spiritual goals of love and unity.

Think about renewal. You renew library books and insurance policies because they’re expiring or going out of date. So a group that emphasizes renewal risks sorting its members into two categories. One contingent is refreshed, restored, and renewed. The other contingent (people like me – sigh) is stale, out of date, and expiring.

Another word that defined those workshops was community, and it too had a dark shadow: isolation, alienation, and loneliness. A workshop that creates its own community risks leaving everyone else shivering in the cold.

* * * * *

You may be wondering if there’s a way to avoid those splits. I think the answer is yes – if you’re aware of the shadows lurking nearby. Those workshop participants could have been reminded that renewal and community are flexible terms. Everyone feels spiritually stale sometimes, and we all know the how it feels to be cut off and disconnected from other people.

Another possibility is to search for a word with a less threatening shadow.  Instead of a renewal weekend, you could plan a retreat. Now your workshop is offering a respite for anyone who’s busy, preoccupied, distracted, rushed, or overworked. Who today doesn’t fall into that category?

My larger point, of course, is that we all need to pay close attention to our word choices. Language (as I never tire of explaining!) is not the inert, lifeless tool we often take it to be. Words have mysterious powers and hidden messages. Start listening for the shadows  that travel with expressions we use every day: “Be safe.” “No problem!” “Don’t worry.” “Trust me.” “My feelings for you will never change.” Uh-oh….


Diction Mistakes and Gobbledygook

Many people think of language as kind of a label maker. The more labels (words) you know, the more successful you’re likely to be. I’ve known people who always carried a dictionary with them.

Certainly those people were on to something important. A friend of mine who was a career counselor told me that a high score on a vocabulary test is one of the most reliable predictors of future success.

But language is much more than a label maker. It’s a critical thinking tool that sorts and classifies everything we know, think about, and experience. A person with a large vocabulary can make subtle distinctions that lead to a more precise understanding of the world around us. The results are better thinking habits and wiser decisions.

Great writers (of course I’m thinking about Bernard Shaw!) are masters at using language to challenge readers and theatergoers to think more deeply about concepts we assume we understand – but probably don’t.

Think for a moment about the difference between grammar and diction. Many people (even some English teachers I’ve known) always lump them together. But diction (defined as “word choice”) has nothing to do with grammar (the deep structure of language).

What do you call the hot caffeinated beverage that many people drink with their breakfast? Answers might include “java,” “joe,” “cuppa,” and “coffee.” You probably use one word from that list most of the time. The same is true of children’s games (“hopscotch” or “potsy”?), money (“currency” or “bucks”?), sleep (“catch some Z’s” or “crash”?) – and countless other everyday words.

Those preferences have nothing to do with grammar. In fact many of the writing problems that English instructors and editors shake their heads over have nothing to do with grammar. Examples include clumsy sentences (“He expressed that he had a hope for a continuing friendship of a non-romantic nature”) and colloquialisms (“ain’t,” “cuss”).

If an instructor or editor returns your work heavily marked with a red pen, don’t assume that you need a course in formal grammar. The real problem could be diction errors – and diagramming sentences and doing workbook exercises won’t solve it.

Here’s some advice for you:

  • Take that feedback seriously: study it, ask for explanations, and learn as much as you can from it
  • Read, read, read – you’ll effortlessly absorb some of the writing practices of great authors
  • Ask a trusted friend to help you identify and correct diction problems in your conversation 
  • Aim for an easy and natural style in your writing

I’m going to take a minute or two to expand that last point (and this is especially for high school and college students). I’m often asked to help young people with homework and college application essays. These are students who study hard and do well in their academic studies.

But at least half the time what I’m asked to read is pretentious gobbledygook. Mind you, these are young men and women who speak with perfect clarity and impressive intelligence. But put a pen in their hands, or put them in front of a computer, and – OMG!

If you have an instructor who berates you endlessly about your writing, try putting your ideas into simple, straightforward sentences. Then show the result to your instructor and ask for suggestions about the next step. Very likely you’ll discover that using your own voice and choosing everyday words (not, of course, slang!) will work perfectly well.

Do me the favor of experimenting with my exhortations. (Translation: please try it!)label maker



In my previous post, I used a funeral from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to make a point about language: sometimes conciseness isn’t the answer.

Today I want to focus your attention on something else – an apparently unimportant detail about that funeral. Ashley Wilkes was able to recite the Episcopal graveside service from memory because it was used at the funerals of deceased slaves. I’m going to use that detail to make a point about deconstruction.

Few Americans – alas – have the patience to work their way through the dense and difficult writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who coined that term. In the US, deconstruction is often dismissed as a silly verbal pastime.

Admirers of Derrida (I’m one) have a different view. We’re interested in “deconstructing” (taking apart) a written work to uncover its gaps and contradictions. In Derrida’s view, seemingly minor details can lead us to new depths of meaning.

 *  *  *  *  *

Gone with the Wind never actually shows us a slave’s funeral – 0r, for that matter, any details about the everyday lives of Tara’s slaves. We never get to see where the slaves live, what they eat, or how they rear their children. The slaves in Gone with the Wind always play supporting roles in the lives of Scarlett O’Hara and her family, friends, and suitors.

So: were slaves given a funeral similar to Gerald’s? Who made the decision to use an Episcopal graveside service – and why? Who planned those funerals and presided over them? How did mourners position themselves at the graveside?

Answering those questions will help us see – vividly and powerfully – how cruelly the institution of slavery robbed African-Americans of even the simplest kind of human dignity: the right to choose how you bury your dead. Even though Mitchell was careful to shield readers from reminders about the realities of slavery, hints found their way into her novel – if we take the time to look for them and think about them.

 *  *  *  *  *

Despite its gaps and bias, Gone with the Wind is a fascinating novel. (You can probably tell I’ve been through all 960 pages many times.) No novel – or any other written work, for that matter – can depict life in all its complexity. The surprise is that the truths we try to suppress will always find their way into a written work – if we have the patience to look for them.

Careful attention to details will help us find answers to some essential questions: Is there a constituency that has been denied a voice? (Think of all the writers from the past who treated women, servants, workers, and minorities as if they were invisible.) Have any important incidents or events been omitted? (Gone with the Wind glosses over the first three years of Reconstruction, when the South missed its chance to right some of its past wrongs.)

Up to now I’ve been talking about a more attentive way to read a novel or nonfiction book. Is there a takeaway for us writers? Yes. We need to keep a lookout for our own gaps and omissions. The questions I just raised about constituencies that have been silenced and events that have been omitted can be good starting points, especially for writers interested in memoirs and fiction.

Perhaps the most important question for writers is whether “thoughtful and intelligent” has to mean “heavy-handed and boring.” If (as I believe) the answer is no, then we have to ask another question: what are the best strategies for writers to attain their goals?

More about all of this in my next post.

Jacques Derrida

                        Jacques Derrida


Problem Sentences

Think about a paintbrush. It’s a tool, like a screwdriver – a lifeless object that gets its power from the person holding it. In gifted hands, a paintbrush can create amazing works of art. But without a human hand, the paintbrush just lies there, powerless and inert.

Artist's paintbrush

Language is a different kind of tool. Words can take on a life of their own hours, days, months – even years after they were spoken or written down.

Someone unearths an old speech or memo, and a promising career comes to an end. An overheard conversation wrecks a long friendship. A clumsy sentence destroys a promising business proposal. A typo on a resume aborts a job offer. Or…to give you an everyday example…someone orders a pizza with peppers and gets a pepperoni pizza instead. (That has happened to Charlie and me more than once.)

People tend to underestimate the power of language. When something goes wrong, we call it human error, carelessness, or incompetence. We mistakenly believe that language is completely logical and rational. If you memorize the parts of speech, learn how to diagram a sentence, and master the rules of syntax, you can exercise total control over language.

The truth is that language often finds a way to escape from our curbs, restraints, and intentions. At least that’s what postmodern language experts tell us, and I think they’re right.

Today I’m going to talk about several sentences that seem slippery to me. Somehow they’ve managed to escape the conventional language principles you and I were taught in school.

Let’s start with this pair of sentences. They seem innocent enough, but….

  1. If you want to take the lower bunk, I’ll sleep in the upper one.

2. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, we have a spare bedroom.

A grammarian might say these are conditional sentences. The first half of the first sentence – your choice of a lower or upper bunk – determines what happens in the second half – the place where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Clear and simple, right?

But take a look at the second sentence. It’s similar to the first one (an adverbial clause starting with if, followed by an independent clause). But the first half of the sentence doesn’t determine the second half. That spare bedroom will be there even if you’re not looking for a place to spend the night.

Can we still call it a conditional sentence? And if put it into a different category, how can we justify that? There’s no syntactical difference between Sentence #2 and Sentence #1.

And what about this sentence?

If you need a ride home, I’ll be at the train station at 6:15.

Talk about slippery! The sentence could mean I’ll come to the station only if you need a ride. That would fit the definition of a conditional sentence.

But the sentence could also mean I’ll be at the station whether you need a ride or not. For example, maybe I’m planning to pick up another passenger at 6:15. In that case, it wouldn’t be a conditional sentence any more. But then what would we call it? And how can we justify placing it in a different grammatical category when none of the words and punctuation have changed?

 *  *  *  *  *

When my husband was writing one of his gardening columns last week, he came up with something like this:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least to a degree the average person would notice.

I thought the second sentence might confuse some readers. After some discussion, Charlie and I came up with this revision:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least not to a degree the average person would notice.

Now the meaning is perfectly clear. But did you notice what happened? We added the word not – yet the meaning of the sentence stayed the same. That can’t be, can it? Shouldn’t adding not completely change the meaning?

I do like apple pie.

I do not like apple pie.

OK, one more example – and this one is just for fun. I can’t resist including this delightful sentence pair I saw on a chalkboard one day:

Time flies like an eagle.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Ah, language!



Etaoin Shrdlu

Today I learned something new about journalism. According to a recent article in the New York Times, reporters sometimes use nonsense words and expressions to mark unfinished parts of articles they’re writing. For example, a busy reporter might realize that he needs a fact or statistic for an article he’s writing. Instead of stopping to look up the information, he decides to finish drafting the article. He types in TK – meaning “to come” – as a reminder to himself, and then he keeps writing.

Or – something that used to happen before newspapers modernized their typesetting practices – a reporter discovers a mistake in a piece she’s been writing. Because of the peculiar way newspaper type used to be set, she can’t fix it herself. She types in the nonsense words Etaoin shrdlu as a signal that the printer needs to look for the problem and fix it.

But sometimes those signals are overlooked and find their way into a printed article. Readers who come across a TK or Etaoin shrdlu are – obviously – going to be confused. Huh? What’s that about?

I’ve made similar boo-boos myself – for example, putting a reminder to myself into the subject line of a blog post, and then forgetting to remove it before I clicked PUBLISH.

And now you’re probably expecting a reminder from me about the importance of slowing down and carefully proofreading what you’ve written.

Or maybe – if you’re a regular visitor to my blog – you know that I try to avoid posting obvious advice, and I’m going to swerve off in an unexpected direction. (Good for you – you’ve hit the jackpot!)

What I want to tell you today is that language has an unlimited supply of tricks and pitfalls for sabotaging your earnest efforts to do quality writing.

After I read the New York Times article about TK and Etaoin shrdlu, I remembered something that happened to a close friend (now deceased, sadly) who wrote religious books for young readers. Joan wanted to write a book about Teresa of Avila, a dynamic 16th-century woman whose spiritual writings are still popular today.

Joan sent a letter to her publisher to see if they were interested in a young people’s biography of St. Teresa. But Joan (a notoriously bad speller) made an error in her letter, asking if the publisher was interested in a book about St. Theresa. Back came a letter saying the company would be delighted to have a book for young people about Therese of Lisieux, a saint Joan was not even slightly interested in.

Common sense (and the opportunity to write another book and make some money) won the day, and Joan really did write that book about St. Therese. (It’s a fine book and still in print!) But Joan never got a shot at the book she really wanted to write.


How many writing instructors have you heard droning on and on about the importance of checking your work for errors? How many literature instructors have lectured endlessly about trying to uncover the theme in a novel, or short story, or poem – or analyzing the structure – or explicating the historical context?

All of those activities are useful and important. But wouldn’t English be a far more exciting subject if we sometimes approached it from the perspective of language – that untamed force that resists our mightiest attempts to control it?

My life changed – that is no exaggeration – when one of my professors casually mentioned that he saw Bernard Shaw as a writer “struggling with language.” Those three words have kept my brain busy for years, and there’s no end in sight.

How about you? Do you ever struggle with language – or ponder how a particular writer battled against this wonderfully slippery communication tool of ours? It’s a project I heartily recommend to you!



What’s a “Species”?

Sometimes when the topic of postmodernism comes up, I get a disdainful look. “It’s a fad.” “It’s just a word game.” “Isn’t it time you moved on?”


Postmodernism – I insist – is important, useful, and here to stay. I am happy to report – hooray! – that I just came across an article that backs me up. It never mentions postmodernism – the article is actually about science. But the language principles are right there, if you look for them.

The article is from the Washington Post: “Our biological concept of a ‘species’ is a mess.”  Taxonomy – the scientific system for classifying living things – is much more arbitrary and prone to errors than we might expect: it’s a “mushy, complicated concept.”

If you – like me – weren’t terribly good at science in school, you probably assume that the way we classify plants and animals is based on fact. A dog is different from a cat. A daisy is different from a potato.

But classifications aren’t always so obvious. Taxonomy is based on thinking – and because humans are doing the classifications, disagreements and errors are inevitable. Some living things have odd quirks that make them difficult to sort: do they belong in this category – or that one?

This Washington Post article explains that “Science is rarely the rigid discipline we often think it is. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re defining the way we talk about these things as we go.”

The article is fun to read (here’s the link again:…and it mirrors exactly what language theorists have been saying: The way we name things is – like taxonomy – arbitrary, confusing, and sometimes based on errors.

Here’s an everyday example: the word “upset,” as in “I was upset all day after I talked to Jimmy’s teacher.” Naming your feeling upset won’t be helpful when you’re trying to deal with Jimmy’s problem. You’re putting your feeling into such a broad category that you can’t do much with it.

Suppose, though, you changed upset to something more specific: indignant (with Jimmy, or the teacher, or the school), guilty (because you haven’t been dealing with some important issues with Jimmy), worried (because the problems might affect his future), scared (because the school intimidates you)…you get the idea. Once you’ve named the feeling, you have something to work with.

Right now I’m working on an article about Shaw’s play Major Barbara. One of Shaw’s goals was to prod audiences to have a different reaction to the word “poverty.” You could say he was trying to reclassify it – to move it from the categories of “social problems” and “human weaknesses” to a new category: “crimes.”

I often think about a professor of mine who used to say that the act of naming is one of the most important things that we do. Over the years I have gradually begun to understand what he was talking about – and to agree with him.



How Many Ways Can You Tell a Story?

I taught in a state prison for three years, so of course I wanted to read a December 12 article in The New Yorker about former inmates who are pursuing college degrees at U.C. Berkeley. It’s a remarkable story about serious criminals who have dramatically turned their lives around.

The article brought back many memories of my own work with offenders. But it also started me thinking about…writing. More specifically, I was reminded of Ann Berthoff’s assertion that writing is about “making meaning.”

The ex-cons in the New Yorker article insisted that they don’t deserve credit for their success. They worried that amazing-success-against-all-odds stories about individual inmates might soften the harsh truths about crime and prisons in the US: That the system is inherently racist and tends to drive criminals ever deeper into despair, hopelessness, and further criminal behavior.

Here’s how one of the ex-cons explained it: “When someone reads a story about someone who made good—the redemption narrative—what that does is that lets society off the hook. Because we can say, Oh, look, it works! The system isn’t racist.”

To put it differently: The rare exception who bucks the system and makes a success of his life is paraded around as proof that prisons are doing a great job of rehabilitating lawbreakers. Which they’re not, according to the ex-cons at Berkeley.

What I want to do right now is look at a phrase that ex-con used: “redemption narrative.” We tend to believe that the meaning of a story is embedded in the events. A story can be told only one way. It really happened.

Or did it?

One of the important tenets of our postmodern era is the discovery that we create the meaning of our stories. Psychology has made wide use of this principle. If you seek counseling, very likely you’ll be encouraged to reframe your stories. Your miserable childhood, for example, may turn out to be the impetus that helped you figure out a better way to rear your own children. A seemingly beautiful love story might turn into a narrative of control and manipulation.

Back in August The New Yorker published another article that challenges a “redemption narrative”: The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad.

During the Civil War era, many brave people (Harriet Tubman is the most famous example) faced considerable risk to help slaves escape to freedom. The system of guides, trails, and hiding places was called the Underground Railroad, and it has been receiving much attention of late, with two recent novels and a TV series.

Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” on the Underground Railroad set a shining example for more ordinary mortals like you and me. But some historians are expressing concern about the fictionalized accounts that are so popular right now. Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the New Yorker article, cites numerous dangers.

One is that the “atrocities of slavery” tend to be attributed to “individual pathology” rather than widespread moral apathy. Schulz also discusses fears that these heroic stories will “assuage our conscience, distract us from tragedy with thrilling adventures, give us a comparatively comfortable place to rest in a profoundly uncomfortable past.”

Now let’s turn our attention to our own stories and our own writing projects. You – reading this – have stories to tell and wisdom to share. What meanings are you assigning to your stories – and are you sure they’re the meanings you want?

I encourage you to spend some time thinking about your favorite short stories, plays, novels, movies, memoirs – everything that contains a story. Dig deep. Analyze. Do your favorite authors ever tell their stories from an unexpected perspective? How do they do it, and what is the result?

Here’s a seasonal example. Every year I watch Alastair Sim’s masterful performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 film A Christmas Carol. Talk about a “redemption narrative”!

But when you watch the film (especially if you’ve seen it more than 50 times, as I have), something else emerges. One surprise is that the spiritual meaning of Christmas plays a much smaller part in the movie than you might expect. Far more prominent is its critique of England’s (and perhaps our) social problems.

Even more astonishing are the changes in the way we feel about Ebenezer Scrooge. Despite his stubbornness and meanness, we begin to like him and care about him, even before his Christmas-morning conversion.

To put it another way: Perhaps it is we – not Ebenezer – who need redeeming – who need to learn a new way to relate to people who seem inherently selfish and unlikable.

Great writers tend to prefer – even insist on – a fresh retelling of their stories. Can you follow their example? Try it!



Imaginary or Real?

Today’s post is a follow-up to something I said in a recent post about “gaslighting” (manipulating people into questioning their sanity): “If you’re a student of postmodernism, you know that naming these forms of manipulation empowers victims to fight back.”

My purpose today is to draw a connection between gaslighting and Jacques Derrida’s insistence that “there is nothing outside the text.” That quotation from his book Of Grammatology has often been used to show that deconstruction is a silly and irrelevant word game. Postmodern thinkers supposedly believe that the world is just a figment of our imagination.

I’m going to argue that deconstruction is both serious and relevant. Our useful term “gaslighting” is a perfect example.

What Derrida actually said (remember that he was writing in French!) was “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texts). We can’t get away from language because we need words to process our experiences.

Even people who don’t have access to language (think of Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan became her teacher) have a system of symbols that serve as words. (For example, Keller used to stroke her face as a sign for “mother.”)

Suddenly Derrida doesn’t seem so nutty!

But there’s more. An important postmodern dictum is that if something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. You’re allowed to be skeptical about that – but I’m asking you to at least consider what it means.

Gaslighting is a perfect example. In the original Gas Light play (thanks, Jenna!), Bella Manningham thinks she’s going crazy. The truth, though, is that her husband Jack is manipulating events to make her distrust her perceptions and thoughts. She is powerless.

Fast forward to a modern-day woman or man – “Dana” – who’s being manipulated in the same way by a romantic partner, spouse, family member, or boss. Dana – like Bella Manningham – is powerless.

But then Dana talks to a therapist who explains the term “gaslighting.” Dana begins to see a pattern: Every thought, word, and action has been discounted by the person in power: “You’re overreacting. “You’re hysterical.” “You’re confused.” Once Dana recognizes the pattern and starts looking for other ways to respond, the game is over.

The same principle applies to many psychological issues. There’s no exit ramp when you’re in the grip of a feeling. It engulfs you. But find a name for what you’re feeling – depression or anxiety, for example – and you can put some distance between the disorder and yourself. Once you find a new vantage point, everything begins to look different.

Talk to any parent, and they’ll say they often tell their children to “Use your words!” What they’re really teaching children is that if you name the problem or feeling, you can classify it and start to deal with it.

Here’s a sad example: the lack of a name is one major reason sexual abuse is so devastating to children. Because they can’t process what has happened to them, the abuse falls into the unconscious and runs rampant, hidden underground where no one can see what it’s doing. But if we teach children that the problem has a name, they can classify it and start finding their way back to health.

I’m also thinking about Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique and its exposure of “the problem that has no name.” Women’s lives were never the same again after Friedan published her book.

Words are more than just a label that we slap on things. They organize and interpret our existence. Let’s be grateful for the gift of language – and for the thinkers who are trying to pull back the curtains on its mysterious inner workings.

A Gas Light

              Gas Light



James Hillman

Four big writing projects are looming. Don’t feel sorry for me: I’m having fun with them. But to escape from the pressure this weekend, I did some recreational reading that had nothing to do with the tasks ahead.

On Saturday I took a break to reread (as I thought) the New York Times obituary of James Hillman, a psychologist and postmodern writer who…quite simply…transformed my life and my brain. Hillman died in October 2011, and I was shaken by his death, even though he was 85 and I’d known he was ill.

The obituary mentioned that a writer named Dick Russell was working on a two-volume biography of Hillman, with Part I due in two years. Let’s see: 2011 + 2 = 2013. How did it happen that a book certain to rock my universe was published three years ago without my knowing about it?

Surely I’d read that obituary back in 2011 when Hillman died. I’m such a maniac that I’ve read just about everything Hillman published. How did I forget that a biography was forthcoming? Ten minutes after I’d read the obituary, I had the Kindle edition of The Life and Ideas of James Hillman: Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist loaded on to my ASUS Transformer. Do you want to guess how I spent the rest of the weekend?

Please note that I’m not encouraging you to read the biography, which is a book that only a Hillman fanatic could love. I’m finding it tough going. Here’s a typical Hillman quote from the biography: “Analysis is the result of the decline in collective culture….It becomes healing and spiritual discipline when it is an individual phenomenon in the protestant model of I, ‘ego,’ who will work on transformation and development and healing.”

Do you know what that’s all about? I don’t.

So – why has Hillman been so important to me? Lots of reasons.

I first came across Hillman’s name back in 1987 when I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation. After an exhilarating start, I was finding the going almost impossibly difficult. I had fallen into a severe depression, mixed with fears that I might be impossibly crazy and would never get better. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t, and I did.)

While I was grappling with this mess, I came across an intriguing paragraph from a book called Insearchby a writer I’d never heard of – James Hillman – quoted in another book. Something stirred in my gut, and I started checking libraries.  I was lucky enough to find a copy of Insearch in a library in the next town. (Among other problems, my husband and I were so broke that I couldn’t afford to buy any books.) I read Insearch three times through without stopping. What I experienced on almost every page was a voice saying, “You’re not crazy.”

I wish I’d taken notes while I was reading. I have no idea what points Hillman was making that had such a powerful impact on me. What I do know is that I slowly started finding my way back.

I’ve since learned that most doctoral students go through a similar experience, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something archetypal – something far bigger than the typical stresses of graduate school – that causes those crises.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most important lessons I learned from James Hillman: Our problems aren’t always personal. They don’t always hark back to a dysfunctional childhood. They’re not always caused by character defects or relationship problems. Large, mysterious forces swirl within us and outside us, and sometimes we have to fight for our lives to come to terms with them.

Thank you for that, James Hillman.

Here’s another example. In 1992 I was all set to travel to a Shaw conference – my first – to be part of a panel of New Shaw Scholars. I had written a paper about Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that I considered (and still do) the proudest achievement of my life. I had a suitcase packed, and an attractive outfit and makeup ready to go, and an appointment to get my hair done….

I was diagnosed with shingles in my left eye less than a week before my flight to Virginia for the conference. I was a mess – an angry rash on my forehead, an eye patch, and persistent headaches and exhaustion. My bewildered doctor gave me permission to go to the conference anyway. (To his everlasting credit, he never said, “Are you nuts?” and over months of treatment he saved my vision in that eye.)

I presented my paper, attended every session of the conference, flew back home – and spent the next month lying in bed in a darkened room.

Common sense would diagnose overwork (I was juggling an impossible schedule at the time) and overexcitement. But Hillman, I think, would say that the academic gods had thrown down a challenge: Proving that I was worthy to claim a serious place in the world of scholarship. (I was a community college English professor, and people of my ilk didn’t do serious academic work.)

I shook my fist at the gods and dragged myself to the airport.

I hope that everyone who goes through a dark time (and that’s roughly 100% of the human race) is able to find the help they need, just as I did. But I want to veer off in another direction here.

James Hillman knew how to make meaning. I have never – after hours and hours spent reading his books – come across a trivial or banal idea. It’s true that I sometimes hold my head in dismay and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. But that’s a small price to pay for the all exciting discoveries I’ve made while reading his books.

Do you aim for that kind of excitement when you write?

James Hillman


Struggling with Language

I subscribe to a daily electronic newsletter called Today in Literature. Each issue features several literary events related to the date. The stories are warm, revealing, and sometimes funny – and a bonus is that I’ve learned a lot about literature that wasn’t covered in my academic programs.

A recent issue commemorated the publication of Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust in 1939. West chose the Hollywood film industry as his subject, and his novel is widely hailed as a searing critique of popular culture.

One point in the article particularly caught my eye. West intended to write a novel along the lines of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath…”but when he sat down at the typewriter, everything came out as satire.”

West was such a superb novelist that The Day of the Locust is listed in the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the Century. Why wasn’t he able to write the novel he wanted?

The common-sense explanation is that West  – despite his gifts – was not a strong enough writer to complete the task. But there’s another possible explanation: West was struggling with language, and he came out on the losing side.

Crazy as it sounds, that’s the explanation I’m going with. And I’m going to push it further to argue that everyone who sits down to write – from high-school freshmen to Nobel Prize winners – sometimes gets caught up in that struggle.

When someone writes a weak paper or an unpublishable book or article, we usually diagnose immaturity or a lack of skill, experience, or discipline. We think of language as a tool, like a hammer or screwdriver. When something goes wrong with the writing process, it’s obviously our fault: Tools are lifeless and inert.

I’m going to argue otherwise. One of the most important insights from postmodernism is that language has powers of its own, along with a strong will that can resist our fiercest efforts to keep it under control.

I’ve often begun a writing task with a clear idea of what I wanted to write – only to see it wander off into parts unknown, despite my best efforts to steer it. Writers face this struggle all the time, and you can see the evidence in the unfinished projects that clutter our hard drives.

I want to focus on this problem today because I think we often misdiagnose our writing problems, blaming ourselves (or, if we’re English instructors, our students) for a problem that’s much bigger than we are.

As evidence, I’m going to cite a therapeutic tool favored by many psychologists: Freewriting about a problem.

A friend sought professional help in shoring up a foundering relationship. Her therapist told her to fold a piece of paper and write all the positives on one side, the negatives on the other side.

My friend was furious. She was paying $100 for advice that her mother could have given her! Besides, my friend had been thinking about the pros and cons for months. The exercise was clearly a waste of time.

But the therapist insisted, and my friend folded her piece of paper and started writing. Fifteen minutes later she looked up, astonished. “I’m breaking up with him,” she told the therapist. The act of writing released so many insights that she saw clearly – for the first time – what she needed to do.

I find it useful to think of writing as a kind of archeological dig – you never know what you’re going to find. Spoken words can work the same way: How often have you been astonished to hear a new idea or fresh insight coming out of your mouth in the middle of a conversation?

But there’s a downside too. That tendency to go deeper and farther is wonderful if you’re on a search for the unknown – but it can create huge problems if you’re aiming for a sharp focus.

The next time you’re stuck in the middle of a writing task, take a moment to ask yourself whether the problem lies not with you but with the mysterious medium of language. It’s even ok to get angry for a moment or two with Cadmus, the god of writing (and a lot better than getting mad at yourself!).