Category Archives: Postmodernism

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 Insearch, by 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

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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!).

Defeated!

                                       Defeated!


 

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What’s So Bad about Writing?

Two days ago I asked you to listen to two songs (“More than Words” and “Gentle on My Mind”) to see if you could find a common theme between them. (I could have added one more – “Show Me” from My Fair Lady – but it didn’t fit another reason I wanted you to listen to the songs: to make you melt.)

Here’s my main point: All three songs convey an anti-language message. Hartford sums it up in “Gentle on My Mind” when he sings that he’s “not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line.” Love is real; words are empty. Eliza Doolittle makes the same point in “Show Me” (“Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you’re on fire, show me!”). And the Extreme musicians plead for something “More than Words” to show that “your love for me is real.”

Jacques Derrida has written at length about our cultural bias against language – a tradition that goes back at least as far as Plato. I’ve already mentioned one reason for that bias: Words lack the vitality of lived experience. There’s a good example in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

Queen_of_Hearts

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, never forget!”
“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

As time goes by, passions fade and memories grow dim. A written account of an extraordinary experience is just a shadow of what we were feeling at the time.

But you and I are writers. Are we wasting our time in pursuit of a lifeless art? I don’t think so – and I have a quotation from one of the masters to back me up. It’s from the Preface to a collection of letters between Bernard Shaw and actress Ellen Terry. They had a love affair on paper, rarely meeting face-to-face even though they both lived in London. Here’s what Shaw said about their unconventional love story:

Let those who complain that it was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.

Now I want you to recall the feelings you had when you listened to “More than Words” and “Gentle on My Mind” (or any song or poem that strikes you right in the heart). Where would we be without words to open our souls and teach us about love, beauty, and goodness?

I think Derrida is right when he talks about actions-speak-louder-than-words bias in our culture. But he’s also right when he insists on the enduring value of written words. We writers have untold opportunities to create adventures for our readers. What could be more exciting?

What are you writing about right now?

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The Vanishing Palm Tree

Friends entering our living room for the first time always ask the same question: “That palm tree – is it real?”

Chamaedorea seifrizii

               Chamaedorea seifrizii

Yes, it’s real. You have to understand that my husband loves palms, so he has to have at least one to call his own – even though we live in a small fourth-floor condo.

Actually there have been two palm trees in that spot. The first – an unusual species called Chamaedorea erumpens – was later replaced by a Chamaedorea seifrizii, a widely available species commonly called a bamboo palm.

It would be logical to assume that the first palm succumbed to a disease, or outgrew the space, or no longer matched our decor. Wrong on all three counts. In fact we don’t know precisely when the switch took place. Call it the vanishing palm tree.

OK, I’ve teased you long enough. Here’s what happened: Palm taxonomists changed the name, deciding that there never was a Chamaedorea erumpens. Palms with that name were reclassified as variations of the familiar Chamaedorea seifrizii.

Does the name of our palm tree matter? Not to Charlie and me. We think it’s beautiful and admire it daily. But if we were collectors, the name might make a huge difference. Someone who’s trying to study as many species as possible wouldn’t want to allocate money and space for a duplicate specimen, even if it’s beautiful and healthy.

Why am I writing about palm trees on a language blog? I want to introduce you to an essential postmodern language concept: Language creates our reality. When we decide that the differences between two items are significant enough to be noticed, we give them different names. Things exist – in a sense – only because we name them.

Here’s what’s even more interesting: Postmodern language theory is simply restating what scientists have known for centuries. Names organize our world for us, via the same thinking tools that taxonomists use: splitting (separating members of a category) and lumping (finding connections between things that seem to be unrelated). In fact I think you could make a case for calling Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) one of the fathers of postmodernism.

Renaming is often the result of a complex thinking process. I just read a provocative article about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic.

ADHD is a psychiatric diagnosis for children (and some adults) with persistent behavior problems. Medication can make a huge difference for these patients and the people who live and work with them. But some pediatricians are raising important questions about the way ADHD is diagnosed today: Are medical professionals overdoing it?

Sometimes it comes down to a naming issue: Where do you draw the line between a “behavior problem” and “kids just acting like kids”? Some professionals are worried that an ADHD diagnosis could result in future legal and medical problems for a group of children whose only problem is that they can’t sit still in school. [Please note that no one is denying that ADHD exists and that treatment is valuable.]

To put it differently: When we’re talking about a large number of childen, it makes a huge difference whether you lean more towards “splitting” (placing many kinds of behavior in the “psychiatric disorder” category) or towards “lumping” (assigning most childish misbehavior to the “normal” category).

The debate belongs to the professionals, and we’ll leave it to them. My point is that when we view the debate from the vantage point of language, we add another whole layer of meaning to the discussion – and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.

There’s much more to say about classifications, categories, and naming, but I just want to introduce these topics today. Here’s a project for you: Start thinking about naming. Here are two activities to get you started:

  • Criminal Justice – can you think of any behaviors that used to be labeled crimes but are now perfectly legal – and vice versa?
  • Health – can you think of any substances that used to be labeled dangerous that are now considered safe – and vice versa?

If you’re multi-lingual or multi-cultural, you have an exceptional doorway into the ways that language organizes experience. Does your first language make any distinctions that other languages ignore? And were you introduced to any new concepts when you learned a new language? (I’m thinking of the Welsh word hiraeth, the Finnish word sisu,  the Spanish word duende, and the Danish word hyggelig.)

Bottom line: Think about any great writer, and you’ll find that they used words in new ways to expand and explain human experience. Understanding the significance of names is the first step.

I’ll have more to say about this later!

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The Statue of Liberty

I’m typing this on an airplane flying from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Orlando, about 45 minutes from where I live in Central Florida. I had a wonderful time in New York – so good, in fact, that I can’t pick one event and call it the highlight.

My first priority on this trip was to see a performance of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. A secondary one was to check off yet another item on my gotta-go list of New York attractions. That one I chose this year didn’t quite get done, for a happy reason: There was so much to see at Ellis Island (former immigration station for New York) that I’ll have to go back.

Small groups of people are permitted to don hardhats and visit the decaying buildings that comprised the immigration hospital at Ellis Island. I was one of the lucky few yesterday, and it was an amazing glimpse at what our forebears went through to enter this country – and the services that were provided for them. My grandparents came through Ellis Island, and I wish – I wish – I knew what that experience had been like for them. (Everybody: Please write your memoirs. Don’t worry about punctuation or organization, and don’t try to write a besteller. Just write them down.)

But today’s real topic is the Statue of Liberty, which we passed on the ferry that took us to Ellis Island. I’ve been to Liberty Island several times to make the wobbly-legged walk up the spiraling stairs to the Crown on Lady Liberty’s head.

Her real name is Liberty Enlightening the World. She was a gift from France honoring the friendship between our countries and America’s commitment to freedom. The French, having endured their own bloody struggle for liberty, were impressed by America’s determination to allow ideas – all ideas, including the scary ones – to circulate freely. It’s still a strongly held value: No matter how bone-headed your thoughts are, no one can stop you from expressing them.

There’s a nice tie-in here with my previous post on dissemination, but I’m going to swerve in a direction you might not be expecting. Instead of talking about the importance of free speech, I want to use the Statue of Liberty as an example of Derrida’s ideas about dissemination.

As I pointed out in that earlier post, you can’t control what happens to a message once you start disseminating it. It can be misunderstood or misquoted. It might be mistranslated, shortened, or lengthened. It can fall into the wrong hands. There’s no way to predict the journey a message will take once you open your hands and allow it to fly away.

The Statue of Liberty is a perfect example of the unpredictable nature of dissemination. In 1886, when Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated in New York Harbor, it bore an intellectual messsage: Lady Liberty’s torch symbolized the quest for wisdom.

But the immigrants who passed by that statue as they made their way to Ellis Island saw something different:  A loving mother whose torch lit the way to the Golden Door. In 1903, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus was inscribed on the statue’s pedestal:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Within a few years the statue’s meaning changed yet again: Her image was emblazoned on war bonds and patriotic posters to inspire Americans to fight a treacherous enemy in two world wars.

Could her meaning change again? Of course. There’s no telling what thoughts and feelings she will inspire 100 years from now – or 50, or 10.

The same holds true for our own messages. No matter how clearly you think you stated it (think of Auguste Bartholdi and  the years he spent designing and sculpting his famous statue), there’s no telling what message will be conveyed to those who behold it. Such are the marvels – and frustrations – of our wonderful language.4066553303_dd5401d1a0_o

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Dissemination

A few years ago, the email system at the college where I was teaching went haywire. Long-deleted emails came back to life and circulated randomly throughout the system. Some found their way to the President’s computer, and embarrassed faculty and staff members had to explain past events they’d assumed were both private and forgotten.

I don’t know whether any of my emails took that journey, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they did. When email first came to the college, a wise friend told me to treat all my electronic communications as if they were public property. I was smart enough to heed his advice: no gossip, no secrets, no snide jokes.

So the point is that we should all be careful with email, right? Wrong.

Today’s topic is dissemination, a term Jacques Derrida used to describe the random – often problematic – journeys that language can take.

If you’ve studied postmodern linguistic theory, you know that many mistakes we label “human error” can actually be laid at the door of language. All behaviors involving words are risky. Wise politicians try to avoid issuing flippant statements that can surface later in an opponent’s TV ad. Professional broadcasters are taught to treat all microphones as if they were live. And many of us learned as teenagers that there’s no safe place to hide a diary.

Let’s return to that wise advice I was given when I started using email – and expand it. You’re reading this blog because you want to sharpen your writing skills. One of the most important lessons you can learn is to treat all written communication with respect. You never know when your own words will take off in an unforeseen direction:

  • someone accidentally hits “reply to all” instead of just “reply”
  • an instructor shares something you’ve written with another student or instructor
  • while you’re out of the room, someone reads a piece of paper on your desk
  • someone looks over your shoulder at your computer screen
  • an intimate letter you’ve written is passed around to other people
  • someone misses the point of a joke and accuses you of racism or sexism

Another story. One evening I went to a meeting in the office complex attached to a church. Because the speaker function on the phone at the receptionist’s desk hadn’t been turned off, everyone at the meeting heard a parishioner leave a lengthy voicemail message – intended only for the pastor – about his marital problems.

Ouch.

Of course the pastor should have leaped up and intercepted the message. Because he didn’t, I assign most of the blame for that violation of privacy to him. But it’s also true that anyone could have walked into that complex and played back the saved messages. Those things happen.

Language is powerful, that power can be used for both good and for ill, and – most important – the person actually using the language cannot control where those words go and how they’re used.

You and I constantly size up the people we meet to decide whether or not they’re trustworthy. We need to treat language with the same wariness and respect.Eavesdropping Adobe

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The Problem of Purity

Elizabeth Smart is an American activist and contributor for ABC News. At the age of 14 she was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, and forced into a sexual relationship with her kidnapper. Nine months later she was rescued.

In a 2013 speech at Johns Hopkins University, Smart made news by challenging abstinence-only sex education programs. (You can watch a clip of Smart’s talk here, and you can read more about it here.)

“Abstinence only” is a form of sex education that emphasizes waiting until marriage for sex. Abstinence was an important principle in Smart’s Mormon upbringing, and she says it was a factor – a negative one – in her captivity.

What’s especially interesting to me is the language factor – and I’ll get to that in a moment.

“I felt so dirty and filthy,” Smart said in her talk at Johns Hopkins. She remembered a religion teacher who used an analogy with chewing gum. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value.”

A postmodern theorist would say that purity contains within it the concept of impurity: Neither term makes sense without the other. If you teach young people to value the state of purity, you’re also implanting the idea that it is possible to be impure – with devastating consequences to a teenager’s confidence and self-worth.

Thankfully, few young people endure the trauma that characterized Smart’s captivity. But sexual abuse of children is an all-too-common phenomenon (some experts say that one in four girls is victimized). I think Smart has a point: Setting up a pure/impure dichotomy may not be an effective way to discuss sex with young people.

As I said in an earlier post, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our ongoing struggle with language. Elizabeth Smart’s story is a powerful example of a principle that’s easily forgotten: The hidden layers of meaning in a word can undermine our most sincere efforts to make this world a better place for everyone.

Elizabeth Smart

                   Elizabeth Smart

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Libraries

Take a look at this post I saw on Facebook a few days ago:

Libraries Relevant

I love libraries, I’m glad Facebook users are supporting them, and I reposted the message myself.

But this message is an example of the traps built into our language. The phrase “no longer relevant” raises doubts in the same instant that it tries to dispel them.

If that seems crazy to you, think about this scenario: A man is leaving on a business trip. He kisses his wife and says, “There’s a myth going around that men have affairs at these conferences. Honey, that’s not true, and you don’t have a thing to worry about.”

Gulp.

Language is a highly useful tool – but it’s also a slippery one.

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The Holy City

True story.

My friend Joan and some Catholic friends were praying for a priest friend, Father John, who was making a trip to the Holy City. “It’s such a volatile part of the world,” Joan said. “I don’t know why he would go to Jerusalem now.”

Eventually Father John returned to the parish safe and sound. When the women told him about their prayers, he responded with a hearty laugh – the Holy City was New York!

I’m with him on that. I’m preparing for my own trip to New York next week, and of course I’m excited. Friends have been asking me about the trip (a Broadway play, a ballet, two art exhibits, and more). Often their parting words are “Be safe!” It’s a mantra that’s supposed to reassure me, but instead my brain starts to conjure up the opposite of safe – images of a mugger, gunman, or plane crash.

Blame language. So often we fashion a string of words to convey a particular message – only to discover that a shadow message has joined it.

You tell a friend how attractive she looks today, and she worries about what she looks like the rest of the time, or – worse – reports you for sexual harassment.  You tell a child that there’s nothing to be scared of at the amusement park – and she panics and has to be taken home. You warn a teenager about the enticements of street drugs  – and hear yourself listing all the reasons for experimenting with them.

I had a life-changing moment in graduate school when I heard my mentor, Richard F. Dietrich, make an offhand remark about Bernard Shaw: “I think of Shaw as a writer struggling with language.”

I was bewildered. In my mind, world-class authors didn’t struggle with language: That was a problem for college freshmen. That remark set me on a quest to figure out what this “struggle” might be. Slowly I began to see that Shaw indeed was a man struggling with language – and that he came out on the losing side of more than one battle.

We all do.

I’m planning some posts about the potholes and roadblocks that we’re likely to stumble over as we tackle a writing task.

But there’s no time for that right now because I need to pack a suitcase. I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts.

Times Square

                                   Times Square

Photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia

 

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Distractions – For and Against

Distractions are bad. Except when they’re good.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb for writers: Don’t distract your readers. They shouldn’t have to stop to look up a word or allusion. They shouldn’t be confused by a character’s puzzling or inconsistent behavior. Sentences should make sense the first time they’re read. If you’re writing words or phrases in a foreign language, the context should make the meaning clear.

I’m thinking right now of one of my all-time favorite books, The Hatter’s Phantoms by Georges Simenon. (Go to the Barnes & Noble website if you decide to buy it – the description of the book at Amazon.com gives too much away.) 

Why would I read a mystery over and over? Surely I know all the twists and turns by now. The answer is that The Hatter’s Phantoms makes me feel as if I’m in a small town in France, and I love that feeling.

Good writing is like that. Your everyday reality dissolves, and you find yourself living someone else’s life, or embracing their ideas, or taking on their problems or successes. Nothing should be allowed to break that spell.

Simenon (a Belgian novelist who was one of the world’s best-selling writers) was a master at drawing you in to the characters and settings of his books. Pick up anything he’s written (his Inspector Maigret mysteries are wonderful) – and you’re off to France, the setting he chose for most of his books.

But sometimes distractions are good. Sometimes (and this is a postmodern idea) writers want to call attention to themselves. Writers with an agenda employ various strategies to ensure that you hear their voices while you’re reading – quite a trick, when you think about it, but some writers (Bernard Shaw was one) are masters at it.

I’m about halfway through Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On, a marvelous book about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Corrigan’s writing is so good – often so clever – that I keep putting the book down to take a breath and wonder how she does it.

And then there are writers who take on someone else’s voice. I’m thinking of the five-year-old boy who narrates Emma Donoghue’s Room (one of the best novels I’ve ever read). In order to figure out what he’s talking about, you have to become a five-year-old yourself.

And now two things are going on inside your head. You’re making plans to get your hands on one of the books I’ve recommended, and you’re also trying to figure out how distractions – which seem to be a bad thing – can also be beneficial.

I’m trying to get you to question the way you usually write your stories or present your ideas. Most of the time we adopt a traditional third-person, omniscient narrator or expert. There’s a wise, anonymous person offstage who’s doing the talking (as I’m doing here).

But your writing will be richer and more interesting if you try your hand at other possibilities. Invent an “I” to tell your story. You can be a wise old sage, a young person on the brink of adulthood, or a person of the opposite sex. You can take on another identity even if you’re writing nonfiction. Try sounding younger or older, or angrier, or funnier, or…just try something different.

Very likely you’ll return to the traditional third-person, omniscient narrator or expert after your experiment. That’s fine – honest! The benefit is that you will have explored some new writing options, and that experiment will bring new vitality to your writing.

In other words: Make a mess. Fool around. Get it wrong. All writers need to stray from the tried-and-true pathway once in a while. Please give it a try!

wander 2

 

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