Category Archives: Postmodernism

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. That’s a distraction – a wonderful one.

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. (More distractions while you figure out what he’s seeing and unable to understand.)

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!

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Carolyn Hax and Passive Voice

A few days ago I discussed a New York Times article that linked grammatical choices to morality. Today’s Carolyn Hax column makes a similar point. (Hax is the advice columnist for the Washington Post.)

In today’s column a woman asked how to get an old friendship back on its former footing. Problems erupted during a stressful time when she made an unfortunate remark to a friend. Things got worse when the woman repeated that mistake, and now she feared that she’d lost a friend permanently.

Hax (a columnist who impresses me) pointed out that the woman’s own description of the events hinted at an underlying problem: “it happened again,” passive voice vs. the more accurate “I did it again” (from Hax’s column).

I would label “it happened again” active voice, not passive. (It is the subject, and happened is the verb.) But Hax’s larger point is spot on: The woman’s sentence structure was an attempt to distance herself from her own behavior.

This example underlines what postmodern language theorists have been telling us: Language isn’t neutral. Unintended messages often lie hidden within the choices we make when we write and speak.

The Washington Post building

           

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The Cheeseburger Caper

Cheeseburger Stabbing 2

My friend Gustavo A. Rodriguez Martin just posted this picture on Facebook, along with a note that I might want to  comment about it. He’s right.

“Cheeseburger stabbing” has to mean, of course, that someone was stabbed in a dispute over a cheeseburger. Nobody is seriously going to suggest that a cheeseburger wielded a weapon against a person or another cheeseburger. 

But when you stop to think about it, some interesting questions arise. How do we know that the cheeseburger didn’t wreak any bodily harm? We have only two words to work with, and yet we’re able to construct a highly probable explanation about what happened:

Hamburger stabbing = someone stabbed another person in a dispute about a cheeseburger

That’s an amazing testimony to the power of language. Our brains contain such sophisticated linguistic wiring that we can extrapolate a large amount of information from just a couple of words.

Here’s an example I use often in my workshops. A guy named Frank calls his friend Bob and suggests they go bowling. Bob responds with “I’d love to but…” and his phone goes dead – he forgot to charge it.

Are they going bowling tonight? Probably not. When Frank hears that word “but,” his brain will instantly construct the rest of the message: “I can’t go tonight.” There’s no 100% guarantee that he’s right, of course. Maybe Bob was going to say that he’d be a little later than usual. But there’s a high probability that Frank’s brain will process that fragment of information correctly.

The power embedded in language also has a potential downside – a huge one, in fact: Ambiguity. Our two-word cheeseburger message can be interpreted in multiple ways, forcing us to rely on the context to ensure that we understood it.

And there, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub.

Does it ever happen that the context is just as ambiguous as the message?

Yes. It happens over and over again. A poorly worded remark causes offense – or a casual comment is misinterpreted as a promise for something that’s never going to happen.

And now we’re talking about postmodernism. Language – useful as it is – can’t possibly accomplish everything we task it with.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, and spending a lot of time thinking about language issues, a friend took me to task. Jacques Derrida and his ilk were part of a passing trend, she warned me. What would I do when deconstruction is no longer in style?

She was on target if you misunderstand deconstruction as a silly game where you load ambiguous readings into a literary work. But if you really study what Derrida was saying, and you start paying attention to everyday discourse, you begin to suspect that the postmodernists are right: Language issues are all around us.

Item: My husband and I once ordered a pizza with peppers – and were served a pepperoni pizza.

So many problems are attributed to inattention, carelessness, incompetence…when part of the blame needs to be laid at the door of our slippery language. And English is no worse (or better, for that matter) than any other language.

For example:

  • A man notices that a woman in his office has lost a great deal of weight. Should he compliment her? Or is he risking a summons from the Human Resources director for a sexually inappropriate message?
  • A deeply religious woman hears that a colleague has a very sick infant. Does she say “I’m praying for your family” – or is that intrusive?
  • A police officer approaches a group of women leaving a shopping mall. The officer points in the direction of one woman and says, “I need to talk to you.” Her response is “Are you talking to me?” Is that a defiant statement – or is she just looking for clarification?

And consider this statement:

Time flies like an eagle.

And this one:

Fruit flies like a banana.

Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that we’re able to communicate as well as we do.

Seen any violent cheeseburgers lately?

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Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Merton

I’ve just finished reading Merton & Waugh: A Monk, A Crusty Old Man & The Seven Storey Mountain, by Mary Frances Coady. This is a new book about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who still fascinates readers almost 50 years after his death in 1968. It’s short – under 160 pages – and covers Merton and Waugh’s correspondence between 1948 and 1952.

Merton had just published The Seven Storey Mountain, an account of his conversion and decision to become a monk, and Waugh agreed to edit the British edition. The book became a bestseller and is still in print today, to my bewilderment: I don’t think it’s a great book – in fact I’ve always found Merton unreadable, despite many attempts to like him. So I was interested in how Waugh responded to Merton’s writing in those early years.

Waugh’s advice turned out to be quite ordinary. (Apparently I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t think Merton was a great writer. Sigh.) One problem Waugh noted was Merton’s inconsistent style, which seemed to jump back and forth from lofty to slangy. Another problem was Merton’s tendency to repeat himself. 

Waugh also dealt at some length with Merton’s apparent confusion about who his audience was. In a later letter, Waugh complained that The Ascent (Merton’s examination of mysticism), seemed to be addressing skeptics in one section, advanced students of mysticism in another, and at least two other groups of people in other portions of the book.

I said earlier that I’ve always found Merton unreadable. That’s not entirely accurate. After Merton’s death, the monastery released a collection of posthumous essays called Contemplation in a World of Action. It is…readable, wise, and profound.

So I am wondering if Merton became a spiritual bestseller in spite of his spirituality, not because of it. The voice in those early books is honest and real, and you can hear it in both The Seven Storey Mountain and the letters to Waugh, where Merton complains about the monastery (“a three-ring circus”), censorship, and his publisher’s policies and practices. Merton also talks about saying Mass and praying the rosary, but I never get a sense of him as a man steeped in spirituality.

I’m not saying that he wasn’t holy, but I suspect that the Trappist spiritual tradition never really worked for him, and that’s why he couldn’t write about it in a believable way. But the voice was so powerful that people kept buying Merton’s books anyway.

It seems to me that in Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton finally could say the things he believed in. He talked about the alienation and anxiety that often characterized monastic life, and the ways in which the Trappist tradition – ironically – suppressed the work of the Holy Spirit instead of encouraging it to flourish.

Waugh never noticed any of those problems. One reason, of course, is that he had no experience of monastic life himself. Another reason is that Waugh was beset with his own spiritual difficulties.

Early on he used Merton as a kind of father confessor (even though Merton was about 12 years younger and not yet ordained). Here are the spiritual problems that Waugh discussed in his letters: the absence of loving feelings for his children, his indifference to others, a streak of cruelty, and a lack of remorse or guilt about his failings.

I don’t know if Waugh was ever able to resolve his spiritual problems, but I know where Merton ended up: At a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had made a presentation at an interfaith conference. Describing himself as “laicized and deinstitutionalized,” he was no longer trying to live within the strict confines of the Trappist tradition.

Merton died in his room at that conference center, apparently electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan. We can only wonder what his next adventure would have been.

The hour or so I spent reading the correspondence between Waugh and Merton reinforced two of my essential beliefs about writing: Have something important to say (I think Merton took many years to get there), and have a voice (it was there for Merton right from the beginning).

After finishing the book, I got out my copy of Contemplation in a World of Action and reread “Final Integration” (my book opened to it immediately – it’s my favorite essay in the book). It’s as fresh as ever. I’m glad Merton lived long enough to discover new ways to integrate spiritual traditions from all over the world – and I’m sorry that Waugh apparently stayed stuck in the same spiritual problems for the rest of his life.

Waugh and Merton

Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Merton

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Mental Illness?

One of my favorite professors in graduate school used to say that naming is one of the most important human behaviors. It has taken me years – decades – to start to understand what he meant.

I started thinking about him again this morning when I came across an NPR piece arguing that we need to stop talking about “the mentally ill.” Interestingly, the most troubling part of that term is the word…the.

I remember when I used to have deaf students in my writing classes, and I discovered that talking about the deaf is offensive. It was a new idea to me. Here’s the reason: The is a tricky word because it implies more homogeneity than you’re actually going to find in a diverse group of people. (The same prohibition applies to the obese, the gays, the blacks… you get the idea.)

And there are other problems with the term “mentally ill.” One is that it’s based on a false notion – that illnesses can be tidily divided into “mental” and “physical.” Another is that there’s a connotation of severity. If you’re mentally ill, you’re psychotic – out of touch with everyday reality. The truth is quite different: Many people with mental illness are high-functioning members of society.

So what term should we use instead? One of the NPR commentators suggested “psychiatric.”

Umm…no.

Psychiatric implies diagnosis and a course of treatment – putting yourself into the hands of a person who’s completed a rigorous educational program to learn how to cure you.

Based on my own experience and what I’ve seen in other people, some – maybe a lot – of what we categorize as “mental illness” is actually unlived life. Or  values and priorities that have outlived their usefulness and need to be replaced with new ones.

I’ve just finished reading a marvelous book – William Glasser’s Take Charge of Your Life – that’s one of the most refreshing and sensible discussions of “mental illness” that I’ve ever read.

Words create our reality – something that postmoderns talk about all the time. It’s a great misconception that postmoderns think words are meaningless or reality is a figment of our imagining (I deliberately did not say “figment of our imagination” because I think imagination is one of the most important words in the dictionary).

Making our world better often requires making our words better. I don’t – alas – have any suggestions for a replacement for “mental illness,” but I’m glad we’re talking about it.

mental health

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Is It Creative Writing?

I facilitate a writing group that’s a delightful mix of fiction writers, memoirists, poets, and nonfiction writers. I suppose you could say that some members of the group are creative writers, and some aren’t. Because I rarely attempt to write fiction, I had some anxiety about facilitating a group like this one. Did I have any information worth sharing?

Turns out I didn’t need to worry. The group has plenty of information to offer – much of the time I just do the grunt work of preparing the copies and sending out reminder emails.

Lately, though, a deeper truth has been emerging: We’re all creative writers. Postmodernists say that we all bring a personal slant and a creative touch to everything we write.

I’m starting to notice how much I personalize the law enforcement articles I write for a website aimed at police officers. Much of what I do is research and reporting, but I try not to stop there. Lately I’ve been noticing how much fun I have writing these articles. (Not a bad thing!)

I’m always looking for a different approach (often a broader one). Can I combine two ideas? Can I make a personal connection? Can I make a literary or historical reference?

That personal viewpoint isn’t discussed very much in conventional writing courses, but it should be.

Making Notes from Book

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Beware the Writing Process!

Two days ago, in a blog about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I suggested that writing a book about rearing her daughters caused author Amy Chua to change her mind about parenting. As a result of Chua’s writing process, her book takes off in one direction but lands in another.

Today I’m going to give you another example of the same principle: A true story about an Army sergeant who changed his thinking and behavior after being interviewed on the radio.

In December 2006, National Public Radio broadcast a lengthy report about the way some soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) are mistreated.

Reporter David Zwerdling had asked retired Army sergeant Nathan Towsley how soldiers diagnosed with PTSD were treated in his unit. Towlsey freely admitted to harassing them: He had no sympathy for men who couldn’t handle the stress of combat. “I don’t like people who are weak-minded,” he said, adding that he’d never be caught going to a therapist.

Several weeks later, though, Towsley said that the interview had prompted him to start thinking more deeply about PTSD. Towsley decided that the syndrome is real, and – amazingly – decided to get counseling for himself. You can read and listen to the story here.

Be careful the next time you decide to talk or write about a belief or opinion you hold dear. In the process of trying to change your listeners, you may end up changing yourself.

Today’s Quiz  ANSWER

Most people would consider this sentence correct. But if you’re a real stickler, you would change which to that.

An often-overlooked rule states that “which” is used with commas, “that” when you don’t have commas.

Here’s the original sentence again:

Up in the attic I found the picture which used to hang over my bed.

And here’s the correct sentence:

Up in the attic I found the picture that used to hang over my bed. CORRECT

(Many writers would also put a comma after “attic.” It’s optional – your choice – because the introductory phrase “up in the attic” is short.)

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“Tiger Mom” Amy Chua Writes a Book

Yale professor Amy Chua, mother of two daughters, has written a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to explain:

  • why American parents should adopt the practices Amy’s mother used
  • why American parents don’t really have to be that strict
  • why she’s glad she was unrelentingly strict with her own two high-performing daughters
  • why she has mixed feelings about what she did – and, BTW, she wasn’t always strict

Take your pick.

The book is garnering tons of publicity (and presumably tons of cash), and I’m not going to be the one to say it should have been revised before publication.

Except that I am going to say that. Amy Chua’s editor missed the boat on this one.

You can watch a video in which Amy Chua refutes criticisms that she was too harsh with her daughters.  Chua tells talk-show host Joy Behar that the book is a memoir, not a parenting treatise; Chua is recounting her mother’s childrearing practices, not her own; she didn’t really do all that stuff to her own daughters, and she doesn’t really believe in strict childrearing. The last third of the book, Chua says, is a reflection on what she did right and where she now thinks she went overboard.

“You should write another book” is Behar’s response.

Amen to that.

Let’s take a closer look at what Chua wrote and where I think she missed the boat.

Here’s an excerpt from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (you can read more by going to the Wall Street Journal and searching for “Amy Chua excerpt”).

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

And here’s how she explains her philosophy:

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

Chua told Behar that all of this was actually written “tongue-in-cheek,” that those prohibitions were her mother’s, not hers, and that she didn’t actually restrict her daughters this much.

Hmm. Does that long paragraph with the statistics sound “tongue-in-cheek” to you? Does that list or prohibitions (notice the “never”) have any qualifiers (“my mother’s rules, not mine”)?

Here’s what I think really happened when Chua was writing her book (and why I’m blogging about all of this today: It happens to all of us when we write or speak):

The words and ideas got away from her. Amy Chua started writing a book about what’s wrong with American parenting and what’s right with traditional Chinese practices. But as the words and ideas began to flow, her thinking started to change. And so the message at the end of the book turned out to be a total reverse of what she started out to say in the beginning.

Time to revise, Amy.

Take it as a maxim (and I’m talking to all of us, not just Amy Chua): Anything you write is going to fight you. You want to go in this direction, but the words take you there instead – to somewhere totally unexpected. It’s sort of like getting on a horse with a mind of its own. (Postmodernists have a lot to say about this process.)

And that’s why writing is both so difficult and so exciting: Once you start the process, you never know where you’ll end up.

Bottom line: Always leave enough time to revise what you’ve written. Don’t trust that first draft!

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Huckleberry Finn Revisited

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is gradually disappearing from classrooms, largely because schools do not want to deal with the offensive “n” word that appears 219 times in the novel.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, a new edition minus the “n” word  is going to be published next month by NewSouth Books. The editor, noted Twain scholar  Alan Gribben, explained, “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.” In the new edition, the “n” word will be replaced with “slave.”

Good idea or bad idea? I like to think of myself as a literary purist, and I’ve actually taught Huckleberry Finn several times, to classes that were a mixture of races, with no difficulty. And yet I think the new edition is a good idea.

Twain’s original book is complex, funny, profound, and controversial – when you get past the “n” word controversy. And that’s the problem: How do you get there? Discussion about Twain’s book too often comes down to a debate about that one offensive word. Everything else that happens to Huck and Jim gets lost.

But what about violating Twain’s text? English majors (me, for example) used to be encouraged to project their thinking back through time to read a book in its original context. If you were reading Hamlet, you tried to think like an Elizabethan. If you were reading Fitzgerald, you tried to put yourself back into the Roaring 20s.

To read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you were supposed to travel back to the 19th century, when the “n” word didn’t carry the historical weight it has now.

Fast-forward to our postmodern era. Scholars today argue (and I agree) that this historical approach is wrong on two counts. First, we can’t really go back. For better or worse, our thinking is shaped by the times we live in. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can reshape our brains at will.

Second, forcing ourselves to abandon our identities and current social context causes books to lose their relevance. Why, after all, do we continue to read classic books like Huck Finn? If they’re worth reading at all (and I think they are), it’s because there’s still something there for our 21st-century brains to grapple with.

I haven’t seen the new edition of Huck Finn, so I can’t predict how readers will be affected. I suspect, though, that we may be in for a surprise. Maybe the book has a far broader scope than we originally thought. Maybe racial issues are only one of Twain’s themes.

Maybe, in reinventing Twain’s masterpiece, we’ll discover something brand-new about the author, the characters, our shameful racial history, and – our greatest hope – ourselves.

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Memoirs

Yesterday I came across an announcement about a memoir-writing workshop conducted by Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones. Memoirs have become extremely popular. That’s a trend that’s going to enrich innumerable lives. Applause, applause.

How I wish my grandmother had written down her life story – leaving Finland as a young girl to work in New York City, falling in love and marrying an Austrian despite the language barriers, rearing four children during the Depression….I’d rather read that story than any bestseller you could throw at me.

Last month I facilitated an editing class for a group of memoir writers. More applause. They want to pass on not only their memories, but a grammatical account of their life’s adventures.

Our class discussions circled around a host of topics, foremost among them what might be called the Mr. Dick problem. Mr. Dick, you will remember, was a character in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield who was writing a book. Any time you come across a literary character who’s dealing with writing in some way, there’s a strong possibility that postmodernism is making an entrance. (Think of Hamlet revising The Murder of Gonzago for the performance in court.)

The unfortunate Mr. Dick had to keep abandoning his book because the beheading of Charles the First kept finding its way back into the manuscript. And there, my friends, is one of the biggest problems in writing: Keeping the unwanted out.

Simply put, art is not life. Life – even at our best moments – is messy, confusing, and tedious. Good writing can never be any of those things (unless you’re a postmodernist trying to replicate life in the piece you’re creating, as some contemporary geniuses do).

Somewhere in Anne Frank’s amazing diary she tells her imaginary readers that they really know very little about life in the Amsterdam hiding place. This after pages and pages of entries, including a marvelous section where she describes, minute-by-minute, a typical day and night there. Anne, who looked forward to revising and publishing her diary, instinctively knew that good writing is a digestive process. Things are worked over and compressed before the audience is allowed to see them.

Not easy to do. I applaud Natalie Goldberg and all the memoirists, hard at work creating one of the greatest gifts they could give to future generations.

P.S. Did anyone notice my indefinite pronoun reference? I wrote: Somewhere in Anne Frank’s amazing diary she…. Because “Anne Frank’s diary” isn’t the same as “Anne Frank,” my sentence isn’t correct, strictly speaking. You could also say that it’s a dangling modifier.

I say that construction seemed to be the simplest way to say it, and I’m sticking with it.

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