“Doubt Truth to Be a Liar”

I’ve been in a funk lately. Here’s why.

Psychologists use the term “schema” to describe the result of collecting information, analyzing it, and creating a view of the world based on that analysis. A kind of rule book of how things are. These schemata play a part in every decision made, every judgment cast, and every new piece of information we take in for the rest of our lives. It’s a term closely tied to child development–in fact, it was introduced by Jean Piaget, the king of child development himself.

My job as a teacher requires me to observe children under two, record their actions, and ultimate try to guide them by manipulating the information they take in. I give them a bucket of water, they explore the physical properties, I supply the language necessary to categorize them, and then teach them how to clean up. They hit another child and steal his toy, I show them the child’s tears and explain that their actions resulted in someone else’s pain. Everything is a brave new world when you’re brand new to it. Schemata form by the moment. They’re dependent on the environment encountered and the child’s interaction with it. Childhood is, in effect, a 20-year-long experiment in brain development.

Here’s the thing about schemata. They can be very difficult to shake. Another term psychologists like to throw around is “cognitive dissonance.” This occurs when new information presents itself in contradiction to established schemata. The resulting dissonance can be so unpleasant that the individual will go to great lengths to reduce it while maintaining the fundamentals of the established schema, resulting in massively flawed rationalizations. That’s why certain worldviews, like racism, are so hard to dislodge from someone’s psyche.

Last week I endured a viewing of the excellent but brutal Twelve Years a Slave. From our modern, enlightened viewpoint, the white slaveholders in this movie are incomprehensible. Can they not see that their actions have no true basis, are damaging, are fundamentally wrong? We can see it, why can’t they? Our schemata are different. The majority of people in this society are not raised to view entire segments of humans as inferior based on skin color. Though discrimination of course still exists, in both racism and class discrimination, modern enlightened people are not taught that slavery is a god-given right to a select group to subjugate another. So we watch characters behave in intolerable ways and wonder, “How can they be so cruel?” It’s obvious to us.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years a Slave

The most interesting character, in my view, is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is the slave owner who buys main character Solomon Northrup right off the boat, putting him to work on his plantation in Louisiana. Ford quickly discerns the intellectual and artistic capabilities of Northrup and displays a certain amount of kindness toward both his physical and emotional well being, defending him against less compassionate overseers. However, when the time comes for him to make a choice that brings his entire worldview into question, he ultimately fails, and with apparent great inner turmoil. Rather than siding with an individual who had already proven his worth, he chooses to uphold society’s proscribed roles for both of them. You can see the conflict in Cumberbatch’s exquisite acting and in the details of the set dressing, as Ford guards his beloved slave with a shotgun and explains how he has no choice but to sell him to a cruel new master, Northrup’s bloodied head rests on a delicate lace pillow. Ford is so close to doing what he most likely knows in his heart is right, but societal pressures prevent him from overturning his deeply-entrenched schemata. In the end, Northrup is sold, and Ford no longer has to defend his actions to anyone.

All this is by way of illustration. My funk has nothing to do with racism, but it’s an apt analogy, because good people have fallen victim to such lies. Contrary to what people like to think, there were even good Nazis (I keep meaning to watch Schindler’s List). Good people can be taken by lies. They can believe them with every part of their being, and they will die for them. And that’s what scares me, because the people who get taken are much more normal and intelligent than you might think.

Needless to say I am going through a change. It’s been long in coming. Almost my entire life has been dedicated to a single purpose, and over the past seven years or so, in reflection I recognize myself trying to make sense of it. It’s not until your mid-twenties, after all, that your prefrontal cortex fully develops. This is the part of your brain responsible for “executive functions,” which, according to Wikipedia:

differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

Last week I turned 27. Instead of joining the 27 Club, I’m instead learning to think for myself. My schemata have proved to be based on logical fallacies and, in many cases, wishful thinking. It’s all good and well to teach children to obey their parents, but to obey unquestioningly? That’s insulting the intelligence of the child. A child can easily learn why it’s best not to play with fire by playing with it and getting burned. Parents try to avoid that by teaching children to keep their hands off. One method, involving instilling unquestioning obedience, usually results in children testing their parents’ command and playing with fire anyway. Others are more successful. Teaching children how to reason on matters, explaining the facts to them, and helping them form conclusions is more beneficial to the child. After all, the unquestioning child, instead of rebelling against the parent’s wishes, may grow up to fear fire, never learning to discriminate between safe and unsafe use and therefore miss out on the benefits it has to offer.

I am reaching the point in my life where I’m putting what I was taught to the test and discovering where it does not hold up. It is a long and exhausting process, full of disappointment. At times I feel betrayed, but mostly I feel free. Not necessarily free to do whatever I want, like the child who breaks away from mother in a toy store and runs wild, but free to not to be afraid of things that have terrified me my entire life. People are not bad; I do not have to be afraid of them. I can form friendships using good judgment that will benefit us both, unconditionally. I no longer have to turn people away because they don’t subscribe to a particular belief system. I’m free to form connections, share information, and experience love in a way I never could before. 

A little more about that information. It’s the free exchange of information that got me out of this funk. I am grateful to so many people who directly and indirectly were able to remove the scales from my eyes and help me to see reason. If you want more specific information, I encourage you to look at Steven Hassan’s BITE model of mind control. The organization I grew up in hits on all four categories in profound ways.

My goal here is not to write a diatribe against my former belief system. There were many positives to growing up as I did. Other people are working actively to expose the fallacies and are doing much better than I ever could. It is not in me to dwell on so much negativity, although I must admit my first reaction to finding out the truth was anger.

Besides, if I get too deep into the specifics of what’s happening to me, people who read this blog and who currently hold my previous beliefs can get me and my loved ones into serious trouble. I don’t want to cause trouble for my loved ones. I don’t want to force upon them an impossible choice, namely, choosing between me and their beliefs. For my part, I want us all to get along. I want us all to be able to form our own beliefs without fear of reprisal, criticism, or ostracism. If the wrong people gather enough evidence of my “change of heart,” I will be ostracized from the social group I have been in my entire life, and my own family with be restricted from associating with me. I do not want to do that to them, but at the same time, even though they are as much taken by the destructive beliefs as I was, the choice will ultimately be theirs. Believe what others tell them is true, or endeavor to decide that for themselves. And accept the consequences of their actions, just as I have to accept the consequences of mine.

I’ve probably said too much. I have tried to hold back, but my love of truth prevents me.

One final thought about the title of this post. In Shakespeare’s day, “doubt” had the alternative meaning of “suspect.” The line can thus be interpreted to mean “suspect truth to possibly be untrue.” Do not just take someone’s word for it, or the word of a group of people, even every person you know. They can be wrong. Prove it to yourself. Keep testing, keep proving what it is you believe, and never stop.

Alternatively, read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He possibly says it better than me.



Filed under personal

“The Reservation of My Mind”

One of my favorite series on writing is The Atlantic’s By Heart series, where writers talk about passages that have influenced them in some way, usually related to writing. It’s comforting to see people who have found some measure of success doing what I’m doing talk about their journey and process in terms I can understand. It makes me feel not so alone, which is good. Writing, a very solitary activity, can sometimes make me feel like the sole survivor of the apocalypse.

(Already I’ve mentioned this series and had the pleasant and shocking privilege to thank the author myself, Craig Nova, who somehow found my little scribble and commented on it. Sometimes I love this Internet thing.)

Today I read about Sherman Alexie, whose selected quote single-handedly changed the course of his life. (Talk about power.) When Alexie was growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Indians weren’t writers, so he didn’t even consider the possibility of becoming one. He was going to be a high school English teacher who coached basketball, end of story. However, one brush with an anthology of Native poetry, specifically a line by Adrian C. Louis, opened his eyes to the potential he could have if only he let himself realize it: “Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.”

A major theme of this blog has been overcoming a great deal of fear that’s been standing in the way of achieving my dream of publishing a novel. As I chip away at this block, pouring words on it every day for the past year, I’ve started to understand what’s driving me. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked to realize that it’s the same thing that’s been standing in my way.

Alexie understands this better than I do, so I’ll let him explain:

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the res, after all, where I learned to tell stories.

You know, for many years, I felt very insecure about being a writer—it wasn’t Indian enough. And then, one day, I was on stage and it occurred to me: Wait. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that? I’m doing the traditional thing—I’m doing the oldest thing known to humans! Before fire and the wheel, we had stories. Why did I ever let Indians who managed casinos make me feel bad about storytelling?

So there is power in this. I get to pick and choose what the prison means to me, float in between the prison bars, return in my mind when and how I want to. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

What is my prison? The fear that I’m not good enough. Not smart enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, not nice enough and not happy enough. Nothing I ever do is enough. And through spilling my guts on paper, I start to see shadows of why. Maybe I’ll never figure it out completely (or maybe I will and that will be the signal that my time here is up), but it’s satisfying to get hints of it, in what I read and what I write. It’s satisfying to realize I’m not all that unusual, that my dreams and hopes and fears are shared by millions of others who aren’t as different from me as I thought.

Because that’s the thing about prisons. They make you feel alone. Kind of like writing. . . . (How Sisyphean is that?)

As a final note, if you want a more elegant description of the craziness that is the inside-out writing process (that I tried to describe here and at least some of you liked), then read author Andre Dubus III’s lovely explanation of what it means to dream a novel, also from the By Heart series.


Filed under fiction, writing

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


I need to get this one out before it starts to fade. Normally I wait until my first impression is gone before talking about a book. But this time, the first impression is the true impression.

This book is childhood. We all had one. And at some point, it had to die. All that’s left are memories, which are completely separate from the real thing. Adults’ memories of childhood are like a child’s imaginings of adulthood: idealized and distorted, as if viewed from the bottom of a pond as deep as the ocean.

Or, as Gaiman puts it, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

Our unnamed narrator starts off the story as a middle-aged man attending a funeral in his hometown. It’s been some years, and he goes back to visit the places of his childhood with a deep sense of loss, eventually making it to the farmhouse at the end of the lane. A girl used to live there, when he was seven. He can’t remember her exactly, other than she went somewhere far away–Australia, was it?–and she never came back. He sits on a bench beside the pond she told him was an ocean. Silly things, children say. A pond can’t be an ocean. Oceans are bigger than seas, which are much bigger than ponds.

Then, as he looks into the still water of the pond, he starts to remember. Things that no adult can remember looking back on their own childhood, because he remembers not only what happened but also understands it through the lens of age and experience. What happened back then, what he’d forgotten up until this moment, seems very significant

So begins the story, which I will tell you nothing about. It needs to be experienced for yourself, and it will mean something different to you than it did to me. All I can tell you is that it’s beautiful, and terrible, and frightening and real. It will make your hair stand on end, it will make you nod your head in agreement. This is, using the narrator’s terminology, “true art.” It feel like it has been a part of the world forever, and we’ve only just recently unearthed it.

One sample, not even related to the plot, of how true this is. A lot of people have latched onto a quote of Lettie Hempstock about there being no adults anywhere, which is just fabulous, but this quote was the first of a great many to bring me to tears. The narrator had previously explained that his father doesn’t like toasters so he makes all the their toast on the broiler, where it inevitably burns:

At home my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.

So read this. Please, if you read anything this year. One reviewer said this book is for anyone who’s ever been a child. And I will agree. Gaiman describes his magic in a way you could almost believe it, and certainly leaves you wishing such things existed, somewhere in the world outside of our memories.


Filed under books

In Defense of Pretty Much Everything I Attacked Yesterday

Okay so this is why you don’t pick fights with English teachers. I sent my friend my account of our dinner discussion and this is what happened. I post the entirety of her response here, including her lighthearted sign-off because she is just that awesome. And I concede, the English teacher wins this round.


Regarding Hamlet, I hope that quote was not my exact language, and if it was, I was thoroughly in the wrong (or else being sassy!). I am confident that Shakespeare wants to present a literal ghost, but there is almost no topic in literature about which I am ready to profess absolutely certainty. Hamlet, perhaps the most notoriously debated work in the language, is certainly beyond certainty (!).

As far as the ghost, we know that Shakespeare makes him visible to the audience, to Marcellus and Bernardo, and to the pointedly steady-minded Horatio (bless him). We even introduce (“Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy”) and dismiss (“I might not this believe/without the sensible and true avouch/ of mine own eyes”) the idea that it is a fantasy. Is the sensible and true avouch of Horatio’s eyes trustworthy in the play? I think so.  I guess if Old King Hamlet’s appearance is a manifestation of madness, it may be the collective illness of an assuredly troubled Denmark rather than Hamlet’s mind alone.

In context of Shakespeare’s ghosts and visions, I don’t think this one is the strongest indicator of private insanity. Is Brutus’ visitation by Caesar’s ghost a sign of madness? I would contrast the stage corporeality of Caesar and Old King Hamlet with Macbeth’s invisible dagger, where the audience is not privy to the illusion, or even to Banquo’s ghost, which appears to only one character and without speech. The ghost’s second appearance in Gertrude’s chamber is not a shared vision, and is more nebulous in my mind…but do we have to insist that if Hamlet sees him authentically once, then this latter vision can’t be deluded? I don’t think so. (I also want to be clear: I am not objecting to the suggestion that the ghost is either wicked or deceptive. Hamlet’s concerns about the origin of the ghost are shared by critics; I am willing to consider that it may not really be good old dad.)

Hamlet’s sanity is a major issue in the play, although I don’t read it as simplistically as visual delusion. This is a demonstrably brilliant youth whose behavior is erratic, irrational, and inconsistent from first act to last. His troubled reasoning, disastrous relationships, and the broken process of his revenge are, in my mind, much more central to the issue of his sanity. (How does he end up fighting a Laertes he admires in the grave of an Ophelia he abused over protestations of love that involve eating a crocodile? Jesus, Hamlet, take a nap.) The hard questions about Hamlet are not what he sees, but how he thinks and why his elegant mind ultimately fails against the brutal reality of Claudius’ Denmark.

Now – and here’s a poor transition – I don’t think the argument about whether the ghost is real is a discussion of symbolism at all, but symbolism is definitely the endless fight the world wants to have with its English teachers. In defense of teaching “symbols” in literature, I am going to put forth the following arguments:

1.      – Not everything “means” (or symbolizes) something, but we can draw well-supported conclusions what elements in a text most likely have significance.

2.      – Determining meaning is not random guessing and is not process unique to each reader. Encoding meaning is not a lucky accident on the part of good authors.

3.      – The possibility of multiple interpretations does not mean that every interpretation is valid, or that a work can “mean anything.”

Before I dive into this, I’ll concede a few things up-front. Playing the authorial intention game is a fool’s errand. Sure, Steinbeck may have meant for The Grapes of Wrath to be about that feeling you get when you love a puppy, and I can’t disprove that. If I slip into lazy language about what an author means, I should be talking about what they do. If that is Steinbeck’s intention, he’s a dismal failure. However, I can still talk about what he does in The Grapes of Wrath because I have the concrete artifact to work from. Do I know that Shakespeare meant the ghost to be real? Nope. But I think everything he does in the play indicates that it’s not imagined in Act 1.

Also, symbolism is a contentious, frustrating term. Sure, post-modernism has taught us that nothing “means” anything. So again, my intention is to look at what an element does in a work. (I’m talking strong interpretative verbs here: suggests, connotes, recalls, repeats, alludes, emphasizes, whatever.) If we want to talk about what imagery accomplishes instead of what symbols mean, that is cool by me as a permanent change.

I am going to start with the pink house and the issue of whether it “means” (or does) anything, and I’ll tie that into how we know that an element in a text may be significant. (I haven’t read The Secret Life of Bees, for the record, and I have no idea about the pink house.)

Now, this pink house could absolutely be a sensory detail. If this is, for instance, coastal Florida and the author is interested in detail-oriented literary realism, then that would be a great assumption. It is a detail that makes sense in the setting, and it fits the larger pattern of the work. Boom. That’s a reasonable reading, no secondary implications. Pink is also a color with connotative value in the Western world (femininity, romance, happiness, sweetness). I might notice, for instance, that the person living in this house matches a widely-held association with the color. I can either decide that it is a coincidence or that the author is doing it deliberately. It seems like a happy, romantic girl living in a black house might be a noteworthy choice. I’d tend towards thinking the same about one in a pink house. Pink houses are also rare in most parts of the world. If this is the wrong place for a pink house, I have more questions. One choice is that the author is a dum-dum. Maybe she is providing an inappropriate details on a whim, and it might distract or confuse readers; it may not be a decision that is effective in the text. Another option is that this detail does function in the text somehow, like drawing attention to a character or situation that is markedly different from the surroundings, or even emphasizing a surreal tone.

How do you decide between these “interpretations”? You look at context. Is this an author in control of their craft (characterization, language, thematic development, etc.), who you can assume chooses their details deliberately? Which understanding is most plausible when you look at the work as a whole? Are there other pieces of information to support an interpretation (Is the house mentioned again? Does the color association hold up? Are there other significant pink objects? Does the detail emphasize a key location in a meaningful way?)? You’re not looking for a single, inerrant answer. You’re looking for the understanding that makes the most sense overall and stands up the best to close scrutiny. The best answer might be “sensory detail; no deeper meaning,” but it might be “only an idiot ignores a pink house.” It is not skeptical to default to “it means nothing.” It is skeptical to look at context and draw a deliberate conclusion about likely meanings. My point here is that it might not have significant meaning, but we can evaluate that claim based on textual evidence.

To give another example. Imagine two books that both mention a deer-stalker hat. One is a realist novel set in northern Canada. In a single scene, a man dressing for cold weather puts on a parka, boots, and a deer-stalker which covers his ears against the cold. The hat is never mentioned again. The second is a young adult novel about a middle-schooler who solves mysteries. She finds her grandfather’s old hat and plays dress-up on the same day she decides to uncover what her creepy neighbor is up to. The hat shows up a few more times, and once it reminds her of something she saw earlier and she discovers a clue. In the first work, you get to assume the hat means nothing. In the second, it’s is reasonable to say “this isn’t a coincidence. This hat is a lighthearted allusion to Sherlock Holmes, and she ‘becomes’ a detective when she puts it on.” It’s a context game, not an argument over opinions on an inscrutable detail.

Obviously, I see interpretation as a process. Can there be multiple interpretations of a single text or detail? Absolutely.Hamlet stands up to several thoughtful, complex, contradictory readings. It’s a complex text. Are there works that do not stand up to close reading? Tons. There’s more mediocre literature than good, it falls to pieces when you start to read closely. Not everything can be “interpreted” well, but again, you can make that evaluation logically.  Does the possibility of multiple interpretations means that everything is subjective? Absolutely not. You can say that the hat in the story represents the girl’s budding sexuality, but you probably can’t support that from the text.

The frustration that English teachers have towards high schoolers who roll their eyes at symbolism is that they are almost never looking at weak interpretations. Gatsby’s green light, The Scarlet Letter’s rosebush, Gilman’s wallpaper. If you don’t believe these elements carry any significance, then the works are bewildering: are the authors just idiots who didn’t realize they kept mentioning this irrelevant stuff at significant moments? If you believe they are significant but the standard interpretations are wrong, then I am genuinely interested in your support. (I admit I am skeptical about whether a close reading of Gatsby can genuinely support an explanation of the green light unrelated to dreaming and longing.) These are images laid out and utilized with repeated, deliberate, focused care. Their meanings are not suggested once, but throughout the works. We teach these specific works because they stand up to scrutiny and can be used to teach the process. Insisting that Hawthorne’s rosebush is a guessing game is insisting that the preponderance of evidence is insufficient for discussion. I don’t know a single English teacher who believes that symbolism is beyond debate: I debate it all the time. But English teachers don’t teach from vague, deeply flawed, frustrating works. We save that for our leisure reading.

High school students hate symbolism because they don’t know how to work through the process. A lazy teacher (or SparkNotes) tells a kid that all those mentions of clothing in Macbeth represent the fact that he does not fit his role, and the kid thinks “Screw you. Those clothes are clothes.” This is the problem if they don’t understand how we reach those conclusions: it supports the illusions that teachers just decide that an element has meaning.

The last thing I am going to address is the idea that symbolism is accidental.  I am tired, so this will be quick. Sure, we have some shared cultural consciousness in a Jungian sense, and sure, meaning often develops organically in writing. But do I believe that Shakespeare’s patterns of symbolically appropriate imagery just show up one per play by luck (growth for Richard III, birds for Macbeth, sea for Twelfth Night, overgrowth and pollution for Hamlet)? No. These things appear in discernible, appropriate patterns.  Yes, there are tons of shitty authors who throw in some cheap symbols now and again. But the authors who have been scrutinized to exhaustion are generally people I believe are thoughtful, deliberate, contentious craftsmen. Can they impose their meaning on my reading? No. But my reading is only valid if I can support my interpretation from the text they craft.





Filed under books, fiction

Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

(I apologize to any and all English teachers in advance. I really do love you.)

Last night we had dinner with a lovely group of people I haven’t seen in ages. Our conversation bounced from funny work stories and weddings to physics and Breaking Bad, took a strange detour into dirty Shakespeare jokes before coming back around to the terrible things teachers do to their students (several of us are teachers). After relaying a couple stories about eating in front of kids and not giving a crap, somehow, we ended up back at Shakespeare.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Shakespeare meant for the ghost of Hamlet’s father to be real,” said the one English teacher in attendance. I wanted to bring out that the uncertainty of Hamlet’s sanity (arguably one of the major themes of the play) puts even the existence of the ghost into doubt, since the ghost is what triggers his host of erratic behavior. However, I felt it unwise to argue with an English teacher.

My husband though is not so skittish. He recalled his experience in high school reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as one long argument with his teacher. One major point of contention: the color of the famous pink house. She posed the question to the class, “Why did the author choose to make the house pink?” My husband, revealing himself as maybe not a literary scholar but certainly a budding skeptic, replied, “Because she wanted to add some descriptive detail and pink is very descriptive.”

BZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER! While many things in literature are up for interpretation, according to your garden variety English teacher, symbols are DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THEM. Disagree with this sentiment and prepare yourself to do battle.

Following the relaying of this anecdote, my physics teacher friend piped up with three little words: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Everyone groaned. 

“I don’t see why it had to mean anything more than her going crazy!” she said. “Because she was definitely going crazy.”

“Well it has to mean something. It’s called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ for Pete’s sake!”

It definitely means something. I’ve just come to the conclusion, after years of reading and years of writing, that authors (and especially English teachers), have no business telling us what that something is.

Let me make one point clear: I’m a big fan of symbols. What I’m not a fan of is being dogmatic about them.

Oh sure, there has to be limits. I’m not calling for Anarchy in the UK Lit:

“The green light represents the color of dollar bills, therefore symbolizing Gatsby placing money above his aspirations of true love!”

“M. Night used the color red to symbolize life because red is the color of blood which is the essence of life!”

“Dorothy’s Kansas was black and white because Oz was real and Kansas was the dream world! It’s the Matrix with Munchkins, baby!”

(Okay all these are American examples sorry I failed at extending my comic metaphor.)

Maybe the author intends a certain interpretation. Maybe the entire work is constructed around that interpretation. But I’m going to be so bold as to say that’s her interpretation, and she has no business imposing that upon her readers, beyond the words she’s written in the book. Sure, it’s her book, I’ll grant her that, but that doesn’t give her the right to be dogmatic. If that was her goal, she would have become an English teacher, or included a decoder ring and handy glossary of literary definitions telling us exactly what her crap’s about. Instead, she spent 100k words getting us to think about what her crap’s about. If she could have said it in any less, she wouldn’t have written a novel. She would have written a term paper.

It’s like any work of art. I can stand in front of the wall that is Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and know the history behind the painting, know what Guernica is and what Picasso had painted about, but what I bring to my viewing is entirely my own. Maybe I can’t look at it and say it’s about any old thing (like making breakfast or slaying giants), but no one can tell me my reaction to it is wrong if I view it in complete honesty (and I stood in front of that thing for half an hour with tears dripping down my cheeks).

The best part is, you don’t have to know a thing about the Spanish Civil War to have an honest reaction. Some things are universal while some things are intensely personal. Often, the two overlap.

I say all this not because I’ve had battles with many an English teacher, but because I’ve noticed symbols cropping up in my own writing, completely without my bidding. I understand how fragile they are. Once I seize on one, try to pin it down, nurture it and extend it throughout the rest of the work, more often than not it disappears.

Symbols aren’t deliberate. They’re fungus, sprouting from the very makeup of the work, from the fertile ground of the subconscious. As the writer I can have a hunch about what it means, but anything more tends to kill the mystery and smacks of mental and emotional shoehorning. I try not to tell my reader how to feel or what to think. I trust her to be able to do that herself.

That being said (and here is where I add another disclaimer), we all owe a great deal to English teachers. Good ones show you how to approach literary criticism on your own terms, show you how to have a dialogue with the text, and open up new worlds of critical thinking and reflection. Without English teachers, I’d probably still be reading Illustrated Classics.

Possibly easier to read than the original.

(I promise I’m getting to that post about taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously. The ideas are mostly there but need a good stitching together with a healthy dose of narrative logic. I swear, if tell myself I’m going to produce something my brain rebels and goes on hiatus. I’m reminded of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I’d never make it as a freelancer. Even traditionally published novelist is looking unlikely.)


Filed under books, fiction, writing

How Ricky Gervais Learned to Write

“Be honest,” Ricky Gervais says.

Oscar Wilde says, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

This is why I believe in storytelling.

Missing the Muse

I’m a fan of Ricky Gervais. I think he is a fantastic writer and comedian. Today I found this interview where he talks about how he learned to write. It’s less than 4 minutes long and a really good thing for any writer to watch. After all, you can’t go wrong with Ricky Gervais!

What do think about Ricky’s writing lesson?

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Trust Your Readers, They Know What’s Up

“Reading Corner” by Greg Williams. This is where I grew up.

Recently I started reading a book (which I will not name, however I can tell you it’s a debut YA published this year). It had a very intriguing premise and wonderful opening but somehow felt. . . wrong. Tension was high, pacing snappy, it was peopled with interesting and sympathetic characters, but my reading experience felt distant, separate. I was more aware of the physical act of reading the book than I was of the story. It made me feel self-conscious, like I was reading my own work. Was I being too critical? Was I actively on the lookout for poor writing, and therefore vindicated when I found it?

So I put the book away and started another, from an author whose debut came out in the late 80s. Same ingredients: interesting premise, wonderful opening, great pace and characters. Except this time, I was immediately immersed in the story and lost several pleasant hours before I even stopped to take a breath.

What happened? Why was this book different from the first? I tried to chalk it up to personal preference, perhaps even my state of mind at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more concrete my thoughts became. It wasn’t until writing yesterday’s post that I realized exactly what the problem was.

The first author hadn’t trusted me enough to figure things out for myself.

Reading is an experience. What the reader experiences is completely separate from what the writer experiences–and not just because the writer has a backstage pass. Readers bring a lot of baggage into a story: preconceived notions, different upbringing, prejudices and preferences. For example: they can be told over and over that a beautiful woman has blond hair, but if they personally find blond hair displeasing, they’re going to cast her as a brunette. That’s part of the magic of reading. We’re not restricted to the vision of anyone, not even the writer.

However. That magic can be impeded. And when it is, it’s usually the writer’s fault.

It can be very tempting to spell everything out for a reader. After all, they don’t know, do they? They only have what you tell them, and hey–you’re the artist here, not them. How can you trust them to get it right? So you hold their hand, explaining everything they need to know to fully experience your world, your ideas, your. . . unmitigated genius.

Because of this tendency, a common piece of advice given to inexperienced writers is this: “Show, don’t tell.” Let the reader figure things out from well-placed evidence and concrete details instead of blatant explanations.

This is great advice. It allows readers to be more engaged in the magic of the story and avoids insulting their intelligence. Ultimately, I think that’s why I couldn’t get into that first author’s book. He didn’t trust me, didn’t leave me any room to figure things out for myself. He connected all the dots, covered every point, even told me how to feel about what was happening to his characters.

I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. And neither does anyone else.

Reading something like this pushes readers out of the story, effectively telling them, “You don’t know any better.” Most of the time it’s not overt; most readers won’t be able to pinpoint what’s wrong with the story. But the cumulative effect is strong enough to alienate them, and, worst-case scenario, kick them out of your story.

How do you know what to show and what to tell? Another piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: “Do not confuse what the writer needs to know with what the reader needs to know. They are not the same thing.” And this is where things start to get complicated. Because, as an inexperienced writer (heck, any writer), it’s hard to know the difference.

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts about what happens when writers take “Show, don’t tell” too far, swinging toward the opposite end of the spectrum and not telling readers anything. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one I’m just now starting to climb out of.


Filed under books, writing