Tag Archives: psychology

Messages In YA Literature

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I’m reading several books at the moment, and, as astute blog readers may be able to surmise, one of them is message-driven.

Well, maybe not message-driven. Maybe message-personified is a better description. As in, that’s the entire purpose of the book. A message personified by characters representing the polarized sides of an argument. And from the very beginning of the story, we’re clear on which side we’re supposed to be on. One side is loving and tolerant, while the other is hateful and irrational, immune to reason. Granted, I’m only halfway through the book (a side effect of reading too many at once!) but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where this thing is going.

I hesitate to elaborate on the details, because I respect the author and what he’s accomplished in his particular area, and many of his points hold some serious water. The sad thing, though, is that the real world isn’t so clear-cut.

One of the beauties of children’s lit is its ability to help young people grow beyond the concrete, black-and-white morality of childhood. The development of moral reasoning, as put forth by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, starts with rule-based justification, which deals heavily with obedience and punishment. Most young children adhere to this thought process (and no small number of adults). Adolescents and adults develop more nuanced shades of reasoning involving social pressures and expectations, until finally, the last level (which some people never reach) acknowledges that rules are useful but not absolutes, and that any rule violating universal human rights should be discarded.

This developmental theory explains not what is right and wrong (leave that up to the philosophers and theologians if you feel you can’t trust your own conscience) but how people justify what they believe is right or wrong. According to Kohlberg, moral development is an ongoing process, and it’s my opinion that literature and stories play a big part in that development–not by shoving messages down kids’ throats, but by giving them the tools to figure out their stance for themselves.

The stories we tell young children usually have definite morals because that’s what children understand. By showing them how to put themselves into other people’s shoes (called perspective taking), stories help kids develop their moral reasoning skills. Not everyone is the same as you. People feel different things. People think different things. We have to live with them anyway.

Beyond early childhood, though, kids are able to handle more complex thoughts. As they advance through school, (hopefully) learning critical thinking skills, their stories need to keep up with their expanding views of the world, and they need to better reflect how that world actually works. Kids are going to form some definite opinions about things (have you ever met a teenager?) but their experiences can’t simply be summed up the way their picture books used to it, with the good side clearly presented in opposition to the bad and the obvious consequences played out. The bully gets what’s coming to him, and the hero, who sticks up for the underdog, gets the girl, saves the school, and wins the respect of everyone. (As Oscar Wilde satirized in the words of his silly Miss Prism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Besides, any self-respecting teenager can spot a message a mile away, and there’s no quicker way to turn them off than by telling them what to think.

Now, as a thinking human being, I have some definite opinions on things. I tend to think about them a lot, and, as a writer, they tend to pop up in my stories. My recently completed manuscript, Walls, deals with some heavy issues, not the least of which is capital punishment. I have definite opinions on capital punishment. You can probably guess what they are by reading my story, but I tried very very hard not to turn my work of fiction into a polemic against the inequities of the American justice system. That’s no fun to read. Besides, it’s pointless. That would appeal to very few people–in fact, probably only to me. And while I write for myself first and foremost, I want to share my stories with other people, teenagers in particular. I know they think about things, and they come to every story with a preconceived set of notions concerning those things, and no matter how much I beat them over the head with my views, they’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. I’ll have better luck if I present the facts and let them form their own conclusions.

My aim as a storyteller isn’t to get people on my side of any particular issue. My aim is to illuminate that issue within the very specific context of these characters and how it relates to them. I don’t presume to know what’s right and wrong–I’m not even convinced those things can be defined by absolutes. Reading fiction isn’t about absolutes, it’s about people and what they do when confronted by those issues. How a character reacts to finding out her father is on Death Row (for instance) should not be presented as a Worst Case Scenario Handbook, what to do should you find yourself in such a situation. Literature with that purpose is very ineffective and, honestly, embarrassing. It puts me off as a reader, even if I happen to agree with what the author’s saying. 

Now, the passions of an author can be a fine engine for getting a story written. You’re supposed to attack what terrifies you, after all, face the white-hot center of your fear, and find the universal truths buried within. However, once the story lands in the hands of a reader, it’s not about the author anymore. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, especially when you really care about what you’re writing.

What’s helped me to avoid the tendency to send messages can be boiled down to that old writing adage: everyone’s the hero of their own story. In the words of Tom Ripley, “You never meet anyone that thinks they’re a bad person.”

That bully, or critical parent, or judgmental teacher–whoever is represented by your antagonistic force–has just as much moral justification going on in their heads as your protagonists. Avoid turning your story into a polemic by searching for those antagonists’ redeeming qualities. What makes them worthwhile people? Very few humans are incapable of being identified with (even the most morally reprehensible had mothers at one point), and a story that presents people that way will come off flat and one-sided.

Even if your goal is to present an argument–go ahead, I’m not stopping you–please, make your characters real. Present your argument through the eyes of the characters, fully realized, possessing qualities both good and bad. Make your readers work to find the answers, don’t just hand them to them in black and white. The world just doesn’t work that way. We want kids to learn to think, not nod and agree with every well-formed argument.

Just some thoughts. Back to writing!

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“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.

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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

(with possible mild spoilers)

OMG THIS BOOK

I read this while vacationing on Tybee Island, Georgia, which is a little unfair to my husband. While he slogged through the latest Dan Brown and muttered, “I know where this is going. . . ,” I kept shouting “OMG THIS BOOK IS RIDICULOUS,” scaring the children and seagulls.

(I think that’s why Gone Girl has become as big as it has. Everyone who reads it goes OMG THIS BOOK and runs to share with the nearest human. My copy already has a waiting list. Hurry up, mother-in-law!)

Okay, now some serious reviewage:

When I was younger, I read thrillers all the time. Law and Order and Dateline NBC were my favorite shows, and I inhaled every Joan Lowery Nixon and Caroline B. Cooney I could find. The covers promised instant drama. A girl is kidnapped! Stalkers! Crazed killers! Murder murder murder! (I kind of wish there were more people writing books like this for young readers. Having written one unintentional thriller that almost made me break pencils in my brother’s eye, I know that person is probably not me.)

Around high school though, my interests moved onto things like dystopia, magical realism, and serious literary allusions (SANDMAN SANDMAN AMERICAN GODS SANDMAN). I looked for books that took me to fantastic and terrifying places. Well, I still do, but now I realize that the most terrifying place is within the human mind itself.

Gone Girl begins with a husband waxing poetic on the unknowable qualities of his wife’s head, down to the very coils of her brain. On their fifth anniversary the wife goes missing, instantly casting suspicion on the husband, because, as several characters point out, the husband is always a suspect. The first half of the book shows him digging himself further and further into the hole of suspicion, making us wonder just what the heck is wrong with him and genuinely want to beat him over the head with the stick of common sense. Alternating chapters of the wife’s diary help paint a more complete picture of this troubled marriage.

I must say, the first half of the book is difficult to get through. I gave up for several weeks before coming back, out of lack of anything else to read. (I will admit this happens surprisingly often for a girl which giant stacks of unread books.) There was so much family backstory to get through, and while it does seem necessary to fully realizing the story and was told in a lively voice, it was still backstory. Chunks of it. That was hard to get through and hard to keep straight most of the time. I kept having to flip back to catch details I didn’t properly absorb. Also, the diary portions made me groan every time they popped up. A saccharinely-sweet voice of an obnoxious, self-absorbed New York rich girl whining about how she should be more appreciative of her “perfect husband” didn’t make me sympathize with her–it just make her look like a blubbering brat with a victim complex. I was super thrilled when I no longer had to deal with them. (Yes I realize their design BUT I DIDN’T AT THE TIME OKAY.)

BUT, because my friend grabbed me and said OMG THIS BOOK, I soldiered on. And I’m so glad I did. Because once I started to pick up on what was going on, I ran around the house shouting “Sheer genius! Why didn’t I think of that!”

See, right before this I read The Sociopath Next Door, which, despite a lot of marketing hype, really helped me understand the segment of the population that don’t care how others feel and who only want to win. It’s a most foreign concept to me, being a highly sensitive and empathetic person, but also an important one. One of the characters in my WIP may or may not be a sociopath, and it helps to explain how some people in this world can be so mean and eat humans for breakfast. (Really been getting into the TV show Hannibal–check it out! Super empath vs. super psychopath is always good for a laugh.) Anyway, maybe because I’d just read the book, I was able to see the big picture and analyze it from a more “psychological” point of view.

Gone Girl a perfect profile of a sociopath. These people become what you want them to be, only so they can tear out your heart and prove how magnificent and godlike they are. And what Flynn does, extending this idea to freaking MARRIAGE ITSELF, is somewhat terrifying. Completely normal people employ these same dirty tactics. We all want to win, we all want our spouse and everyone else to think we’re awesome. A big part of life is this struggle of power with others, wanting people to like us, constantly presenting versions of ourselves that will attract the most admirers. Because, if you peel back all the layers, what you will find inside each and every one of our heads would scare the living daylights out of those we love. Look at young children: they think the world was invented with them in mind. It’s very, very difficult to grow out of that mindset. Some people never do, sociopathic or not.

That’s the neat thing about Flynn’s writing: her characters are awful people. And yet, we love them anyway. Or if not love, at least we want them to succeed. That makes them pretty fantastic psychological manipulators if you ask me. (I should probably read Lolita next, though I first need to work up the courage.)

In the end, Gone Girl is THEORETICALLY more awesome than how it turned out. I loved it and appreciated what Flynn was able to accomplish, but I can’t help but wonder if what she came up with didn’t exactly fit the vision in her head. I remember Neil Gaiman saying this about one of his books (I think it was The Graveyard Book), that it was the first time what came out on paper perfectly reflected what was in his head. He waited 20 years before writing it, knowing it would take certain skill to pull off correctly. I wonder if perhaps Gone Girl could have used a little more creative gestation (or just better editing; the slogging first half has probably prevented many people from getting to the good parts.)

Verdict: SUPER AWESOME but somewhat disjointed. I felt Sharp Objects was a stronger offering. We’ll see about Dark Places. I’m only halfway through.

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