Thursday, 29 July 2010

Creative Writing: Can It Be Taught?

Earlier this summer I attended the annual meeting of the Writers' Union of Canada, and amongst the sessions was a panel on the teaching of creative writing, chaired by Cate Bush (click here) Director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. She said the teaching of writing has become progressively more popular since the Iowa Writers' Workshop began in 1926, and that the teaching of creative writing is dominated by the workshop method in which students give feedback to each other on pieces they have written. She was skeptical about the value of this method, and said that teaching writing can't really be done except by teaching reading. There's a need to create a culture of readers.

First on the panel was Genni Gunn (Click here) who agreed that writing can't be taught without teaching reading. She is, she said, a firm believer in the idea of craft. Just as one has to put in 10,000 hours to become a good pianist, so you do to become a good writer and, as with playing the piano, craft and technique can be taught. Sometimes, for writers, this process is short circuited by too-early affirmation. Courses can help writers to become better readers and, once you have studied the craft, you can better appreciate what you read. You become better able to articulate things you may have known, but not known explicitly. Teachers and editors should not mince words, but they should also be encouraging.

The second person on the panel was Tim Wynne-Jones (click here) who thought that the format of some creative writing courses, of meeting intensely for 10 days and then going home and writing and communicating, was good. He recommended learning to write through emulation. You should study and emulate a writer you admire. And, even if you can't learn to write, you can learn to re-write. You can produce a novel that has been touched by many hands. When he is teaching, he says, he constantly asks: "What is the motivation of this character?" One can't stress this enough, he said. He was shocked one day to receive a letter from the editor of one of his books in which the editor asked: "What is the motivation of this character?"

The third person on the panel was Ania Szado (click here). She said that people join a Master of Fine Arts program to achieve a publishable piece. She had been working on her second novel but not getting anywhere. She wouldn't have done all the work necessary, reading and writing, if she had not done a Master of Fine Arts program. In visual art, there is respect for folk-art, and a market. There is the equivalent of this in self-published on-line pieces, she said. Perhaps we are developing a respectable folk-art tradition in writing, which may mean that creative writing programs become less important.

Image: MFA Creative Writing Program, University of Guelph  

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Monday, 26 July 2010

The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary provides a window into the author's humorous and pithy outlook on the world. Contained within it are a number of insights into his view of the psychology of fiction. The brain, for example, is defined as "n. An aparatus with which we think that we think." To publish, is "v. In literary affairs, to become the fundamental element in a cone of critics." Some entries, like his definition of reading, appear dated, "n. The general body of what one reads. In our country it consists, as a rule, of Indiana novels, short stories in 'dialect' and humor in slang." Considerable more thought, however, appears to have been given to his definition of a novel:

Novel, n. A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting, the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination, and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes--some of which have a large sale.

Some additional definitions might be useful in deconstructing his thoughts. A photograph, for example, is defined as "n. A picture painted by the sun without instruction in art." Realism, similarly, is "n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring worm."

Your thoughts?

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Thursday, 22 July 2010


I’m not a big fan of action movies. What bothers me is not that the protagonist is most often chased throughout the movie, jumping out of (through, onto) moving vehicles, dangling from or climbing the walls, delivering shots or skillfully escaping various projectile weapons. It’s that once the excitement is done, nothing much remains. It gets tired and tiring very quickly, and in the end makes me feel that I would have as good of a time trying to cross a very busy Toronto intersection. It never occurred to me that the reason why the effect of action movies may not be lasting or profound is that very frequently they are not done very well. I just couldn’t imagine what a well-done action movie would be like.

Last night I watched Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, and for the first time felt moved, moved rather deeply, by an action movie. It may seem an unlikely combination, Mel Gibson directing and co-writing a film on a decline of Mayan civilization. But he got something right – not necessarily the details (though the details seem OK according to some experts on Mayan culture) – but the feeling of it. On surface, this is no different than any other action movie – the protagonist is still being chased by the ‘bad guys’, running, climbing, dangling, fighting, leaping. The difference is that the meaning of the action is placed in the context that challenges our own understanding of what it means to survive.

Apocalypto is a meditation on fear. It confronts us with the stark reality of having to negotiate our continued presence or potential destruction in a world where the most grotesque cruelty will come not from the world of wild beasts but from the familiar hands of other humans, even those sharing one’s language and culture. In most action movies we feel indiscriminately tense that no harm should come to the one who is chased (we must still have hearts of prey to be so easily identified with the pursued and not the pursuer). In Apocalypto, the protagonist is teaching us how to negotiate fear so that death, if it were to come, is done as well as living. And finally, that running away and running toward may look alike, but are not.

Not at all bad for an action flick.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Evolutionary Perspectives on Literature

For a short but robust summary of the ways in which literary studies have been informed by evolutionary theory, have a look at Joseph Carroll’s chapter, “Evolutionary approaches to literature and drama” in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2007) , edited by R.I.M. Dunbar and Louise Barrett. The chapter defines adaptationist literary scholarship as that which assumes that the human mind has evolved to meet the demands of its environment, producing species-typical behaviors, the needs of which literary works in part fulfill. The description of the orthogonal relationship between postmodernism and adaptationism, as well as the nuances in the debate between the adaptationists and the cultural relativists, are impressive given the length of the chapter. Readers learn of how literature enhances knowledge acquisition (e.g., concerning the environment and kin relations), and the literary contribution to the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that keep humans alive (attention, social bonds, perspective-taking, rehearsing adaptive scenarios, among others). Research in the evolutionary bases of genre in emotion, status, and reproductive success is reviewed, as well as current work concerning how a notion of universal human experience engages theories of literary merit. A real strength of this chapter lies, I think, in its rich overview of studies of specific literary works through the evolutionary theoretical lens: current adaptationist work in folk and fairy tales, epics, Shakespeare, lyric poetry, and nineteenth and twentieth century narrative fiction is surveyed. Those wishing to discover “what’s not been done” will enjoy the detailed last section. In eight pages of text, accompanied by 130 references, Carroll provides a not-to-be-missed introduction for those new to the area.

Carroll, Joseph. (2007). Evolutionary approaches to literature and drama. In R. I. M. Dunbar and L. Barrett (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology, pp. 637-648. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Travelogue: In Delft with Vermeer

Last weekend I went on a Quixotic quest to Delft, to try and think myself into the mind of Johannes Vermeer who spent his whole life there. I love Vermeer, especially his painting that is usually called "The art of painting."

"Delft is very touristy," said one of my Dutch friends. Well, it is. But I was being a tourist, and few places in Europe are more charming than Delft, with brickwork streets and alleys, canals with waterlilies, beautiful buildings and bridges, freedom from the infernal combustion engine. To be a really good tourist town in Europe, a place must have been rich several hundred years ago, must not have been bombed in World War II, and must have avoided the high-rises. Delft has these characteristics. It became rich in the age of Dutch colonialism when Vermeer lived.

Only 35 of Vermeer's paintings exist (Schneider, 2000). All but two have women in them. In ten of them, a woman is depicted as concentrating on some activity such as pouring milk, writing or reading a letter, playing a musical instrument. In 11 of them, a woman looks directly at the artist, that is to say at the viewer.

Vermeer was interested in science. He seems to have been one of the first painters to use a camera obscura, and he seems also to have been fascinated by the geometry of the perspectives he created. In the domain of painting he seems to me to have been interested in those matters about which Elaine Scarry (1999) wrote in the domain of prose fiction: how the artist invites the reader—or in this case the viewer—not just to glimpse objects, but to construct scenes. So, as well as perspectival textures such as tiled floors, in 15 of Vermeer's paintings there is illumination of an interior from a window, always on the left of the painting, that infuses a bright glow from that side. Vermeer carefully depicts the transparency of the window glass and the grey of cast shadows. He chooses frequently to offer reflections in mirrors, windows, wine glasses, even earrings. It's as if he is saying to us: "Here are the cues; from them you can construct this scene in your mind."

Although Vermeer is often described as a marvel of naturalism, every one of his interior paintings is a piece of theatre in which the subjects' clothing has been carefully chosen, and emblematic props have been deliberately arranged. The subjects are not so much portraits, as depictions of characters of a kind one might come across in fiction or allegory. Scholars agree that the central figure of "The art of painting" is Clio, the muse of history. She wears a laurel wreath. In one hand she carries a trombone, which signifies fame. In the other hand she holds a book: written history. Behind her is a map of the Netherlands. This painting isn't about painting. It's about a hope for a historical event. Though it used to be dated earlier, it now seems that it was painted around 1672, when the Netherlands was threatened with yet another invasion by one of its European neighbours, and  was hoping to make an alliance with another of them. Not only were Africa, India, China and the Americas invaded by European colonizers but European countries invaded each other. In this picture, it seems, Vermeer hoped that history would be written of how the Dutch had held out and won a famous victory.

I was in Delft on the day of the World Cup Finals. In the evening before the match, streets, squares, and cafes were full of hopeful young men and women in orange T-shirts. Now that the age of European colonialism has thankfully receded, the desire to conquer distant lands and the competition among European countries has come down to football. Can one imagine Vermeer today painting Clio with an orange T-shirt, and holding not a trombone but one of those raucous trumpets that were blown so incessantly by spectators at the matches in South Africa?

In "The art of painting," which should perhaps be renamed "The hope of history," Vermeer depicts Clio with her eyelids lowered, perhaps in modesty. Am I too fanciful to think her lowered eyelids might signify shame? The history of European nations gives us plenty to be ashamed of. Even so, Vermeer has given us some of the world's most wonderful paintings. I visited the place where he is thought to have been buried, in the Oude Kerk. In this striking and austere church there is a very small, very plain, plaque on the floor that says simply "Johannes Vermeer 1632 - 1675." Beside it, were two bunches of flowers and, very movingly, beside the smaller bunch—placed there, so I imagined, by a painter who was grateful for the inspiration that Vermeer has given us—two paint brushes had been laid.

Elaine Scarry (1999). Dreaming by the book. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norbert Schneider (2000). Vermeer: The complete paintings. Köln: Taschen.

Image: Detail from Vermeer's "The art of painting."

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Monday, 12 July 2010

Men and Women Write About Each Other

The 2010 meeting of the International Society for Empirical Research in Literature (IGEL, click here) has just come to a close in Utrecht, Holland, organized with consummate skill and thoughtfulness by Frank Hakemulder and a team of able assistants. Amongst the traditions of the Society is to award a prize to the best presentation by a graduate student at each conference. This year the prize goes to Molly Ireland, who works in James Pennebaker's group at the University of Texas at Austin.

Ireland and Pennebaker used the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) system for making computer counts of different kinds of words in texts. They analyzed 2495 transcripts of naturalistic conversations,  found gender differences of usage of function worlds in seven categories. For instance, as compared with men, women used more expressions of the kind "I think …" "I guess …" which might indicate more tentativeness, or more salience of issues of theory of mind.

Ireland and Pennebaker then analyzed dialogue in 108 scripts by 73 scriptwriters. Men and women scriptwriters tended to depict the speech patterns for characters of their own gender more accurately than for characters of the opposite gender, whose speech patterns they tended to make more gender-neutral. Male scriptwriters tended to replicate gender differences in their characters more realistically than female scriptwriters.

These results raise a set of interesting questions. First, should writers study results of this kind, derived from the scientific study of literature? My view is that the the answer is yes. Of course they should.

And now comes the real question, raised by Molly Ireland in her talk at the conference: what then should writers do about this kind of effect? Should they strive for the natural, or should they exaggerate a bit?

My view is that in general writers do well to pay attention to John Keats when, in an early statement of the principle of defamiliarization, he wrote that "poetry should surprise by a fine excess." This goes for prose, too, I think, and even for movie scripts. Conversation in ordinary life functions to maintain and develop the relationship between the conversants. Dialogue in fiction is quite different. It has the function, first, of taking forward the story, second of delineating character, and third of building a relationship with the reader or viewer. If gender is important in this second function—delineation of character—which it very often is, then emphasizing differences by means of a "fine excess" may probably be what a writer should think of doing.

Molly E. Ireland & James W. Pennebaker (2010) Do authors have an ear for the opposite sex? Presentation at the meeting of the International Society for Empirical Research in Literature, Utrecht, Holland, 7-11 July.

Image: Academiegebouw, University of Utrecht

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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Re-reading Swallows and Amazons

One afternoon last weekend, I opened Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, and read the first chapter. It starts with the seven-year-old Roger, running in wide zigzags up a hill from a lake towards where his mother is standing in front of a farm house where his family is staying for the summer holidays. Instead of running directly towards his mother, which he is tempted to do, because she is holding an envelope in which he thinks, correctly, is a message from his father for which he and and his siblings have been waiting, he continues to run in zigzags. He is a clipper ship tacking against the wind.

As I started to read, I found myself in tears, and I continued tearfully to the end of the chapter? Why should this have been? There was nothing sad in the chapter. It is joyous. The message from the children's father, on a ship at Malta bound for Hong Kong, is that the children are allowed to take the small sailing dinghy, Swallow, they've found in the farm's boathouse, and sail it to the island about a mile offshore, and camp there.

I don't think my tears were of the kind that, as Ed Tan and Nico Frijda (1999) have explained, can occur in fiction when one feels oneself in the presence of something larger than oneself. Nor did they come from any sense of loss of a happy childhood. My childhood was fairly solitary with the predominant tone of having to keep my head down to avoid reprimand. I've had good periods of happiness in my life, but all in adulthood.

My tears could perhaps have been nostalgia (defined as memories of things that never happened) but I think they were a matter of attachment, as when one is reunited with an attachment person after a period of separation and danger. In the first paragraph of Swallows and Amazons, I was suddenly reunited with an object of attachment. I have read all of Ransome's children's books, I think when I was between eight and eleven. I used to own the whole set. I remember them on a bookshelf. They must have been given to me, one by one, by my parents. When my own sons were young, I read some of the books aloud to them when we went on sailing holidays. Each book was read on the boat, in the evening, in the setting of the story: the West Coast of Scotland, the Norfolk Broads, the Essex Backwaters.

My attachment  to these books was made at a time when neither my parents nor I knew anything about. sailing. It must have been Ransome's books that implanted in me the desire to sail. I did learn to sail, at one point I built and raced a sailing dinghy. Later I bought a second-hand Hurley-22 in which at weekends and holidays I cruised with my family on the South Coast of England, and I have chartered boats in Scotland, Turkey, Greece, the British Virgin Islands, and the Great Lakes in Canada.

And—strange that this should only have occurred to me now—at the same time that he planted the interest in sailing, it could have been Arthur Ransome who gave me my love of fiction. The opening of Swallows and Amazons provides a perfect example. The prose is transparent. Important elements of fiction are present: the imagination with Roger as a clipper ship, the important shift from exterior to interior (Roger wants to run straight to his mother, but continues tacking), and the interpersonal (Roger's mother is patient, she knows her son needs to tack towards her, and Roger knows that she knows).

In many ways Arthur Ransome was a romantic figure. He was a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. He reported on the Russian Revolution, he knew Trotsky and Lenin, and fell in love with Evgenia Shelepina, who was working as Trotsky's personal secretary. He may have been a spy for the British Intelligence service, though later he was arrested on orders from MI5 and then released.

Despite the romantic elements, a 2009 biography by Roland Chambers reports Ransome as a bit of a cad, rather out for himself. Diana Wynne Jones, another extremely famous children's writer, confirms  in her autobiography (click here) that he had a side that was less than benign. During World War II, she was evacuated as a child to a house on Coniston Water that had been owned by  a family who were friends of Ransome. It was the original for the house in front of which Roger's mother stood, as the small boy tacked towards her. Ransome has said that Swallows and Amazons was written because he'd fallen in love with the area when he and his siblings had spent summer holidays there when they were children. Wynne Jones recounts how, one day some children who, like herself had been evacuated there, were playing by the lake and she saw a portly and irate man rowing out towards them from his houseboat. He said angrily that he wasn't going to be disturbed by a parcel of evacuees, and that he would come next morning to complain, which he did, still in a fury. The man was Arthur Ransome. "He hated children" said Wynne Jones. His books indicate that he had had a glorious childhood, but the incident Wynne Jones reports seems to suggest he could no longer remember being a child.  Perhaps the best of him, as of certain other writers, was in his books. Swallows and Amazons and the books that followed it seem to be pure gifts.

Roland Chambers (2009). The last Englishman: The double life of Arthur Ransome. London: Faber & Faber.

Arthur Ransome (1930). Swallows and Amazons. London: Cape.

Ed Tan  & Nico Frijda (1999). Sentiment in film viewing. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (Eds.), Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion (pp. 48-64). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Yogurt, as Narrative Device

Yogurt represents an interesting set of relationships between my household and the current food movement. When I wonder about how to untangle the different meanings and motivations driving people’s current high-pitch engagement with food, thinking about the roles yogurt plays in my everyday life makes it clear to me how hard it is to parse the various parts. I begin to make the attempt to parse the narrative relationship with yogurt here to follow up on my recent threat to consider the ways that people use mundane decisions like those about what to eat to re-narrate their experiences.

When I tried to parse my breakfast earlier this week, and figure out just what it was that the twenty minutes I spend every week turning what part of the jar of milk we don't use in tea into yogurt, the endeavor took over an entire morning. It turns out that a seemingly small decision several years ago to reduce the irritating stream of plastic containers moving through my kitchen has led to a rather complex relationship with breakfast. I will skip, for today, praise of fermentation and all the interesting things I've come to appreciate via yogurt (plus all the improvements to my quality of life it's made, since I'm sure these could be found in the food literature), and will focus, instead, on the implication of re-narrating something like breakfast.

It was not entirely an act of fiction to embark on what eventually became a yogurt making habit. It was, however, something of a fabrication: in my irritation with plastic tubs, I decided, rather abruptly, that I would like whatever kind of yogurt came in a returnable container -- and although the thin kefir-like yogurt I found seemed a bit odd at first, I did, indeed, come to like it. This was not a decision about taste, particularly, but rather about delineating a particular kind of character. I could just acknowledge it as a cave-in to neuroses about environmental stuff, but the decision has a quality distinctly like that one might make in trying to express just how a particular character might react to something on the sidewalk or arrange her morning.

And in the same way that Virginia Woolf uses the dinner scene in To the Lighthouse to allow her own, her readers, and her characters' own explorations of who they are and what they're about (as well as what kinds of structural constraints they're up against), we use the quite accessible decisions that can be made about something like food in our everyday lives to explore what sort of possible characters we are, or might be -- as well as what kinds of settings we find ourselves in. This all seems a bit obvious when pointed out, but understanding the forces at play seems useful, particularly in contrast to the striking degree to which food decisions are often quickly justified as absolutely necessary (for health, aesthetic, cost, or ethical reasons, for example).

(Props to Cultural Revolution, whose culture I enjoy in my regular yogurt habit.)
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Thursday, 1 July 2010

Review: Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys

Just finished reading Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys, but not before a toddler of a friend who was visiting had stolen a page, from the story “Girl and Giraffe,” sheered uncannily vertically between the binding and the text. No syllables separated, no letters rent. Just besmirched whiteness. Her mother hastened to tape the page back into place, so quickly in fact that I did not get a good glance at exactly how the rip might have meandered. Conversation taken up again, toddler hands onto other stuff. I was rereading the story some time later. My finger felt less resistance on part of the page, and I looked more closely. Something was stuck there, and it seemed to go a bit further up, and further. All the way to the top of the page, over the top, and back down. Ah. The repair. The rip. Both so exquisitely done. Though there was the little matter of the section of the page top exactly the width of the plastic strip, ever so slightly bent backwards under the pressure of the mending tape.

Two of the stories in Millet’s collection demonstrate perfectly the deft psychological repair work humans are capable of and the price paid to be unable to perceive the original wrong. Not since the mad dog coming through town in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has a canine as effectively symbolically bodied forth a human psyche as does Sir Henry in the story named after him. It is an incredibly astute story of resentment and taped-up vulnerability. In “Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit,” a killer swamp rabbit that Carter had just missed cracking on the head with an oar years earlier, is the impetus behind Carter’s consultation of a psychologist, or so this childhood friend whom Carter has not seen in fifty years believes – “Because no one knocks on a psychologist’s door to sell Girl Scout cookies”. But the therapist of the swank Atlanta office uses bottles and bottles of substantive tape to cope with, well, either the shame about his past, or perhaps the desire to be able to feel shame about his past.

The hendiadysally titled “Chomsky, Rodents” looks at the problem of other minds in the context of the visceral aspects of mothering. A mother of an infant in a baby carrier argues with Noam Chomsky at the town dump about the feelings and thoughts involved in mothering. “Love in Infant Monkeys” is also about mothers and infant attachment, as understood and researched by the psychologist Harry Harlow. When Harry Harlow goes to a departmental party, I wanted to hear what he and the psychologist “Suomi,” whose real-life counterpart still researches mothering styles of rhesus monkeys on the emotional development of their babies, would have to say to each other in Millet’s fictive world. The chance to talk with Suomi is, after all, the reason Harlow goes to the party. But perhaps the point is that, no matter what the scientists talk and write about, the content of Harlow’s recurring nightmare says the most important things about love in infant monkeys and love in mother monkeys, and perhaps even about love in general. It is interesting to note here that apparently the real-life Harlow insisted on using the term “love” when other scientists preferred the term “attachment” in the context of this research.

The philosophical “Girl and Giraffe” is a masterpiece. The narrator of the story provides irreverent audience to George Adamson’s stories about the lions he had raised from nine months old, Girl and Boy. Experiencing a “midlife crisis” (p. 32), the narrator decides to find the hero of his childhood, the star of the television program Born Free. What he finds is “An old alcoholic, he thought angrily, with poor hygiene – that was all” (p. 31). There are lessons here, I think, about why we listen to stories and why we seek out our childhood heroes. The depth of Millet’s treatment of the relationship between the animal and human worlds is particularly impressive here. She writes, “Boy remained close to Adamson all his life, often in camp, between two worlds. Though he made forays into the wild, he did not vanish within it. And on one occasion, hanging around camp while people were visiting, he stuck his head into a jeep and bit the arm of a seven-year-old boy” (p. 24). But it is the story of Girl and the giraffe foal that will have you thinking for some days to come, about how our “restless, churning efforts to achieve knowledge” (p. 34) prevent us from experiencing life as a reprieve.

Millet, Lydia. (2009). Love in infant monkeys. New York: Soft Skull Press.
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