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Jane Eyre and the Selfie@ Link Wanderlust

Karen Swallow Prior celebrates a book about selfhood in her essay Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self  in The Atlantic. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre already, it is well worth your while. A book primarily read by school children and considered as a classic, it has so ubiquitous a presence that if you haven’t read it, you may already know about the terrible childhood of Jane Eyre and how she climbs out of her destitution through sheer willpower. Jane Eyre’s story is Charlotte Bronte’s articulation of the self, the idea of selfhood we now see versions of in the selfie.

“But before the selfie came “the self,” or the fairly modern concept of the independent “individual.” The now-ubiquitous selfie expresses in miniature the seismic conceptual shift that came about centuries ago, spurred in part by advances in printing technology and new ways of thinking in philosophy. It’s not that the self didn’t exist in pre-modern cultures: Rather, the emphasis the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century placed on personal will, conscience, and understanding—rather than tradition and authority—in matters of faith spilled over the bounds of religious experience into all of life. Perhaps the first novel to best express the modern idea of the self was Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë, born 200 years ago this year.”

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This book has laid the foundation for the first person narrator. It was written in 1847 and was a by-product of people now were forced to interpret religion and their circumstance for themselves. No preacher could change Jane Eyre’s position, and she alone was responsible for her destiny.  Considering that this month witnessed Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary, this looked like a good link for Link Wanderlust. Which Bronte sister’s work do you most love?

 


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Reading and Writing as Women @Link Wanderlust

Has anyone asked you: “Do your parents know what you are reading?”

Soniah Kamal has been asked this question and she recreates the experience of reading forbidden books in her essay Girls from Good Families. Reading used to be an act of rebellion and still is in some parts of the world.

One day in the late 1990s after I’d married and moved to the U.S., I was reading a short story in a literary journal when I came upon the word “vagina.” I slammed the journal down. My stomach churned, my cheeks flushed, I was dizzy. My reaction perplexed me. After all, a vagina is simply a female body part, so why was I mortified? Iqbal’s genie, who I’d thought long excised, seemed to have only been buried and now leapt to life. I decided I was going to write through my discomfort and shame and battle both the genie’s censorship as well as my self-censorship by writing a story with “vagina” in the very first sentence. And so was birthed Papa’s Girl, a story set in the brothels of Bangkok, where a young boy is witness to his father’s dallying with a child prostitute and is consequently traumatized for life. It eventually appeared in the anthology A Letter from India.

If reading is an evil, then what of writing? It definitely is if you are writing about sex. Kamal’s story makes you think about women the trophies and the honor of their families vs the women who sit down at their table to write chic lit, dick lit or quick lit. Writing in that sense becomes a political act as not every woman can click her keys like E.L.James. Many times women have to agonize over writing about home truths. It may be the twenty first century in some parts of the world, but darkness looms where women play mute spectator more often than not.

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Writer’s Block and Mom Monologues@ Link Wanderlust

Maria Konnikova’s essay How to Beat Writer’s Block in The New Yorker is an analysis of the dreaded formless disease/condition/diagnosis called Writer’s Block. Many writers have faced this block at some point in their lives. Even Graham faced the empty page. He did battle it though, with a dream journal.

Writer’s Block is officially recognized as a problem, and not some kind of laziness or lack. It can be psychoanalysed and even treated:

“Blocked writers were unhappy. Symptoms of depression and anxiety, including increased self-criticism and reduced excitement and pride at work, were elevated in the blocked group; symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as repetition, self-doubt, procrastination, and perfectionism, also appeared, as did feelings of helplessness and “aversion to solitude”—a major problem, since writing usually requires time alone.”

The best part about this history of the invisible condition is that a writer can cure herself by resorting to the one thing she can not do any more- write. Knowing that creativity is creativity’s only vaccine gives hope.

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In her story Writing my Context at The Rumpus, Lyz Lenz writes about how motherhood unblocked her. She wrote continuously in spite of life and she got published especially because of her life: “So I wrote more, enjoying the publication but resenting that I had to use my uterus to get there.”

Having kids changed the trajectory of her output and her readers liked her the more for it.

 

Parenting books tell me that I ought to draw healthy boundaries between myself and my children. But I once read that cells from the fetus stay inside the mother long after the child is born. Scientists don’t know what those cells do to the mother exactly, but they do know they linger forever in her heart and in her head. These cells make a mother a chimera—a mythical creature composed of disparate parts. But how can they be disparate when they are part of who you are? I also read that my children have my cells in them too. We are all chimeras.

Have you tried to write your context? Have you felt hindered in some way or do you feel more voluble?

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Anxiety and Bus Theory@ Link Wanderlust

Jessie Burton writes in her article Success, Creativity and the Anxious space about how 2015 was probably the best year of her life. A million copies of her book The Miniaturist were sold. For any aspiring writer, this sounds like the pinnacle of achievement.

But this was exactly the time when she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Burton then chronicles the story of her mind- a mercurial thing like all minds out there. The problem with writing a book and one that flies off of the shelves at that is the anxiety that you may never be able to write another word again. Success is impossible to handle when you are used to failure.

“When something you have made in private is mass-consumed, the irony is that the magnifying glass burns even brighter on you as an individual. Who you are, where you come from, how you make your work. And if you do not have immediate answers to this, because let’s face it, who truly does, then boy, are you in for a bumpy ride. When something like this happens to you, however minor it might be in the great scheme of fame, you never know what’s waiting in your personal wings. You never, ever know how the spotlight on your identity is going to make you feel. You may hypothesize that you’d be really good at dealing with it, but forgive me that I beg to disagree.”

The success of her book led her to dark spells that she coped with and wrote out. Reading her story gives you an insight into the working of a writer’s mind, or even the mind of someone who works entirely on his or her own. Writing a book can turn you into an overnight success; it can wear you down as well. Looks like ups and downs go hand in hand.

 

So how do you reach there at the pinnacle of success?  I found an article about the Helsinki Bus Station Theory in an article by James Clear called Stay on the bus. The idea is that you could be working on the same idea for years but it’s reworking it and sticking with it that brings the real breakthrough. So if you are stuck on a manuscript, it will begin to work only once you start reworking it.

Have you ever been stuck with your writing?

I liked the common sense no-nonsense approach of this article and the possibility of inserting the picture of a bus in this blog post was too tempting to miss.

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What Writers can learn from Spies and Artists@ Link Wanderlust

Jennifer duBois’s essay called MFA vs CIA at the Lapham’s Quarterly is as fascinating as it sounds. The author was 23 when she tried her luck with the CIA and the IOWA Writer’s Workshop. She goes back to her impressive CIA course book list to back up her theories.

In The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, Frederick P. Hitz notes that one of the requirements of a good intelligence officer is “a profound understanding of human nature”—the ability to get into “the heads and the guts of a recruited spy.”

This is what a writer needs too. Don’t you want to read this essay already? Spies and writers have a lot in common.  Creators need a great deal of insight to make readers feel about non-existent characters in unreal worlds. They also tend to do the disappearing act the way spies do. The author never did become a spy in the end, though she has retained a great deal of fascination for the unreliable narrator…

“The experience haunts my writing, too, in some respects. Some of this is pretty straightforward: espionage has a tendency to weasel itself into my novels and, once it’s there, crash a plane. There are quieter resonances, too. Many of my characters feel a sense of their unlived lives flickering around them; in my first few years of writing almost all of my narrators were men. As both a writer and a reader, I seem to possess a steroidal sense of credulity. “That wouldn’t happen,” I’d hear my workshop colleagues say later on—but the thing about things that wouldn’t happen is that once in a while, they do. And these make for interesting stories, if there is anyone to tell them.”

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If writers can learn from spies, they can learn from artists too. This is a more obvious connection. In her article at  the Ploughshares blog called Body Language: What Writers can learn from Artists, Annie Weatherwax says:

“For the writer of fiction, there is no better way to decode the nuances of body language and how to render it, than by looking at how artists handle it. For the visual artist, the study of human form is paramount. Like language is to writers, or the scale to musicians—it’s the foundation from which all other forms come.”

If there is one master of body language, it’s Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read her stories yet, start now- http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html

 


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Promotion of books and neglecting books@ Link Wanderlust

In his essay in The New Yorker called The Custodian of Forgotten Books, Daniel A. Gross begins with the story of an obscure book called The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton. It would have been long forgotten if not for the nexus of a book blogger, curious archivist and small press publisher who took great pains to  resuscitate the dead book to life.

Book memory is pretty bad. Most novels and novelists, even Nobel prize winning ones, are forgotten. Even the whole book culture is waning away. We saw how younger people think that books smell like old people, but then again there are older folks like Brad Bigelow, “fifty-eight, not a professional publisher, author, or critic.”He’s a self-appointed custodian of obscurity. Check out his website here: http://neglectedbooks.com/

Bigelow found enough literary ore to keep him prospecting. His quest for obscure books is an inspiration to those of us who read only popular books or go by Amazon reviews. Reading is also a responsibility, and one of the responsibilities is salvaging titles that could instruct a reader or maybe give her great joy. A good book is never dead.

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While some readers salvage old books, what do writers do? In her essay called The Things we do to to promote the books we write, Summer Brennan talks about the many embarrassments a writer who aspires to reasonable popularity must endure. Of course. They trade pajamas for the semi-casual attire of the accomplished writer, even when they are all nerves.

“I also get the random things one must do to promote a book in tangential ways. I, for one, appeared on a style blog and made 19 little watercolor paintings of the gear I used most while conducting my research. I was asked to contribute an essay for a popular music blog about the music I listened to while writing.”

Brennan does not grudge the fact that a good writer should also be a good chef or a good comedian or even a singer if this is what the audience requires.

“The awkwardness of creation is ideally burned off, and what we serve to those around us is the thing on a plate; the beautiful morsel. I’m not saying a poem isn’t worth more. It is. But it is a difference of degrees, not of kind. All is curation.”

Instead of being taxed by unrealistic expectations, know that if you need to sell the book, you might end up crossing all the limits, translated as limitations that exist within you, and you might even enjoy it.

 


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Teens and Filmmakers need to read books@ Link Wanderlust

In his story Do Teens seriously Read any more?, David Denby talks about how teens spend most of their time on screens, and so they read less. Although they are continuously taking in text in some form or another, teens are not really involved in a continuous flow of narration.

Of course, these kids are very busy. School, homework, sports, jobs, clothes, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, games, texting, Instagramming)—compared with all of that, reading a book is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. Reading frustrates their smartphone sense of being everywhere at once. Suddenly, they are stuck on that page, anchored, moored, and many are glum about it. Being unconnected makes them anxious and even angry. “Books smell like old people,” I heard a student say in New Haven.

Are teens missing something? Obviously, they are.  Literature is transformational. Just because there is no money in literature, it doesn’t mean that the beauty and relevance of this subject will evaporate. What teens who are students as well need is a teacher(they aren’t extinct yet, underpaid, yes, extinct,no) who can change their lives by talking about literature.

Learning literature takes out the bias that has become so much a part of TV journalism today. Teens can stay hooked to their phones and keep a few hours a week for reading continuous narratives. They owe it to themselves, and if physical books makes them feel old, digital books are not a bad idea.

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Further proof that good literature is invaluable is the list of books that make it to best screenplays at the Oscars. In an essay entitled Want to Win an Oscar? Base your Movie on a book, Brangien Davis is in conversation with his father Bruce Davis, former director of the Academy,  and has uncovered some surprising statistical evidence that good books translate into winning screenplays.

 “Good many of the 87 Best Pictures to date were based on original scripts, nine others first existed as plays, and a handful don’t fit into those three obvious categories. Marty (1955), for example, was originally a television drama.

It’s a tricky calculation to make with some movies, but the list I made certainly supports your impression: nearly half  of the recipients of Oscar’s largest prize have been based on books. The 42 films I’ve placed in the “book-based” category are not all based on novels. I’ve included nonfiction memoirs like Twelve Years a Slave, along with Collette’s novella Gigi and even F.X. Toole’s Million $$$ Baby, because it appeared in a book of his collected short stories.”

So this whole idea that good books make bad movies could be wrong if the book goes into the hands of a good director. Another observation Bruce Davis makes is that many of these books were unknown, and so a film maker is one more person who could benefit immensely from the treasure trove that books can be.

Who doesn’t benefit from a  good book?


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Can Poetry be Dead? @ Link Wanderlust

Although poetry is popular, it’s very niche. This is a relatively new phenomenon, Michael Lind says in his essay The Re-Enchantment of Poetry in The Smart Set. Poetry has always been a favorite, the precursor of song, poetry has a rhythm that can carry us through good times and bad.

But now no newspaper will carry a poem. No popular channel will host a poetry grand slam during prime time. If you mention that you are a poet, you have to be good enough an actor to pull it off.  It’s so mysterious that it seems to have disappeared from the popular space altogether.

So the question is: Why has poetry lost its appeal?

There are several reasons for this.

Poetry is all about the spoken word performance; it’s no Rossetta stone that needs deciphering. The New Critics may have done too good a job at understanding a poem; teachers have taken this into their lesson plans and deconstructed poems to the extent that these are no longer poems but syntactical structures and metrical inconsistencies. The truth is that poetry is beautiful only because you can not clearly understand it, the way life eludes us.

Another reason could be silent reading. The words that echo in your mind spoil the experience; poetry has to be read aloud. Because it is no longer read aloud except at readings, poetry has become a more visual form; rhyme and rhythm have been discarded in favor of the prosaic, and so reading these poems that are based on visual cues will lead us nowhere close to the metrical enjoyment that once upon a time verse provided.

It’s never too late though. All the poet has to do is sing again.

“If a post-print oral and aural culture of the kind predicted by Marshall McLuhan eventually does arise, then perhaps a kind of popular and accessible verse like that of Homeric bards or Norse skalds or modern rap and popular songs will evolve.”

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Historical fiction-an Exercise in Reality and the Consciousness @ Link Wanderlust

Historical fiction is an extremely difficult genre to write as on the one hand you need to do a lot of homework and on the other all the effort that you put in to understand a specific era can go to waste if you do not feel your characters and merely see them as representative of a specific time period. Alexander Chee writes about what he gleans from this genre and how he wrote his own historical fiction in the essay Children of the Century in The New Republic.

The historical fiction representative of all other historical fictions is War and Peace.Ivan Turgenev has been one of Tolstoy’s severest critics. He criticizes Tolstoy for depicting a Russia that did not exist and yet he was simultaneously Tolstoy’s greatest admirer. The question is what should be authentic about historical fiction? What can the writer get away with and how can he succeed?

“War and Peace holds a strange place in literary history, participating in the crowning of realism as a substantial and serious literary mode in America, even as the novel also contributed to the argument that historical fiction could be by nature dangerous, illegitimate, and inaccurate. This is the reason historical fiction is sometimes reviewed by historians, who may evaluate the novel for how much it has gotten right, instead of for its literary merit—as if the only thing for a historical novel to do is to authentically replicate the past.”

This genre has been selling on the higher side since the 1990s. Even writers like Hilary Mantel have initially faced rejections because of the literary taboo associated with novels steeped in history.

How does the writer of this essay write his historical novel-The Queen of the Night? He reads books around the period he wants to explore. That’s a good start. What he understood is just as author Henry James puts it:

You may multiply little facts that can be got from pictures and documents and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is naught; I mean the invention, the representative old consciousness—the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were nonexistent.

Authenticity can only come from within the writer- facts apart, a historical novel like any other good novel is the story of the self being told. It starts within the writer, at the time of writing, no matter which time he or she is writing about.

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Capturing Reality or Getting a sense of it?


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Patronage and the lack of it @Link Wanderlust

I found an interesting article in Dissent,  a quarterly magazine of politics and ideas and one of America’s leading intellectual journals.

Who pays Writers? asks Maggie Doherty, a lecturer at Harvard University, where she teaches American literary and cultural history. This is a question that keeps getting asked and of course not many writers are getting paid. Of course, the question is not remarkable, but Doherty surprises with her observations:

“Radical literary experimentation continues, but it has become the privilege of a few. In Barth’s day, a robust welfare state supported writers. Public patronage programs provided new classes of Americans with the resources needed to write and, through financial support, enabled them to take aesthetic risks.”

It’s hard to believe the kind of support writers used to get. Now, the story has changed though.

“No longer supported by the state, today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary. Many of today’s most celebrated writers marry experimentalism with accessibility; they produce prize-winning fiction with just a dash of formal excitement, enough to catch the eye of cultural gatekeepers but not so much that it renders a work unmarketable. They forge aesthetic compromise and favor political consensus. Their work reassures readers more often than it unsettles them. This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature.”

The author chronicles how projects like the Federal Writer’s Project(FWP) and the NEA Literature Program gave writers from all backgrounds a chance to express themselves in radical ways. Writers were paid to get their life out of the way so that they could experiment and create voices that were more critical and honest.

Today, Doherty thinks writers are forced to think more about money and so they don’t really want to talk about the most obvious things. They are forced to sell themselves out as they play to market trends and not to the need of better literature. A writer really can not be a diplomat.

“When writers are forced to conform to consensus positions, either political or aesthetic, the literary world starts to look depressingly monochrome. Literature that appeals to the mainstream isn’t just politically anodyne—it’s aesthetically predictable.”

We see this happening everywhere, regardless of the politic the country chooses. This brings us to the role of the writer. Is he or she a mouthpiece of those whose patronage they receive or do writers have a voice of their own?

If they do have a voice of their own, don’t they pay the price for it?

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