Monday, October 3, 2011

Movies as Literature

I watched a movie last night that I thought was fantastic. It was called Equilibrium with Christian Bale. Not only was the storyline great, but the presentation was fantastic as well.
This was a movie I was introduced to in my Utopian/dystopian literature class over the summer. It is a futuristic dystopian that has created peace by drugging everyone to eliminate emotion. Bale is the main character who is basically secret police seeking out those who are "feeling" by refusing to take their serum each day. One morning, he accidentally breaks his last vial, and before he can get a replacement, he starts to feel emotion. From that point forward, he decides he would rather not take the serum, and instead tries to help the Underground.

Although a movie, it was presented very symbolically like literature. The most obvious symbol was a play on black/white symbolism. The "bad guys" were always in black, and when Bale becomes the "good guy," he wears white. 

Not only is black and white utilized, but basic intensity of color is used. I assume they probably used filters on their cameras, but the effect is that when there is a lack of feeling/emotion, the colors are muted (somewhat like an old photograph); when strong emotion is present, the colors are strong and intense.

Their are a lot of gun battles in the movie, but they are based around martial arts, so they are very artistic. Although there is a lot of violence, there is actually very little gore. What gore is shown in the movie is done so for effect. At one point, Bale has a small amount of blood on his shirt collar and fingers. This gore is used as he smears the blood across a TV screen showing the leader of this society.

All in all, this is a fascinating movie, both for its story and its presentation. It is rated R, but I am still trying to figure out why. There are one or two scenes with swearing, but they don't even appear until at least halfway through the movie. And as I said there is somewhat a lot of violence, but very little gore, which is what is usually associated with R-rated violence. There is no sex, nudity, or drugs either. In short, I would highly recommend this movie as entertainment and a literary presentation.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Teaching by Showing

In my academic and educational training, they spoke a lot about modeling, or "Guided Reading" and "Guided Writing." The idea behind these theories is that inexperienced readers and writers don't really know how to think through their process; they need someone to give them an example.

For instance, a Guided Reading lesson would involve the teacher reading a selected passage (perhaps a page or so long), while students follow along with an overhead or personal copy.  Periodically, the teacher will stop the reading and basically voice his/her thoughts out loud. That commentary that goes on inside our heads is spoken aurally to the students.  The idea is that as they see how an experienced reader makes connections to their reading, students will begin to have that internal dialog themselves.  Guided Writing is similar only a teacher writes/revises and voices the decisions they make as a writer.

I never disbelieved this theory, but its relevance has been made more clear to me recently.

I just recently accepted a teaching job. I am also completing my final class in my Master's program (today was the last day). Thus, my mind has been on both my final essay, and my future responsibilities. As I revised my essay, I made various changes, mostly to wording and some rearrangement of sentences. The revisions I made were primarily ones of taste, but there were still very specific reasons why I made them; they expressed a certain meaning or interpretation that wasn't as obvious with my first draft.

As I went through these, I realized how valuable it would have been for another (inexperienced) writer to be sitting next to me just to see my rationalizations. There wasn't anything technically "wrong" with my writing, but my revisions made it clearer, more concise, and stronger. Isn't that exactly what we want students to be able to do? And how can they learn it unless we who are more experienced explicitly share it with them rather than keep it inside our heads?

Thus, writing is somewhat like an apprenticeship: in order to become a master at the craft, you must learn the techniques from those who have already mastered it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Authorial Tone

So during my musings today, I made a discovery that there is an important aspect of writing that I can recognize, but I have no idea how to produce: tone.

I will be taking a utopian/dystopian literature class in a couple of weeks and I'm reading some of the novels in preparation for it. I didn't realize how much dystopian literature I had read until addressed so directly by this class. I was reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Fascinating work.

In describing the novel to my husband, I realized that (unlike a lot of dystopian literature), Huxley was not specifically creating a dystopian society; instead he was satirizing/warning about where he thought his society was heading. The tone of the novel is somehow different.

But I can't figure out how. I can tell there is a difference, and intellectually I know that it has to do a lot with word choice, but I can't tell you what words are creating the tone. To me, it all just seems to be written matter-of-factly, a technique used often in multicultural literature to get the reader to empathize with the different culture. But there is a decidedly disapproving tone overall to the work itself.

Which thought also lead me to characterization. How does a great author make a bad (or even good) character sympathetic, or conversely, a good (or bad) character despicable?

This is something I need to study in depth to improve my own writing. But frankly I'm not even sure where to start my analysis. Not even to mention the amount of time...But I guess that's how truly great writers become great.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Shout-Out to Graduates

Congratulations to all of you who have either graduated from college/university, or are about to graduate from high school. It's a big accomplishment.

I just graduated myself with my MA in English, and it has been a blast. I am sad that I'm already done because there are so many other classes I want to take. It has been a thrilling and exciting ride. I've honed my craft, had the opportunity to explore genres other than the typical academic ones, and been exposed to a variety of works of literature. I've begun to understand the reason why certain literature lives forever, and I can start to apply those principles into my own writing. I've learned from professors, books, and colleagues. I wouldn't change my experience one bit.

So not only is this a shout-out to the graduates, but it's also a shout-out for higher education. If you are debating on attending college, do it. If you are debating on earning your Master's degree, do it. You can learn things from higher education classes that are impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to learn without.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Irony of Professional Criticism

So there's been a paradox I've noticed over the years that has become even more apparent to me the past couple of weeks. 

As a Master's student I have been expected to write professional-level critical essays, which is all fine and good. But what I find absolutely ironic is the conundrum the world of professional criticism has established for itself in recent decades.

Anymore, in order for a professional critical essay to be accepted for publication, its topic must be "new." In other words, you cannot just summarize what everyone else has said. You have to say your own thing, even if you are talking about something similar and just taking a different perspective from someone else.

Particularly when it comes to certain authors or works, sometimes it can become downright impossible to find something no one else has said yet. Like for example, what else can we say about Shakespeare that hasn't already been addressed? Especially when there are several journals dedicated solely to Shakespearian studies. So, one recent trend has been to find some obscure line, scene, character, etc. and focus an entire essay around "proving" something about that. Or apply a completely bizarre and unrelated style of criticism. Or talk about how an author's most obscure work ever published is really his/her most important one. Or even find an unknown author and prove how he/she should be included in every literary canon. Basically, saying a lot about something nobody really cares about - except the critical journal editors.

Now here's where the real kicker comes in -- you have to say something totally new and fresh, but unless you have someone to back you up and support what you're saying, then your argument is completely invalid.

What?!?

Well, I guess to be fair, you can actually refute what someone else has said and that can be just as effective as agreeing with them (provided you have textual support also for your own).

I have come across this particular paradox in my most recent paper. I am writing about one of Virginia Woolf's novels. She is one of the more highly criticized authors. In fact she has at least one entire journal dedicated to the studies of her works (Woolf Studies Annual). Well, in looking at some of the criticism out there, I found that basically everyone interpreted this novel the exact opposite way I did.

What a perfect paper topic, right?  Wrong.

I wrote my paper and provided lots of primary textual support for my thesis. Then I tried to find other works of criticism to support (refute) my argument. Two problems presented themselves:, first no one addressed my topic, so there goes any support; second, no one addressed my topic, so there goes any refutation. In other words, the other authors were trying so hard to have original topics that they were all obscure (like how quantum physics is discussed throughout her novel).

After skimming/reading through about 50 articles, I found five (yes, count them, five) articles that had one sentence embedded somewhere in their essay that I could take for either support or argument. And most of those sentences were an aside to the author's primary argument.

So in my essay of 16 pages, I have five sentences from other sources. And that pretty much invalidates my entire paper despite the fact that I have actual textual support about every two or three sentences throughout the entire essay.

Now to be fair, if I read every single thing out there about Woolf and/or this novel, I'd probably find some more similar criticism that I could draw from. But frankly, I don't care that much about it. My reasons are valid (I think), but I still don't care: first, I am writing this for a class, not publication; second, it's a class final paper, not a doctoral thesis, or life's work; third, I'm not a huge fan of Woolf or this novel. In fact, I am writing this essay topic because of how much I disliked a character in her book.

So, here's the real question that maybe the literati should consider: What's really important? A functional summary of ideas or something new? Textual proof of argument or predecessory writing?  Originality or conformity? Or maybe the literati could accept that all approaches are equally beneficial?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Out-of-Order Critiquing

So, a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to take 5 pages of my novel to a critique session. It was a little bit different from previous sessions I had participated in, but it was a little refreshing too.

I had never had any critiquing-type of contact with any of the members in my group. I picked 5 pages that were a pretty important scene in my story, but was right in the middle of the book. When I handed the group my pages for them to read, they had absolutely no background, no character development, and no story line.

As one group member mentioned to me, it was kind of nice because then they had to critique my writing "based solely on its own merits."

It was nice, actually, because their involvement with the story (before and after this scene) did not color their judgments. And it was a unanimous concensus: show more; tell less.

Now, as I have admitted before, I am wordy, but I am trying to focus better on capturing my scenes in my writing. This critique group was good for me because it helped me realize that I am not there yet - especially in my crucial scenes. The group members suggested I use more dialog rather than telling the reader what the characters discussed. I'm not convinced on that point in this particular scene because I just finished a long dialog before these 5 pages and am going into another one after. But it let me know that my readers want to know/hear more from my characters too. so it provides food for thought.

I realized critiquing doesn't always have to be linear. In fact, it can be just as effective or helpful sometimes to break up your writing in your critique groups. The trick is learning from these jumbled segments and implementing the suggestions throughout the piece.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Simplicity

This is a plea for basic simplicity in writing. Too many authors think that using trendy buzzwords, inflated language, and complex constructions make them better writers. (This is particularly true in the academic world.) I believe that just the opposite is true. Instead, I respect the authors who can make a difficult topic, situation, or emotional response understandable to the reader. Anyone can look up a bunch of words and find a way to fit them into their writing. But very few can find understandable words to express complex ideas. Those are the real geniuses.

Now I'm not saying that everything should be written as "See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane run." But I am saying that your content should come a long ways before your ego.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Drip by Drip

So I'm sitting here listening to the drip, drip, drip of melting snow falling from my roof.  Constant, steady, but ever so small. And as I need a topic to write about this week in my blog, I begin to think...

Writing can be like that drip, drip, drip. The most obvious comparison would be that our writing inspiration comes drip by drip. But for me right now, I like to think of it a little bit more as my writing process. In all honesty, I'm not working on my novel right now because  I just don't have the time. My "writing" is taken up by my homework for my classes. I anticipate, however, that my situation will change when the semester is over in a couple of months.

In the meantime, I try to think about my novel and "plan" out my revisions in my mind. Drip. I learn about the things that (don't) work from the novels I have to read for class. Drip. And I work on my writing skills through the research and papers I write for classes. Drip.

So, just like a rain barrel fills with water one drip at a time, a finished piece of writing develops one drip at a time, which can happen even when you aren't physically working on it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Passion in Writing

Whew, this week has just flown by. I realized today that I forgot my post this week. But something was reaffirmed to me in class this week: the best writing always comes from something you are passionate about.

I was presenting on a novel I had read, and was sharing an insight I had that was different from every other critic out there. I had several people in class tell me that there was my paper topic because I was passionate about it. It reminded me of a similar experience I had in a criticism class during my undergraduate work.

We studied several short stories and three styles of criticism at a time, and then had to write a paper using one of the styles. There was one story I read that I absolutely hated. I hated how it was written, and it hit a little too close to home for my comfort. Anyway, I racked my brain trying to come up with a paper topic, and I just kept coming back to this story and one particular method. I balked at it for as long as I could, but finally just wrote the paper. It was one of the best papers I have ever written. The professor was even impressed and recommended me to the honors committee.

Passion is not the same as liking something; it's all about feeling strongly about it. That could even mean that you feel strongly about writing something down or a certain way more so than about the topic. I don't know why passion makes it better. It could be that because you are passionate about it, you are more willing to put the time in to get it right, or even that you have all your ducks in a row before you ever start. But whatever it is, passion always makes the strongest writing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Realistic Persuasion

So, for those of you who don't know, I taught high school English for two years, and I plan to return to teaching as soon as the right job fits in with my schedule and priorities. In other words, I'm looking for a part-time, close-to-home job, and I haven't found one yet.

But in the meantime...I think a lot about things I'll do or change when I get back into teaching. This morning, I had this brilliant idea and thought, "I need to write this down so I don't forget." Then I thought, "Hey, I need a blog post. Why not kill two birds with one stone?"

So you get my teaching idea, and I have a permanent place to store the idea. I'll probably never come back and look at this post again, but having written it down will help me commit it and its details to memory.

Anyway, I was thinking about how almost every secondary grade has a core standard concerning persuasive writing. And standardized tests require it too (i.e. UBSCT - Utah Basic Skills Competency Test - for one). But most of the time, students HATE these assignments/tests because they are unrealistic for them. Inevitably, the topics are ones they care little about, or have no opinion on. Thus, the "passion" necessary to be fully competent is lacking.

So here's my brilliant plan: assign them to persuade someone to get them a specific Christmas gift. I have also decided that when I teach writing again, I will teach it as a triangle: every piece of writing must consider audience, purpose, and genre. These three aspects all work together to create a strong piece of writing. When I teach, I will pick two of these and allow my students to decide the third. For this assignment, I would tell them to convince a loved one [audience] to get them a specific item for Christmas [purpose]. They can choose whatever genre will be most successful for that person (most likely it would end up being something like a letter or note).

This assignment could be flexible enough to accommodate the student who wants a new phone, or the one who wants "world peace." It would allow for a variety of discussions about what makes something persuasive (anticipating and addressing counter-arguments, data, compromises, etc.). Anyway, it would be a more realistic situation than what most students are forced to write today. And having learned the passion in this assignment, they will be able to "fake" the passion on standardized tests or future assignments because they will understand the successful techniques.

So what do you think? Any suggestions on how to make this assignment stronger? Or other "persuasive" assignments you gave or received that were particularly successful?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Literature of Value

I was trying to explain something in class last night that I've always kind of known, but I didn't have a very good explanation for. In trying to talk through my thoughts, I came up with some great terminology. This is probably a concept you are familiar with, even if you've never heard it spoken before. My terminology is classic of value vs. academic classic.

I think every one of us can name a book we read "because we had to," but admittedly, we really didn't like it. Maybe we even questioned the point of it. Then there are other books we've read that we come back to over and over because they always contain something new for us.

Last night we were talking about The Picture of Dorian Gray and how its themes and moral dilemmas are timeless. Shakespeare is the same way. I compared that to something like Ulysses by James Joyce which even the critics agree is not read for its story, but instead to "figure it out:" to try to reveal all the literary allusions, and the experimentation with style, and its revolutionary effect on the novel, and...and...and. In other words, unless you are in an advanced English studies program, you will never read it. Hence, an academic classic.

I just cannot fathom anyone writing something for the sole purpose of confusing and frustrating his/her readers. But according to his own word, that is essentially Joyce's purpose. That way he guaranteed he would be immortal.

So most of us probably aren't writing "literary" pieces per se, but I would contend that the best pieces of fiction (and nonfiction) have literary elements to them. Look at Lord of the Rings. Written as a piece of fiction decades ago, but still as enjoyed and applicable today. Fifty years from now, will people still be reading the Twilight series?  Probably not. Not that it isn't a fun series; I personally quite enjoyed it. But I read it purely for pleasure, and there isn't much of a literary element to it. Harry Potter, on the other hand, although primarily a "fun" piece of fiction, still has the age-old good vs. evil theme complete with its tragical aspects, sacrifices, and loss in the midst of triumph. So I would guess that one will stick around for a while.

So how will your writing be remembered? Valuable? Academic? Or simply forgotten?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grammar Pet Peeves

So I have this textbook for one of my classes (drier than dry), and it has adopted a "style" of punctuation that absolutely drives me nuts. Now, in the great grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter, especially since it is consistent throughout. But it just irks me, and since I have no where else to really complain, I'm going to spout off here. Then hopefully I'll be able to get over it and ignore it for the rest of the semester.

This book has decided to put its initial quotation marks as single rather than double marks. So a direct quote would be, 'This is a direct quote.' Or 'This is a "quote within a quote."' Annoying. Especially since this is actually a collection of scholarly English essays. Come on, people. Hasn't anyone heard of MLA?

Another grammatical pet peeve - bad signs. If you are going to expose something to the public (like on a marquee, flier, etc.), please for heaven's sake, make sure it's correct first! Save the rest of us the pain and suffering. I could name countless times when this annoyance has popped up, but instead click here for a perfect (and amusing) case-in-point.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Institutions of Higher...Learning?

So, I was reading an AP newsstory today about a new study coming out indicating that colleges really don't teach students anything. According to the report, having tested students across the country when they entered college and two years later as sophomores, they found that there was no increase in critical thinking skills, complex reasoning, or writing.

Well, the writing aspect worries me a little bit because writing should be a part of every class regardless of subject area. But, according to the report, most of these students didn't have a single class that required 20 pages of writing (I understood that as a total amount, not a final paper), or 40 pages of reading per week. Now, I'm not expecting copious amounts of writing in many classes other than maybe English and history, nor do I think there will probably be much in classes like chemistry that are focusing more on the calculations/formulas. But, come on. Twenty pages?  That's less than a page-and-a-half per week. For any. One. Class.

However, the lack of increased critical thinking or complex reasoning doesn't really worry me much. And here's why: for the most part, the first two years of college are filled with general education classes. That means they are geared for the masses to give a broad-based knowledge. I'm the first to admit that there were some classes I took just because I had to, and I didn't really learn anything from them. Mostly a waste of time (and money), really, but I had to have that little letter listed on my transcript in order to get my degree.  So the study's testing results coming from the end of the sophomore year I think automatically skews results.

In other words, these students are not going to have themselves pushed or stretched until they reach the upper division classes, usually in the junior and senior years. So no surprise that these skills did not increase in the study. And me personally, I don't know that I "gained" any critical thinking skills in college; I think I probably just learned new methods of application for those skills. But maybe I'm the exception rather than the rule.

So what do you think? Are our colleges and universities failing our students? Or do you think they are doing an adequate job? Is the study flawed, or does it have something to tell us?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Modernists Got It Right...100 Years Ago

So one of my New Year's Resolutions is to blog at least weekly. I know, I know. I tried that once and then failed kind of miserably by the end of the year. But that's what new years are for, right?

So, anyway, here I am, but I don't really know what to talk about. So I'm just going to kinda mention something I've been thinking about a little. So I'm working on my Master's and my current class is the Modern English novel ("Modern" not "Contemporary" -- think 1890ish through WWII). We've only discussed it a little bit, but we've examined a few novelists' philosophies on their art, and I have to say, they had it figured out a hundred years ago.

Be realistic. Henry James and Virginia Woolf believed that in order for literature to "live" and breathe, it must be realistic. That does not, however, negate  fiction. Fiction in some cases can be even more "realistic" than reality if treated correctly. It just means that the writing must reflect the accuracies of life (however you personally define those accuracies).

Trust the tale. D.H. Lawrence believes that literature should be separated from its author. Only when the author tries to remove him/herself from the writing can it really have a strong social impact. The author may write about moral topics, but he/she should not try to define that morality to the reader. Let the story carry the author's point by itself.

Play with words. Gertrude Stein advocated experimentation with language. Concentrate on the sound and flow of words more than the grammatical structure, and sometimes an alternate, equally provocative meaning will emerge.

Be aware of the new. Ford Madox Ford was a fairly successful author himself, but encouraged and supported the younger authors coming behind him in their art. He recognized the potential and allowed for an outlet for such names as Joseph Conrad and Ezra Pound. Thus Ford did what he did well, but also encouraged the success of those around him.

Imagine it. All the modernists emphasize imagination in one form or another. I do not believe anyone can write without some amount of experience coming into play -- even if that experience is reading a news article. After that experience, the imagination can take over and dramatize the events from the article into a new, personal, unique story.

Caveat: Anyone who knows much about the modernists will probably disagree with my brief analysis above, and that is why I publish a caveat. I will be the first to agree that many of these novelists are difficult to read, and their styles are vastly different from contemporary literature. And here's the difference -- the modernists did figure it out 100 years ago, but they each figured out a separate piece. The examples listed above focused solely on their piece of the philosophy to the detriment of the other pieces. For example, Stein experimented with language and punctuation so much that some of her writing is almost nonsensical. And we all know how difficult Pound can be to figure out sometimes. And although Lawrence says the author should be separated from his/her writing, he certainly did not do it himself. His sexual issues come blatantly through in his writing, and it makes it almost painful to read. Nevertheless...

So the summarized caveat is that they had it figured out, just not all put together. Now, zoom forward a hundred years to 2011, and the best literature is a balance of all the philosophies listed above.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I read this book a couple of months back, but the holidays were so hectic that I didn't get a chance to post my review before now. And this was such a fabulous book, there was no way I wanted to neglect it.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time is written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It is Mortenson's memoir told from his perspective, but is actually written by Relin from extensive interviews.

The story starts out with Mortenson attempting to summit the world-famous mountain K2, but through various circumstances not entirely his fault, failing to do so. As he climbs back down the mountain behind his guide, he misses a turn because he is so weak and ill, and ends up in a tiny Pakistani village. The villagers, who barely survive on the mountain themselves, selflessly nurse him back to health. In gratitude to their service, he promises to return to the village with enough money and supplies to build them a school. This promise drives his lifetime career to building around a hundred schools (presently) throughout Pakistan and into Afghanistan.

The beginning of the story is a little bit slow and difficult to get into because there is so much background information to ground the reader. However, I cannot really think of anything in it that could have been left out, so instead you must just push through the first few chapters. These first chapters are not boring or tedious per se; they just read more like an informational text than a story.  But once Mortenson leaves the village to return to the USA, the driving presence of the story begins to emerge.

The true presence of the book is simply Mortenson's character: his tenacity, his determination, his refusal to accept no, even his pure luck. At times, he happens to be in the right place at the right time, or just say the right thing, but his personality is such that he knows how to further his situation, whatever it may be.

He stands out from other Westerners who visit the Middle East because he genuinely cares about the people he is among. He disregards their culture or religion and instead focuses on their characters. At one point in the story, he even asks a shopkeeper to teach him how to pray the Muslim way. (It is clear throughout the book that he is very spiritual and has a strong belief in God, although he never ascribes to any particular denomination; it seems he is Christian.)

He judges people upon their actions solely, calling some "good Muslims" or "bad Muslims," but only when a native has termed the individual as such before.  And it is all based upon how closely the individual follows the teachings of Islam. He respects the natives, and frequently seeks out some he can trust to help him with his business transactions and politics. Indeed, he tries as much as possible to make the natives the "face" of his organization, installing them into high-ranking positions.

Mortenson's perseverence stands out the most throughout the novel. When trying to build the first (and at the time for him, only) school, he lives out of his car as he tries to work as a nurse and find donors to help him fund the school. He returns to Pakistan after acquiring the money to purchase local supplies and finds that everyone else wants him to build his school for them. He refuses and eventually makes it back to the original village. After arriving, he is devastated to find they want him to build a bridge first. More time, more plans, more supplies, more money. And the Pakistani builder who acquired most of his original supplies for him has also cheated him out of the supplies. But he continues on and sets a precedent for future projects.

After learning the hard way, he only enters villages into which he is invited. He requires the villagers put in 50 percent of the costs to ensure their buy-in, whether it be in land, labor, or other resources. And he requires that the girls have the same opportunity to be educated as the boys. He has found that boys move away, but girls remain in their villages, so they are the ones who needed to be educated in order to raise the entire community.

There are more things to talk about in this inspiring story than I have the space for here. Mortenson is truly one of the world's great men. I would put him on par with Mother Teresa as far as character and service to those in the greatest need of it. His story of accomplishing great things through pure strength of will shows his readers that anything is truly possible if you believe in it enough. There is a definite reason why this book has become the talk of the nation, even including the military leaders fighting in this same region of the world.