Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Toy Barn or Theme in Fiction?

Eighteen years ago, when my son, Walt, was one he received a plastic barn for his birthday. The barn came with a farmer, a tractor, and some brightly colored shaped pieces: a blue triangle, an orange square, and a yellow circle. The red roof had cutouts matched to the shapes, a convenient tool for learning. Once my son figured out which shapes went in which holes, the pieces stayed in the bottom of the toy box, but thanks to the sturdy white handle on the top of the barn, it moved all around the house.

Over the next several weeks, Walt spent hours assessing nearly every toy in the house — using not only the cutout holes in the roof but also the barn doors that slid apart, a roof that lifted like a lid, and an open-topped silo. To complete each assessment he would try to fit the toy through each shape hole, inside the barn doors (and allow the doors to close), under the roof and then down the silo. On some occasions a toy would get stuck; sometimes he could shake it out and sometimes he’d seek help.

The image of his toy assessments has remained in my memory, and my husband’s and mother’s, all these years. For me it is the image of the basic elements of story theme. The barn is the theme, the constant being tested, the toys aspects of plot and characterization that explore and reveal the flexibilities and limitations of theme, and the stuck toys, conflicts to be resolved. John Gardner’s definition of theme echoes my image.

By theme…we mean not “message”—a word no good writer like applied to his work—but the general subject. Given his choice of theme…the writer sharpens and clarifies his ideas, or finds out exactly what it is that he must say, testing his beliefs against reality as the story represents it, by examining every element in the story for its possible implications with regard to his theme. (p70, The Art of Fiction)

Janet Burroway indicates that theme runs throughout every aspect of a novel: actions, characters, setting, dialogue, objects, pace, metaphors and symbols, viewpoint, atmosphere, style, even syntax and punctuation, and even in some cases typography. (p17, Writing Fiction) She continues to note that theme is not “truth” but a point of reference for possible truth.

"The value of the literary experience is that it allows us to judge an idea at two levels of consciousness, the rational and the emotional, simultaneously. The kind of ‘truth’ that can be told through thematic resonance is many-faceted and can acknowledge the competing of many truths, exploring paradox and contradictions."(pp358-359)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Thirty Days and Nights...

Waiting for a reason to get started writing? Want to be part of something bigger than yourself?

Me? I think I just need some external motivation...maybe I'll try National Novel Writing Month.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fiction as a Springboard for Expository Writing

“Literature offers feeling for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings—intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion—have consequences, and powerful feelings may risk powerful consequences.” (Burroway, Writing Fiction) For many readers this is the draw of fiction—the vicarious emotional experience. Yet fiction does more than allow a reader to feel; it allows the reader to connect with others and to search for an understanding of life and life’s events. In John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction, he states that "the value of great fiction…is not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” The key to filling the human need to explore life and connect with others is by tapping into reader emotion and then in turn to the intellect.

That meeting place of creativity and intellect is unique to fiction. It is the creative nature of fiction that makes reading novels evoke an “afferent” process—meaning students put themselves in the work. (Rosenblatt, Theoretical Models and Processes, pp. 1057-1092, 1994) Once the student is immersed in the story, fiction’s distinct capacity to illuminate the human condition by fostering the interconnection of mind and spirit provides the opportunity to pull readers through explorations of universal themes while also speaking culturally, offering glimpses into different values, traditions, and life issues. This combination of characteristics invites discussion and critical thinking, two elements essential for successful expository writing.

Using fiction in expository writing courses gives students a way to reflect on previous perceptions and gain new perspectives. Josh Boyd, in his article, A Different Kind of [Text]Book: Using Fiction in the Classroom, notes,“ Novels…provide a different reading experience than do typical textbooks, a reading experience that can lead to student critical engagement with high-order questions.” (Communication Education v. 53 n. 4). Many social issues can be explored through novels. For example, works like THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz and THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker touch on the universal themes of struggling for personal identity and self acceptance while dealing with external conflicts such as racism and political. Such works provide a springboard for reflection, discussion, analysis, and writing.

Fiction related course assignments can include ongoing reflective journals, identifying universal themes and issues within the novel and using them to analyze current events, and student-led discussions exploring “what ifs” in regard to character decisions.

The benefits of assigning novels in expository writing courses are many. They include not only more lively course discussions, accompanied by deeper thinking, but also the fostering of student writers who are emotionally connected to their topics and intellectually invested in their writing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Author Intent: A Comparison of WHITE TEETH and OLIVE KITTERIDGE

Jerome Stern has suggested that self-conscious writers, “often keep a great distance from their characters, sounding as if they were writing encyclopedia entries instead of stories.” He adds that the distance created by their insecurity can prevent the reader from fully engaging in the story—from becoming transported. (p289, Writing) I would add that there are instances when the author consciously chooses to hold the reader at arm’s length thus narrowing psychic distance and preventing full immersion into the fictive dream.

Did Smith consciously do so in TEETH? In 2005, five years after TEETH was released, Smith responded to a similar question with, "As I get older," Smith reflected, "I think I'll be clearer about what it is I'm trying to do. At the moment, I just sort of stumble through." Did Strout consciously seek to connect emotionally with the reader?

In a 2006 interview, Strout was asked what book most influenced her writing. She responded with The Journals of John Cheever and added, “…there was something about the honesty found in Cheever's journals that gave me courage as a writer. And his ability to turn a phrase, to describe in a breath the beauty of a rainstorm or the fog rising off the river... all this arrived in my life as a writer at a time when I seemed ready to absorb his examples of what a sentence can do when written with the integrity of emotion and felicity of language.” (p18, Olive)

The relationship between the fictive dream and the degree of intellectuality or emotionality of a novel as shaped by the lack of or use of sensory detail is inevitable. An effective writer may make a conscious choice to not engage or engage the reader in the fictive dream; on the other hand, the decision may be made de facto. But does it matter if the writer made a conscious decision? Perhaps not.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Psychic Distance: A Comparison WHITE TEETH and OLIVE KITTERIDGE

While it is obvious that novels are written by people, the presence of the author may or may not be “felt” by the reader. Burroway describes this distance, is “the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters in a story.”1 It is the writer’s task to, based on the needs of the story, choose and control psychic distance.

There is a relationship between the degree of intellectuality and emotionality of a novel and the psychic distance found in the novel. In novels with a higher degree of intellectuality, there is a shorter psychic distance; in novels with a higher degree of emotionality, there is greater psychic distance.

In TEETH the author’s presence is keenly felt by the reader. This is due to the constant intellectualism and frequent author judgments of characters and situations. By contrast, in OLIVE, the author is farther away from the reader. This distance is the result of frequent and various sensory details which encourage the reader to feel, experience, rather than intellectualize.

In TEETH, Smith intentionally inhibits the emotional response of the reader and thus inhibits total immersion into the fictive dream. By withholding the emotional connection she forces the reader to be dependent on her. Smith’s characterization and detail selection demonstrate this. The following is a turning point passage in which the author is making a judgment about character, Samad, who is striving to get meaning out of life. As a result of the details, which require thought rather than emotion, the reader is not fully transported into the fictive dream and psychic distance limited.

"Samad has decided to “cement his friendship with Archie. Often this is done by passing on a singular piece of information: some sexual peccadillo, some emotional secret or obscure hidden passion that the reticence of new acquaintance has prevented being spoken. But for Samad, nothing was closer or meant more to him that his blood. It was natural then, as they sat on holy ground, that he should speak of what was holy to him.” (pp83-84)

Samad’s subsequent realization is the result of thinking and having knowledge which is brought on by “white dust” (morphine) that could be found like, “…hidden eggs on an addictive Easter trail.”

"Then every nerve in his body would be alive, and the information, all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire. Then his head would open out like a deckchair. And he would sit in it a while and watch his world go by. Tonight, after just more than enough, Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and like the world was a polished marble egg. And he felt a kinship with the dead dissenters…he wished he could speak with them about the mark they made on the world. Had it been enough? When death came, was it really enough? Were they satisfied with the thousand words they left behind?" (pp85-86)

While there is a simile that engages the sense of taste, again the majority of the details require thought rather than emotion and again limit psychic distance.

On the other hand, in OLIVE, Strout intentionally encourages the emotional connection through use characterization and detail selection. The following is a turning point passage in which the author invites the reader to make a judgment of the character who is striving to get meaning out of life. To accomplish this, Strout has included sensory details that promote an emotional response from the reader. As a result of the sensory detail, the reader is further into the fictive dream; there is greater psychic distance.

“…smaller rocks could be heard moving as the water shifted them. Also there was the twanging sound of the cables hitting the masts of the sailboats moored. A few seagulls gave squawking cries as they dove down to pick up the fish heads and tails and shining insides that the boy was tossing from the dock as he cleaned the mackerel. All this Kevin saw as he sat in his car with the window partly open…He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. The salt air filled his nose, the wild rugosa bushes with their white blossoms brought him a vague confusion; a sense of sad ignorance seemed cloaked in their benign petals.” (p31)

Kevin’s subsequent realization is the result of a conversation with Olive.

“What he began to want was to see his childhood house—a house he believed, even as he sat in his car now, that he had never once been happy in….That house where the sweat-shirts and woolen jackets stank like moist salt and musty wood—the smell made him sick, as did the smell of a wood fire, which his father sometimes had I the fireplace, poking at it in a distracted way. Kevin thought he must be the only person in the country who hated the smell of a wood fire. But the house, the trees tangled with woodbine, the surprise of a lady’s slipper in the midst of pine needles, the open leaves of the wild lilies of the valley—he missed it.” (p44)

As in the previous OLIVE passage, the majority of the details are sensory and again widen psychic distance.

In both TEETH and OLIVE the psychic distance has been carefully controlled throughout. This deliberate control is emphasized by the running heads of the novels. Although both TEETH and OLIVE are a collection of stories linked to tell one story, the running head layouts are not the same. In TEETH, “ZADIE SMITH” appears on the verso page and “WHITE TEETH” on the recto page. In OLIVE, “OLIVE KITTERIDGE” appears on the verso page and the title to the individual story on the recto page. Since putting the book title on the verso page is no longer common practice and putting the author’s name is2, it is reasonable to conclude that not placing the author’s name on the verso page of OLIVE was a conscious decision done in support of the intent of the novel.

1-p287, Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction

2-1.81, Chicago Manual of Style

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chocolate Cake is Always the Right Thing

I've had a couple requests for the chocolate cake recipe from my Let Them Eat Cake post back in August.

Chocolate Farm Cake

Ingredients for cake:

1 cup flour

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoons soft butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cup milk


Preheat oven to 350’

Grease bottom of 8 x 8 pan, line with wax paper, grease and flour.


In medium bowl, stir together dry ingredients and set aside.

In large bowl, beat butter for 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until well combined.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one, then beat in vanilla.

Alternately add dry ingredients and milk, beating until just combined after each.

Beat on medium to high for twenty seconds more.

Ingredients for frosting:

3 ounces unsweetened bakers chocolate

4 ounces soft cream cheese

2 tablespoons soft butter

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1 to 2 tablespoons milk


Coarsely chop bakers chocolate, melt, and cool to room temperature. Set aside.

Beat cream cheese and butter until well combined.

Beat in powdered sugar, ½ cup at a time.

Add cooled chocolate until smooth.

Beat in milk, as needed, to create desired texture.

Do not overbeat.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beyond Times Roman and Courier New

While doing some research for my next piece of literary analysis I came across this awesome website. For the Love of Type features great pictures and odd pieces of info on type setting.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Intellect and Emotion: A Comparison of WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith and OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

It is the nature of humans to experience emotion first and then respond intellectuallyA , therefore, tapping into reader emotion, as far away from intellect as possible, will make the fictive dream more effective. It is my opinion that sensory detail is particularly effective because it taps into the non-logical part of the brain—that part that was first to develop, that part that does not question as much as it accepts. Therefore, if a writer aims to reach the reader emotionally, it is essential that sufficient sensory detail be provided. This theory of mine came to mind while reading Zadie Smith’s WHITE TEETH. I was not particularly engaged with the story or characters and began to wonder why. Upon closer reading, I realized that the large majority of the details are factual or visualB . Take, for example, the opening passage of TEETH; a place it would seem the author would most want to engage the reader emotionally:

"Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him. He lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by the results. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact, it was a New Year’s resolution." (p3)

The reader sees the fumes, the character’s body position, and the items in his hands. While there is opportunity for the author to provide details that would allow the reader to hear, smell, touch, or even taste Archie’s demise, these details are not provided. As I continued to read, and found that the opening was not an exception but a rule, I determined this lack of sensory detail had a significant impact on the novel. While I did find the novel intriguing on an intellectual level, and was interested, I did not feel emotionally connected to the characters. I was not experiencing the story with them; I was not empathetic; I was not transported.

The opening of Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, is quite different in regard to reader engagement as a result of sensory detail.

"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summer-time roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold." (p3)

Here the reader is provided with less factual detail and a wider variety of sensory detail. For example, the reader can hear and feel the car tires. I believe the sense of smell is especially important to engage; because it the first of the human senses to develop it is the sense farthest from our logical thinking.

Relying heavily on sight and factual details prevents the reader from engaging emotionally with the story and its characters. This statement is not meant to imply that such writing is ineffective or undesirable. In fact, it may be the writer’s intention to limit the reader’s emotional response because by doing so the writer is compelling the reader to engage with the text primarily on an intellectual level; I believe this is the case with Smith’s WHITE TEETH. By contrast, Strout desires that emotional connection and relies on it to deliver the promise of the novel OLIVE KITTERIDGE.

End Notes:
A To be realistic, fiction should imitate reality. (p54, Techniques)

B In my opinion, visual detail is close to factual detail. Vision is the last of the senses to fully develop; it is the one humans rely on most. For those two reasons it is the sense most closely linked to the logical, critical, area of the brain.