Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: Writing a Woman's Life

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life (1988)
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

Highly recommended

In the "Introduction," feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)
Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded "unwomanly":

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)
* * * * *

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

* * * * *

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

* * * * *

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the "objectivity" of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:
Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women's lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)
These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls "reinventing marriage," for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other's strengths. "Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women's lives" (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman's Life is Heilbrun's explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: "I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself" (p. 113). "But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself" (p. 114).

My problem with any type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: "Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession" (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman's Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review: The Midnight Disease

Flaherty, Alice W. The Midnight Disease (2004) Houghton Mifflin, 307 pages, $24.00 hardcover ISBN 0-618-23065-3

Trained as a scientist, neurologist Alice W. Flaherty always enjoyed writing. But after the birth and death of premature twin boys, she had a mental breakdown that made her write nearly constantly, a condition known as hypergraphia. She took medication and was hospitalized for her mental state; the medication curbed her compulsion to write but also took away most of her emotion and passion about life. Her purpose in this book, subtitled The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, is to examine hypergraphia, writer's block, and creativity as brain states. In looking for scientific explanations of these states she discusses the functions of different areas of the brain and the role each area plays in creativity or blocked creativity.

Most writers have experienced writer’s block at some time and know that almost everything written about overcoming writer’s block consists of exhortations and exercises to help squelch their inner critic. Yet experienced writers who have been successful in their writing before often know that an inner critic is not what’s keeping them from producing. These writers may find some new insight from Flaherty’s discussion of block as a state associated with both anxiety and depression:

Writer's block that is linked to anxiety is often also tied to procrastination--the process that leads you to suddenly clean out your basement the week before a writing deadline. Procrastination of a different sort can accompany depression. For at the most fundamental (or simplistic) level, there are perhaps only two types of writer's black, high energy and low energy. Unlike low-energy block, high-energy block may worsen as your deadline approaches; it makes you sweat, makes you sit down only to jump up again. [. . .] In low-energy block, the desire that makes you sit down to write is a dull sense of guilt. Instead of ideas, you have only sterile ruminations on how things used to be when you could write, when the world had color. (p. 135)

Although scientists are still discovering how the brain works, Flaherty does have some suggestions for summoning the muse and avoiding writer’s block. "Three ingrained cycles are important for both mood and creativity: sleep, the seasons, and hormonal cycles" (p. 125). Many people, she says, sleep later than usual on weekends, then wake up on Monday with something like jet lag. "The treatment, studies have shown, is to keep the time one rises as constant as possible. The time one goes to sleep is less important" (p. 126). About the relationship between fatigue and writer’s block she says:

A short (less than fifteen-minute) nap during such a lag may be much more effective than coffee. The length of your nap, however, is important. Naps longer than fifteen minutes usually allow you to transition into dream sleep (rapid eye movement or REM-stage sleep), and you will wake up much groggier than if you had remained in nondream sleep. [. . .] sleep deprivation itself seems to decrease creativity, rather than increasing it. (p. 129)

It’s hard not to appreciate advice from a writer who declares, "I don't write to forget what happened; I write to remember. There are worse things in life than painful desire; one of them is to have no desire" (p. 205).

© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Book Review: Old Friend from Far Away

Goldberg, Natalie. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

New York: Free Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-4165-3502-7

Highly Recommended

In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg produced what has become a classic manual for writers eager to stir up their creativity. In Old Friend from Far Away she focuses her advice on memoir writing. The old friend of the title is, of course, you--all the yous, all the selves you’ve ever been or only dreamed of being. And the far away place is the past--50 or 80 years ago, or five minutes ago.

In the introduction Goldberg discusses why memoir has become so popular in America over the last 25 years: “Think of the word: memoir. . . . It is the study of memory, structured on the meandering way we remember. Essentially it is an examination of the zigzag nature of how our mind works” (p. xviii). We have turned to the memoir form with such gusto because “We have an intuition that it can save us. Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect. . . . Often without realizing it, we are on a quest, a search for meaning. What does our time on this earth add up to?” (p. xix).

Most other books for memoir writers aim to stir up memories in a fairly straightforward, traditional way, with prompts about things such as your early childhood memories, your favorite relatives, your best vacation. But Goldberg is much more unconventional. She warns that we cannot approach writing memoir head-on; we must approach it sideways: “because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are” (p. xxi).

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Goldberg means my approaching a topic sideways. It’s better to let her show you. Here’s a section from the entry “Place,” chosen at random from Old Friend from Far Away:
Write about a place you haven’t lived. Go, ten minutes.

Make a lost of thirty things pertaining to place; i.e., boulevard, street corner, gulley canyon, arroyo.
Write another ten minutes including ten words from your list but with this topic: the place I am most afraid to go.

Notice the different levels you can write about place. One is concrete: Colorado Springs, Colorado, Memphis, Tennessee. . . . The other is inner: I have not been in a peaceful place for a long time. I have been in a thoughtful place. I feel lost; I can’t find a place for myself. (p. 201)
Goldberg’s sideways approach to memoir writing forces us to probe beneath the surface of experience to find its kernel of meaning. “Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. This means when we write we give up ourselves” (p. 147).

Most of Goldberg’s writing exercises instruct us to set a timer and write for ten minutes. Why ten minutes?
Ten minutes is a convenient starting point. It’s a sprint. Feel free to ease into longer runs. But don’t abandon that ten-minute hard-core pressurized feeling that you have to get it all down on two or three pages. There is something wildly exhilarating about that: gun to the head, writing for life and death in ten minutes. (p. 98)
She seems to be advocating here a kind of writing sometimes called free writing or automatic writing--a keep-the-pen-moving-across-the-page act of writing that does not stop to edit or judge but keeps going to see what will emerge onto the page. The idea behind this kind of writing is that whatever thoughts, feelings, or visions are just below the surface of consciousness will take advantage of this uncensored opportunity to jump out and present themselves. And these thoughts are usually the ones that most need our attention right now.

Finally, why write memoir? Goldberg says we write about our life
to remember all of it. The good and the bad. To trust your experience, to have a confidence that your moments and the moments of others on this earth mattered, not to be forgotten. . . . It is a great thing you are doing whatever it is you are remembering. You are saying that life--and its passing--have true value. (p. 265)
And for whom do we write? For “our better, worse, encumbered, forfeited, imprisoned, beloved selves” (p. 299).

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: A Writer's Space

Maisel, Eric. A Writer's Space.

Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2008
ISBN 1-59869-460-X


In this little (5.5 in. wide by 6.25 in. tall) book Maisel, a therapist and creativity coach, uses the metaphor of space “to communicate how you can get a grip on your writing life and transform yourself from an occasional writer to a regular writer” (p. 3). All your writing space needs, he says, is “a chair, a table, silence, and a little awe” (p. 5).

Maisel divides his discussion into nine sections:

  1. physical space
  2. home space
  3. mind space
  4. emotional space
  5. reflective space
  6. imagined space
  7. public space
  8. existential space
  9. epilogue: creative space: a writing fable

This book is not about the craft or the mechanics of writing (e.g., punctuation, sentence structure). In fact, the weakest section is “imagined space,” where Maisel touches briefly on such issues of composition (probably in an effort to fill out the book’s contents a bit). No, this book is about the mind-set necessary to become a committed, productive writer.

One of the most useful parts of this book is chapter 14, “creative mindfulness,” in which Maisel distinguishes between traditional mindfulness--”the nonjudgmental observation and acknowledgment of our thoughts” (p. 81)--and creative mindfulness, the purpose of which is “to master mindfulness . . . and to employ that mastery in the service of deep thought, rich action, and wide-awake living” (p. 83). He identifies six principles of creative mindfulness:

  1. Fearlessly observe your own thoughts.
  2. Detach from the thoughts you are thinking.
  3. Appraise your thoughts.
  4. Restate your intentions based on your appraisal.
  5. Free your neurons, empty your mind, and ready yourself for creating.
  6. Explode into your work.

These six steps can help you bring creative mindful intention to your work, which will, in turn, make you a better and more productive writer.

Another particularly useful section of the book is chapter 16, “the weight of individuality,” in which Maisel briefly--perhaps a bit TOO briefly--addresses the common theme of the association between artistic creativity and mental instability:
Nature is not stupid. Nature makes the calculation that, for an individual to truly be individual, it had better invest him with enough power, passion, energy, and appetite to manifest that individuality. . . . It should also be clear how this extra energy and fuller appetite lead to conditions such as addiction, mania, and insatiability. (p. 99)

Fortunately, Maisel follows this chapter with another on “quick centering,” a method you can use “to center and quiet your mind and your emotions by taking ten-second pauses” (p. 103).

You’ll have to get your grammar help elsewhere. But for information on how to be in the world as a writer, check out this little book.

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Book Review: The Friend Who Got Away

Offill, Jenny, and Elissa Schappell, eds.
The Friend Who Got Away
New York: Doubleday, 2005


We're stuck with our families, but we get to choose our friends. And although it's hard to pin down the formula for creating friendship, we all know the magic of friendship when we're lucky enough to find it.

But we also recognize the pain that results from losing a friend, no matter what the reason. The formula for how friendships dissolve is hard to pin down, too. Twenty professional writers try to describe the process of losing a friend in this book, whose subtitle is Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away.

Only one of the book's contributors discussed a friendship that ended with the death of the author's friend. That writer went on to describe a relationship that formed between herself and the mother of the girl who had died. Soon after the girl's death these two survivors united in their love for and remembrance of her. But eventually their bond, which had originally provided solace for each of them, turned into a painful reminder that prevented both of them from moving on. The lost friendship the author focuses on in her essay is this later one between herself and the mother, a friendship that gradually faded away.

Why so little discussion about friendships that ended with the death of a friend? Probably because the death of a friend doesn't have to end the friendship. Sure, death removes the friend from our physical presence, but not from our memory. In memory, the friend and the friendship live on. We may lose friends to death, but we don't therefore lose their friendship.

No, when we talk about losing friendships, we are talking about the relationships that die out for some reason other than death--reasons such as money or misunderstanding, changed circumstances or a failure to communicate, or perhaps a life-altering event that fundamentally changes one of the people in the friendship.

These are the kinds of losses the essays in The Friend Who Got Away tell us about. There's the story of a woman whose several miscarriages alienate her from two long-time friends who become pregnant and deliver healthy babies; an essay about the dissolution of a life-long friendship because of a disagreement about money; tales of betrayal by a friend who seduced the author's boyfriend and of a former friend who tried to usurp the author's identity by wearing the same clothes and assuming the same mannerisms. In an interesting pairing, two women, who were both close to their mothers, each gives her perspective on the breakup of their friendship when one's mother got cancer and then died.

Perhaps the most poignant story in the book is novelist Ann Hood's description of the painful ending of a 35-year friendship. When Hood's 5-year-old daughter died suddenly of an infectious disease in 2002, this long-time friend never contacted Hood in any way to offer condolences. At the time when Hood most needed her friends, this woman abandoned her.

What makes a person abandon a friend at a time of such grief? Perhaps it's a form of magical thinking known as "magical contagion"--the irrational belief that we can "catch" bad luck from someone who has it, as if misfortune were a contagious disease.

I think, though, that more often the reason is that we simply feel awkward and don't know what to say; afraid of saying the wrong thing, we stay away and say nothing at all. But nothing at all is exactly the worst thing to say at a painful time. Almost anything we might say is infinitely better than saying nothing. If this other person is our friend, surely we can talk to her. We can say, "I don't know what to do for you. Please tell me what you need from me right now." Or we can say, "I can't imagine what I could possibly say to you right now, so I'm just going to sit with you for a while and hold your hand." Even if our friend asks us to leave her alone, at least we have made an effort to communicate and have not abandoned her. And once we've made this effort, the avenue for reconnection later will be open, as it will not be if we have stayed away and said nothing.

The essays in The Friend Who Got Away demonstrate that, just as there is no one magic formula for creating friendships, there is also no generic formula for how friendships end. This volume shows how our truly lost friendships, those whose ending we either mourn or rejoice over but whose existence--no matter how fleeting--has touched us, leave us forever transformed.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

O'Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
New York: Harcourt, 2006
ISBN 978-0-15-101411-8


This novel is about family stories--in this case, the truths that don't get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void--and how those stories reverberate through generations.

Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris's only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer's disease.

Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty's sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution's paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty's sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father's face in Esme's.

Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.

Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:
  1. the straightforward third-person narration of Iris's life
  2. the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme's schizophrenic memories and thoughts
  3. the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty's dementia
Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to put together the pieces of the puzzle in a process that amply demonstrates that there's always more than one side to every story.

In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book's abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris's new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader's investment of time and effort.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox deals with many important issues: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Another Fake Memoir

Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction - New York Times

Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones was published last week. In this memoir Margaret B. Jones claims to be a half-white, half-Native American who grew up as a foster child in the gangland of South-Central Los Angeles and ran drugs for the Bloods. In reality, "Margaret B. Jones" is Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.

Faking a memoir seems to be a growing trend:
The revelations of Ms. Seltzer’s mendacity came in the wake of the news last week that a Holocaust memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, was a fake, and perhaps more notoriously, two years ago James Frey, the author of a best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” admitted that he had made up or exaggerated details in his account of his drug addiction and recovery.
Seltzer's identity was revealed when her sister saw an article with accompanying photo in a New York Times article last week and notified the book's publisher, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, that the story was untrue. Seltzer had worked on the book for three years with Riverhead editor Sarah McGrath. Seltzer's sister wonders how a publisher could have worked so long on a project without doing any fact-checking.

The book also fooled several reviewers, including The New York Times's own Michiko Kakutani, who praised the “humane and deeply affecting memoir,” while noting that some of the scenes “can feel self-consciously novelistic at times.”

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Review: The Reader, the Text, the Poem

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978)
Carbondale, Ill., 196 pages, $10.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-8093-0883-5

Rosenblatt is one of the proponents of the reader-response theory of literary criticism, a concept that emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to New Criticism, which treated a literary work as an object that should be considered without reference to the reader’s experience of it. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the reader’s reaction while reading a literary work in what Rosenblatt in the preface of this book calls “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In reaction to the New Critics, Rosenblatt tells us, “I rejected the notion of the poem-as-object, and the neglect of both author and reader” (p. xii).

In Chapter 1: The Invisible Reader, Rosenblatt says that toward the end of the eighteenth century, the author emerged as a dominant entity in a work of literature. “Even those who seemed to continue the concern for reality admitted ultimately the preeminence of the author […]. Thus the reader was left to play the role of invisible eavesdropper” (p. 2). Further, the “twentieth-century reaction against the obsession with the poet and his emotions” brought “even more unrelenting invisibility” to the reader (p. 3).

Chapter 2: The Poem as Event rejects New Criticism’s contention that a literary work exists on its own, independent of either its author or the reader:
The poem […] must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem. This becomes part of the ongoing stream of his life experience, to be reflected on from any angle important to him as a human being. (p. 12)

“The text of a poem or of a novel or a drama is like a musical score” (p. 13), Rosenblatt says. Further, “’The Poem’ seen as an event in the life of a reader, as embodied in a process resulting from the confluence of reader and text, should be central to a systematic theory of literature” (p. 16).

Chapter 3: Efferent and Aesthetic Reading sets out to define the difference between reading a work of literature and reading another kind of written communication such as a newspaper article or scientific treatise “by showing how the event that produces the reading of a poem differs from other reading-events” (p. 23). Rosenblatt defines the type of reading in which the main purpose is to take away information (e.g., reading a newspaper article, a recipe, a history book) as “efferent” (p. 24). “In aesthetic reading, in contrast, the reader’s primary concern is with what happens during the actual reading event” (p. 24). She acknowledges that sometimes “the same text may be read either efferently or aesthetically” (p. 25). In explaining her theory of the reader’s experience, Rosenblatt refers to Coleridge’s famous statement about poetry: “The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself” (p. 28; Rosenblatt’s italics).

In Chapter 4: Evoking a Poem Rosenblatt explains that the experience of evoking the poem goes on as the reader gets further into the work. The term poem here refers to the artistic creation that the reader constructs while reading a literary work. (Rosenblatt is not discussing only poetry here, but any artistic work of literature.) The reader, she continues, “is immersed in a creative process that goes on largely below the threshold of awareness” (p. 52). This process “imposes the delicate task of sorting the relevant from the irrelevant in a continuing process of selection, revision, and expansion” (p. 53):
As one decodes the opening lines or sentences and pages of a text, one begins to develop a tentative sense of a framework within which to place what will follow. Underlying this is the assumption that this body of words, set forth in certain patterns and sequences on the page, bears the potentiality for a reasonably unified or integrated, or at the very least coherent, experience. One evolves certain expectations about the diction, the subject, the ideas, the themes, the kind of text, that will be forthcoming. Each sentence, each phrase, each word, will signal certain possibilities and exclude others, thus limiting the arc of expectations. What the reader has elicited from the text up to any point generates a receptivity to certain kinds of ideas, overtones, or attitudes. Perhaps one can think of this as an alerting of certain areas of memory, a stirring-up of certain reservoirs of experience, knowledge, and feeling. As the reading proceeds, attention will be fixed on the reverberations of implications that result from fulfillment or frustration of those expectations. (p. 54)

This process itself is part of the appeal of reading a work of literature:
interest seems to be the name given to the reader’s need to live through to some resolution of the tensions, questions, curiosity or conflicts aroused by the text. This need to resolve, to round out, gives impetus to the organizing activity of the reader. What we call a sense of form also manifests itself in such progression, the arousal of expectations, the movement toward some culmination or completion. (pp. 54-55)

Perhaps this notion of interest explains the appeal of a book like Corelli’s Mandolin, in which not much seems to happen for the first 150 pages or so. “Underlying all this organizing activity […] is the assumption that the text offers the basis for a coherent experience […]. If such a putting-together, such a com-position, does not eventually happen, the cause may be felt to be either a weakness in the text, or a failure on the reader’s part” (p. 55).

One potential objection to the reader-response theory of literary criticism is that it suggests that anyone’s reading of a work is just as valid as any other reading, since the whole point is for a particular person to react to the work. But Rosenblatt explains that some readings are more informed than others and that people can become better readers through practice and experience:
Past literary experiences serve as subliminal guides as to the genre to be anticipated, the details to be attended to, the kinds of organizing patterns to be evolved […]. Traditional subjects, themes, treatments, may provide the guides to organization and the background against which to recognize something new or original in the text […]. Awareness—more or less explicit—of repetitions, echoes, resonances, repercussions, linkages, cumulative effects, contrasts, or surprises is the mnemonic matrix for the structuring of emotion, idea, situation, character, plot—in short, for the evocation of a work of art. (pp. 57-58)

“For the experienced reader, much of this has become automatic, carried on through a continuing flow of responses, syntheses, readjustment, and assimilation. Under such pressure, the irrelevant or confusing referents for the verbal symbols evidently often are ignored or are not permitted to rise into consciousness” (p. 58). Anyone who has seen the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis knows how this process of ignoring what doesn’t fit works. The reader’s reading process allows “compatible associations into the focus of attention” (p. 60).

Rosenblatt further addresses this potential objection to reader-response criticism in Chapter 5: The Text: Openness and Constraint. Here she is concerned with “the wide range of referential and affective responses that might be activated, and the fact that the reader must manage these responses, must select from them” (p. 75). Remembering that the reading process is a “two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship,” she insists that a reader’s response to the text must be grounded in the text itself: “when we turn from the broader environment of the reading act to the text itself, we need to recognize that a very important aspect of a text is the cues it provides as to what stance the reader should adopt” (p. 81).
The importance of the text is not denied by recognition of its openness. The text is the author’s means of directing the attention of the reader […]. The reader, concentrating his attention on the world he [the author] has evoked, feels himself freed for the time from his own preoccupations and limitations. Aware that the blueprint of this experience is the author’s text, the reader feels himself in communication with another mind, another world. (p. 86)

Finally, one becomes a better reader through practice and experience: “As with all texts, the reader must bring more than a literal understanding of the individual words. He must bring a whole body of cultural assumptions, practical knowledge, awareness of literary conventions, readinesses to think and feel. These provide the basis for weaving a meaningful structure around the clues offered by the verbal symbols” (p. 88).

Rosenblatt continues this argument in Chapter 6: The Quest for “The Poem Itself,” where she emphasizes that she does not “claim that anything any reader makes of the text is acceptable. Two prime criteria of validity as I understand it are the reader’s interpretation not be contradicted by any element of the text, and that nothing be projected for which there is no verbal basis” (p. 115). The New Critics, she argues, sought
to rescue the poem as a work of art from earlier confusions with the poem either as a biographical document or as a document in intellectual and social history. A mark of twentieth-century criticism thus became depreciation of such approaches to literature and development of the technique of “close reading” of the work as an autonomous entity […]. The reaction against romantic impressionism fostered the ideal of an impersonal or objective criticism. Impressionist critics were charged with forgetting “the poem itself” as they pursued the adventures of their souls among masterpieces. (p. 102)

In the final chapter, Chapter 7: Interpretation, Evaluation, Criticism, Rosenblatt addresses what she sees as a division that has resulted from too great an emphasis on New Criticism:
Recent critical and literary theory is replete with references to “the informed reader,” “the competent reader,” “the ideal reader.” All suggest a certain distinction from, if not downright condescension toward, the ordinary reader. This reflects the elitist view of literature and criticism that in recent decades has tended to dominate academic and literary circles. (p. 138)

Let us look at the reality of the literary enterprise, of “literature” as a certain kind of activity of human beings in our culture. Instead of a contrast or break between the ordinary reader and the knowledgeable critic, we need to stress the basic affinity of all readers of literary works of art. The general reader needs to honor his own relationship with the text. (p. 140)

She wishes to break down elitism based upon the supposed quality of one’s reading preferences: “Despite the differences between the readings of great or technically complex works and the readings of popular ‘trashy’ works, they share some common attributes: the aesthetic stance, the living-through, under guidance of the text, of feelings, ideas, actions, conflicts, and resolutions beyond the scope of the reader’s own world” (p. 143).

The literary critic is, after all, just another reader.
Like other readers, critics may reveal the text’s potentialities for responses different—perhaps more sensitive and more complex—from our own. The critic may have developed a fuller and more articulate awareness of the literary, ethical, social, or philosophic concepts that he brings to the literary transaction, and may thus provide us with a basis for uncovering the assumptions underlying our own responses. In this way, critics may function not as stultifying models to be echoed but as teachers, stimulating us to grow in our own capacities to participate creatively and self-critically in literary transactions. […] we must at least hope for an increasingly independent body of readers, who take the critic not as model but as a fellow reader, with whom to agree or disagree, or whose angle of vision may in some instances seem remote from their own. (pp. 148-149)

Finally, Rosenblatt wants to put the joy back into reading: “it is hard at times, in reading twentieth-century analyses of the themes and symbols and technical strategies of a work, to discover whether the critic had even a glimmering of personal pleasure in the literary transaction, or a sense of personal significance” (p. 158).

The concept of transactional analysis of literature has profound implications for the educational system, Rosenblatt says:
a primary concern throughout would be the development of the individual’s capacity to adopt and to maintain the aesthetic stance, to live fully and personally in the literary transaction. From this could flow growth in all the kinds of resources needed for transactions with increasingly demanding and increasingly rewarding texts. And from this would flow, also, a humanistic concern for the relation of the individual literary event to the continuing life of the reader in all its facets—aesthetic, moral, economic, or social. (p. 161)

This theory of reading, she implies, will give literature back to the people: “The academic critical culture persists in ignoring, or at least laments, the mass and ‘middlebrow’ literary institutions in our society. The transactional formulation offers a theoretical bridge between the two literary cultures that now exist side by side” (p. 160). Indeed,
Perhaps we should consider the text as an even more general medium of communication among readers. As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretations. We may help one another to attend to words, phrases, images, scenes, that we have overlooked or slighted. We may be led to reread the text and revise our own interpretation. Sometimes we may be strengthened in our own sense of having “done justice to” the text, without denying its potentialities for other interpretations. Sometimes the give-and-take may lead to a general increase in insight and even to a consensus. (p. 146)

And it is this final point that makes the reader-response theory of literary criticism so appealing right now. For what is Rosenblatt describing in this passage but a book group? And, even before Oprah jumped on the bandwagon, book groups were among the hottest crazes across America.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review: Inventing the Truth

Zinsser, William (ed.). Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1987)
Houghton Mifflin Company, 166 pages, $16.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-395-44526-4

This book originated as a series of talks sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., and presented at The New York Public Library in the winter of 1986. The book contains a memoir and introduction by William Zinsser, along with sections by Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Alfred Kazin, Toni Morrison, and Lewis Thomas.

In his introductory section, "Writing and Remembering," Zinsser says that for this series of talks
"Memoir" was defined as some portion of a life. Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn't possible in autobiography; memoir is a window into a life. (p. 21)
Other scholars writing about memoir would not agree with Zinsser about the distinction between autobiography and memoir; most use the two terms synonymously. Most, though, would probably agree with some of Zinsser's other generalizations:
  • "…a good memoir is also a work of history, catching a distinctive moment in the life of both a person and a society" (p. 22).
  • "Ego is at the heart of all the reasons why anybody writes a memoir, whether it's a book or a pamphlet or a letter to our children. Memoir is how we validate our lives" (p. 24).
  • "One central point emerged: the writer of a memoir must become the editor of his own life. He must cut and prune an unwieldy story and give it a narrative shape. His duty is to the reader, not himself" (p. 24).
This last point, about narrative shape, emerges most clearly in Russell Baker's section entitled "Life with Mother." Baker says that he finally decided to write the story of his childhood when his mother experienced what he calls a living death: her "mind went out one day as though every circuit in the city had been blown" (p. 40). Being a good journalist, he interviewed all his elderly family members and wrote a long manuscript in which everything was dutifully recorded, annotated and referenced. It was a good piece of journalism but an awful story. When Baker finally realized that the significance hinged on the story of a boy and his mother, he rewrote the entire manuscript. The new version became Growing Up, which is among the best known and most loved of American memoirs.

Annie Dillard also emphasizes the notion of memoir as an account crafted to express an idea, part of a genre she calls literary nonfiction: "…nonfiction accounts may be literary insofar as the parts of their structures cohere internally, insofar as the things are in them for the sake of the work itself, and insofar as the work itself exists in the service of idea" (p. 73).

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Book Review: Truth and Beauty

Patchett, Ann. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
New York: HarperCollins, 2004
ISBN 0-06-057214-0


Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy both attended college at Sarah Lawrence at the same time, although they were not friends there. Ann tells us that at Sarah Lawrence everyone--students and faculty--knew Lucy as a tremendously talented poet. Everyone also knew Lucy's story: that childhood cancer had required the removal of much of her jaw, that she had endured years of radiation and chemotherapy, that those treatments were followed by several more years of largely unsuccessful reconstructive surgery.

After graduation, both Ann and Lucy were accepted into the prestigious Iowa writer's program. When Lucy heard that Ann was going to Iowa early to look for an apartment, she asked Ann to look for an apartment for her as well. She couldn't afford to make the trip herself, Lucy said. Neither woman could afford more than $200 a month. Ann could not find even one apartment within their price range, let alone two, so she rented a two-bedroom duplex for $375 a month for them to share.

At the end of the summer Ann arrived to find the floors of the duplex smelling of cleaning solution. Then Lucy, who had washed the floors three days earlier, entered and leaped into Ann's arms:

I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first. I felt I had been chosen by Lucy and I was thrilled. I was twenty-one years old and very strong. She had a habit of pitching herself into my arms like a softball without any notice. She liked to be carried. (p. 7)

That was the beginning of a friendship that would last for 17 years, until Lucy died of an accidental overdose of heroin in 2002 at the age of 39.

During those 17 years both women worked toward publication, literary awards, grants, and fellowships. Lucy's struggles seem especially desperate as Ann describes Lucy's frequent need for reassurance that she was a good writer and that she was loved. Ann thought that Lucy had finally found her voice as a writer with the publication of Lucy's memoir Autobiography of a Face in 1994. But as Lucy began to make promotional appearances for the book, it quickly became evident that her audiences were interested in her as a cancer survivor, not as a writer. Although she always tried to steer discussions toward her writing, audiences insisted on asking for details of her cancer story.

When I reviewed Autobiography of a Face (see previous post or click here) in 1998 (before Lucy's death), I found the book quite disturbing--not for what it says, but for what it doesn't say. As well written as the book is, it leaves out a lot about the experiences it deals with. I can understand why readers always asked Lucy for more details: They're looking for hope and for answers from someone who survived the disease. Yet those are the very areas that the book does not deal with. Ignoring such huge and salient chunks of one's personal experience is not what the phrase "a writer finding her voice" means to me.

Ann Patchett admits that it wasn't always easy being a friend to the very emotionally needy Lucy Grealy, who frequently turned to alcohol, sex, and drugs to ease her pain. But there was always that huge and permanent love, which transcended all else. At the end of Truth and Beauty Ann says that Lucy still haunts her dreams. Ann's memoir is a tribute both to Lucy and to the meaning of friendship and love.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Review: Autobiography of a Face

Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face
Houghton Mifflin , 223 pages
ISBN 0-395-65780-6

Lucy Grealy was 10 years old when a ball hit her in the face during school recess. That playground accident probably saved her life because an x-ray of her swollen jaw revealed a malignant tumor. Autobiography of a Face is Grealy's memoir of the surgery that removed most of her lower right jaw, the following chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the pain of growing up disfigured, the butt of other children's teasing and cruel jokes.

What Grealy went through is so awful that it seems irrelevant and insensitive to criticize her writing. She paints a horrifying picture of the treatment she had to go through, particularly the chemotherapy that made her body want "to turn itself inside out." As if the treatment itself weren't bad enough, Lucy has to go through it with a mother whose only concept of moral support is to insist that the child be brave and to reprimand her when she cries.

Yet I can't help thinking that there's a lot more to the story than Lucy Grealy tells us. Her portrait of her parents, particularly her father, is nebulous. Early on she comments that when she was a child she didn't understand that her mother's anger was caused by depression, but she never follows through on this perception. And Lucy has four siblings: two older brothers, an older sister, and a twin sister. We catch only two glimpses of the older children: (1) one of her brothers cries when the call comes from the hospital announcing their father's death, and (2) when Lucy visits her older sister Susie in London after graduating from college, Susie pays for the train ticket Lucy needs to travel to Scotland to consult with a doctor about reconstructive surgery. And she refers to her twin sister in only the most offhand way, with statements along the lines of "that fall Sarah and I entered junior high." Since twins are often extremely close, this lack of any significant references to Sarah suggests volumes. Where were all these other children when Lucy was undergoing treatments and suffering the taunts of other children at school?

It's possible to argue that Grealy's book is about herself, not her parents and her siblings. But she would have had to interact with her family every day, and those interactions would have contributed to her total experience. Since Lucy's cancer was discovered when she was 10 years old in the late 1970's, she must have been at least in her late 20's at the time her memoir was published. Her reticence about her family suggests that there are issues at work here that this young woman has not yet worked through.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love
New York: Viking, 2006

ISBN 978-07394-7418-1

Highly recommended

Read this book!

That's it. There's nothing else to say.

Well, OK, you're right. I need to tell you a little more about this book.

After a very messy divorce, writer Elizabeth Gilbert found herself in a deep depression. With her publisher's advance for the book she would write in her bank account, she set off on a year's trip around the world in search of inner peace and balance. She began in Italy, where she went to learn to speak what she calls the most beautiful language in the world. The Italian language and pasta: she calls this four-month period her Pursuit of Pleasure. Next she went to India to practice meditation at the ashram of her guru, whom she had met when the guru came to speak in the United States. These four months were her Pursuit of Devotion. Finally, in the Pursuit of Balance, she went to Bali, Indonesia, to learn about love from an old medicine man she had met two years earlier.

Italy, India, and Indonesia: Gilbert says it's appropriate that her three destinations begin with I, since it's a journey of self-exploration and self-discovery she's on. Some people who commented on this book on Amazon complained that they would have liked more about the countries Gilbert was visiting and less of her thoughts. To those people I would say: You're looking for the travel section, not the memoir section of the bookstore. Gilbert is just as interested--probably more interested--in her internal journey as in the scenery and the local color. This is what memoir writers do: They think about the significance of their experiences and look for personal meaning in the world around them.

Gilbert is not only an incredibly gifted writer. She's also a profound thinker. Anyone interested in reading about more than scenery will appreciate the significance of her journey and will be grateful of the opportunity to share it with her.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Book Review: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Clarke, Brock. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel
Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2007.
ISBN 978-1-56512-551-3

This quirky novel is about stories--the stories we tell about our lives and about ourselves, and the stories we tell to others and to ourselves.

The story's narrator is Sam Pulsifer, whose mother is a high school English teacher and whose father is an editor for a small press. Sam therefore grew up surrounded by books and the stories they contain. Sam's mother made him read literary classics. For a three-year period during Sam's childhood his father was gone, traveling around the country visiting interesting places, including the stadium of every major league baseball team. Sam knows about his father's adventures because he regularly received postcards from his father detailing his travels. It was during his father's absence that his mother began telling Sam intriguing stories about the Emily Dickinson house, located in their hometown.

One night when he was 18 Sam sneaked into the Emily Dickinson house for a smoke and accidentally burned the house down. There were two people, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman, in the house at the time, and they died in the fire. Sam spent 10 years in prison. When he was released he went back to his parents' house for a few months, but things just didn't seem the same there; he could tell that his parents didn't really want him around. So Sam went off to college, where he majored in Packaging Science. He met and married Anne Marie and had two children. Sam told Anne Marie that his parents were dead--that they had died in a house fire. Then one day a man turns up at Sam's house and announces that he's Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who had died in the Emily Dickenson house fire. Thomas tells Anne Marie the truth about her husband's past, and she throws Sam out.

When Thomas Coleman confronts Sam, the thing that really infuriates him is the particular lie Sam had told Anne Marie. By telling her that his parents had died in a house fire, Sam had commandeered Thomas's story and tried to pass it off as his own. Because of this lie, the story of the perfect life Sam thinks he has found begins to unravel. Sam returns to his parents' house, where he finds things have changed dramatically since he was last there about 10 years earlier. In the meantime, someone starts setting fires to the houses of other writers in New England. Sam decides to find out who this arsonist is.

That this book is about the power of stories becomes evident early on. At his trial for burning down the Emily Dickinson house, Sam protests that it was an accident and that all the stories his mother had told him prompted him to break into the house. At sentencing, the judge told Sam to ponder the following question while serving his sentence:

“It’s an interesting question, is it not? Can a story be good only if it produces an effect? If the effect is a bad one, but intended, has the story done its job? Is it then a good story? If the story produces an effect other than the intended one, is it then a bad story? Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all? . . . For instance, Mr. Pulsifer, can a story actually be blamed for arson and murder?” (p. 71)

When Sam returns to his parents' house after Anne Marie kicks him out, he makes up a story to explain to himself the changes he finds there. When he sets out to discover who is now setting fire to writers' houses, he consciously patterns his behavior after that of famous detectives he's read about in novels. During his investigation he meets a professor of American literature who hates literature because she fears becoming a character in a story, particularly one of Willa Cather's female characters or Mark Twain's Aunt Polly. There are numerous allusions to literature and some mild satire. Harry Potter devotees, although not explicitly named, take a hit. And, at one point, Sam visits Book Warehouse, where he finds a book group discussing a book in the cafe: “They weren’t talking about the book, not exactly; that’s the first thing I found out. Instead they were talking about how they felt” (p. 83). The title of the book under discussion is Listen, and the dust jacket asks readers to ponder questions such as “How does this book make you feel about the Human Condition?” (p. 85). From the cafe Sam wanders into the store's memoir section:

After browsing for a while, I knew why it had to be so big: who knew there was so much truth to be told, so much advice to give, so many lessons to teach and learn? Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves? I flipped through the sexual abuse memoirs, sexual conquest memoirs, sexual inadequacy memoirs, alternative sexual memoirs. I perused travel memoirs, ghostwritten professional athlete memoirs, remorseful hedonist rock star memoirs, twelve-step memoirs, memoirs about reading (A Reading Life: Book by Book). There were five memoirs by one author, a woman who had written a memoir about her troubled relationship with her famous fiction-writer father; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her mother; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her children; a memoir about her troubled relationship with the bottle; and finally a memoir about her more loving relationship with herself. There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs: A Memoirist’s Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like.” (p. 88)

Much of this novel's literary self-consciousness is humorous. But at the end the novel takes a serious turn when Sam, now wiser, undertakes the work of writing his life story. I don't want to say much more for fear of spoiling the ending. But An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England illuminates how we all use story to make sense of our lives and, finally, of ourselves.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Forgiveness as Story

Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good
San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002
ISBN 0-06-251721-X

Extensive research has shown that forgiveness is good for us, both physically and emotionally. We can understand this intellectually. But, as most of us also know, it's much harder to find forgiveness in our hearts.

I had struggled with this problem of forgiveness until I discovered Luskin's book. His approach of forgiveness as story finally allowed me to begin to open my heart to the possibility of forgiveness.

Luskin defines forgiveness as “the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment” (p. xii). Forgiveness is aimed at a grievance, which Luskin defines as a long-standing hurt or anger. A grievance results when something happens in our lives that we did not want to happen and when we then deal with the problem by thinking too much about it. Luskin says that we create a grievance out of three components:

  1. The exaggerated taking of personal offense;
  2. The blaming of the offender for how we feel;
  3. The creation of a grievance story.

The grievance story is the main focus of Luskin’s forgiveness program. He says that the mere articulation of a hurt someone has inflicted upon us is not a grievance story. The tale of this hurt only becomes a grievance story when we fixate upon it and tell it over and over again. A grievance story locks us in the past, when the original hurt occurred, and condemns us to reexperience the pain, anger, and resentment of the transgression every time we narrate the story.

To begin moving from grievance to forgiveness, Luskin asks us to consider who the main character in our grievance story is. In most cases, the main character is the person who hurt us; in this story we are passive, a victim controlled by the main character. Arriving at forgiveness involves recasting our grievance story so that we are the main character, the source of the action. In the retelling of the story, we become someone who triumphs over adversity, who survives in spite of the hurt done to us. This retelling involves a shift in perspective, from the point of view of someone immersed in the hurtful event to the point of view of an observer. Such a shift does not excuse or condone the hurt done to us, but it does allow us to view the hurt in a different way, to get some distance on it.

Luskin explains that a grievance story traps us in the past and imprisons us as victims. For me, this became the strongest motivation for changing my story from one of passive victimization into one of active triumph—that is, from a grievance story to a forgiveness story. Luskin’s explanation of a grievance story made me realize that, as long as I continue to dwell on the story of how I was hurt, those who hurt me still maintain control over me. The only way I can truly free myself is to write another story. In my revised story, I am strong, resilient, a survivor. This story represents a change from a dysfunctional grievance story to a healthier forgiveness story. Daniel Taylor (Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories, St. Paul: Bog Walk Press, 2001) says that healthy life stories share four qualities: They are truthful, freeing, gracious, and hopeful.

Forgiveness is an exceedingly complex issue. It can take a long, long time to come to terms with being hurt and mistreated. But the point of view from which we narrate our life stories can influence the way those stories in turn shape our lives. Sometimes a shift in perspective can help change a dysfunctional story, such as my grievance story, into a healthy story, such as my forgiveness story.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

book cover
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking
New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-4314-X

Highly Recommended

On the evening of December 30, 2003, Joan Didion's husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner in their apartment in New York City. Didion and Dunne had just come home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was in a drug-induced coma in a New York hospital. While Didion tossed the salad, Dunne suddenly stopped speaking to her from the next room. He had collapsed, and probably died instantly, from a massive heart attack.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's account of dealing with her grief and the loss of her companion. In addition to mourning her husband, she had to deal with the continued illness of her daughter. After Quintana was discharged from the hospital in New York, where pneumonia had developed into septic shock, she and her husband flew to California for rest, relaxation, and recuperation. On the tarmac at the Los Angeles airport Quintana collapsed and was taken to UCLA Medical Center, where she underwent a long operation for bleeding in the brain. She spent several months in the neuro intensive care unit and was later flown by air ambulance back to New York for extensive rehab.

While the near-death of her daughter forms a backdrop, most of Didion's book deals with her reaction to her husband's death. Both Didion and Dunne were writers all their lives, and each was always the other's first and best editor. Except for the first five months of their marriage, they had both always worked at home; they were, therefore, almost constant companions for 40 years.

The magical thinking of the title refers to the non-rational, illogical thinking that Didion often found herself falling into. When she begins to give Dunne's clothes away, she can't bring herself to get rid of all his shoes because he might come back, and he would need shoes. She keeps thinking back over recent events, wondering if there had been some warning of what was to come, some sign that she missed, something she could have done to prevent Dunne's death. And everywhere she goes, she sees something that sets her memory racing back into the past, back to their times together, and straight into what she calls the vortex: having to face "the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself" (p. 189).

She completes the book a year and a day after Dunne's death. Still, she says, she has found no clarity, no resolution.
In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic. (p. 226)

The time of magical thinking, of trying to find a way to rewind the movie of life and play it forward again with a different ending, is over. Yet life goes on. Perhaps writing about her grief has helped.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Book Review: The Knitting Circle

book cover
Hood, Ann. The Knitting Circle

New York: Norton, 2007. ISBN 0-393-05901-4

Highly Recommended

This novel is all about perspective, and about the healing power of telling our stories.

When Mary Baxter’s five-year-old daughter dies suddenly of meningitis, Mary finds herself unable to read, write, go to work, or do any of the other activities that formerly filled her life. Her mother suggests that she take up knitting to occupy her hands and her mind. Reluctantly, Mary goes to see Alice, who teaches her to knit, and joins the knitting circle at Alice’s store. Over the next few months the members of the knitting circle all, one by one, tell Mary their own personal stories of pain and loss.

As I read this book, I kept wondering when Mary was going to tell the other knitters her own story. Dealing with pain and loss takes time, of course, but eventually Mary does tell her story. In the process she also reconnects with her own mother who, Mary is stunned to learn, also has her own story to tell.

A loss the size of Mary’s can seem overwhelming; we think that no one else has ever been through anything as huge as what we’re going through. But hearing other peoples’ stories can gradually give us a new perspective. We gain empathy by looking at life from their perspective. We also see that they have endured, and recognizing that truth lets us know that we too will survive. And we gain support from the sharing of stories with a group of compassionate, caring, non-judgmental people who understand what we’re going through.

The author herself experienced the sudden loss of her young daughter and afterwards took up knitting as a way to calm her spirit and soothe her soul. That is probably why the character depictions in this novel ring so poignantly true. Anyone who loves good literature with strongly drawn characters will appreciate this novel.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Audio Review: The Language of Archetypes

Myss, Caroline. The Language of Archetypes

Sounds True, 2006. ISBN 1-591-79-353-X

Highly Recommended

This is a recording of live presentations of Myss’s training course The Language of Archetypes. Myss has studied the patterns of archetypes that exist in human consciousness and believes that we all have a “sacred support team” of 12 primary archetypes. Everyone has four basic archetypes: Child, Victim, Saboteur, and Prostitute; Myss calls these the Survival Family. Our remaining eight come from other groups that she calls the Feminine and Masculine Families, the Divine Family, the Wisdom Family, the Healer Family, the Creative Family, the Action Family, and the Wild Card Family.

According to Myss, our purpose in life is to identify our individual archetypes and to discover how they interact within us to reveal our divine potential. To do this, we have to learn to think archetypally.

This material complements and amplifies much of Myss’s other work, particularly her 2001 book Sacred Contracts. The benefit of listening to this program in addition to reading the book is that, in front of a live audience, Myss often reveals a quite humorous side that does not often come across in her writing.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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