Bodies, Minds, and Literary Fiction

by Davis Allen

In literature studies, some work under the assumption that fiction speaks to the core of humanness—that fictions opens a window to see who we really are. We need this to be true, because studying literature in the modern age feels like it is detached from reality. Abstract. Fanciful.

As a graduate student, reading fiction—and sometimes writing it too—is my primary job description. It is easy to doubt the importance or significance of reading fiction given the Western telos of having a good job, making lots of money, and retiring early. My siblings are off working practical jobs, as is evident by their production of practical money, and I sometimes ask myself, is reading worth it? Should I use my time doing something more practical?

We often concede the impracticality of reading, and instead justify reading and studying literature through arguing that it describes the human condition. However, I am very aware that people debate whether fiction really does speak to the core of humanity, whether there is such a thing as the human condition, and I too am on the fence in that debate—though that is a topic for a different blog post. This post aims to show that reading can have practical effects.

What can be said about fiction—if it does not tell us what humanity is—is that it can transform us into better humans. What do I mean by better humans? In this post, I mean minds and bodies that function more efficiently and have a higher capacity for empathy.

First, reading increases the connectivity and efficiency of our neural pathways. Without diving into too much science, a study conducted by Emory University showed that novel readers experienced “heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex… [and] in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region” (Clark).

Basically, scientific studies have shown that reading makes our brains—our physical, material brains—stronger and more efficient. This heightened activity does more than make readers smarter—it actually increases memory capability and reduces the likelihood of mental decline—like Alzheimer’s disease—later in life.

Reading makes our brains better—our ability to think, to remember, and to live a long life with a well-functioning mind.

Second, reading fiction helps our bodies cool down and relax. Reading a novel can reduce stress levels by 68 percent, and provides more stress relief than:

listening to music (reduces stress by 61 percent),

drinking tea or coffee (reduces stress by 54 percent),

taking a walk (reduces stress by 42 percent).

What’s even more interesting is that readers need only read for 6 minutes to receive this much stress relief (Reading). As an added bonus, reading also improves sleeping habits, increases levels of self-esteem, and decreases rates of depression (Seiter).

Third, reading literary fiction in particular increases our social awareness and makes us more empathetic. Scientific American published a study in 2013 that showed readers of literary fiction developed empathy much more than non-readers or readers of genre fiction (if you are skeptical about this study—check it out). Literary fiction increases empathy more than genre fiction because in genre fiction “the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others” (Chiaet).

The empathy gained from reading literary fiction is due to an improved theory of mind (Bergland). Children and adults who read fiction are transported into another person’s life and willingly take on another person’s perspective. The reader then, at their own pace, is able to reconcile their personal thoughts and opinions with those of the speaker. The reader must engage in the process of perspective-taking—a skill that dramatically helps with empathy in the real world.

These studies show that reading fiction has real, observable effects on us. This does not make a case necessarily for reading or writing as a profession, as much as it is a reminder that reading is worth it. And, as readers, we owe a lot to the writers we read who are capable of making us into better humans as this post suggests.

Maybe one day, you or I will be the writer that helps make our readers into better people too.  

– Bergland, Christopher. “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function.” The Athlete’s Way. Psychology Today, 04 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American. Scientific American, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Clark, Carol. “A Novel Look At How Stories May Change The Brain.” EScienceCommons. Emory University, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– “Reading ‘Can Help Reduce Stress'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Seiter, Courtney. “The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction.” Buffer Open. N.p., 19 Oct. 2015.Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Dystopian Stories in Modern Times

By Jenna Resch

Even after the huge influx of dystopian trilogies that dominated the YA shelves at bookstores around 2010 and the soaring popularity that led to film adaptations of several trilogies in the years that followed, most notably The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, post-apocalyptic and dystopian tales seem to still be popular several years later. I’ve always found that I enjoy these genres and subgenres in what I read and watch, and a couple of my WIPs are post-apocalyptic and dystopian in nature. There is also a relevance that the dystopian genre has within our society as well, as we see recent and significant changes occurring in our government and the way our society functions. Though trends in literature and television may change and other genres may overwhelm the industries, I think dystopian themes will remain constant and important.

One of my favorite television shows and my family’s Sunday night ritual is The Walking Dead. The initial story is a more extreme look at what happens after society collapses from an apocalyptic event: how will people survive, who will rise up to lead others to safety, what lengths will people go to in order to keep themselves and their loved ones alive? Despite the now occasional pesky presence of zombies, the storyline of the latest season has taken somewhat of a dystopian turn with the introduction of Negan and his Saviors. Though the main characters have fought other attempts at the rising of corrupt, mini government (I’m looking at you, Woodbury), this particular group is way more massive and more twisted than Rick and friends originally thought. They have their own giant sanctuary with several outposts in surrounding areas, all governed by baseball bat-wielding dictator Negan. It’s a community structured on fear and unquestioning obedience.

For my family and I, a lot of the time watching the show is spent questioning the motives and behavior of Negan’s followers. It’s a similar feeling of not understanding how the citizens of the Capital could bury their morals so deep that they not only participate but celebrate The Hunger Games. There’s actually a whole list of reasons for people to submit to Negan’s totalitarian authority, as are revealed when the show digs into the lives of characters such as Dwight, who, despite Negan stealing his wife for himself and burning Dwight’s face as a punishment and a warning, remains loyal to Negan because Negan provides him and his wife a way to survive with all they need. He’s their “savior.” His mercy just comes at the cost of their individual freedom.

Dystopian tales contemplate human behavior in action-reaction situations. What happens when the liberties of the people are taken away? Who will comply or resist, and what are the consequences of both? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has made a resurgence in popularity more recently in times when people are on high alert after the election of Trump. Atwood uses the term “speculative fiction” for her book, which she defines as “a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.” People seem to be looking to Atwood’s novel for a cautionary tale regarding women’s rights as well as the use of oppressive religion to seize control over a government. Given that our country was founded on principles such as the freedom of religion and we view women as equals rather than an inferior sex, this manner of caution in looking at the way our government is changing is certainly warranted. It’s interesting and undoubtedly perfect timing that The Handmaid’s Tale is being remade as a TV series set to premier this month. Sales for Orwell’s 1949 dystopian 1984 have also increased because of the Trump election. The dystopian genre is certainly not dying out as it stirs up a sense of awareness and caution when the future is uncertain and peoples’ lives and freedoms are at stake.

To be completely honest, a lot of what I read (and almost all of the fiction I write) is YA. Other than classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, I’m not sure of the amount of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction currently on the adult fiction shelves. (I really need to catch up on my reading.) But I can name numerous dystopian YA titles, which are also often popular among adult readers, that have appeared in the last couple of years despite the waning popularity of The Hunger Games and Divergent now that the movie series have ended and the industry has somewhat moved on. Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series, for example, is a relatively new fantasy series in which characters of an oppressed group of people fight against a corrupt, tyrannical regime. There are also several recent television series, many on Netflix or other streaming apps, which feature dystopian themes. Dystopian seems be more of a subgenre in a lot of fantasy and sci-fi media these days, but it’s still a significant genre and its popularity says something about the consciousness and the wariness people in our society have towards the way we are governed.

Literature and Film and the Literary Film

by Ashley Bach

I honestly believe that I would have liked Tom Sawyer if I had not watched and loved The Modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was preschool-age. But I also believe in the literary value of films beyond a film that is an adaptation. I cannot name how many books I would never have learned about if I had not at first heard of their literary adaptation.

I do make it a point to read something before I watch it unless I can’t help it, but just last week a classmate said he was reading the John Carter stories. He said that the fact he already saw the movie added to the reading experience because he was able to envision the actors and set pieces of the film while reading. It may go against those who are against reading something after seeing it, but my classmate had a unique reading experience and was able to, as HG Wells said, “read in a unique way.” Consider films that included books as objects, The Hours had Mrs. DallowayDefinitely Maybe had Jane Eyre500 Days of Summer had The Picture of Dorian Gray. Those are three very different movies, and I had already known of or read those respective novels prior to viewing those films, but I can only assume that there were people who watched these films without ever hearing of those books, maybe thought those books were made up, like “The Littlest Elf” from A Series of Unfortunate Events, only to discover them in a thrift store or a bookstore. Of course, this extends to music. I would have never thought of reading White Noise if I weren’t a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event, and read that the name was taken from the novel, which is one of my favorite novels. I did not know until I already began reading Virginia Woolf that Modest Mouse took its name from one of her works, even though I had been a fan of the band since elementary school. The point is, the arts, no matter what form is deeply connected, for the creative type is equal parts original and reverential and embellishes their own work with allusions in order to enrich their writing and endear themselves to it.

In considering the importance of film and books have to each other, I think of some major writers who are/were also screenwriters: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Goldman, Raymond Chandler, and Nick Hornby.

 

The Art of Poetry

by Jenna Resch

I believe every poet has a different relationship with poetry—it’s evident in the way each poet discusses their craft, the way they treat their words, and the way they value certain elements over others. Like all art, poetry is highly subjective. It’s taken a lot of time, thought, and practice writing and revising it to discover my own view on poetry as an art.

Recently, I was looking through a journal I kept as an assignment for one of my poetry classes last year. It was meant to help us interact with the poetry, since, for a lot of people, poetry seems difficult to maneuver. We could be as creative or as analytical as we liked. It just forced us to engage with it in some way, which I thought was a really good idea.

One of the entries in my journal was on Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.” I remember being stunned at the words he chose to describe poetry: “mute,” “dumb,” “silent,” “wordless.” How could a poet possibly insist that a poem be wordless and dumb? Doesn’t that go against everything a poem is and does?

MacLeish’s poem, inspired by Horace’s Ars Poetica, argues that poetry should strive to be tangible. It should not explain itself. It should just exist as a thing. Horace wrote the phrase ut pictura poesis, meaning “as is painting, so is poetry.”

While I agree that a poem shouldn’t attempt to explain itself, I don’t know that eliminating meaning entirely is realistic. There have been attempts at it—namely, in Dadaism, putting letters or words together in a senseless order to try to suck the meaning out of them until they are just sounds to be made but not comprehended. It takes the purpose away from language, which contains the essential building blocks for poetry in even its most basic form.

All throughout history, humans have sought to explain. If we didn’t, scientific research wouldn’t be valued as it is. Origin myths wouldn’t have been so abundant among ancient cultures or religion. I think it’s this human instinct to try to make sense of phenomena that also makes us look at poetry and beg to ask, but what does it mean? We read it with a desire to draw something from it.

In my journal response to “Ars Poetica,” I made an erasure of the poem that read:

A poem should be entangled as the mind in time.

An empty poem should not be.

 

In class, as we analyzed poems line by line, I thought of reading poetry as a form of exercise for the mind. It’s not always easily deciphered. It demands focus. I think that’s why a lot of people get frustrated with it. It can be hard work. That’s why I hated the poetry unit every year from fourth grade to tenth grade.

It’s also why I didn’t complete my first real poem until I was almost 20, during my senior year of college, when I took two back-to-back poetry writing classes that opened my eyes to what poetry could actually do. I went in to those workshops nervous and already embarrassed, firmly believing that I was solely a fiction writer and would never write poetry seriously. Devoting several hours each week to reading poetry, discussing poetry, and experimenting with language, however, changed everything. It wasn’t all just sonnets and structure like I’d seen in high school. It was the act of tearing into my soul and feeling around for the things I’d never been able to express, furiously filling my journals in unexpected ways. Margaret Atwood said, “Writing poetry is a state of free float.” It was exactly this realization that drew me to poetry that year.

As I continued to write poems, I quickly became a fan of confessional poetry. I was in a place where I needed a coping method, a way to set my mind free. I found that the confessional style fit what was going on in my life and stirred up exactly what I needed to work through while writing it. Through poetry, I was finally able to let everything I was feeling flood the pages until my mind was calm and quiet and content. The act of being a poet is like developing gills and diving into the sea to stay as long as I like, to explore the depths of life and of me.

When I think of the art of writing poetry, I don’t think so much about what a poem is, but rather what it does, what it contains and conveys, and how it is carefully tuned. When I sit down to write, I don’t question whether what I put down on paper is poetry. Like fiction, poetry requires craft, which must be practiced. But the “free float” is what makes it such a daring and fulfilling form of writing for me.

Those We Carry With Us

by Davis Allen

James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the final story in Dubliners, ends with an epiphany in which the main character, Gabriel, “approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering experience. His own identity was fading out…” (235). This moment of passion enabled Gabriel to leave his present, material concerns–life, toil, anxiety–and somehow reconnect to an important past.

If you know the story, you know this epiphany included a boy who used to love Gabriel’s wife—a boy who died for her. He had persisted on in her memory, but she had kept from telling Gabriel until this moment—many years into their marriage. I highlight this scene of this story, because our writing lives—much like Gabriel’s marriage—are haunted by the ghosts and inspired by the muses we carry within our memories.

When we write, we often face the difficult task of maneuvering the multiple voices we store in our head. We think of mentors, parents, writers we look up to, friends who might read out work. We recall famous quotes and canonical passages. I often paralyze myself with how I might fulfill what readers want of my writing, or how I might live up to writers I read:

What would she think if she read this? What would he say if he knew I wrote those lines? How would they have said it if they were writing this piece?

Modernism is a fitting era to read regarding this theme because many authors felt paralyzed in dealing with issues around covering or uncovering the past. Joyce’s fiction is full of references to late Irish nationalist heroes and repressive English imperial men. Ulysses’ Stephen Dedalus is haunted by the ghost of his mother; Leopold Bloom can’t escape the memory of his dead son Rudy. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland  references a buried corpse that keeps becoming exposed due to a dog’s digging. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway  is preoccupied by the memory of her past lover.

Most of these examples reveal the harsh oppressiveness of past voices. How can we move forward when we are preoccupied with the past? Gabriel, earlier in “The Dead,” says of those we carry in our thoughts and memories: “were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living” (214).

Does “our work among the living” require that we leave behind the voices of our past?

I have found that those we carry with us can be an inspiration even more than a force of paralysis.

My grandfather was a painter–an impressionist painter and commercial artist. Born in the time period I very well may spend my life studying. I remember he used to come by our house every couple of weeks to give me—and my three siblings—painting lessons.

The memory of my grandfather is reinforced by a painting of his that hangs on the wall next to my writing desk. The painting—an impressionist piece of a patch of grass and a few trees leading to a beach in the distance—reminds me in some way of why I write.

When I write, I often catch myself envisioning which journal will take my story, which magazine will accept my piece, or which publisher will print my book. These thoughts tend to suppress creativity, imagination, and love of the art for its own sake. Would it be so bad, would it not be worth it after all, if no journal took my story? If no publisher accepted my book? If my papers were only ever kept in my grandson’s desk drawer?

No, it would not be so bad. For I know how much my grandfather’s work means to me, and the memory of his life inspires me to keep moving forward.

And maybe, when I am able to leave anxiety for inspiration, when I let myself enjoy the process and the struggle of creating art, when I am full of passion for my writing—I too may transcend the present to join the region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead and become conscious of their existence around us all.

Anniversary Interview: Schuyler Aston

JUXTAPROSE

The poem from the first volume, “Growing Old with a Ghost Girl,” what do you remember about it?

SCHUYLER PECK

When writing “Growing Old with a Ghost Girl” I was thinking about my future with my then-boyfriend, now husband. It worried me a lot that he would have to deal so much with my emotional issues, and that was a little haunting. He’s been amazing though, it’s not even a problem.
JP
Do you ever find poems you don’t remember writing?
PECK
I have so many poems I don’t remember writing. Sometimes friends will mention a line they really like, and I won’t recognize it at all. There’s so many to keep track of!
JP
Explain your writing process.
PECK
My writing process is really sporatic. I either sit for a long time and meditate on a thought that’s been troubling me or that I’m really interested in, and then I write, or the words come so fast I barely have time to write it all down. Let’s just say I’ve had to pull over while driving a couple of times just to write something down.
JP
Who are your biggest influences?
PECK
My best friend and I once saw Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye live, and that just moved me beyond words. I guess Sarah Kay was really my first introduction to spoken word poetry, and how poetry could be more like storytelling. Each time I hear her, I get shivers.
JP
Any reading recommendations?
PECK
Some books that are on my mind right now are Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. I know the last one sounds a little out of the ordinary, but it’s absolutely changed my way of thinking.

The Craft, Truth, and Passion Behind Writing, As Taught by the Words of Writers

by Jenna Resch

My first creative writing workshop in college had Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as required reading material. It served as our main textbook for the course. This was the first King book I’d ever picked up, but knowing that he is an extremely successful fiction writer, I was eager to learn his story and take in all the advice he had to offer. I’ve found that a lot of quotes on writing by successful writers, including King, fall into one of three main categories: quotes on craft, on truth, and on passion. The keys to successful writing seem to lie somewhere within all three. When one is missing, the others may weaken a writer’s efforts. Like a physical body, a body of writing relies on balance to be healthy and functioning.

Craft

The most crucial piece of advice King mentions in On Writing is one I’ve seen repeated since by at least a hundred sources: be an avid and attentive reader. King writes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut,” and also, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

To be a writer is to also be a reader. It may seem like an obvious assertion, but it’s one that I didn’t really think much of when I first started writing as a teenager. I just didn’t want to read as much as I wanted to write my own stories. The select books I did read, however, my writing seemed to mimic. I only noticed it looking back at my work some time later, but I actually was beginning to study the craft and recreating what I saw. Realizing this and making an effort to read as much as I could was the first step to developing the skills I needed to become the writer I am now, and the one I hope to be in the future.

Stephen King is certainly not the first or only writer to lay out this ground rule. William Faulkner also stressed the importance of reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

More quotes on craft:

“You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” Adrienne Rich

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” Robert Louis Stevenson

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Stephen King

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” Mark Twain

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” George Orwell

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dr. Seuss

Truth

Learning the craft allows you to produce good writing. Lying beneath the sparkling surface of that writing, however, is some sort of truth: the reality in fiction.

When I was younger, I was so stubborn about writing not needing to always mean something. The “wet, black bough” in Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” doesn’t have to be a symbol, but just a picture, I thought. Just a thing to be seen. But when something is seen, it is experienced. Fiction (and also poetry) is all about experience. What is seen, felt, heard, and said by somebody. In On Writing, King writes that “fiction is the truth inside the lie.” In reality, a person’s blue shirt doesn’t necessarily represent the sadness of his past or the ways in which he is like the ocean. Some things just happen to be blue. But in fiction, story swells around truth, consuming it into its own new reality. The story that leads the character to subconsciously gravitate towards that color may just be made up, but it’s based on something that’s true: a person wore a blue shirt.

This works on a large scale as well with works based on real-life events, such as in historical fiction. It can also be more personal and introspective. I think this is why I’m often surprised by what I write or the directions my stories and poems may take. As E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

As far as the act of writing goes, anyway, Hemingway’s advice to himself sums up the idea much better than my attempt above and offers other writer’s a place to start when stuck: “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

More quotes on truth:

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly, but still attached to life at all four corners.” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality.” Victor Hugo

“Neither novels nor their readers benefit from any attempts to divide whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of a foundational assumption of our own species.” John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Passion

Finally, writers should be passionate about their work. Without passion, what’s the point? Writers feel the need to write because it’s wired within us. Whether it’s through stories or poems or even nonfiction works, writers have something we need to share with the world, and pen and paper (or computer screen and keyboard) is the best way we know how. Maya Angelou beautifully phrases this, saying, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Though there have been many times where I just didn’t feel inspired enough to write a good story or a good poem, but the urge to write remained. During my final semesters of college, I was stressed out and burnt out on writing workshops where I wasn’t writing what I wanted so much as what I had time to throw together before the deadline. It was sloppy, poorly planned out, and I hated almost all of it. I was afraid I’d never want to write again. Now, a few months after graduation, time and finding new inspiration have helped me ease back into the worlds of my stories and the stanzas of my poems, this time bringing new knowledge and experiences with me to help me create better writing. My passion for them never disappeared, but needed some time to rest and grow strong again.

Stephen King ends his writing memoir with an extensive list of books which he enjoyed and learned much from. One day, I hope to compile my own list in the back of my own book. I don’t want my growth as a writer to end with the completion of my degree. If I let that happen, it all will have been for nothing. I don’t think there will ever be an end to what I can learn about writing, so I will continue to read as much as possible, write as much as possible, and surround myself with the wisdom of those who are passionate and experienced in the craft.

More quotes on passion/inspiration:

“Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.” Sylvia Plath

“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” Robert Frost

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London

“There is nothing to writing fiction. All you do is sit down and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” William Wordsworth

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” Stephen King