Sunday, March 31, 2013

Interpreting Fiction: Step 3

Step one was about getting perspective. Two was about the anatomy of fiction. This, the third and final installment, is about research. I'm not gonna explain the process of researching because others do that well already. I will tell you why researching will enhance your reading and what problems you'll run into as you go.

Step 3: Enhance your reading because...

1)'s revealing and fascinating. Did you know that when J. M. Barrie was six, his thirteen year old brother died, which, as you can imagine, changed him and his family forever. I can't say for sure that the character Peter Pan is directly related to that event, but, well...he is. Knowing about the author and the context of a story can make a world of difference when you read a book, even if only to give you more things to guess and wonder about.

2)'s invigorating. Sherlock doesn't just sleuth for the money. Discovery is a natural high. Ever read Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"? Any idea what it's actually saying? Sure about that? Read a scholarly analysis and see what you think. Or if poetry's not your thing, take a well-written fantasy novel and look up what some of the names and titles mean. If you only ever read what's on the page and never research deeper into a story or its beginnings, you'll have seen the tree but missed the massive network of roots beneath.

3) ...there's more to life than what you're being told. In school we're given general bits of information that are easy to swallow and memorize for a test. After school, most of us get our information from whatever's trending on television, the internet, and the news. It's too much trouble to teach ourselves about things that aren't critical to eating, sleeping, and making money. But think about the vastness of the universe. I know that sounds tree-huggerish, but I'm serious. Think about it. Begin to remember how to like learning. It's possible we've only got one chance at life. Let's not waste it being told what to know.

Step 3.5: Be aware of the roadblocks

1) Overwhelmedness. If you google "A Christmas Carol", you'll get almost 14 million results. If you add "Christmas ghost stories" to your search, you've cut it down to about 600,000 results. That's progress. But it's full of false, misleading, ill-informed, or just plain weird and possibly erotic information. There's a better way. Get access to online peer reviewed journals, articles, books, ebooks, and reference materials through your school or local library. That way you start off with solid, reliable information that you can filter without all the other stuff on the internet crowding your search.

2) Boredom. Spending lots of time weeding through articles can be unappealing. If you're more sociable, find a librarian or a specialist in your particular area of interest. For example, if you (rightly) think Martin Luther King, Jr. was a genius at rhetoric and wanna learn more about him, take a trip to the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site, then go to the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and HistoryIf you're fascinated by Much Ado About Nothing, get dressed, go to a play, talk to the cast, talk to the director--hell, volunteer to paint the set for the next show. Intrigued by a book on sailing? Take sailing lessons. In short: get out the house.

3) Laziness. If you won't travel, don't have any interest in talking to humans, and can't be bothered with scholarly stuff, it's easy to do nothing. Hark! There's still google, even though I warned about it earlier. The key is to find reputable sites by reputable groups or organizations, like here or here or here, or if you're feeling really energetic, troll the youtube education archives for classes from Oxford to MIT to Yale on every subject you can think of without paying a bit of tuition or having to study for the test.


There's surely more to say and there are more examples to give, but it's time for you to go searching on your own and it's time for me to go to bed so I can wake up for a nice big Easter lunch. If you made it through the series, please accept this very sincere virtual hug. Happy Sunday. Happy Easter. Happy whatever tomorrow is to you.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Interpreting Fiction: Step 2

Now that we've got some perspective, let's get down to the words on the page.

Step 2: Learn what stories are made of: the anatomy of fiction

Stories are like people--made up of the same parts but resulting in endless varieties. When a person or a story is scary, it's because the parts add up that way. The difference between a person and a story being scary is that stories are created that way more or less on purpose. 
This is where my students begin to interpret. Their essays have the sole purpose of answering a critical question about a piece of literature. They begin by approaching the story with critical thinking and well-informed assumptions based on what they know about how stories work. For example, if a student were to ask why a new narrator takes over partway through Treasure Island, the elements of the anatomy of fiction (conflict and style, to begin with) would help the student do quite a bit of extrapolating on their own before beginning to dig into research.

I should clarify before going further that I'm talking about Western literature only. Not all stories from all times and places necessarily have the same elements or plot structures or purposes or foundations. You don't have to go very far to see proof of this. Try out The Thousand & One Nights for starters.You may find the stories hard to connect with or tricky to follow at first, but give them time. It's just that your brain is so used to reading and hearing certain kinds of stories, that when a new plot structure comes along, you feel unsettled because your power of prediction is useless. Without even meaning to, you've gained an understanding about certain elements of Western narrative, especially conflict and rising action and resolution, simply from prolonged exposure. That's part of why movies with a twist are so surprising. People are just as shocked by the fact that the story didn't end where they expected it to as they are by the fact that the protagonist has been dead all along.

Now that's settled, let's talk anatomy.

Did you know that in your favorite story, the protagonist (main character) went through a change, and that the reason he did was because an obstacle was in his way and he had to overcome it, or be overcome by it, in order to reach a goal? Did you ever think that without that obstacle, there'd have been no story at all? Okay, stop. Think. What was he trying to overcome? Now think of a different story. What was the main character trying to accomplish? And what stood in the way? Trust me: they're all trying to overcome something in order to get somewhere.

Without conflict, without something to overcome, there is no story. There can be words and actions and characters, but for something to qualify as a story, it's got to have conflict. If Dorothy had clicked her heels from the beginning (immediately reached the goal), there'd have been no story. There had to be a witch. There had to be a journey.

Once you've worked out what a character's goal is and what's in the way, you can dig a bit deeper into conflict. Is the protagonist's own cowardice standing in the way? Is it a flood? Is it the country's legal system? Is it an ex-wife? Or maybe it's all of those things. Those are the conflicts you'll find in a story, fiction or not. They are man versus self, man versus nature, man versus society, and man versus man.

Conflict is just one element of fiction. It's what pulls the plot (events of the story) along. I'll come back to plot, but first a few other elements you'll find in most every story. I'll go through them briefly and leave further exploration to you.

The next element is setting. Setting doesn't just mean where; it means when as well. 
Physical setting can be absolutely critical to meaning, or it can be a neutral backdrop. Why, for example, would the setting for Waiting for Godot be essentially a blank stage but for a tree? If you ignore the setting, especially in its starkness, and if you ignore the tree, especially how the tree shows the passage of time, you may be in danger of missing the entire point of the play. Whatever the physical setting, take note. It's there for a reason.

Time and cultural setting within a story (without is another blog post) can be critical as well. Take Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" for example. On first read, my students almost always feel like they missed something. Lines like, "It's just to let the air in," seem veiled and out of time. That's because they are. But when we go back and talk about time and place, what the setting symbolizes, how the pauses in conversation are full of meaning, how long the interaction lasts, how the language and attitudes belong to a particular decade, what part the weather plays, whether the author's life and works shed any light, what certain idioms and titles might indicate, suddenly the story begins to reveal itself so quickly, they trip over each other trying to share their enlightened interpretations.

Another element of fiction is character. Though character seems pretty straightforward, it's not. There are basically two types of characters: main characters and tertiaries. Tertiary is just how it sounds: in third place. They're not the protagonist. They're not the main players. They're all those witches and wizards and muggles in the background who people a story. In the main character group, you've got your protagonist(s) and their posse (main players), and the antagonist(s).

Protagonist isn't a synonym for good guy. It just means Main Character. This person will go through a change by the end of the story and is the character the narrative is centered around. In a relatively simple plot line, the main character isn't difficult to spot. But in something epic, like The Lord of the Rings, you've got a big group of characters, many very strong. You've got lots of side stories developing. Lots of people go through major changes. The world itself seems to breathe. But go back to conflict: What's the ultimate goal? What's the ultimate obstacle? Now: Who's wearing it?

Similarly, antagonist isn't a synonym for bad guy. Broadly, it refers to one or more characters in opposition to the protagonist or the protagonist's goals. Sometimes, that's an obvious villain like the Ringwraith/Dementor character. Other times, it's a more dynamic character who may have some good characteristics mixed in with the bad. Still other times, the protagonist is more the bad guy, and the antagonist the good guy! The key is to think opposition, not good and bad. The antagonist can often be revealed just like the protagonist is revealed, by looking for the conflict.

Another element of every story is the plot, or the story's main events. If you google for plot diagrams, you'll find lots of images that look like bottomless triangles or mountains with the left side all jagged. Whatever the diagram, they're all saying the same thing. I prefer the diagram here because it's more detailed, but here's a simpler one to start with. (
Before I explain, watch this short and awesome film so we have a story in common to refer to. It's fast and entertaining, I promise.)

(Diagram from

What you've got in this graph is a story mapped out. The red line going up means the further along you get, the more tense things become. Why? Because the protagonist is getting closer to the make or break moment when the goal is either going to be reached or not: the climax. The red line going right across the bottom is just so you know to read the graph from left to right and correlate the graph to chronological time, whether or not the story incorporates flashbacks. The story in the film starts not with shells hitting the road, though that's the first scene. It really starts with the briefcase guy accepting the challenge to deliver the case. (Note: When you've got a story like the one in Memento, or something like Doctor Who with multiple timelines, you're gonna need a fancier graph.)

Now look at the words that move up the jagged mountainside. The first phrase is Inciting Incident. That means, what got the story rolling? What started it all? The apparently benevolent ruler of a country is dying and needs a transplant, otherwise someone tyrannical will take over. The heart needs delivering through dangerous circumstances. That's the inciting incident.

The other pointy parts on the image say they're plot points, but think of them as smaller conflicts being overcome as you build up to the main conflict. In other words, there are lots of little conflicts and climaxes throughout, like the attack near the cornfield, which was overcome by escape and a call for a new driver. Then there was the helicopter shooting at the new driver, overcome by the driver's fancy BMW spinning skills. There was the leaking briefcase, the driver's reluctance, the ticking clock, the gas running out, etc. One thing after another must be overcome. That builds tension.

The resolution: Where everything, for better or worse, is wrapped up and concluded.

There are two more elements to go. One is style, which refers to the way an author dresses up written language. If a story feels creepy or tugs at your heart strings or is sugary sweet, it's not just the events taking place that make it feel that way; it's the author's style.

Writers use lots of style tools and tricks to bring a story to life in a particular way and to set the mood or tone. First, they've got figurative language like metaphor, personification, and symbolism. For example, in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, the entire story is a metaphor, the tree is personified, and the sacrificial nature of the tree is symbolic. Without the use of figurative language, the story would lose most of its punch. Sure it would have been sad to see a tree being slowly used by a human over time, but add in the thoughts of the tree, the obvious metaphor, and the vague message (symbolism has a habit of being that way), and the story becomes something much more.

Another thing writers do to put you in the moment is use highly descriptive, sensory images (taste, touch, smell, etc.). This is called showing instead of telling. For example, in The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper could have just told us that the room was Christmasy and everyone was getting sleepy. Instead, she showed us:

 Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. Will lay on his back on the hearth-rug staring into the smoke wreathing up the chimney, and was suddenly very sleepy indeed. James and Mary too were trying not to yawn, and even Robin looked heavy-lidded.

Point of view is a style choice too. Remember in school when your teachers talked about first, second, and third person? That's what I'm talking about. Most stories are in first and third person. First is the one where the author is in one person's head: "I rode the elephant as far as the eastern shore, but she would not carry me further." Third is the one where there's a narrator or a storyteller voice telling the story as someone who's outside of things, observing from a distance: "He rode the elephant as far as the eastern shore. Though the beast longed to continue, she knew in her heart she could not carry him further." 

There are reasons an author might choose one point of view over the other. Like, if the author wants the story to feel really personal or confined or focused, she might choose to be in the head of the main character. That also limits what the story can do and sets the reader up to be at least a little unsure of the story because, as we know, one point of view can be inaccurate. That's why a first person narrator is sometimes called unreliable. If the author wants more freedom to look around the story's world and the freedom to be in anyone's head, which is called omniscience, they write in third person. In short, if you're in one character's head, you see only through his eyes. If you're omniscient, you can hear the voice of the elephant too.

There are lots more stylistic things, but this post is too long already, so on to message, and then we're done. Message is tricky, and that's why I've saved it till last. For starters, think about the old phrase, "the moral of the story is..." For a long time, stories, though sometimes entertaining too, were told for educational purposes. Some were meant to scare kids into submission while others were meant to pass on information deemed valuable for maneuvering through life, including family and cultural ancestry and religious beliefs. This tradition goes way back into folk tales and oral storytelling even before people were writing stuff down. However old they are, stories have always had messages, or purposes for being told, and often those messages are broad so's to apply in lots of situations. Take Little Red Riding Hood. Moral of the story: Beware of big bad wolves. The great thing about a big bad wolf? He can represent any scary thing you like.

(By Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke (ill.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Most mainstream novels you read today aren't that blatant, and some are downright vague, but they're all saying something(s). How do you dig the message out of a story? First, think of the story's main topics. There are probably several, like friendship and courage and family and fate and hope. To find messages in the story, ask yourself what it's saying about a particular topic. In James and the Giant Peach, family is a major topic. What does it say about family? For one thing, your blood relatives are sometimes hateful idiots, and your real family could be unconventional. Some story messages are harder to find than others, like in The Giving Tree, because it says different things to different people. While one person may see the commitment and love and sacrifice of the tree as a positive example of giving without receiving, another might see it as a harmful example of self-sacrifice to the point of obsession and self-harm.

Conflict, setting, character, plot, figurative language, and message are the main elements of fiction. These elements sometimes appear in drama and poetry and nonfiction as well, but those are different animals with sometimes very different parts not included here or parts that seem similar to fiction's anatomy but do different jobs. I go through all of these in class, but I won't here. Nor will I go over the elements within particular types of fiction, like what makes fantasy fantastical or horror horrifying. That's for you to find out on your own!

Next up, the last of the series where we step outside of reader response (interpreting a story from what's on the page and what's in your head) and into the world of research (interpreting a story with a little help from your friends). I promise, it's much more fascinating than it sounds.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Interpreting Fiction: Step 1

Through the end of March, I'll be blogging a crash course for beginners in basic narrative interpretation, which is a super cool thing with a deceptively boring title. Super cool translation:

I'm gonna put things inside your brain that will make you feel like you're wearing magical glasses while you read. By the end of the series, you'll be reasonably prepared to stand around at dinner parties smoking a pipe and using literary terms over the tones of clinking wine glasses and soft jazz. (That is what it's like at a dinner party, right?)

Warning: When taken to the extreme, information from this short series could put you into the habit of dissecting a book's parts instead of just enjoying a good story. But when it's a great book, I mean a really great book, that'll only make it greater.

Step 1: Look where you're standing. Now look where she's standing.

To begin interpreting literature, whether in narrative form (i.e., a story) or not, you must first recognize that you have a particular point of view and that other points of view can open up areas of a story you never knew existed. You may be proud of how well-traveled you are, how open you are to new ideas, how absolutely amazing you are at avoiding tunnel vision, but none of us can be everyone at once. 

For better or worse, you're a bundle of experiences, choices, beliefs, fears, hopes, and curiosities, and they all inform your perspective on the world. That's not to even mention the people you've known, places you've seen, jobs you've worked, or hobbies you've loved. Or all the things you've never experienced. You are incredibly and beautifully individual.

This can be both good and bad.

It's good if you've learned to appreciate other perspectives. It's bad if you're either so open you're living in the Land of Meaninglessness or if you're at the other extreme and believe you've discovered the only possible reality in the universe and go around trying to assimilate everyone else.
I know it's hard to find a balance between trusting our conclusions and floundering around in the confusion of endless possible interpretations of the meaning of life! But try. Literature can help you do that, and doing that can help you better appreciate literature.

[Note: If either one of the extremes above describes you, you're gonna need a prerequisite. It's self-lead. All you do is find twenty people way outside your social/cultural group and ask them the following: "What do you think life is all about, and why?" Resist letting the varied answers push you further into meaninglessness. Instead, let them confirm that life is full of possibilities. Or, for those on the other extreme, resist the urge to change the twenty. Just listen. Listen for possibilities.]

What's this got to do with reading a story? Point of view reveals meaning.

Think of it this way. You and six others are sitting around a table. You've all been given 10 seconds to study the same exact specimen. You look at it and say, "Aww! A fluffy orange kitty like on the internet! It's so sweet." The first person to your left says, "That was the softest thing I've ever touched. I shall order a coat made of that." The second says, "My cat had great blue eyes like that as a kitten. She was <sniff> run over last week." The third: "It smelled fishy to me. How can we be sure that wasn't a fish?" Fourth: "Poor thing. It seemed frightened. I think purring means they're frightened." Fifth: "Purring means they're happy. Everybody knows that." Sixth: "Achoo. I hate cats. Always have."

Now tell me: Who's right? Who has given the most accurate interpretation of the specimen? No one. And everyone. That is, everyone has given their personal impression, which is true to them. But no one has or truly could give a whole impression, even if the group came to a consensus about it being a cat. Still, we're more likely to get a clearer picture if we bring all of our observations together. In class, I discuss this idea using examples like the Rashomon effect and the blind men and the elephant story.

So, we're different and would benefit from some perspective. Fine. But that's only one side of the point-of-view coin. There are two fascinating things to consider that exist outside of us as readers. The first is the fact that well-written fiction connects with lots of different people by means of universalities--these are things most humans have in common, like loss, hope, fear, friendship, family, change, or the burning need for revenge. That's why so many people can like the same book even if those people are majorly different from one another. It's why old stories can still be so relevant. And it's why the tale of the underdog who shows courage in the face of almost certain destruction, defeats the bad guy, yet somehow maintains his humility, is such a success. We all read the story differently, but we still connect to feeling like we're full of potential if only we were given the right set of circumstances. And a wand.

So, when reading, recognize that there are lots of ways to look at a thing, but also know that massive numbers of people camp outside bookshops the world over dressed as witches, wizards, and muggles because, for all our differences, we're connected by universalities, and those are how great stories connect and enlighten us.

The second thing is something I'll elaborate on later, but it belongs here too. It's that the literature we read was created. By a human. On purpose. On. Purpose. The words, scenes, characters, conflicts, symbols, and messages in well-written fiction are not on accident. Even stories written as unpurposefully as possible are written to be unpurposeful on purpose. Even when writing comes naturally to the author and she doesn't try to contrive connections or manipulate you, she still pulls you along her created path. This is storytelling. And knowing this makes all the difference when it comes to interpretation because you aren't just examining an independent, uninterested, furry cat creature. You're interpreting something that has been carefully created to take you on a journey. (Some of you may note here that I'm carelessly jumping back and forth from the mystery of authorial intent to the freedom of reader response. We've all got a personal approach. This is mine.)

In review: There is meaning in the text (in the world!) that we miss because we have a limited capacity for juggling perspectives, but thankfully we have the power of common connections and the power to see other perspectives, and both can enlighten our reading. We also have the power to know the parts of a story like a doctor knows the parts of a body. But that's for next time. Till then, in your own minds, through research, or in discussions with other readers, practice opening literature up in beautiful ways by standing somewhere new.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Surviving end-of-term grading

This weekend, I was once again surrounded by stacks of final essays and final exams waiting to be graded. In my mind, anxious students held their breath as they waited to see what the averages would be. What did I do, in my teacherly wisdom, in the midst of such palpable tension? I took the day off.

Taking the day off is good and healthy. It's also a bit like eating a lovely meal out the night before surgery; the knowledge of what's coming taints even the most perfect slice of cheesecake. So though Saturday was fun and relaxed, I knew all the while that Sunday would be swallowed up. Frankly, I was dreading it.

Teaching is an amazing thing. I'm privileged to be given a classroom of students. I'm extremely proud to tell people about my occupation. But ask most anyone who teaches, and they'll tell you grading is the least fun part of the job, especially when it comes to grading essays. This link leads to an article that describes some of the reasons for that dread. It's not only that stuff, though. It's that I really read the essays and I care if the students have learned anything, whether they care or not. When I'm grading and realize I care and they clearly don't, I find myself swearing a lot and eating unhealthy amounts of potatoes and chocolate to cope.

Many teachers have discovered that a balance and rewards system works best to get us through those tough days of grading. We've all got our own slant, but it comes down to working a bit, then giving yourself planned treats in reward for completing a task. Not only does this fill a hard day with nice moments, but it actually makes me more fair and balanced as I grade. I suspect this approach can work with any job or with life in general or especially for full-time stay-at-home moms if they've got the option.

Here's an example of one of my best attempts:

Yesterday was a successfully balanced work/reward day even though it got off to a slow start, beginning with sleeping in followed by eggs and beans lovingly prepared by my hubby. I was all set to take a bath and get to work when a bird got stuck in the screened porch and, in trying to escape, squeezed itself into a hole in the ceiling and stopped moving. I made a sad noise, which prompted a rescue mission involving wood needing to be pried from the ceiling and therefore Jonathan needing to put his shoes on. Fortunately the birdy wriggled back out of the hole just before a crowbar was retrieved from the garage, and it chirped away out the open door happily ever after.

With the bird saved and no more holy missions presenting themselves, I finally had a hot bath and gave in to the inevitable by setting myself up at the kitchen table with three stacks of papers and the sun shining in to encourage me. Thankfully, the first batch of essays was done in just two hours. Much faster than I'd expected! Reward #1: a chilly but pleasant walk downtown with hubby and doggy.

Invigorated by our walk, though now slightly reluctant having been temporarily free in the out of doors, I got back to work on the second batch of essays. This set was more complicated. The grading was trickier, bonus points needed to be added, and the gradebook required special notes, so the pile took three hours to finish. The nice surprise was that the essays were really well done, a fact that can make even the biggest stack of papers enjoyable. When I finished, I got reward #2: a fingernail painting session with Jonathan. Not bad for his first time!

Things could have gone downhill after that because I got distracted by a fun family video chat and the prospect of a delicious pasta meal by Jonathan, but I somehow buckled down, yummy spicy tomato smells filling the air, and started chipping away at the third and final and most complicated stack. It's probably good I had to stop halfway through to eat. Dinner was fab, and the break gave me time to vent about my own teacherly shortcomings and the issues I was having with the essays. (Note: having a friend and/or partner to vent to is key to end-of-term grading success!)

After dinner, the sun was fading, the kitties were settling in for naps, and I was very much wishing I'd started early instead of sleeping late that morning. I still had a few more papers to grade, a curve to apply, a gradebook to update, and students to email. Determined to start the new week fresh, I settled on the couch and pushed on, but only because I felt I could still be objective. (If I hadn't trusted myself to be fair, I wouldn't have continued.) By midnight, I'd graded everything, written emails, and tied up as many loose ends as possible. I'd also started to realize what changes I need to make next term to try to help students learn and stay engaged. This is perhaps one of the most useful outcomes of a day spent grading.

In the end, yesterday wasn't so bad. In fact, it was quite good. The birdy lived. I got some exercise. I was pampered and fed and loved. I had time for a long, hot bath. And all of my work got done. For you, the rewards may be different. I have a friend who gardens, one who does spin classes, and several who craft to give themselves a nice break from work. Whatever your happy thing is, make it a part of your hard days. It just might keep you on this side of sanity with the rest of us.