Tag Archives: Writing

“Hallelujah Anyway”: Mercy and Change

This week, I stumbled across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, 12 truths I learned from life and writing, through Twitter, and it inspired me to get her newest book at the library. (It also inspired me to write my own list, which was an helpful process.) I tore through Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, in a few hours. It’s a short book of essays. I intended to just read the first essay, but I happily spent the afternoon reading.

I love how she interweaves her own stories with Bible stories on the loss and rediscovery of mercy, particularly in challenging times. I particularly liked her story of tadpoles and loved this quote from the last page of the book:

Images of tiny things, babies, yeast, and mustard seeds can guide us; things that grow are what change everything. Moments of compassion, giving, grief, and wonder shift our behavior, get inside us and change realms we might not have agreed to have changed. Each field is weeds and wheat, but mix the wheat with yeast, the most ordinary of elements, and it starts changing the flour.  It becomes bread and so do we, bread to eat and to offer…(176).

We always have room to grow, as individuals and as a society. It isn’t always comfortable, but we can change.

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

For months, I’ve been anticipating Neil Gaiman’s book, Norse Mythology. I’ve always loved Gaiman’s fiction relating to mythology like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (For my thoughts on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Buddhism, you can view this post.) I don’t know much at all about Norse mythology beyond what I’ve picked up in comic book movies—so very little. For years, I’ve tried to pinpoint why Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. After reading Norse Mythology, I can better articulate why. He notes in his introduction to the book:

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from (15).

Neil Gaiman is a writer who understands that stories are a process across time and weaves them accordingly.  “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own…” (16).  He absorbs stories from the past and, as a member of the current zeitgeist, he then transmutes them with his own distinctive style.

Specifically, in this volume, he weaves together various stories of the Norse Gods into a narrative. The idea of Ragnarok, or the apocalypse of the world, is a fascinating one. In the end, while there are epic levels of destruction of gods, men, and the world, some survive, humans are created again.  Gaiman ends the book with chess pieces, and the last line of the book is: “And the game begins anew.”

Someone dear to me died two weeks ago, and I’ve been contemplating life and death so the book’s arrival was a bit synchronous for me.  Life and death are a process. And stories help us think about these processes. Storytellers played (and continue to play) an important role in the socialization of a culture, passing on ethical values from one generation to the next while also playing an entertainment role.

I don’t want to say too much about the specific stories: you should read them for yourself.  However, I loved Gaiman’s style when it comes to characterizing the other gods’ reactions to Loki’s trickery.  Loki is frustrating if he’s working against you, but he can be a very compelling ally—until he’s not anymore. One of my favorite stories, as a writer, was “The Mead of Poets,” where poetry comes from. The ending of it made me laugh.  The stories include the gamut of human emotions and experiences. The book was delightful, and I can see myself returning to read it again in a few years.

 

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Lessons from “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer”

“Adventure books are dangerous” (22).

Pierre Mac Orlan

My spouse and I adventured to Boston last summer and visited the Institute of Contemporary Art with family. (It’s a beautiful museum in terms of both architecture and exhibits if you ever get a chance to go.) When we were browsing the museum store, my husband pointed out a book, “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” knowing that I love adventure stories, writing, and learning about writing craft.

The book by Pierre Mac Orlan is short, only 73 pages including the notes, but I savored it over many nights at bedtime. It’s translated from French by Napoleon Jeffries. Mac Orlan was a prolific writer, although I hadn’t heard of him before, likely due to how few of his books have been translated to English.

Although the book made many references, often to French literature that I wasn’t aware of, I loved the book, especially its dramatic flair. The tone cracked me up at points. It seemed tongue-in-cheek, silly, etc. Mac Orlan was a pithy writer, and I enjoyed his turns of phrase.

While it’s entitled “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” it raises the question of what exactly an adventurer is.  The book explored the idea of active and passive adventurers but is written for the passive adventurer to assist in writing.  Mac Orlan’s premise is that behind every passive adventurer (e.g., writer) there is usually an active adventurer. The active adventurers are often have sociopathic tendencies while the passive adventurer merely watches the raucous adventures of others and then writes about it. He states with considerable disdain that parents often say of the active adventurers, “[t]hat child will end up on the scaffold” (12). Often, the active adventurer’s life does end in punishment. I loved this line about the active adventurer:

But his good luck, his health, and the guardian demon that watches over bad boys guide him with impunity through this torture garden which he adapts to his own size (12).

Orlean notes that passive adventurers rely on the imagination to create narrative and atmosphere rather than their lived experience. It wouldn’t do for a passive adventurer to actually describe real, distant locales, for example. Rather, the setting must be imbued with the right atmosphere. Instead of traveling as an active adventure to actual culturally distant places, a passive adventurer needs a bit of travel like to Holland, rather than America. Also, the passive adventurer needs to be an avid reader, as well as learning slang. This helps the fostering of his imagination. He further points out:

And never forget, you other passive adventurers, companions of the ink bottle, that a crime perpetuated in a tavern has a fantastical flavor to it that a crime committed on a public thoroughfare does not (47).

(I definitely want to use the phrase “companions of the ink bottle” for some creative endeavor in the future.  Perhaps, it could be the name of a writing or gaming group. And I do feel that certain taverns do work well in many adventure stories.)

In the end, the passive adventures dies as most people do, unlike the  demise of the active adventurer.  Therefore, they often have time to consider the ending of their lives. As Mac Orlean notes:

At that moment when each of us considers his share of responsibility, they can take the liberty of writing a novel that will be read by no one. It is at that moment, I fear, that the passive adventurer creates his most beautiful work, this time by not withdrawing from the game (62).

The book ends with the possibility of the active adventurer returning to beat up the man who exploited his life in tales.  The active adventurer doesn’t spend much time evaluating his actions; whereas, the passive adventurer spends too much time in reflection.

After reading the book, I decided that Mac Orlan was actually saying that there is no such thing as a perfect adventurer, only maybe a good enough one. The passive adventure is superior to the active one, if flawed. Mac Orlan states, “[t]he passive adventurer generally feeds on corpses” (18). (Although apparently a rare person such as Jack London can do both so perhaps balance is actually the recommendation. Being an active adventurer doesn’t have to mean that someone is wicked but rather experienced and skilled. And some books are about a character attempting to transition from one to the other.)

How does this apply to writing and life today, particularly mine?  I’d suggest that, as in most things, a balance is needed between living and writing.  It isn’t beneficial to get stuck solely in action or reflection.  An excellent writer of adventures (or anything really), and perhaps an excellent person, needs both. If forced to choose, I’d side with Pierre Mac Orlan and the passive adventurer.

 

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Musings on Anger, Art, and Social Justice: A Response to Neil Gaiman’s Guardian Piece on Terry Pratchett

“Damn it Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” Captain Kirk

“I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.” Neil Gaiman

My spouse has always liked the sentiment behind the above quote by Captain Kirk from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I’d argue that we don’t just need our pain; we need our anger, too.  Our anger is valuable and should be respected. Yet, it also needs to be tempered.

One of the points that Arlie Hochschild makes in her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling, is that societies have rules for feeling. In certain situations, we’re expected to feel a particular way and, at times, our feelings actually violate those rules. In the case of the workplace, the expectation is that we ignore (and express) certain emotions for our wages. This is called emotional labor.

Hochschild studied flight attendants, who were expected to express emotions like happiness, even when they were being treated poorly. They were supposed to ignore their real feelings of anger or sadness. Hochschild posits that this can lead to negative outcomes for people like alienation, or estrangement. (The last time I researched this topic, researchers had found support both for and against various harms relating to emotional labor.)

Often, people fear anger because they view it as inherently destructive. We’re told to repress or not display it, especially if we’re women in the United States. Women who fail to follow the norm are often seen as deviant and are often subjected to name calling or worse.

People often misunderstand and blame the emotion itself instead of the action a person takes. Our society teaches men, as a part of masculinity, for example, that they should act out violently when they experience anger. There is a great video from 2001 called Tough Guise that looks at how the media has played a role in intensifying violent masculinity in the United States. (There is a sequel that I haven’t seen yet called Tough Guise 2.)

This blog post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s article in The Guardian yesterday called “Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly.  He’s angry.’” According to Gaiman, Terry Pratchett is well aware of his anger. And he chooses to channel it into something constructive.

Anger just is.  When we’re angry, we have choices about how to act (or not act.) When we experience certain emotions, we can turn to our tool box of skills to decide how to proceed.  Perhaps, in some moments, the right response is to sit with our anger and not act. But when it comes to social justice, I believe the correct response is to learn more about inequality, to teach others about inequality, and to protest inequality, by whatever skills we possess. A fantastic fiction writer like Terry Pratchett uses his anger and writing skills to expose the problems of his society through fantasy. A social activist like Martin Luther King, Jr. used his anger for speech writing and leading protest to gain equality. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calls out the people and institutions he found infuriating and disappointing.

Yet, sometimes, our anger can be misleading. Often, privileged individuals feel a sense of anger or indignation when they learn about the point of view of disadvantaged individuals, or when the disadvantaged are fighting for their rights. It’s really important as an actor who cares about equality to ask ourselves, is my anger justified?  Am I angry because of injustice?  Or am I angry because my own privilege is being challenged? Am I angry because I think that someone from the disadvantaged category doesn’t like me, instead of actively listening to the other person?

Of course, this position assumes that equality is an worthy goal as a cultural value. Anger on the behalf of the less powerful can be a great motivator to raise awareness and advocate for equality. The reason why I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that he actually takes time to explore stratification. I’ve been slowly savoring the series, and I’m about half way through it. His art helps me to reflect on identity and inequality. Both his Guards series and his Witches series cover these important topics.

One of my favorite Discworld characters is Granny Weatherwax, who is angry about injustice. (I even named my car after the character years ago.) She states: “And sin, young man is when we treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” Although I read this book years ago, I’m still using this quote when chatting with people about materialism and inequality. This is the power of literature. This is the power of the author, in this case Terry Pratchett. Although I have no personal connection to Terry Pratchett, I will miss his insightful commentary and his great wit. (I wrote a blog post on “Maskerade” and identity back in 2013, if you want to read it.)

One of the reasons that I value art of all kinds so much is that it allows us to engage our emotions, even the ones seen as less “valuable” by society. It allows us to experience the world through many different lenses. We need writers like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and so many others to help us feel the emotions that our society might tell us to keep locked away. We need researchers, journalists, and social activists like Naomi Klein, Sarah Jaffe, and Jackson Katz using their anger to push for structural social change.

Yet, the efforts public figures are not enough. We need individuals to challenge their family, friends, students, and others when injustice is occurring.

How will you best use your anger?

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The Tolkien Professor Podcasts

“History often resembles ‘myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

[Spoiler free for a change.]

This post is a bit different than my previous posts, but in honor of “The Hobbit” coming out next month, I thought that I’d share a delightful discovery that I made this summer.  Last year, I wrote a fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been trying to analyze how good stories are constructed to improve my second draft.  I bought myself new copies of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to mark up with my reflections.

While understanding the various critiques of Tolkien’s writings, I admire a great deal of what he did.  The first time I read the books in my early twenties, I was riveted.  And I still find them delightful.  After I had been working on this project of mine for a couple of months, I discovered Dr. Corey Olsen, also known as the Tolkien Professor, on I-tunes.  He has many different podcasts, and I’ve only listened to about ten of them so far.  In some ways, I enjoyed the episodes on Tolkien’s essays the most since I haven’t read them yet.

There’s some fascinating material here that I had never been exposed to before like “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf By Niggle.”  Olsen discusses Tolkien’s view of the importance of art.  As I have been reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” again, I can really see the elements that are discussed in these other essays and works.

From a sociological view, I love the fact that new technology is changing the landscape of learning.  Listening to an English professor’s thoughts on Tolkien while commuting to work would have been a dream when I was in college.  I’ve thought about doing a series of podcasts for my own online sociology students, and it is great to see that Professor Olsen is making this technology work for both his own students, as well as for people like me with a commute and an inquisitive mind.  Listening to his podcasts has enriched my own study of “The Lord of the Rings,” and  I hope that you’ll enjoy these podcasts as much as I did!

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