Interpolation: Why Writers Need to be Good Readers

This post is sponsored by Grammarly. I tried Grammarly’s grammar check free of charge because every time someone splits an infinitive, an angel in heaven sheds a tear.

As a professional educator, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a table with my colleagues analyzing assessment data.  What often happens after about an hour of pouring over numbers and charts and graphs is that I begin to question everything I do as a teacher.  I feel this sense of guilt and failure that, even though I set the school record a few years back for the number of students to pass a single AP exam, a large number of my students still don’t know how to attach a subordinate clause properly to an independent clause.

The Many Hats of an English Teacher

A while back, I once again found myself in the annual ritual of sitting at a table with my fellow English teachers, staring at the latest testing data, which – on the one hand – was very encouraging: we are doing a lot of things really well to prepare our students for college.  But looking at the areas for growth brought up a lot of questions about what we teach and how we teach it.

See, part of the problem is that the job of a high school English teacher is really about eight jobs in one.  We are commissioned to teach critical reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, literary analysis, public speaking, critical thinking, and rhetoric; so it is a constant juggling act.  How do you focus more time and energy on grammar without cutting out poetry?  Or how do you build students’ vocabulary without sacrificing a classic novel?

It boils down to the never-ending tug-of-war between teaching the art and science of the English language.  Most of us English teachers became English teachers because we love literature and want to inspire that same passion in our students.  But the reality is that we have to equip them with the reading and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.  Pragmatism would say have them read Huck Finn and Hamlet and a few Emily Dickinson poems, and spend the rest of the time on syllogisms and comma splices.

More than just Pragmatism

But we need to read good literature and we need to teach the next generation to do the same.  Yes, I know that the vast majority of my non-English-teaching colleagues and most of my students won’t ever need to know the symbolism of the great Mississippi River in Huck Finn.  Nor are they likely to engage in an intelligent debate about whether Hamlet actually goes crazy or whether it’s all an act.  And they will probably never be tested on why Miss Dickinson capitalizes seemingly random words throughout her poems.  Outside of an appearance on Jeopardy!, most of this knowledge will have little consequence in their “real world” lives.

Why We Need Good Fiction

But we need to read good literature, for a reason far more important than its “real world” application.  David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern epic novel Infinite Jest and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  See, it is through storytelling that we make sense of the human experience.  Ideas like love or heroism or betrayal are too vague and abstract by themselves; they seem just out of reach of our comprehension.  But illustrated through a story, these intangible concepts suddenly become much easier to grab ahold of.

This is nothing new; all throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have told stories to try to understand who we are and why we are here, to give meaning to our otherwise hollow existence.  Ancient civilizations told stories to explain the natural phenomena they witnessed on a daily, seasonally, or yearly basis.  Most all of the world’s major religions use narratives to describe the creation of our world, man’s relationship to his god, and – for many faiths – how it all will one day end.  Even today, we continue to rely on the writing and telling and reading of stories to help us make sense of this thing we call life.

Good Writers Must Be Good Readers

So while reading and discussing the great works of literature may have little bearing on test scores and may not help a young person succeed in college and may have little to do with their careers as adults, these great works of literature are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us.  They help to provide us with meaning and purpose; they give us a unique lens through which to see ourselves.  They are an indispensable piece of the human experience, one we cannot live without.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing Fiction

Blogger Here. I recently began teaching an online creative writing class. In the first unit I share my philosophy of fiction with my students. Below is that “lecture” I posted to the class website:

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for as long as men and women have walked this planet. From the earliest of civilizations to today, we have related to each other by telling each other stories. But why?

American author David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

Writer and Professor Thomas C Foster said, “I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human.  I mean, what else is there?”

Tom Clancy said this: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

And Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Fiction helps us make sense of the human experience.

As these writers have articulated so well, storytelling helps us better understand the world around us. It always has. Ancient societies used stories to explain natural phenomena that they witnessed on a daily or even yearly basis. They saw a large, bright light come up in the east every morning and go down in the west each evening. To explain this, they attributed what they observed to some god or divine being. If their crops failed one year, they concocted a story about how they had upset one of their gods. All these stories they told themselves, over time, were codified as myths and legends that are now only told in ancient history or classical literature courses.

Additionally, storytelling is an essential component to our religious experiences. Every major religion’s holy texts are based around stories of how men on earth relate to their gods in heaven. These narratives explain how we got here, how we are to live our lives, and how the world will one day end.

Stories make the abstract concrete.

Just as stories help us make sense of that which we can’t comprehend – like unexplainable natural phenomena or religious principles – they also help us better grasp the abstract and theoretical aspects of life. Love. Betrayal. Jealousy. Grief. How do you explain these feelings to those who have never experienced them? Through a story. A well-told story gives flesh and blood – so to speak – to these otherwise intangible concepts.

Fiction gives us a safe, vicarious experience of feelings that are foreign to us. We can fall in love, be a hero, or grieve a loss without actually risking anything, without running the risk of actually getting hurt. Fiction provides us a safe, sterile laboratory for probing the depths of the human experience.

Stories help us relate to others.

British scholar and author CS Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

David Foster Wallace once said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also then more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

There is no way we can truly understand or experience the feelings of another person. And the opposite is true: no one else will ever truly understand what we feel. We can imagine another’s feelings, or assume their feelings are similar to our own, but as Wallace says, “true empathy’s impossible.”

But in the words of a story, we can see a character’s emotions, his suffering and pain or joy and elation. We experience what he experiences. And if we can understand the experiences of this character – even though he is the figment of a writer’s imagination – we can imagine that someone somewhere understands our emotions and experiences as well.

What will your verse be?

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, in a poem that asks the daunting question of what is the purpose and meaning of our existence, wrote, “The powerful play [this life] goes on and you will contribute a verse.”

As readers, we attempt to better understand ourselves and those around us by reading and experiencing the fictional lives of those who inhabit the pages of our favorite books. We read the verses they contribute to the powerful human drama.

As writers, we contribute to the great human story, in the words of Thomas C Foster, the “ur-story.” Through the writing process, we gain insight into the human condition and then share that with our readers, allowing them another glimpse into “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

So what will you contribute? What will your verse be?

Letter 25: AOCYEUBY – The Quest Narrative

Dear David,

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a young farm boy named Luke buys a robot containing a hidden message for one Obi-Wan Kenobi from a beautiful and desperate princess.  The robot runs away, Luke goes after it, meets said Obi-Wan Kenobi who invites him on an intergalactic adventure to rescue the beautiful and desperate princess.  Along the way, he meets a rogue smuggler and a “walking carpet;” blows up a space station; and learns the truth about his father, his sister[1], and his identity as a Jedi master.

In a suburb of London, a borderline-abused orphan named Harry meets a magical giant named Hagrid who tells him he is actually legendary wizard and whisks him away to a magical boarding school in the English countryside.  Over the course of seven years, he learns the truth about his deceased parents, develops his magical skills, and defeats the most evil wizard in the land.[2]

In March of 1996, a young writer named David arrives in Bloomington, Illinois, to accompany another young writer named David on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour.  The first David has been sent by Rolling Stone magazine to interview the second David to find out how this 1000+ page novel came into being, how much of the story is semi-autobiographical, and how David is coping with his thrust into national literary stardom.[3]

Thomas C. Foster begins his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor with a chapter on the “Quest Narrative” formula.  Every Quest Narrative has five necessary components:  “a) the quester, b) a place to go, c) a stated reason to go there, d) challenges and trials en route, and e) a real reason to go there” (3).[4]  He goes on to point out that the stated reason for going somewhere is always superficial, and in the course of the narrative, relatively unimportant.  The real reason for going on a quest is almost always self-knowledge.  Many classic works of literature follow this formula, and I would posit that Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself also fits the mold.[5]

We have our quester: one David Lipsky, a correspondent for Rolling Stone.  We have a place to go: suburban Illinois and surrounding states.  We have the stated reason to go: interview one David Foster Wallace.  Ask him about the genesis and evolution of the great postmodern epic he has just written.  Ask him about his past struggles with addiction and their possible influence on said novel.  Ask him his feelings about being the “next big thing.”  We have challenges and trials: a cancelled flight and a sometimes reticent interviewee, to name a few.  And we have the real reason for going: self-knowledge.

In reading the 300-some pages of transcription, it becomes quite apparent that this experience is more than a simple Rolling Stone piece can handle.  David Lipsky’s questions elicit rather lengthy prosaic answers, ones that demand much more than sound-bite summaries for an featured-writer article in a popular magazine.  The stated reason for this quest very quickly gets lost during those five days on the road.

By simply transcribing five days worth of conversation ranging in topic from your crush on Alanis Morrisette to America’s addiction to television and entertainment, with minimal authorial commentary, David Lipsky takes us on the journey with him.  And as the last page comes to a close, the conversation just ends as you head off to a church social; it doesn’t really conclude.  If self-knowledge is the real reason for this quest, we never really learn what Lipsky has learned about himself. 

We do, however, have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves.  This is not a book written so that we can get to know you, but one that allows us to get to know ourselves.  As we read your words, we are challenged and stretched and forced to confront our own beliefs and ideas and presuppositions.  And hopefully we walk away from eavesdropping on this conversation a little changed and a little closer to becoming ourselves.

[1] I have always found the whole brother-sister relationship between Luke and Leah to be a little creepy.  Luke is practically drooling when he first sees that holographic message.  Leah plants a big, sloppy kiss on him to make Han Solo jealous.  And then in that tender moment in which Luke explains to Leah that Darth Vader is his (their) father and that she is his sister, she replies with “I know.  Somehow I’ve always known.”  Now, hold on a moment.  Did none of those memories come flooding back with a royal vengeance?  Maybe it is in the director’s cut where they simultaneously flashback to that make-out session in the ice cave, begin to dry heave, and then go off to take showers in separate Ewok huts.  I guess I can understand not wanting to ruin the “moment” with such a scene.

[2] Harry does his share of kissing, or “snogging,” girls, but to my knowledge is not blood-related to any of them.

[3] Dear Mr. Lipsky: please don’t take offense to my lumping you with Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.  I am simply using the first two examples as an attention-getting introduction for the point I will make later in this Letter.  It must be time for summer vacation; I’ve spent the last nine months teaching my students to write clever introductions.  I guess it’s starting to rub off a bit.

[4] Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

[5] Before I get a “no sh** Sherlock,” please hear me out.