Tag Archives: fiction

The Power of Novels

[I]f you are interested in the neurological impact of reading, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” Basically, reading novels increases connectivity, stimulates the front temporal cortex and increases activity in areas of the brain associated with empathy and muscle memory. If you want to read the whole article, it is available at the National Institute of Health.

—Jennifer Michalicek on ChildLit

BrainIt’s something we all know—all of us who are writers, readers, teachers know it, anyway—that reading fiction, engaging in the process of inhabiting another human being, feeling our way into another’s thoughts, feelings, desires, enlarges our hearts.  It teaches us to understand those who are different from us.  Equally important, if not more so, it lets us know that in the deepest possible ways we human beings are the same.

We don’t need a study to tell us this is so, and yet I am grateful for such a study, and I would guess that you are, too.  Long ago I knew teachers who had to close their classroom doors least the principal pass in the hall and discover them “wasting time” reading a story.  And in these days of renewed emphasis on nonfiction, I would guess that attitude surfaces again more than occasionally.

Not to dismiss the importance of nonfiction.  What better way to gather information, to increase our understanding of the world than through the fascinating, expressive nonfiction available today?  But there is a larger understanding we owe our children—and ourselves, for that matter—than that which can be gained by comprehending facts.  It is an understanding of ourselves as human beings.

How is it that story reveals so deeply?  After all, the folks talking and acting, thinking and feeling on the page are fabrications created in some stranger’s mind.  Our Puritan foreparents used to forbid the reading of novels, damning them as lies!  And from a totally literal perspective, it is so.

But if a writer is creating truly, she is creating out of her own substance. She is creating out of the truth of who she is, what she knows about herself and about the people around her. (Forgive me for making all writers female. The he or she dance is burdensome.) If she is writing honestly, she is revealing on the page what she has allowed few others to know. In fact, she is probably exposing far more of herself than she herself realizes, because it is part of the magic of the writing of story that we are seduced into exposing even more than we may comprehend ourselves.

And that is the secret of the revelation of fiction.  Those who create stories bring their hidden humanity to the writing.  Those who read stories discover their own humanity in the reading . . . and learn to extend that humanity beyond the confines of their own skins.

What deeper learning can there be from the written word?

A mechanical study of the brain isn’t needed to understand any of this.  But it’s a marvel of our times that such a study is possible, that what most of us know in our hearts can now be proven.

I hope this new understanding makes it possible for every classroom door to stand wide open while such learning takes place.

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This article was first published in the May issue of Bookology magazine.

Is It Only Writers?

“I think there is a deep shame, a humiliation in being a novelist.  Deep inside us crouches a man on a ragged carpet, and the real world rides by.”  —John Fowles

Rubens The Three GracesI’ve often wondered,
do artists of other stripes blush over the question,
“Is my art but a substitute for real life?”
Did Bach, while composing his cantatas,
scold himself for not helping his wife in the kitchen?
All those children to feed!
Did Rubens, as he shaped the full, round bottoms of his three graces
on canvas,
tell himself he would do better
to be making love to one of them . . .
or perhaps all three?
Did Laurence Olivier, while wiping off the pancake makeup,
sigh
and wish he’d gone fishing instead?

Or is it only writers
who crouch on that ragged carpet,
longing for a world not of their own design?
Only writers
who take themselves off to garrets
to recreate the company of strangers?
Only writers
who imitate the Creator God
and feel shame?

(A small sample from the memoir in verse I’m working on, All the Love in this Trembling World.  This one is more writing related than memoir.)

A Bride Married to Amazement

11_28mary-oliver

Photo credit: Rachel Giese

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                          (Mary Oliver, 1935 – )

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church, and I often joke that Mary Oliver is Saint Mary Oliver for us, her poems are so often used as readings in our services. (One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is that scripture is not closed. We find our inspiration in the contemporary sacred as well as the ancient.)

I also find this particular passage an excellent mantra for those of us who write for the young. “A bride married to amazement … the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

All the years I have been engaged in writing for the juvenile market there has been an on-and-off discussion about the single, most basic requirement that makes our work distinct. Hope. We are, we often remind one another, compelled to bring hope to the page.

In the earlier days of that discussion, hope meant simply a happy ending, everything coming out all right in the end. Or at least that’s what it seemed to mean to me. But as literary standards in our field have grown more fluid, not every story ties itself up in a neat bow. And not every problem presented has to prove fixable.

On My HonorMany teachers have found a way to help their students cope with their frustration over the unresolved ending of my 1986 novel, On My Honor, often used in fifth and sixth-grade classrooms. They write their own Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters, and this practice is one I’ve encouraged.) My readers can decide for themselves what to do with the unresolved death, the body that hasn’t even been found. Some hold a funeral and help Joel, the main character, to move on. Some bring Tony, the boy who has drowned, back to life. He’s simply teasing, hiding in the bushes, not drowned. Some, interestingly enough, use their new ending to punish Joel, blaming him for his friend’s lies and risk-taking.

But even if the readers aren’t prepared for the unthinkable to happen, for a boy their own age to actually die in a story, at the end of my Chapter 12 I leave them with Joel’s father, solid and reliable. I leave them with a real world and real pain, but one in which love is real, too. Not every parent would be capable of bringing such grace to the tragedy Joel had endured, but this is my story, and Joel’s father’s grace is the gift I had to offer in my writing.

We live, all of us these days, in an uncertain world. One in which war, racism, climate chaos, inequity, violence, political stalemate, and disease confront us with the rising of every sun. These are realities to be faced into if we are to survive, realities for our children to face into, too.

Surely our stories must explore that uncertain foundation beneath all our feet.

But we also live surrounded by beauty, amazed by it if our senses are alive. We live capable of love, forgiveness, compassion, hope. Amazing love, forgiveness, compassion, hope.

The stories we tell our young people must be honest and true. If they aren’t, why are we telling them?

But if they aren’t filled with our own amazement then what is the point?

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A Search for God

lotusI talked last week about the years I spent plumbing novels for scraps of ideas about God. What I found in church and discovered through reading more traditionally theological sources was too expected, too much cloaked in arcane language, too certain of itself. I needed questions that didn’t come with ready-made answers. And so I turned to novelists, the creative minds that challenged and validated the rest of my world, for my theology, too.

What I rarely did, though, was to carry to my own work the questions I wanted others to explore for me.

But all that was before I tiptoed into Blue-Eyed Wolf, the novel I’m living in now. Blue-Eyed Wolf will be the first truly young-adult novel I have written as the field is defined now, and as such it opens possibilities that weren’t available to me with my earlier books.

Blue-Eyed Wolf is set in 1967-68 in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl, Angie, whose beloved older brother goes off to fight in Vietnam. It is also about the decimation of the wolves she loves.

More to the point for this discussion, though, it is about Angie’s search for answers within her very traditional experience of Christianity. (It will be no surprise to those who know scraps of my history to discover that she is an Episcopalian and that her closest adult friend is her priest’s rebellious wife.)

This is the first time I have ever created a fictional clergy wife. And it is certainly the first time I’ve tried to trace my own lifelong questioning through one of my stories. I‘ve discovered that neither provides easy territory.

The rebellious clergy wife is hard to keep under control. I kept a cap on my own inner rebellion with a sweet face and usually a well-controlled mouth, but if I presented Maia that way she would be of little use to me. So she’s out there, and she’s bursting her seams the ways kids burst out of school at the end of the day. My first task is to make her believable to those who have understandably set expectations for their clergy wives. My second task is to make sure, every step of the way, that she serve’s Angie’s story.

Angie’s search, though, is even harder to navigate.

My perception is that our society in general has a low tolerance for God talk. If I lean too heavily on Angie’s longing for a God who can keep her disrupted life intact, she tumbles into territory for which the labels are too easy. Her search will appear sanctimonious to those who don’t want to hear about religion. It will be naïve to those who have left the idea of God behind. Worse, from a craft point of view, she will seem a mere mouthpiece for the author’s ideas.

Perhaps even more to the point, if I let Angie work through and discard the religious ideas I myself have dismissed over my lifetime, she will offend many . . . probably especially the adults peering over young readers’ heads. If I set the God search aside to make my story safe, I will have failed my own vision.

A friend, a professor of creative writing in a University and a writer himself, said to me many years ago, “I can’t write the kind of fiction I most admire.” I was young when I heard that, and I found the admission deeply sad. How was it possible to face such a limitation of your own talent?

Well, I’m no longer young, and some days I’m entirely unsure when I sit down to Blue-Eyed Wolf that I can write the kind of story I’ve been seeking to read all my life. But I’m not yet willing to settle into an admission of my own limitations.

Angie’s struggle still calls to me. And her rebellious clergy-wife friend is great fun to write. I have the ideas, the convictions, a clear vision of what I want to say. Do I have the skill to shape a story that can make sense—even a little bit of sense—out of my own journey?

That remains to be seen.

The Forbidden Topic … Religion

stained glass windowLast week I took on same-sex marriage. While I’m on a roll, I might as well talk about religion, too.

There aren’t many topics forbidden to those who write for young people these days. Especially if the audience is defined as young adult, writers can take on sex, violence, racism, social taboos, war . . . you name it. And sometimes we can even tiptoe into religion.

Religion has long been a topic of passionate interest to me. And not just because I was married to an Episcopal priest for 28 years. Being a clergy wife doesn’t necessarily bring a person closer to religion, only to the inner workings of the institutional church, which is a very different thing.

I spent decades trying to locate God in books. I read philosophy and theology, of course. But there was something about most books advertised up front as being about God that sent me away still searching. Most of the authors, even when they seemed to be asking hard questions, were still defending an institution, a creed, a professional retirement plan. And especially as a clergy wife who understood too well the inner workings of that kind of commitment, I was seldom impressed.

So I set out instead to search for God in novels. I didn’t look for novels about God. That would be an impossibly short list. A suspect one, even, were it to exist. Rather I read serious, interesting, moving fiction and waited for characters to drop a word here or there about their perception of God. When that happened, I was mesmerized, as though a deep secret were about to be revealed. And some of those passing comments have stuck like burrs.

In a Saul Bellow novel—I no longer remember which one—a character says, “God isn’t sex, but . . .” And he left his musing—and me—to dangle. That phrase stills bubbles up in my mind from time to time. “God isn’t sex, but . . .” What was he saying? That the deep experience of sexual love is one way of approaching God? (Wow! That’s an idea that would set our Puritan foreparents spinning!)

Fiction has always seemed to me the perfect vehicle for struggling with hard questions: about our families, about our social norms, about our purpose on this earth, about God. And fiction intended for those who are just growing into those kinds of questions themselves has the perfect audience. The only problem lies in a writer’s inevitable awareness of the adults peering at the book over those young, inquiring heads.

I never write with the intention of offending. I want only to talk honestly about what feels important to me. But the reality is that honest talk about what is important inevitably will offend someone.

I have never met a child who felt he was damaged by one of my stories, though it’s true that I have met only a small fraction of my readers. (I have met a number, at least through teacher-required letters, who told me they were bored or otherwise poorly served by something I’d written, which is a different matter entirely.) I have, however, had encounters with adults who found a story of mine damaging to young minds. And sometimes those adults have ordered an entire class of children to write to tell me, for instance, that my use of bad words, damn and hell, in On My Honor offended them deeply. So I’m well aware that it is the adults who hold power here, not the kids I’m writing for.

Can I challenge traditional religious thinking, truly challenge it, and not find myself on the black list I barely escaped when I chose to let Am I Blue? bring me out as a “practicing” lesbian? (I’ve always loved that word, “practicing.” I wonder if one day I’ll get it right.)

I only know that I enter each of my stories with my soul bared, asking the hard questions, foregoing the easy answers. And after all these years of searching for God in other people’s stories, it seems time to see what I can discover in my own.