literature and experience

Saturday, January 24th, 2004

So the new semester begins. Literature, writing, and more writing. Why all this writing? Is this some sort of joke? Do modern people fear the blank page so much that we need to scribble it gray? This year Im going to be trying something new, having students put all their ideas down in ketchup or using mustard as the medium for settling on things. Or just ink.

In composition were going to write laterally, up and down, not in the common method of across and across. How does the way we write; how do the tools we use effect the process of coming to conclusions? This seems to be a human geography question; the page is all around us, now the screen. We could ask how much does the ink on the printed page weigh, the twisted light on laptop screen, the uttered word, then read Tim OBrien.

Or we could just write across and across.

But to the subject: Literature. And an essay, a trying out. Just some thoughts. Why do we read and study literature? I dont think we should. Im against this. Its a political thing. Reading and hearing good stories and poems (and writing them) is an experience first, an experience that cant be paraphrased. If we attempt to paraphrase the story, to talk about the movie, were moving away from the story and the film, into reaction or description or analysis. We like to do this. We experience The Milagro Beanfield War and want to tell people about it. I saw this really cool movie. It was beautiful. Then come other criteria. The music was great. The acting splendid, the visuals sensuous. Then come the examples of all of these. None of this is, of course, the movie. Bits and pieces of a comic in analysis are merely examples that support an essays overall point, page or screen or space dependent.

We have an urge. We want to write it. That urge may come in the form of an image, a bit of dialogue (You have this way with a wine glass. The way you turn the wine reminds me of the passing of time.), a shoe on the floor (how did it get there?), a memory (why that one?), a turn of phrase, such as, I saw the sunset and it reminded me of grilled cheese. Or an argument, creative essay. The process that moves to the completed product is complicated, if even a final product is the result.

The good story or the good poem is a particular kind of discovery. These may be repeated or unique attempts. Odysseus or Spiderman. A good ghost story (see Silent Hill II) can open understand to why something is scary or disturbing. What is the connection between what scares and what shapes our everyday our experience? The discoveries arent overt, because theyre embedded in the narrative. Thus understanding the narrative is key to unlocking understanding, which, hopefully, will lead to confusion or more questions. Is this true, possible? Theres something in Fitzgerald. What? Once you act you put something into motion. Actions are. Scary.

How do they ripple out?

3 responses to “literature and experience”

  1. Rina says:

    You ask a lot of questions Mr. E.But I’ll start with, “Why do we read and study literature?”Funny you should ask. Last night I was at my serving job and one of my favorite customers came in for dinner. He is a CEO or CFO at, I believe, Pratt and Whitney. He always brings us airplanes to hang in the restaurant so I know it has something to do with planes. Absolutely delightful gentleman. His wife, Barb, very gracious, as well.So, we got on the subject of school…and I was asked what my major is…after I tell people I’m a history major, I always finish with “A truly worthless degree…hahaha!”And Russ cut me off by saying that it wasn’t so. That according to a conversation he had with a collegue, they came to the conclusion that people who get their degrees in finance or more prestigeous areas usually start off higher on the ladder but seem to level off at some point whereas young people who majored in the arts such as english or history may start off on a lower level but don’t seem to be affected by a ceiling, usually rising higher. Russ said that he believes that students of the arts, having learned how to learn and write, and analyse, do better in the long run. Then he concluded his lecture by saying that he got his BA in english.So, after fighting the urge to give the guy a hug, I grabbed a bottle of tabasco sauce and preceded to eat my serving of crow.When it comes to advancement, I believe it all comes down to ambition and attitude. You can be the smartest person in the world but if one lacks ambition and a positive attitude, you can end up like Ted Kaczinski (who got accepted to Yale at age 16, if I remember correctly).I find I make connections with people, both cultured and uncultured, by sharing or exchanging my knowledge or ideas on history and literature. This, what I think at times as ‘useless knowlege,’ gives me something to talk about, something to share…and people look at you differently when they see that you have a few functioning braincells.Shhh, what they don’t know won’t hurt them ;)So, I disagree, I think the study of literature is vital to growth. One can certainly get by without it but life is a little more dull, a little less beautiful without it.

  2. Rina says:

    In composition we’re going to write laterally, up and down, not in the common method of across and across. How does the way we write; how do the tools we use effect the process of coming to conclusions?Not sure if you were joking but I think it would be fascinating to learn how to write laterally. Is it the Chinese that write laterally?***spacing out…trying to recollect***You know, it really might effect one’s conclusions when one is forced to not only think about a what he or she wants to say but to physically write on a conscious level.Off and on for the past two years I’ve had a friend tutor me in classical Arabic…school always infringes on this endeavor so just when I start to get into it, I go into a panic about a research paper or an exam and I have to put it off until another break…it’s like the easiest and hardest language I’ve ever had to learn in my life…sorry, I’m digressing.Before I had to drop my lessons the last time, I was learning how to write…from right to left…it actually came easier to write with my left hand, since I started life left-handed until the nuns and my parents deprogrammed me. The alphabet aside, which is mainly made up of consonants…it really forces one to think on a conscious level.Hard to explain, it’s a painfully sacred experience.You might drive your students over the edge…which could kind of be fun…but I think it would be very interesting…if you weren’t joking.

  3. Neha says:

    You’re learning Arabic? Hah..That’s cause enough for me to forge a life-long bond with you. What is it about that language? I’ve never been more in love with any other culture.

    Here’s a funny thing about education and educators though. I spent three years in grade school learning how to read and write in Arabic, but no one ever taught us how to understand or speak the language. I wonder what motivated those teachers to teach the way that they did. The only good thing that came of it was that I learnt how to read Urdu (essentially the same script).