Literary expression takes many forms; from short stories to expanded documentation covering myriad subjects. Throughout history, authors have set themselves apart offering written works as diverse as romantic novels and epic tales of adventure, spanning several volumes. Within each genre, sub-specialists write in styles running the gamut from concise academic form, to sprawling embellishments of everyday encounters. Thanks to technology and the proliferation of the World Wide Web, there is a relatively new player on the field, begging the question: Are bloggers a threat to literary integrity?
Motivation Dictates Value
Before people had pencils and pens, drawings and symbols left on cave walls were effective communication. So who took responsibility for preserving thoughts in this way? The cave people skilled at drawing most likely bore much of the burden, but lesser illustrators surely weighed in too. As communication became more important to society, formalizing language and alphabets, more and more people took up writing as a form of expression. Early writers were not necessarily highly-skilled. But they wrote anyway, because they could. So the slippery slope of unskilled writers sharing ideas, whether or not they have the slightest clue how to do it properly, is nothing new.
It could even be argued that the same motivation existed for cave drawers as for some of today’s bloggers. Fame and recognition, the desire to be heard and remembered, are motivators for taking pens to paper, charcoal to cave walls, and most recently, fingertips to keyboards. What has changed over time is the relative importance of fame, heightened in an information age placing great emphasis on celebrity and adulation.
The evolution of the World Wide Web continues to change the landscape for fame-seekers. An instant audience, perhaps millions, is a powerful draw for those committed to being noticed. As a result, many bloggers put the cart before the horse; adding to the blogosphere, before they really have something to say. Blogging’s greatest threat to quality writing is found among ‘vanity’ blogs, serving only their authors; rather than informative, relevant content shared by capable writers blogging online.
In addition to personal rewards for bloggers, the practice of sharing online carries cash benefits, once bloggers establish followings. Unfortunately, poorly written blogs yield returns for bloggers able to draw traffic, in spite of themselves. When poor content is rewarded with cash, it might appear as though it undermines quality writing, but it may be too soon to judge.
Blogging is an evolving pursuit, subject to corrections as it matures into a long-term phenomenon. And just as competition influences other economic trends, bloggers face free market influences, which may eventually serve to elevate good writing and take incentives away from bloggers spewing drivel.
Purely promotional blog content, disguised as education, is increasingly being called-out for what it is, filtering-out blogs without intrinsic value. Spam gives blogs a bad name, but it also makes legitimate content shine amid the noise. In other words, bloggers with something meaningful to share will prevail, but only with a firm commitment to high quality content, and perseverance sharing their messages.
Discouraging signs may show themselves in the short-term, but blogging is not a threat to quality writing over the long haul.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.
By Selena Marimba
For aspiring writers, the type of writing that receives a significant amount of attention is creative writing. The most obvious reason is that creativity is an art, not a science, so people who are naturally creative stand a better chance at being successful creative writers than those who think mechanically. Be aware that there’s a format and approach to any writing, but the genius is not in the approach but in the idea created. Follow these easy tips to achieve your goal of being a fantastic creative writer.
It’s said that good writers are good readers. When creative writers are being exposed to another writer’s creativity and seeing how those stories translate, they’re able to learn techniques and develop skills. Expose yourself to a variety of ideas by reading all genres and all types of stories. This includes fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry. The goal here is to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible so you can find something you may not have thought of previously.
Scribble and Jot
Write down (or record) your thoughts and ideas in a written or audio journal to go back and review later. When you get into this habit, you’ll find that there are things that don’t make sense when you first write them down but will fit together later when you are connecting the dots.
Become A Wordsmith
A wordsmith is simply someone who knows how to use words, either in speaking or writing, though generally the context is writing. For any writer, but especially for a creative writer, the goal is to use the right words in the right order, something that is a matter of both style and personal creativity. This is one dimension of writing that cannot be taught because it is intuitive. But keep in mind that there is a discipline to using your intuition since not all good ideas translate into successful writing.
Be Creatively Honest
Everyone has witnessed a bad TV episode, movie, or theatrical play. While it’s true that sometimes the acting may be terrible, the lines that they read originate from someone who wrote them. If you have a creative idea but it’s a bad one, be honest with yourself and simply reject it and move on. Over time you’ll learn the difference between good and bad creative ideas and then be able to work with the good ideas to produce writing you’ll enjoy.
Watch a show you love and think about the writing. Find what lines you enjoy the most and listen for striking stories you may have missed otherwise. Creative writing is one piece art and another formal structure. Structure can be taught, but creativity must be allowed to grow in order to see the results you wish. Both creativity and structure need to be developed through experience. It’s unlikely that your first story will be your greatest achievement, so be patient with yourself and let the creativity flow.
Selena Marimba is a journalist who writes about all aspect of education. Her recent work is on her plans to earn an MAT degree.
I’ve never been one to state how others should live or choose to enjoy their lives. I’ve never found anyone who does this to truly understand anything, to be perfectly honest. My thought on the subject, and on life for that matter, is relatively simple.
Step one: Seek out what you truly enjoy doing.
Step two: Do it.
Easy, right? Now I am going to complicate things here a bit. Stay with me.
I enjoy watching TV. When I’m in a lazy mood (which is more often than I’d like to admit) I don’t believe there is anything better than sitting on my couch or lying in bed watching bad TV. I can’t fault anyone for enjoying this, either. It is easy entertainment at its most discounted price. What is missing, however, is the sense of satisfaction. After sitting and watching TV for six hours, I receive no personal satisfaction because I put in absolutely no work and received the bare minimum amount of pleasure. This is where I’ll segue to fishing, I think.
This may make sense. Again, stay with me.
Some nights, I’ll lie in bed and set my alarm for four-thirty in the morning, promising myself that I will wake up and attempt to start the old engine on the back of my boat to putter out a mile or so into the pre-dawn Atlantic and drop a few lines into the water. “It’s worth it,” I’ll tell myself. “Just wake up and make yourself do it. It’s that easy.”
But it’s not easy. It takes effort.
In my half-asleep state, I feel that fateful time on my iPhone alarm clock ticking nearer and nearer until it’s ringing loudly into my ears. I open my eyes and squint into the darkness and stillness of the morning. “I could just go back to sleep. I don’t have to get up. I don’t want to get up,” I tell myself. And sometimes, I don’t. But on some mornings, I work up enough strength to kick the covers off my feet and stand up out of bed. In a sleep-deprived haze, I walk across the wet grass in the moonless darkness and start my car.
When I get to the harbor, I still don’t see the moon or anyone on the street or even hear anyone on the radio. I get out of my car and re-stretch my legs. I take two, sometimes three trips to the dock and load all of my gear into the little leaky dingy and row feebly out to my 18-foot center console at the far edge of the harbor next to the white water lapping on the mossy breakwater boulders in the flood tide.
I start my engine once, putters, blows a plume of smoke, stalls out. I start it again; same thing but a bigger plume of smoke. On the third attempt, the engine shakes and rumbles and decides to stay running long enough for me to shift into gear. Finally, I’m off.
A few meandering gulls sleepwalk awkwardly out of the way of the fiberglass hull of my boat, parting the water, just barely showing the first glimpses of sunlight from the false dawn rising atop the dunes of the beach and the roofs of the beach houses.
As I near my supposed destination, I slow my little boat to a saunter just as the first glimpse of the sun shows its face. Then, I cut the engine; silence, but for a noisy tern circling, watching me, wondering what I’m doing. I prepare my rods and wait, either five minutes, an hour, three hours, all day…
For that moment, as I lean on the gunnels, rocking softly against the direction-less waves, hearing the water gurgle as it rises and falls through the scuppers, I’m happy that I woke up and dragged myself out of bed and trusted my old engine to get me to where I wanted to go. “I can’t believe I almost didn’t do this,” I think to myself. “I can’t believe I almost traded in this satisfaction of actually accomplishing something for a warm bed and a few cheap television shows.” The satisfaction of working hard to truly accomplish or understand something is more fulfilling than any creature comfort. I may even catch a fish.
When I find myself in the last few pages of a book, truly caring, understanding, feeling for characters that are completely fictionalized by some man or woman I don’t and will never know, I am granted this same, deep sense of satisfaction and self-awareness. I am grateful that I can feel this way, that if I invest enough work—be it physical or emotional—into what I’m doing, I can feel this way. For this reason, I am excited to become more involved in the Changing Lives through Literature program and blog. I feel that everyone should be able to experience this sense of satisfaction. I know that literature has the power to change and better even the most beat-down and hardened lives and I am ecstatic that I will be given the opportunity to witness and experience this first-hand.
I apologize for the lengthy preface to this introductory blog. So, let’s see. Let me start with some facts in no particular order.
My name is Billy Mitchell and I have never run a blog before.
I have a list of books I mean to read turning over in my mind that spans the number of books I have ever read and will probably ever read in my lifetime.
I enjoy beer and I enjoy a good book and a combination of the two could keep me satisfied forever.
My favorite author is very cliché, as is my favorite book, so I won’t get into that.
I read The Sun Also Rises in high school and thought to myself, “Wow what a happy book, I would love to be one of these characters.” I read it again a few years later and was shocked at how I could have been so naïve.
I was once assigned Tolstoy’s War and Peace to read for a class. I read and enjoyed the whole massive thing up until the last chapter where I stopped, and haven’t picked it up since. I’m not sure why I did that.
When I finish a book, I find myself dreaming about the characters more so than I do about real-life people. Sometimes I like to believe that the characters are real-life people, and convince myself so.
I still haven’t met Dean, or anyone who is mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.
I’m still beating on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly.
I tend to write like Hemingway when I’m drinking scotch, which is almost never, but I can wish, can’t I?
I’m not quite sure if this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I feel it’s somewhere in the middle and I can’t hate that prospect.
I’m no Ishmael and you can’t call me that.
I’m still not sure where my white whale is; I can’t remember the last time I saw him.
I hope to never go 84 days without a fish.
I enjoy fishing and the metaphorical symbolism that comes with it, and I feel it is the closest resemblance that anyone can experience to reading and understanding a truly great book.
Hemingway said “there is no friend as loyal as a good book.” I would tend to agree, unless you have a really great dog. But I hear Hemingway was a cat guy.
So, readers of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog, I’ll leave you with this. Reading is like fishing, or something like that. In my heart, I recognize the ability of a good piece of literature to change the way that a person thinks about and perceives the world around them. And I think this is important for everyone to realize. No, I know it’s important. So never stop waking up early and putting in the work. Never let the temptation of what is easy or accessible or cheap overcome your need for your own personal satisfaction. I guess what I am trying to say, is this: Never stop fishing.
As we approach the end of 2012, let’s take a moment to reflect on this year’s successes—big and small—of Changing Lives Through Literature and other alternative sentencing programs.
We are the official blog of Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL)—an alternative sentencing program “based on the power of literature to transform lives through reading and group discussion,” as well-stated on the official CLTL website.
The main purpose of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog is to support CLTL. This blog provides a place to discuss:
- CLTL and other alternative sentencing programs that reduce criminal recidivism or change lives for the better—share news, concerns, successes, difficulties, and ideas
- Literature—recommend stories that inspire; talk about literary events that enlighten
- Criminal justice reform and other relevant criminal justice topics of today—discuss what works and what changes still need to take place
A milestone reached: 200 posts
We reached a milestone this year—we published our 200th post. Please continue to join us as we embark on our next 200. Also, while CLTL has been around since 1991, this blog turned four years old last month. Let’s look forward to the next four years and beyond.
Thank you for contributing your thoughts, experiences, and insights to this blog. Also, thank you for reading it! We hope you find its content meaningful and valuable.
A call to action: share your 2012 success stories
We invite you to share your CLTL (or similar program) successes of 2012. We encourage you to use this blog to share your answers to any of these questions:
- How did your CLTL group or similar program succeed in 2012?
- What breakthroughs were experienced?
- What piece of literature did you or someone in your program find most inspiring?
For shorter comments, please use the leave a comment link at the top of this post and enter your reply. For longer comments, or to include images, submit up to 700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for publication on this blog.
We also welcome your thoughts on what you’d like to read on this blog for the upcoming year.
Again, thank you for helping to make this blog, CLTL, and similar programs a success.
Nancy E. Oliveira
Editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds—a Changing Lives Through Literature blog
Photo taken by JoAnne Breault.
This is Katie Newport’s first post as web editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds.
In the year 2000, I entered my freshman year at Framingham State College; I was eager to learn, hopeful for the future, and had indiscriminately chosen a major -Communication Arts. It wasn’t long before I decided to change my path; I had fallen in love – with Art History. For the next four years, I devoured books on feminist art history, marveled over the seemingly insignificant smudges and dollops of oil paint that make up a Van Gogh, and got lost in the presence of anything from the Dutch realists.
During this time, in lieu of electives, I took anything and everything that related to English literature or writing. Children’s Literature, World Literature, Myth and Folklore, Women Writers, The Classics, etc. Each of these satisfied my insatiable need for the written word, and – even more compelling – they were fun. Four years later, I had taken so many of these elective classes that, upon graduating, I was awarded a degree in Art History and English; my reading and writing habits had become functional, and permanent, fixtures.
Over time, it became increasingly obvious that writing was, in fact, my calling. And though I still lose my breath at the sight of a Dutch memento mori, I know that Art History is the hobby, not Literature.
As my graduate career in the Professional Writing program draws to a close this semester, and as I accept this position as Web Editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds, I cannot help but reflect on the role that literature has played in my life up until this point. I cannot help but wonder where I would be without my shelves, stocked with dog-eared favorites and stiffly bound not-yet-read books? Who would I have become if not for the likes of Judy Blume at age thirteen, Jane Austen at sixteen, F. Scott Fitzgerald at seventeen, and Steinbeck at nineteen? Their voices and their words changed mine.
Similarly so, the Changing Lives Through Literature program transforms reading from a passive, solitary practice to an active, participatory endeavor – one that engages and expands upon an individual’s experience or existence, creating opportunities for growth and change. The reflection of one’s self in the pages of classic literature is a striking thing; it is a moment that is both humbling and grandiose, and ultimately hard to forget. It is a moment that can strike you much like looking closely, and intensely, at a painting.
In my undergraduate Art History classes, we’d begin to discuss a piece by looking at it in full view, displayed up on the projector screen. Then, the slide would change, and we would visually dissect detailed photographs. As a class, we would discuss each nuance, color choice, brush selection, and medium variation.
After a while, it became harder to see the piece as a whole, and instead we saw it as a marriage of thousands of distinct, deliberate choices, all of which were made by one person, in one moment, for one end. This exercise in intimacy compels a relationship between the piece and the audience, much like close reading and literary analysis.
I am very excited about the upcoming months here at Changing Lives, Changing Minds, and look forward to being a contributor and facilitator of discussion, and more so, an audience to our essayists.
Jenni Baker is the communications specialist for Goodwill Industries International in Washington, DC. This is her final post as marketing and media advisor for Changing Lives Through Literature.
Anyone afforded the opportunity to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature will speak of the change it enacts within every person around the table.
Some talk of the affirmation they receive from knowing they are not alone in their thoughts and in their life struggles. Men and women who participate in this program as part of their probation sentence habitually note the affirmation they receive from voicing their insights on an equal playing field with individuals they never considered as equals.
My time in the program taught me that this affirmation works both ways. As a student of English, I entered the program familiar with literature’s potential to change. I was inexperienced, however, with the power of reading and discussion to overcome obstacles of gender, race, and class.
Just as the participants who had spent time in the justice system thought they knew the judge and probation officers they now sat beside, I brought my own preconceptions to the table that first night. After spending years discussing literature with college peers and academics, I confess I entered the sessions with classist thoughts — I wasn’t sure what kind of valuable conversation I could have with individuals who in many cases did not finish high school.
The answer to that question kept me coming to session after session. Seeing literature change the lives of these criminal offenders week after week was certainly inspiring. On a personal level, however, I was more moved by the connections and conversations that strengthened with each meeting.
Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com.
This essay is the first in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.
Built in Boston’s densely populated inner city, the Dorchester men’s CLTL program is by far the largest, graduating a cohort of 37 men last year and requiring a staff of eight, including two English professors (Taylor Stoehr and Bert Stern), three to four probation officers, a judge, and two former program participants. The class meets for ten weekly sessions of ninety minutes each and uses Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave as a primary text.
Ken is a graduate from that large cohort who promptly arrived to meet me at the Dorchester District Courthouse to cover for a last minute interview cancellation.
When asked about his experience in CLTL, Ken particularly appreciated the feedback he received on written assignments:
[CLTL] opened up my way of thinking a whole lot differently. I found myself writing about stuff that I wasn’t even thinking about. And the more I wrote, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. . . Taylor, when he used to give us comments, he said I got a knack for [writing]. Now I want to write my own autobiography one day . . . [Taylor] gave me a lot of input and he gave me some places where I can go if I want to go to school, you know? Like, who to contact for loans or whatever . . . after you graduate you get this booklet, when they read it, they was like, wow man you got some talent . . . [Taylor and Bert] knew I had a real talent in writing, and Taylor he really made me feel good, his comments . . . I felt real good about myself after that.
When asked whether or not CLTL changed his opinions of other people, Ken recalled being struck by a story the presiding judge told during a group session:
Imagine President Obama holding a news conference to announce a federal buyout that would actually save taxpayers billions instead of costing taxpayers billions. And this buyout would not only save taxpayers money, he would say, but improve the quality of millions of American lives as well.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Well he could do that if the states—we, the voters and taxpayers—adopted the recommendations of the Pew Center for the States and redesigned the criminal justice system, which costs taxpayers $68 billion annually. We need to put more emphasis and financial support into “inexpensive” community-based intervention and remediation, and less into building more “expensive” prisons, and legislating stiffer penalties for non-violent offenders.
So why haven’t we done this already—don’t we see this as just common sense? Apparently not, explains the Pew Center, which points to dramatic increases over the last twenty years in prison population and construction, and in widely divergent judicial and corrections policies. State-by-state analyses show our corrections systems are our second largest expense after Medicaid.
Changing Lives through Literature is one of those “inexpensive,” community-based programs that should be part of the President’s plan, but more on that later.
Carl Schinasi enjoys teaching at Miles College, a historically black college, in Birmingham, Alabama. His recent works have appeared in Ducts, Slow Trains, Southern Hum, and the essay collection, Baseball/Literature/Culture. Most summers, he can be found lolling around any baseball field anywhere.
Note: Long before Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane started “Changing Lives Through Literature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed, in fact, demanded his own version of the program. Emerson framed his program not for felons, but for a population I’m sure he considered equally, if differently, incarcerated. This short essay places “Changing Lives Through Literature” directly in the honorable tradition of “programs” that tie literature to life.
At this late remove, it may be difficult to imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ”The American Scholar” a radical document, the equivalent of a battle cry that inspired Oliver Wendell Holmes to proclaim it “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Yet few literary efforts in America’s history so decisively throw open the doors for a generation as did Emerson’s exhortation to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837. His speech with its declaration, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” liberated and emboldened the youth of his day to build an America in their own vision. The speech marks a watershed moment in American history and letters. Though delivered over fifty years after the fact, it resonates as the parting shot of the American Revolution.
In “The American Scholar,” Emerson fumed aloud about a land peopled by ingenious and industrious folk who showed a profound lack of originality. In the speech, Emerson directs his listeners to unshackle themselves from their European ancestors’ ideas and traditions. He admonishes his audience and all Americans to turn this new land into a democracy of “Man Thinking,” not mere “thinkers.”
A simple distinction separates these titles: “Thinkers” degenerate into victims of society as they parrot other people’s ideas. They devolve into individuals disconnected from each other and a larger purpose; they wind up materialists and solipsists. “Man Thinking” creates and invents. He produces an integrated society while drawing inspiration from and remaining connected to Nature, the larger world, which embodies a united, universal, and generative spirit. “Man Thinking” defines Emerson’s idea of the American scholar, his model for the American citizen. This individual would combine vision and action to establish a new government, culture, and society ultimately fulfilling John Winthop’s prediction this nascent country “shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, [where] the eies of all people are uppon us.”
Emerson outlines three criteria to forge this new American. Among these is a call for an engagement with books. With this admonition, not coincidently, Emerson catechized a theory of books we still find instructive in its power to challenge, shape, and change lives. To become a scholar, “Man Thinking,” the seer and doer, Emerson urges his audience to participate in a radical act—read!