by Jane Hale
All students in the Changing Lives Through Literature program, without exception, need to make changes in their lives. In fact, they are all doing so, as do all of the rest of us, for to be alive is to change. While change is inevitable, though, its direction is not.
The CLTL students have typically experienced a number of changes for the worse in their lives, sometimes in their family situation, often in their behavior, and probably most recently in their status within the legal system. Some have gone from not having a record to getting one, some from minor scrapes with the law to a major one. Many of them have learned only two ways to deal with this kind of painful change: acting out in inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating ways or numbing their pain with drugs and alcohol. Making them aware of other, less self-defeating options that will redirect their lives in more positive directions is the purpose of CLTL.
What better way to explore options for one’s life than to read and talk and think and write about how others live theirs? And about how our experiences and choices are related to theirs? About how we might learn from their mistakes, learn to feel compassion for people different from ourselves, be validated by finding out that others experience the same frustrations, doubts, and difficulties as we do in their own lives, that we are not alone?
The literary texts we choose for our CLTL classes all deal with characters confronting pain, choices, and change. We use them as models and springboards for our own self-discovery and self-expression, and we practice discussing their experiences in order to learn ways of responding with empathy and insight to the stories of those around us. It is much easier for students, initially at least, to open up to a CLTL group when discussing fictional characters’ behavior and lives than when talking about their own.
But why literature? Why not biography, autobiography, or news reports of others’ deeds and lives? The answer is not clear-cut, but there is one, and it’s based on the experiences of many groups and facilitators. There’s nothing to say that a nonfiction text will not work for any given group, but our experience has shown that the more complex and ambiguous the text, the more subjective the style, the more the text lends itself to rich discussion rather than to simple summary and straightforward comment. Some nonfiction texts reach this level of rich complexity; they are usually by writers whose primary genre is fiction. I am thinking here of John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers or George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which have created characters and situations that far transcend any particulars of journalistic time, place, and circumstance, and both of which I use in CLTL with success.
One of the major lessons of growing up involves learning to tolerate ambiguity. When we are little, we see the world in binary terms and want to know who is wrong and who is right, what is bad and what is good, who loves us and who doesn’t, what the whole world ought to do about any given situation. Fairy tales provide a good literary structure for such categorical thought. In my work with freshmen at Brandeis University, I often encounter the same type of rigid thinking. I make it a point to work with students over their four years in college to help them see that the world is full of many more questions than answers, and that those who pose the questions eloquently and wisely live much richer and more useful lives than those who have all the answers. We try to choose texts for CLTL that model how to formulate interesting questions and teach the benefit of considering, and perhaps accepting, several answers to the same one.
Most definitions of literature emphasize the relative importance it accords to style in relation to content. In pieces of writing we define as literature, the author normally pays more attention to the “how” of the storytelling than to the journalist’s no-nonsense “who, what, when, where, and why.” Who has not read a novel of great beauty about people suffering in imaginary or far-off times and places? Or seen a tragedy that delivers a soap-opera plot with cathartic force? The way human language can be used and manipulated to make an event have value to oneself and others is one of the great lessons we teachers of literature have to impart to our students.
CLTL students need particularly to learn how to represent themselves, their experiences, thoughts, and aspirations, eloquently and positively. Teaching them both the power and the conventions of spoken and written discourse through discussing their own and others’ lives is a way to directly empower them to see and live their lives as if they had all the options for change we know they do.
Jane Hale is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University and an instructor in the Framingham CLTL program. She has been teaching language and literature for over thirty years.