Literary Discussion Helps Us Find the Words

"Communication" by assbach on flickrBeth Ayer is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She is the in-coming editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds.

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”  – C.S. Lewis

Literature’s involvement in our lives is more than that of a record. It is more like a portal to places we know but perhaps in our flurry of living forget how to access. It also helps us talk to each other about our world and about ourselves. I am new to CLTL and have yet to enter the classroom, but already it has been a welcome reminder of literature’s unique power and profound individual impact. People can come together around literature as around a fire; it connects common experience and ignites discussion.

Surely even a skeptic of the program would have to admit – good must come from this. But, some might ask, how is reading meaningful to our lives?

Meaning can be the result of things we do or things we build, of anything that requires notable effort, concentration, and patience. It often appears as a result of an object or action’s direct relation to us.

But often meaning is not simply found and must not only be sought after; it must be made. Literature is this way. Surely a book means something much different to its author than to its audience. The physical book itself may just as easily be seen wedged beneath a table leg as found firing synapses in a reader’s brain. So, for readers to detect meaning they must stand up to meet it — bringing past experiences, prejudices, fears, and future hopes along with them.

Reading allows us to get out only as much as we put in. Literature describes and adds to our common humanity while also showing us the differences among people. It delves into tragic histories that maybe we as individuals are ill equipped to untangle.

Through reading we face our own tragic histories, regardless of how small or large. We perceive events from varying perspectives or from a wide lens. And in literature we allow contradiction; we let things come apart in ways we didn’t know we could manage. Then through discussion we attempt to piece together understanding.

A story often include multiple perspectives, and the truth can be found in the manner of its telling, in the contradictions of its narrators, and in the willing participation of an audience.

Similarly, each CLTL program participant brings a unique perspective and history of their own, and through combined effort the discussion expands toward greater understanding – whether of the book of the day, among the people in the room, or both.

As a newbie, I have not yet participated in the CLTL classroom. But I know coming in that conversation and discussion move us as human beings forward rather than backward. Literature helps us find new ways of communicating with each other, and of understanding each other. It fleshes out the limits of what we can conceive of – and what we can conceive of helps expand the limits of what we can do.


4 thoughts on “Literary Discussion Helps Us Find the Words

  1. Hi Beth: Welcome to the CLTL blog. I am so pleased you have agreed to be the editor this year. We are all looking forward to that. And thanks for this essay. I agree that we seem to map our own stories onto the stories we read. Keep reading and writing!

  2. Welcome, Beth, and thanks for the thoughtful and elegant post. It made me think of how literature helps us to imagine possibilities — affirming biracial identity, workers’ solidarity, unlikely frienships and alliances — that may run counter to historical reality or lived experience. In stretching our minds, it paves the way for stretching our realities.

  3. Beth, what a wonderful post. Welcome to the CLTL community. I want to share a quote with you from Judge Joseph Dever. It’s a long quote, but it’s the right quote to follow this post:

    “I was at the deli, and the woman working behind the counter came to me and said that I sentenced her to Changing Lives Through Literature back in the 90s. ‘At that time, social services had taken away my children,’ she said, ‘I had a serious addiction; I was heading for incarceration and death. Your program totally changed my life.’ She introduced me to her coworkers as ‘the man who changed my life.’ She said ‘I never set the world on fire, but I’m alcohol free and drug free, I’m chief of a deli and I got my children back from public custody. My oldest is a sophomore at North Shore Community College, and the other one is a Senior in High School, getting a scholarship to Salem State. God knows I would have never seen them again if not for Changing Lives Through Literature. I’ve credited the program through that process.’”

  4. Hi Beth. When I read posts like yours, it makes me wonder why more people haven’t fully embraced CLTL as a program. Even if they’re not convinced that it can change lives, reduce recidivism, etc–surely they must admit that reading and discussion move people forward, as you say. This in itself is a better option than incarceration, which does nothing but encourage people to stagnate.

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