The Start of a Novel

by Rachel Wicks

Halloween has passed and November has begun, but to those who concern themselves with writing and literature, this month has more to celebrate than just turkey and cranberry sauce on the fourth Thursday of the month.

For those who know don’t know, November is also known as National Novel Writing Month (usually referred to as NaNoWriMo) and it’s exactly what it sounds like. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to produce a 50,000 words by the end of November, meaning that writers should aim to write a minimum of 1,667 words a day in order to finish their novel in the allotted time.

NaNoWriMo occasionally gets a lot of backlash from critics who claim that there is no possible way that a novel can be successfully completed in a single month. They claim that writing isn’t about word count—it’s about the quality of the writing. They say that NaNoWriMo is meaningless because the time constraints on the writing can only lead to writers producing 50,000-word documents of mangled literary garbage.

In my opinion, the critics are correct on some points, such as writing not solely revolving around word counts, but those against NaNoWriMo don’t seem to understand that the purpose of each November is to make drafts. A fully-fledged novel, ready to be published in a moments notice, can’t feasibly be created in a month. Writing needs editing, precision, and a certain finesse that can’t be managed in so little time.

But what people forget is that writing also needs to be started, and often times that’s the hardest part of all.

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to write my own novel, and I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo since I was 13. I’m 21 now, and although I’ve never successfully managed to find the time to complete the 50,000 word goal, I want this year to be different. I want 2016 to be the year I prove to myself that I can write an entire draft of a novel, that I do have the personal discipline required to dedicate enough time each day to writing 1,667 words, and that not only can I begin a novel but I can end it too.

Looking through the literature that has been assigned through the CLTL program, I sometimes wonder what classic authors of the current literary canon would have done had they also lived in a time where NaNoWriMo existed. Would they have seized the chance to join a group of writers all struggling to get 50,000 words out of themselves in a timely manner?

It’s rather hard to imagine the greats like Hemingway, Austen, and even Shakespeare doing NaNoWriMo, but those authors all had to force themselves to start their novels somehow. There used to be a time when Charles Dickens only had the first line of A Tale of Two Cities written down, but that line led to a full fledged book.

NaNoWriMo provides authors, especially new authors, the chance to let their writing flourish by starting and (just as importantly) finishing a full draft, unhindered by the idea that writing has to be perfect the first time the pen hits paper. Every great author in history has known that perfect writing takes practice and does not happen overnight. With this idea in mind, I intend to use this month to generate some first-draft literature of my own. It won’t be pretty, and I probably won’t be too proud of the content, but I will be proud of myself for accomplishing a goal and taking the first step towards completing a dream.

So, if you have the time, maybe 2016 can be the year you start writing too. The next great generation of novels lining the shelves of future bookstores (and iPads) has to be written by someone, and maybe that someone is you.

What Happens at a CLTL Meeting

by Rachel Wicks

This past Wednesday, I got the exciting privilege of being able to sit in on one of the CLTL program’s meeting. Ever since I received this internship, I’ve been curious as to what actually happens at these biweekly events, so when I learned that one of the branches of the program met at UMass Dartmouth, I knew I had to check it out.

Arriving an hour late due to my evening class, I was quickly ushered in and allowed to sit between the two men running that night’s meeting: Chuck Zalewski, a defense attorney from Fall River who has been with the program for over twenty years, and Wayne St. Pierre, a recently retired probation officer who continues to volunteer with the CLTL because of how strongly he believes the program can, as the program’s title says, change lives.

Both men were running Wednesday’s meeting because the usual facilitator, Dr. Robert Waxler, was unfortunately in the hospital. We wish him a speedy recovery and our thoughts are with him always.

The first thing I noticed at the meeting, however, was that it was by no means a classroom setting. When I had first heard that the program was based off of literary discussions, I immediately imagined the experiences I had had in my own college career, in which the professor would verbally poke and prod a classroom of twenty tired students, hoping that not only would someone eventually raise their hand but that maybe they had actually read too.

This was not the case at the CLTL meeting.

Although not every attendee had finished the book completely, the meeting was positively bustling with discussion. People were contributing because they wanted to, to the point where different voices were overlapping each other and laughter rung out in the small conference room.

Never in my life had I imagined that a discussion about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea could be so riveting.

Interestingly enough, what also caught my attention about the meeting was that the questions posed by the moderators were not simply questions about the exact content of the book. Sure, parts of the discussion were based on the main character’s thoughts and actions, but often times Zalewski or St. Pierre would ask a question that extended beyond what was written on the page and depended entirely on reader interpretation.

For example, the attendees were asked:

  • Did the main character go too far?
  • Does his determination spell out a sort of death wish?
  • Could his mind have been changed at any point?
  • What will happen after the end of this book?

That last question stood out in particular to me because it reflects one of Dr. Waxler’s beliefs about literature. Waxler says that a good story is like an iceberg, with perhaps 10% above the water while the other 90% remains below the surface. Anyone can read through a book and see the easily visible 10%, but the CLTL meetings encourage people to dive deep into each story and explore the other 90%, asking themselves questions that have no right or wrong answers but that are still based off the characterization and symbolism in the story.

The attendees also seemed to have little problem with this more thorough and in-depth exploration of literature, since they had fascinating theories to contribute and would often pick up on topics to discuss that the facilitators hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning yet.

Imaginably, it is through this process of uncovering the hidden 90% of each novel that allows for the CLTL program to be so successful. Started in 1991, the program was built off of the very idea there was a certain power within literature that could positively affect the way people think, feel, and relate to the world. This small inkling of an idea began just with Dr. Waxler and St. Pierre, and after convincing a judge to give their plan a shot, the CLTL has now grown to be the multi-faceted program it is today, truly living up to its name by changing people’s lives through the power of stories.

As Zalewski stated near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, “We’re learning as much from you as you are from us.”

For the next meeting, the new reading assignment is Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley, in which the process of digging into that 90% continues.

Behind the Scenes of Literature

by Rachel Wicks

We know that literature, as the CLTL acronym states, changes lives. We know that reading a book has the power to transform the reader’s thought process, to strengthen empathy through traversing the minds of different characters, and to allow for readers to wholeheartedly and unabashedly relate to the stories on the pages they hold.

However, none of this would be possible were it not for the processes that produce literature in the first place.

Recently, I have been afforded the exciting opportunity to partner up with a writer who is currently working on a novel that is set to be published some time in 2017. The book details the experience of growing up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and deals with themes of family, betrayal, loss, and all the other positives and negatives that build up to the grand, overall moment in time that we call a singular lifetime.

However, this book is considered to be a fictional memoir, since the writer is embellishing the story of her own life to make it more suitable and dramatic for reading. One of the main differences between actual life and life recorded down onto paper is that writing can be edited. Writing can skip the boring parts of a person’s day and go straight to the fun stuff, highlighting and often times liberally adding to the moments people would want to read about. So, despite the undeniable fact that literature changes lives, capturing lives through literature is often a far less factual process.

At its current stage, this book still has no binding, no jacket, and no cover. Instead, it is merely a large stack of 230 sheets of printer paper that take up an awful lot of space in my backpack.

Still, it’s strange to think that this is where literature starts. At one point in time, the greatest book you’ve ever read has been nothing more than a stack of paper in an intern’s bag, the corners of the pages crinkled and bent while the words themselves are scrawled over with red pen. In this particular instance, I just happen to be that very intern, and the markings in red belong to one of the many editors I am working with.

Reviewing the process of creating literature is honestly a sobering glimpse into how everything that has ever been considered “great” has to have come from humble beginnings. The writer who is determined to chronicle her experiences in New Bedford once had a mere inkling of an idea, but now she has over 200 pages and a secured publishing deal.

The smallest of concepts always have the potential to blossom into something more, but these ideas can only grow if given the proper care. The entirety of the literary canon that stands to this day, from a stack of papers in 2016 to Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji (the first novel ever written) in the 11th century, was once only a thought in a writer’s head, but now these stories have leaped from thought to paper to literature, where we as readers can experience these messages for ourselves.

 

To make a contribution to this blog, please contact me either through my UMass email or through my Twitter. Hope to hear from you!

the Changing Lives Through Literature conversation

by Marissa Matton

Proving that Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) produces news-worthy results, the program was recently featured in two articles.

In an article for news station WBUR, Deborah Becker highlights a recent CLTL graduation ceremony held in Dorchester District Court. Along with Becker’s description of how the program runs are quotes from those involved–both students and facilitators. Hearing from participants from both sides of the program reveals the secret to CLTL’s success.

Facilitator Tam Neville describes literature as a “tool to help provoke thoughtful discussion and to develop relationships”. According to Judge Weingarten, a facilitator of the Dorchester men’s program, his job is to create a safe place for discussion, which is the key to the program’s participants making changes in their lives. As the students reflect on their readings, they relate lessons from the literature to their lives.

Probation officer Pamela Pierce notes how the students learn from each other, changing their views of not only the criminal justice system, but also themselves–a key to them not committing new crimes after graduating from the program. Abby, one of the Dorchester graduates, praises the relationships she made and attributes the program for putting her on the college-bound track.

This type of personal change is the basis of Elizabeth Svoboda’s article for DailyGood. Svoboda weaves together tales to discuss the importance of storytelling–an agent of transformation.

CLTL is described in the article as “proving that well-told stories can also re-orient the lives of adult offenders”. The connections that can be made between literature and our lives is clear in the example Svoboda provides of a student connecting The Old Man and the Sea to his own struggle with drugs.

There are lessons to be learned for all of us, not just the CLTL students. And as made evident by all those who participate in CLTL, discussion is the key to unlocking these lessons. The conversation created by Becker and Svoboda are important and align with the goals of this blog–to sustain conversation beyond the classroom. Let’s continue the conversation and keep learning from one another.

more articles about Changing Lives Through Literature

A call for change

by Marissa Matton

With 2.4 million inmates, the United States has the highest prison population of the world. Behind only Seychelles, we also have the second highest incarceration rate. The United States makes up only five percent of the world’s population, yet we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. These are alarming statistics, but what do they really mean for our nation?

As a nation, we’re led to believe that people who break laws are bad and should be put behind bars. We never consider much past that– how long they should be in prison, where the money comes from, what happens to the prisoners after they’re released.

The sad fact about released prisoners is that the majority of them are incarcerated again. A study showed that 62.5% of released prisoners were convicted of another crime after being released from prison. Two-thirds of them committed another crime within just one year of their release.

What good is a prison sentence if an inmate is going to repeat the same actions upon release? You’ve only temporarily delayed new crimes from being committed. Shouldn’t our nation be aiming for a higher goal? Isn’t prevention what we should be targeting? The United States prison system is severely suffering when it comes to reforming inmates.

A prison sentence alone is not enough to keep a prisoner from committing future offenses. This fact is abundantly clear when juvenile detentions are taken into consideration. A study of Chicago youth incarceration showed that young offenders were sixty-seven percent more likely to be in jail again by the age of twenty-five. What’s even worse, is that they were more likely to commit violent crimes, including homicide.

On average, it costs twenty-four thousand dollars per inmate per year. Billions are spent on incarceration every year. The billions of dollars that go into keeping these prisons not full but overcrowded would be better spent on alternative sentencing programs.

Changing Lives Through Literature is an excellent example of a program that truly works. A study showed that less than fifty percent of graduates committed a new offense after completing the program. Why is this program so more effective than incarceration alone? Students in the program  are are learning hands-on in the classroom, gaining the tools necessary to reevaluate their decisions and change their perspectives.

Locking away everyone who breaks the law is not only not possible, but also not feasible. We need to recognize the issues associated with the prison system, and just as the Changing Lives Through Literature students learn to change their perspectives, we need to as well. Alternative sentencing programs overall produce better results than prison sentences and are often less expensive. This is the direction we need to head towards, instead of relying on prison sentences.

The two moments you know they’ve succeeded

by Lance Eaton

I’m a newbie to Changing Lives Through Literature, so what I say here might seem old-hat to some or naive to others. I’m about two-thirds through my second group and there are two moments in the program that I find most rewarding.

I choose a mixture of challenging and strange texts. There’s a method to my madness in terms of the range and type, as well as the alignment, but I often get raised eyebrows from the participants and even the parole officers. The texts are evocative, usually leading the participants to come in with clear opinions. These opinions are usually a mixture of confusion, frustration, and dislike because the readings don’t always have clear endings and are sometimes outright confusing.

As participants enter, they’re often ready to engage with the story, sometimes venting before the meeting starts. They want answers to what they just experienced, which is always great to see. You know you’ve chosen a good text if you have to encourage them to refrain from discussing it too early.

The first moment of success is towards the end of the session. After spending nearly two hours discussing the text, the tide turns. Frustration and confusion give way to excitement and enthusiasm. Opinions move from disliking to liking, or at least a better appreciation of the story. It’s worth doing a quick poll at the beginning and at the end about participants’ feelings on the story to see what has changed.

It’s the change of opinion and thought about the story that I think is most important because it’s the best indicator of their learning and investment in the process. The program’s charge to change lives is generated by learning, which happens when there is investment. However, the program (rightfully) doesn’t require any more than participation: read, show up, discuss. This formula in itself doesn’t guarantee learning. We’ve all met on rare occasions the person who resists learning and performs the bare minimum. But overwhelmingly, the participants do so much more. Therefore, any change of opinions and thoughts becomes an indicator of their investment and their learning, which sets them down the path of changing their lives.

The second moment of success happens sometime past the half-way mark in the program. By this point, a sense of rhythm and expectation has been established. Participants know what to expect of the facilitator and the facilitator is familiar with the rhythm of the meetings. It’s usually around this point that the participants start to make the observation that the readings are “easier”. It becomes clear that they’re picking up on more ideas and significance within the stories. It’s usually around this time that I start to hear lines like, “This was easy” or “I knew what was going to happen after that first sentence”.

I mark this as success because the readings themselves don’t necessarily get easier. In fact, I often choose increasingly harder texts, recognizing that with the flow established, they’ll begin to feel more comfortable with more difficult texts. This comfort stems from knowing we will clarify things they don’t understand. However, their remarks indicate they’re developing stronger reading and analytical skills. They often overlook this but I take the time to draw out the point. When I do, I see not only smiles about the fact, but also realizations about their own abilities. It’s a great moment for facilitator and participant. It’s the crux of why we’re all sitting in the room, and it’s proof positive that their lives have value and meaning and that they have some control over it.

These two moments are part of the major reason I enjoy Changing Lives Through Literature. I don’t believe that the program directly produces grand change in every participants’ lives. But I believe the nature of the program does set them down the path of learning, self-reflection, and inner-value, which can change their lives in the long run.

Lance Eaton is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. He writes for several magazines and websites. He also serves as a social media consultant for several companies. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog or you can find out more about him on his website.

John R. Manson — Carl Robinson Award

Changing Lives Through Literature was awarded the John R. Manson — Carl Robinson award last week. The award is presented to those who have made a significant contribution to the field of criminal justice within New England.

The award joins a long list of accomplishments for the program including an Exemplary Education Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a New England Higher Education Excellence Award from the New England Higher Education Board, and articles in The New York Times, Parade Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times.

The program’s greatest accomplishment is the thousands of men and women whose lives have been positively impacted in the two decades since the program’s inception. Having been provided with the tools necessary to succeed, graduates of the program have gone on to continue their education and find new jobs.

In addition to recognizing the program’s success and the hard work of all those involved, this award brings awareness to the potential literature has to offer–not only for criminal offenders, but for society on a whole.

Is Blogging A Threat to Quality Writing?

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.

Blog Economics

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.

 

This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for Backgroundchecks.org. She welcomes your comments at her email: GrayRebecca14@gmail.com

The American Dream in Literature

By Sarrah McGraw

Do Dreams Come True? It depends on the Dream

The greatest thing about the idea of the American dream is that it’s different for everyone. Though it began as an American ideal, it has spread across the world. After all, other nations have visions and ideas of destiny too.

But the question may be asked: What aligns the idea of the “American dream” in the forefront of our thoughts, when it comes to destiny and personal and national advancement? The answer is that it was the first of its kind to be expressly enunciated in written form. The prophetic words written by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence define the contours of that same dream. Phrases such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “all men are created equal” and that these same men are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” are words that have formed the American dream into what we know it to be.

 

The American Dream and Literature

Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the idea of the American dream in their famous works.

Twain’s prolific American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, seems smitten by the notion of freedom and what it means for the American dream. For the novel’s protagonist, Huck, the dream is all about freedom of movement without constraints or restrictions. Twain’s work is revolutionary because he envisions Jim the slave as a free person as well. Twain describes Jim as being not only free from physical shackles but free from the prejudices of Southern society.

 

Evolving but not Changing the Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and was mainly concerned with the commercialization of the American dream. Through Gatsby, the novel’s protagonist, Fitzgerald dreamt of an American society where you “be all you can be.” For Fitzgerald and for the characters in his most famous novel, the American dream comes with an influx of wealth and exorbitance, rendering it devoid of true love and joy.

How Far are we From Realizing the American Dream?

In 1931, James Truslow Adams wrote, “we dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The stipulation with Adams’ dream is that one’s achievements and abilities are dependent upon various external factors–economic situation, social status, gender, sex, etc. Have we, as a society, given up the idea of the American dream?

The 1776 dream was about America’s future. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Are we any closer to realizing our forefather’s American Dream? Or is this dream not attainable?

Sarrah Mcgraw is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Science in Criminology. She currently resides in Dayton, Ohio and she regularly contributes to http://www.learninglaw.com.

CLTL Featured on “Writers Who Kill” Blog

The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.

By Shari Randall

Can a paperback copy of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter do what jail cannot – change an offender’s life for the better?
Readers know that books can take us to other worlds, provide entertainment, information, insight, solace. Now there is evidence that literature can also transform the lives of people in the justice system.
Seasonal Wanderer

Seasonal Wanderer

The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.

The original CLTL program included eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felony convictions. Waxler wanted to test his program with “tough guys” who would prove that he hadn’t stacked the deck with more highly educated, less dangerous participants. At the end of the program, the tough guys’ recidivism rate was only 19 percent, compared to 45 percent for the general prison population. The results were impressive, but Waxler said that the statistics were not what interested him. He knew the program was working when one young drug dealer told him of his excitement at reading Jack London’sSea Wolf, and how his newfound love of books led him to start reading to his three-year-old daughter.
How does CLTL work? Offenders serve part of their sentence by meeting in small groups to discuss books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. These and the other books chosen for the program have characters that face serious choices and issues. The most unique part of CLTL is the participation of members of the legal and law enforcement communities. Participants could find themselves talking about Langston Hughes’ poems with a judge or a probation officer, and a college professor facilitator. By sitting around a table, listening to each other, participants feel valued for their ideas, not judged for their crimes. Participants see each other as human beings, not as statistics or faceless uniforms.
CLTL programs are in place in 14 states and have been adopted in the UK. One longitudinal study of 600 CLTL participants in Massachusetts showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism for those who completed the program and a 16 percent drop for those who did not. In cases where participants reoffended, there was a significant drop in the number and severity of the type of crime committed. These are better results than many more expensive programs, and the program has been particularly effective for juvenile offenders.
With U. S. Bureau of Justice statistics stating that prisoners cost U. S. taxpayers more than $70 billion  and the New York Times reporting that 1 in 100 Americans are currently or have been in the criminal justice system, we need ideas and programs like CLTL.
Compare $70 billion to the cost of a box of paperback books, a facilitator, and an hour a week around a table in a library.
As the CLTL webpage states, literature has the power to transform. Yet, one article I read stated that CLTL has been a “hard sell” to government officials, who doubt the effectiveness of a literature based program.
You have to wonder. Why would states prefer to spend billions on jails instead of buying a few boxes of books?
Is there a book that changed your life?