Tackling the Classics

By Rachel Wicks

From what I understand, the vast majority, if not all, of the CLTL programs concern themselves mainly with using books as a mean of facilitating change. However, literature isn’t restricted merely to the pages that can be bound to the spine of a book.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, literature is defined as “written works that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance”, yet nowhere in that definition does it state the requirement that the literature must come in the form of a novel. Sure, when people think of literature in general, the image that typically comes to mind is a book, but literature can be plays, poems, songs, and so much more.

Therefore, I wonder, should CLTL meetings occasionally branch away from the classic literary novels they usually teach from and aim to involve other forms of literature?

There are certainly plays that are well established within the current literary canon, such as The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, Lysistrata, or anything by Shakespeare, so delving into the discussion opportunities that these plays provide would still fall neatly alongside the CLTL’s usual modus operandi of “sticking to the classics”.

Also, considering the fact that what helps make the CLTL sessions and reading assignments so powerfully effective is that readers can relate to the characters in their fictional scenarios, the characters in plays are no less relatable or emotionally exposed than Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, John Proctor in The Crucible, or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

The same can even be said of the many examples of poems already within the standard literary canon. Although poetry can sometimes lack a main character and lean more towards description, poems are never without emotion, and connecting the reader to what they read is what allows for the CLTL to actually accomplish its mission, changing the lives of real people.

However, if the CLTL were to expand its reach into the current literary canon, this still brings up a deeply important, and often overlooked, question: Should the CLTL explore literature beyond the standard Western literary canon?

As Westerners, it is sometimes easy to forget that what we consider to be literary classics is essentially a list compiled and upheld by those with a strong preference and inclusion into Western society. However, looking back on the history of literature, much of what the world considers to the literary “firsts” are of Eastern origin. The first novel is considered to be The Tale of Genji, written by noblewomen Murasaki Skikibu in 11th century Japan, and two of the oldest poems in the world are Ramayana and Mahabharata, both of Indian origin.

Therefore, with so much of the Western canon already explored in most educational or literary circles, why not expand into the Eastern canon? It’s one thing to read the usual “great American novels” and gain an understanding of the ideologies that stem from those books, but diving into the Eastern canon can also help to expand one’s worldview. It can open one’s eyes to even more that this tiny planet provides while also emphasizing the idea that, despite differences found across oceans, perhaps there are some human fundamentals in literature that naturally create the emotive bonds that the CLTL encourages and depends upon.

Now doesn’t that sound like a way to change a life through literature?

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!

World Book Day

by Marissa Matton

In honor of yesterday being World Book Day, I thought I would share some of my favorite books.

The other week in one of my classes, we talked about the low expectations we have of assigned reading. Typically if we’re “forced” to read something, we’ve already made up our minds about it not being enjoyable before we even get past the title page. I’ll admit to having fallen victim to this logic quite a few times over the years. That negative train of thought has also been proven wrong, however.

I first read my favorite book, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, in high school as assigned summer reading before my senior year. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the book, but I was nearly immediately taken with the tale of mortality and ethics. As part of that assigned reading, I also read The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I’ve had to read the novel in two courses since then, and each time I was drawn into Edna’s search for independence.

While I haven’t always been as lucky with my assigned reading, these two books have stayed with me as favorites years later, despite the fact that neither fall under my favorite genre of literature. From the moment I finished reading my first Nancy Drew novel, I devoured any mysteries I could come across. I came across And Then There Were None in middle school and immediately fell in love with Agatha Christie’s writing. The classic whodunnit helped fuel my passion for solving fictional crimes. I learned to pick apart scenes, searching for clues and piecing them together to deduct who committed the crimes.

Some people don’t enjoy rereading books, but I find comfort in picking up something familiar. If I were in a novel, my great character flaw would be my faulty memory. When I’m enjoying a book, I hate to have to put it down–partly because of the fact that I’m enjoying it, but mostly because of how probable it is I’ll have forgotten something important before picking it back up.

With the end of the semester approaching, I’m eager to tackle my ‘to-read’ list. After getting through the piles–yes piles–of books I’ve been pushing aside over the past few months, one of my goals is to finish reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I started the novel a couple of years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t able to devote enough time to it.

I’m eager to hear some of your favorite books. What is it about them that stuck with you? Alternately, which books are on your to-read list?

What motivates us to read?

by Marissa Matton

After reading Leonce Gaiter’s post “Why men opt out of the (women’s) fiction world,” I started to consider the different motivations people have for reading.

Everyone reads for different reasons–whether it be because they enjoy it or because they have to. As a student, it seems like I fall into the latter category more often. Having a lot of my time devoted to assigned reading just makes the time I do get to spend reading for pleasure all the more important.

Reading has always been a favorite pastime of mine. There is nothing I enjoy more than being able to escape into a good book. Reading as a means of “escape” is something Leonce and I both agree on. How we are drawn into the books is where our agreement ends, however. In order to really enjoy a book, I need to feel some sort of connection–with a character, situation, location, something. Leonce, on the other hand, doesn’t “approach fiction to re-visit this world”.

I can understand that–I certainly don’t want to read about my own life over and over again. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy drawing connections between my life and what I read. Leonce uses the example of Harry Potter. I grew up with Harry and co. Despite how much I may have wanted that to be my life, I didn’t belong to Harry’s magical world. Dragons, potions, and spells have weren’t relatable, but I could connect with Hermoine’s bookish personality, which made it all the easier to feel like I was part of the book.

Leonce calls for “worlds recreated and re-imagined, instead of rehashed”. I can see the risk of relatable worlds feeling ‘rehashed’, but I don’t think a ‘recreated world’ has to be exclusive from familiarity. Familiarity in literature is the greatest strength of the Changing Lives Through Literature program. When students are able to relate lessons in the stories to their own lives, they begin on the path of change.

When I started to think about my reading habits, I had to break the down between my two motivations. Like I said, as a student, a lot of my current reading is assigned rather than chosen. I think because I’m not actively deciding those pieces of literature are worthy of my time, it’s necessary for me to find some way to situate myself into the stories. Otherwise, I’m more likely to view the reading as forced upon me.

I don’t know if this variation in opinion is because of gender, like Leonce claims, or some other difference between us, but I am curious. So, I turn this conversation over to you now. What motivates you to read? Would you rather read about something you know or ditch this world all together? Perhaps a combination of the two?

Homes from Classic Literature

Homes of Classic Literature by Terrys Fabrics.

At many a time we can become lost between the pages of a good book. Immersed in its fantasy and mysterious tales, the captivating characters, scenes and a little imagination can easily take you there. In this infographic we’re delving into some classic stories from the hobbit to the depths of the secret garden to show you nine of the famous homes found within these tales.

Homes of Classic Literature by Terrys Fabrics

Lessons from my childhood friends

by Marissa Matton

I recently came across an article about the “lessons” that can be learned from classic children’s books. Somewhere between the piece mocking The Very Hungry Caterpillar for glamorizing gluttony and criticizing Matlida for favoring magical powers over parents, I moved past my indignation at my favorite childhood books being knocked down and stopped to consider what lasting lessons I truly learned while reading growing up.

Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is one of the best examples of a children’s story that seamlessly weaves an important life lesson into a child-friendly tale. Although a case can be made that the tree’s selflessness was her downfall, isn’t the boy’s journey through life sadder? He takes and he takes from the tree, but in the end the canoe, the house, everything he’s able to get from the tree doesn’t last him. All the tree has left to give is her love and support, which is all he needs in the end.

There’s a fine line between not giving enough and giving too much, which The Giving Tree shows. If the boy had cared more about what he needed than what he wanted, he wouldn’t have used the tree, his friend. Through the boy’s mistakes I learned what it takes to be a good friend and how selfish acts won’t make me happy in the end.

E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was the first, but certainly not last, book that made me cry. While the sad tale teaches us about loss, the real moral of the story lies within the friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur. Unlike the friendship between the boy and the tree, Charlotte and Wilbur are loyal to each other. Whereas I learned how not to act from the boy, these two friends taught me how I should. Charlotte looks after Wilbur, an act he repays by looking after her children after she dies. Her death may have been heartbreaking, but it was a lesson within itself. Life is hard. There will be setbacks, but life continues. Following the two friends on their journey, I learned about compassion.

It would be impossible to talk about books I grew up reading without mentioning Nancy Drew. With an eight-decade history behind her, I was able to grow up with the teen detective. She may have been more of a role model for girls, but her impact could leave a lasting impression on anyone. Influential women such as Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sonia Sotomayor have all listed Nancy Drew as one of their role models. With each mystery I solved alongside Nancy, I learned about the pursuit of truth and justice. I found the courage to pursue my goals and never squash my curiosity.

Published in 1964, The Giving Tree is the newest of these three. The story is still very much present on the bookshelves of children. Sixty-two years after its publication, the same can be said for Charlotte’s Web and Nancy Drew has been a role model for the past eighty-four years, crossing over into other forms of media including television, movies, and video games. There is a reason these books have remained in the hearts of their readers long after they’ve grown.

Some of these lessons may seem simplistic, but they’re important life lessons that last. They build the foundation for us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

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.