Relating to the Journey of Change

by Rachel Wicks

First, I would like to take a moment to apologize for the posting inconsistency during the past few weeks. I have been extremely sick for the past month and it is unbelievably difficult to compose literature articles with a 101 degree fever.

I’m still not recovered in the slightest, but I refuse to let my responsibilities towards this blog slip through the cracks during the end-of-semester rush. Therefore, without further ado, I would like to discuss active reading strategies.

During my time as the intern for the CLTL blog, there has been one main idea that I have seen continuously referred to again and again: putting one’s self in the shoes of a fictional character. I first encountered this idea when I personally attended one of the CLTL meetings held at UMass Dartmouth, which you can read about here.

When I first started working for the CLTL, I was still rather uncertain on how exactly literature was being used as a means of alternative sentencing. I did not see how reading books could have an effect strong enough to be a form of sentencing in the first place, but on the day I attended the CLTL meeting in person, I finally understood that what makes reading such a powerful method of change is that the readers are being encouraged to actively identify with the characters in the story.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that members of the CLTL program, both attendees and facilitators alike, undoubtedly benefit from directly employing active reading strategies.

The main strategy in place by the CLTL, of course, is the aforementioned character relating. Most books are written so that the main character is set up to be someone that anyone can relate to, whether the reader is identifying with the situation of the character, the personality, the background, the dialogue, the emotion, etc.

More often than not, the main way that writers can make their characters relatable is by placing them in situations of failure. For example, The Old Man and the Sea would be pretty boring if Santiago had caught that fish on his very first try. It’s through this character’s struggle to succeed that we relate, as opposed to the success itself, since struggle is far more universal than success is.

However, there may one day be a case where relating to a character may be particularly difficult. If this is the case, it can probably be safely assumed that this is a purposeful choice by the writer, but even so it may be necessary to actively force oneself to think from that character’s perspective, instead of being able to slip into their shoes and see out their own two eyes with ease.

Forcing oneself to relate may be difficult at times, but I would argue that stories that are a little harder to relate to can be some of the most powerful. Throughout my readings over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. When an author writes a character to be particularly unlikable, to the point where one cannot see themselves as the character, this character often undergoes a catharsis throughout the course of the story, and suddenly the reader, who was once so against this character, finds himself sympathetic to the character as they undergo emotional change.

Perhaps the character starts out cold hearted but, in the end, finds love. Perhaps a character begins with an embedded idea that no one is to be trusted, but as the story goes on, they learn to trust and understand that it’s okay to rely on others.

No matter the case, if you encounter a character who, unlike other stories you may have read, is essentially a gaping void of where human empathy should be, watch how they change over time. It’s quite possible that you might find yourself changing with them.

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!

We’re back!

by Rachel Wicks

Hello there! For quite some time, this blog has been essentially inactive, and although this particular site played only a small role in the overall Changing Lives Through Literature program, it would be a true shame to let Changing Lives, Changing Minds disappear into the recesses of the abandoned Internet.

Therefore, in the following weeks, this blog will be experiencing a revival.

Because Changing Lives, Changing Minds has been on hold for so long, bringing this blog back to life will be a tricky challenge, and the task has fallen unto me, the new blog editor, to see this goal turn into a success.

My name is Rachel Wicks and over this past summer I was selected to be the new editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds. I am currently a graduate student at UMass Dartmouth, enrolled in the Professional Writing Program, where I am hoping to cultivate the skills necessary to one day be employed as an editor in a publishing company.

I have a lot of experience with writing and editing, not only due to my time at UMass Dartmouth but also because of the different jobs I am balancing. Besides being an editing intern for Changing Lives Through Literature, I am also a tutor, the managing editor of my school’s newspaper, and I also have a second internship at a publishing company in New Bedford, called Spinner Publications.

However, in spite of my previous obligations, I fully intend to revitalize Changing Lives, Changing Minds and keep this blog updated with interesting articles that relate not only to how literature can affect someone’s life but also to how the CLTL program itself is helping other people. In the past, this blog has done well to cover the literary side of the program but has done little to incorporate themes regarding criminal justice.

My goal is to fix this deficiency and provide a wide array of articles that handle both of these topics, all the while editing the navigation, look, and feel of how this blog is designed. At the moment, my goal is to publish a new article every other Friday, but with dedication and a stroke of luck, I hope to have weekly updates from a variety of contributing writers from across the nation.

In the mean time, keep your eye out for some exciting changes, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

 

For information on how to contribute to this blog, please contact me either through my UMass email or through my Twitter. Hope to hear from you!