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!

Clear the Cobwebs off the Classics: Popular Literature Reads

By Courtney Gordner

Courtney + Page

Dystopian societies overrun by vampires, androids and zombies have been infecting our brains with late-night, page-turning cliffhangers. Unforeseen heroes and “knights in shining armor” charm our daydreams and engage us as we hang on to every image and detail. In a world full of blockbuster book series–Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter–people everywhere are buzzing about the rush you get from reading a book.

Why not go back then, and shed some light on those who started this whole science-fiction and fantasy craze? Believe it or not, classic authors have been toying with these same subjects long before ideas of new societies and worlds became mainstream. These “originals” were all at one point were considered “taboo” because their content was so avant-garde. If you like what’s hot today in literature, you should absolutely crack open some of these classics. They will not disappoint.

1. Fahrenheit 451– Ray Bradbury

Image

(If you enjoy reading novels like Roth’s Divergent, Kacvinsky’s Awaken or Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.)

Banned Books Week is typically held the last week in September by the American Library Association, and this classic was banned due to its questionable themes and language. If you’re interested in reading about societal pressures and the fight for freedom of expression and intellect, this is the perfect book for you.

Guy Montag, a firefighter trained to burn books, comes across a young girl that changes his world forever. As she shows him a life full of free thought and beauty in words, he begins to see a world outside of government control; a world full of love, freedom and hope.

2. 1984– George Orwell

Colin Dunn

Colin Dunn

(If you enjoy reading novels like Collin’s The Hunger Games or Cline’s Ready Player One.)

Coincidentally enough, Orwell wrote this classic in 1948, prophesying the future and what he envisioned the world to be in 1984. He invented the idea of “Big Brother” and how the government can control a society and the ability to have free thought. This is a great read that paints a picture of concepts way ahead of his time.

The story follows a lower-class man, Winston, who works at the Ministry of Truth altering historical events to meet “The Party’s” needs. He receives a strange note from a young girl that says “I love you,” and he begins to question his place in the world. Writing his “crimes” or thoughts in his notebook, his oppression changes from subtle to oblivious. Another portrayal of human independence and freedom, Orwell captivates his audience at each page turn.

3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream– William Shakespeare

(If you enjoy reading novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight.)

Definitely not the typical romance novel, this classic play really captures the impulsive side of love and puts a satirical twist on “soul mates.” Shakespeare comments on how blindly and easily humans fall in love by showcasing a mash-up of love triangles that will confuse even the reader. However, with his fun quips, the characters extreme personalities will be sure to keep you in stitches.

frankenstein

4. Frankenstein– Mary Shelley

(If you enjoy reading novels such as Harry Potter, World War Z or Marion’s Warm Bodies.)

Contrary to the popular story of the horror movie giant, Shelley’s Frankenstein monster has a completely different outlook on life. Born into hatred and destruction, this novel commentates on society’s focus on appearances. Through the monster’s journey in understanding his place in the world, he is betrayed and cast-aside by society, allowing the reader to sympathize with him and see that he is truly a misunderstood creature. Shelley brings to life something we can constantly learn from today: humanity.

Even though our classics have a date that sets them back in time, they are timeless. The values and lessons that these books teach their readers are even relatable in the 21st century. Not only do they educate us on the value of life, independence, and the human spirit, they are some of the most entertaining reads ever written. So when the buzz for the newest series dies down, pick up one of these novels. You’ll be surprised how able they are to satisfy your reading cravings.

Courtney is a passionate blogger who loves sharing her views and thoughts with the world. You can read more from her on her blog, www.talkviral.com

Keep Reading Fun: Summer Reading Flowchart

Can’t decide what to read this summer? Don’t know how to get the whole family reading?
Not sure what to suggest for your Changing Lives Through Literature group—or other book group?

This fun Summer Reading Flowchart will guide you to the right book! We thank Sarah Fudin for sharing this fantastic Teach.com visual.

The Summer Reading Flowchart

Brought to you by Teach.com

Sarah Fudin

Sarah Fudin

Read Sarah Fudin’s accompanying article—Keep Reading Fun—also published on this blog.

Sarah Fudin works at an education company where she manages the community relations for the George Washington University’s online MPH degree, an innovative program that allows students to take public health courses online.

One of Those English Teachers

Three Cheers for Reading by vanhookc on Flickr

Zinovia Canale is the English Department Chair at Rogers High School, Newport RI, and has been teaching for thirty years.  She is currently enrolled in the Masters Program in English at the University of Rhode Island.


I’m one of those teachers with whom high school kids like to hang around. They like to tell me about their problems and they like to listen to my stories, especially when I share my human side of being a parent who yells at her kids to get up, to get off the “machines,” and to get their work done.  When they hear stories about my love for The Grateful Dead and the fact that I still go to concerts with my deadhead husband to catch Bob Weir and Phil Lesh they nod in approval.


I’ve also been able to amuse my students with my dance of the “chicken noodle soup,” appreciation of the art of the rap (writing one is more difficult than one imagines), and my enjoyment of Beyonce, and Rihanna. I’m great at picking up new dance steps and am always open to learning new moves. I have a good time listening to my students’ jokes, learning their language, and trying to understand the dilemmas of their world, especially those kids of the “down-trodden,” I say with trepidation.


In fact, forgive me for labeling a group as the “down-trodden” which sounds so snobbish and evokes such an attitude of superiority. Yet, to ignore the truths about the conditions with which some of these kids live is to ignore the truth about their hearts, minds, and souls and as an English teacher there is where I want to reach.  I can’t bring them into a more expansive world of literature if I do not meet them where they reside-emotionally, physically, and socially.

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Emerson’s Theory of Books and Changing Lives Through Literature

emerson_picCarl Schinasi enjoys teaching at Miles College, a historically black college, in Birmingham, Alabama. His recent works have appeared in Ducts, Slow TrainsSouthern Hum, and the essay collection, Baseball/Literature/Culture. Most summers, he can be found lolling around any baseball field anywhere.

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Note: Long before Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane started “Changing Lives Through Literature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed, in fact, demanded his own version of the program.  Emerson framed his program not for felons, but for a population I’m sure he considered equally, if differently, incarcerated.  This short essay places “Changing Lives Through Literature” directly in the honorable tradition of “programs” that tie literature to life.    
 

 

At this late remove, it may be difficult to imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ”The American Scholar” a radical document, the equivalent of a battle cry that inspired Oliver Wendell Holmes to proclaim it “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Yet few literary efforts in America’s history so decisively throw open the doors for a generation as did Emerson’s exhortation to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837.  His speech with its declaration, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” liberated and emboldened the youth of his day to build an America in their own vision. The speech marks a watershed moment in American history and letters.  Though delivered over fifty years after the fact, it resonates as the parting shot of the American Revolution.

 

In “The American Scholar,” Emerson fumed aloud about a land peopled by ingenious and industrious folk who showed a profound lack of originality. In the speech, Emerson directs his listeners to unshackle themselves from their European ancestors’ ideas and traditions. He admonishes his audience and all Americans to turn this new land into a democracy of “Man Thinking,” not mere “thinkers.”

 

A simple distinction separates these titles:  “Thinkers” degenerate into victims of society as they parrot other people’s ideas. They devolve into individuals disconnected from each other and a larger purpose; they wind up materialists and solipsists.  “Man Thinking” creates and invents.  He produces an integrated society while drawing inspiration from and remaining connected to Nature, the larger world, which embodies a united, universal, and generative spirit. “Man Thinking” defines Emerson’s idea of the American scholar, his model for the American citizen. This individual would combine vision and action to establish a new government, culture, and society ultimately fulfilling John Winthop’s prediction this nascent country “shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, [where] the eies of all people are uppon us.”

 

Emerson outlines three criteria to forge this new American. Among these is a call for an engagement with books. With this admonition, not coincidently, Emerson catechized a theory of books we still find instructive in its power to challenge, shape, and change lives. To become a scholar, “Man Thinking,” the seer and doer, Emerson urges his audience to participate in a radical act—read! 

 

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Bonding with Books

photo by ozyman on Flickr

Anna Wulick is a graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, specializing in 19th century British fiction. She is also the author of forty-two roads, a blog about crafts, art, and life. 


I have attended fifteen schools, I have lived in five countries, I speak two languages, but for as long as I can remember I have only had one passion.

 

Shortly after I turned eight, my family emigrated from the Soviet Union, following the well-worn route traveled by Russian Jewry at the end of the twentieth century. In my head, the six months we spent in Vienna will forever be colored by the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which I read in my quickly developing English, and which eased my frustrations at making up my own plots for the German dubbed version of Adam West’s Batman.

 

After a year in an American school in Italy, I began a marathon of indiscriminate reading in the new language that would soon become my native tongue. Joyful at my emerging bilingualism, I was equally happy with Sweet Valley High and The Phantom Tollbooth, and thrilled when the kind school librarian guided me towards Judy Blume. As we leapt from city to city in the States, I grew indifferent to my constantly changing classmates. What was the point? I would no doubt soon be in a different school anyway. Books were my only constant, important for their faithful availability and the knowledge that each would remain familiar once I had read it.

 

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