Why we reread in times of stress and anxiety

I’ve been doing a fair amount of rereading lately, and I’m wondering why I’m in “reread mode.”

I’ve reread The Forsyte Chronicles by John Galsworthy; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler; and I’m now (add any number of “re’s” here) rereading—you guessed it—Jane Austen herself. Persuasion was my pick.

Okay, in a certain sense, it’s pure laziness. I know exactly the trip I’m in for. It’s also easy access, since I tend to reread what is as close as my bookshelves, with library supplementation.

But there’s something else involved, or maybe several things.

First of all, rereading is—I admit it—a form of escapism. I’m disturbed by ongoing headlines of violence or attempted violence—what the news services call “domestic terrorism”—against innocent people. I am numbed by class hatred, and by disregard for the sacredness of life—all life. I’m appalled that we are losing the security of our collective environments—those places where we gather to worship, to shop, to share a meal, to be entertained, to participate in a rally or a marathon.

Secondly, I find that rereading is reassuring. Good stories well told reassure us about our lives, our potential, our hopes, our goals, the rightness and goodness of our worlds, of the people in our worlds.

Finally, there is the solace of literature. When we think of literature in this respect, we most often think of poetry. A few lines of poetry, a stanza or two, are often effective antidotes for a momentous or tragic occasion. We have had many of the latter in recent days and months. I have great respect for poetry, but I will often choose to revisit one of the fictional voices that I love and admire when looking for solace.

Now that I’ve broken my reasons down, I think they are, in the end, all one. I reread in the same way, and for the same reasons, that I communicate with and visit good friends. Friends help me to deal with my life on an ongoing, day-to-day basis. Books are like the voices of old friends whispering in my ear, soothing me, reassuring me, helping me to understand and to cope with—just about anything.

“The Way We Live Now”*

In my first novel, One Who Loves, one of the principal characters, Tess, recalls being raped at a very young age. In writing about this event, it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual in the fact that she repressed this memory for many years. I believe that this is often the case — which makes me wonder at the doubt cast on women in the news who, in turn, have repressed or kept silent about similar traumatic experiences.

What is there in our culture that prevents women from speaking out? Why, when they do speak out, are these women so often dismissed as unreliable, or blamed for their own behavior? Why does it become, so often, a “he said, she said” discussion, in which we side with our sex rather than with our hearts and our minds? Why are so many of us visually impaired when it comes to seeing both sides of a situation? We are, in some ways, regressing to a less open, less liberal society, in which a harsh reaction has replaced a more thoughtful response.

I am not a political person. I am a writer, a novelist, who works best in a quiet environment, away from the noise and thrum of our agitated society. But, like all women, I want to be heard and considered when I choose to speak out — whether it’s with written words or testimony or protest or some other form of active engagement.

*My subject line, “The Way We Live Now,” is the title of the 1875 novel written by Anthony Trollope. The novel is about what Trollope considered the corrupt state of England at the time.

The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price”

“Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.”

The above quote is from an article* I read this month comparing the experience of reading a novel and that of watching a movie or TV.

I’ve often pondered the question of why I am drawn to novels—both reading and writing them. My upcoming novel, The Second Mrs. Price, dwells quite a bit on this “interiority.” Selene, the principal character, is continually examining her thoughts, her motives, and her actions.

This “drama of the mind” propels the narrative forward. It enables the reader to understand Selene’s mixed emotions, her divided loyalties, and her overwhelming attraction to Griff. Here is a brief passage from the novel:

Why the brother? she asked herself. They share the same last name; they emerged, bloody and enraged, from the same womb. There’s something similar in the stacking up of the features, the way the ears fit snugly against the head; but how at odds they are, otherwise. Alex so solid, so grounded, so cocksure of himself; this other one so tentative, so unsettled, perched on his chair as though waiting for, expecting an alarm—a signal to flap his wings noisily, heavy and awkward as he lifts himself up and flies away.

There is no doubt a talented actor could convey this comparison between Selene’s husband and Griff with little more than facial expression and eye movement. But it would be a general impression, without the narrative detail, or the opportunity for metaphor. In addition, it would be conveyed, first, by the skill of the actor, and then, indirectly, by the writer and the interpretation and additional consciousness of the director, the cinematographer, and the editor—not to mention the production designer and the composer of the musical score.

There is much discussion these days about the declining popularity of the novel, especially in view of the increasing popularity of the TV drama series, in which there are no time or viewing constraints. Viewers have an in-depth experience as they watch characters develop over time—one of the great achievements of the novel.

In a novel, however, there is nothing between the reader and the writer. The novelist provides the narrative, with or without authorial interpretation. The reader takes it from there. The story goes from mind to mind without filters.

The comparison between the novel and visual storytelling bears some resemblance to that of the artist versus the photographer, after photography made its debut. What could a painting or sculpture do that a photograph could not do better, and with more precision? Photography is, and was from its inception, an art form, because it involves making artistic choices. But the traditional artist is still very much alive and kicking, as is the novelist.

All art forms, in their essence, examine the soul. They do not so much compete with each other as add to the ever-evolving manifestations of creativity.

*http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/05/the-novelists-complicity/

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

In a recent “60 Minutes” episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton playwright, lyricist, composer, actor) had this to say about the creative process:

I think of acting and writing as pretty much the same thing. It’s all about getting inside the skin of your characters, and seeing where they are, and knowing how they’ve grown up. You have to know all this, like, in your bones, what they’ve come up against, who they are. And then you just start talking as them. And you write until the rust comes out of the faucet and it’s clear water. And you write down the clear water.

The “clear water” of truth is what’s left after the writer or actor flushes out “the rust” of slushy thinking and irrelevancy. When I turn on the faucet of creativity and I get rust and grunge, I can choose to turn off the faucet until another time—or push through until the water runs clear. Those are the hard times; the discouraging times. But, eventually, the water may run clear—and this is what keeps me going.

Sometimes, when I turn on the faucet, I get an immediate rush of clear water. That’s when I fill up my teakettle and my water vessels. That’s when I water my plants. That’s when I shore up the truth that flows out of that faucet. That’s when my characters come alive.

In these days of “alternative facts,” we’re all looking for the clear water of truth. Truth doesn’t change from generation to generation and, for many of us, it’s worth a lifetime search. But sometimes truth is too obscured—or too blazingly bright—for the direct approach. That’s why we have writers and performers, poets and artists, to interpret the truth in a way that is fresh and meaningful for each succeeding generation.

Of course, there are many vessels of truth that have withstood the test of time. Emily Dickinson had a lot of truth to tell. In fact, she kept telling it, over and over, in her nearly 1,800 poems. She preserved the truth in clear-water vessels that are still fresh and bracing today:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Fortune Cookie

I opened up a fortune cookie recently. It said: “You shall attain wisdom with each passing year.”

Now, if the fortune cookie writer had stopped with: “You shall attain wisdom,” I would have felt a little flutter of hope and let it go at that. However, the addition of “with each passing year” immediately nudged the word editor lurking inside me.

How can I “attain” wisdom “with each passing year”? You can’t have it both ways, fortune cookie writer. You must pick the year when I’m going to attain wisdom—such as, “You shall attain wisdom in the coming year.” Or, you must modify your prediction with, for instance, “You shall try to attain wisdom with each passing year.” The latter is far more likely, but certainly not as cheerful for the recipient of said fortune.

Having rectified the grammar, I began to envision the fortune cookie writer. He or she is here or somewhere in China, sitting at his/her kitchen table, notes and research materials scattered across the surface, trying to come up with the next fortune—number 10,386 in a list that has no memorable beginning and no foreseeable end. No doubt, for those fortune cookie writers who are not American-born, and who might be getting their inspiration from ancient Chinese proverbs, a lot gets lost in translation.

In addition to fortune cookie writers, who are the people who provide those humble written services we take so much for granted? Who composes menus—often with errors that I’m tempted to correct on the spot? Who writes the loglines—sometimes grammatically inexplicable—that appear on my television screen when I press “Info” on my remote? Why doesn’t anyone know, or care about, the difference between “its” and “it’s,” no matter his/her level of education? And, by the way, what has happened to the editing profession in general? When did The New Yorker‘s impeccable editing become a thing of the past?

Inevitably, I ask myself the question: Why do I care about grammar and the implications of grammatical error? No one else seems to notice.

We live in a culture that is erasing the arts—not to mention cursive—from its school systems. We think and write on keyboards, or dictate into a device that can’t comprehend the subtleties of language. We put up with and perpetuate online and social media writing that is careless, often vapid—reducing our communications, including news and world events, to brief “sound bites,” preferably 140 characters or less.

But how can we communicate or absorb the complexities of contemporary life in sound bites and tweets? Fortune cookies aside, our quest for wisdom cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator.

I love the written word, and the rich, full-fledged, grammatically consistent sentence. I often write in cursive, a skill I learned in second grade and have used to great advantage ever since. Writing in longhand gives me the option of using a pen or pencil to form the words—slowly, deliberately, elegantly. I like to think of cursive as a sort of art form, a distant relative of the decorative art of calligraphy.

Thank you, fortune cookie writer. You are an unknown and unsung literary laborer, but you’ve given me food for thought—as well as the dry, tasteless cookie itself.

“The First Lesson”

There’s something about December that’s both joyful and depressing.

It’s the season of joy, of course. Holiday cheer. Festivities. Presents. Twinkling lights. But it’s also the final month of the year, a summing-up month. For most of us, the year behind us has been both good and not-so-good. And some of that not-so-good was, and is, depressing.

Not long ago, I was introduced to a poem that has been on my mind a great deal. It evokes the season for me—and my current mindset as well. Here it is.

THE FIRST LESSON
by Deborah Pope***

The Angel knocked
and when I opened
the door to it
I lost the Angel
already sitting
at my table.
Wind poured in
through the crack
slapped my cheek
a voice cried      you cannot have
two Angels.
The Angel in the doorway said
let me in
I see
you are alone.

The wonderful thing about a poem is that it is open—open to interpretation, to speculation, to the most personal associations. Once the poet has sent his or her lines out into the world, we are free to infuse them with a meaning that only we can know—a significance that only we can fully understand and appreciate.

For me, the message of this poem is very personal. I’ve had a good year. My novel, One Who Loves, is published, and the print edition is coming out soon. My family is in good health and spirits as, for the most part, am I. I have small means but big plans—and I’ve managed to convince myself that this might be better than the reverse. So I count myself among the fortunate.

On the other hand, I’ve had my disappointments, including, but not limited to, the recent election. Even though the wind of change “slapped my cheek,” I’m not without hope. Something—some lingering innocence from the last century—has gone out of our lives, but I’m hoping that goodness prevails.

“The First Lesson” is about hope—and loss. What is the Angel at the table taking away? What have I given up in order to admit what is new and unknown, good and not-so-good?

Perhaps one of the lessons I’m still learning is that moving ahead—opening the door to new possibilities, new challenges—is inevitably transformative. The Angel with whom I sit comfortably at the table must move out the moment I open the door to whatever is out there, knocking for admittance, because I “cannot have/two Angels.” The Angel at the door may be a harbinger of good or a messenger for the not-so-good, but my inclination is to open the door, to go forward.

Happy Holidays to you, and best wishes for all that is good in the New Year.

____________
***from Falling Out of the Sky (Louisiana State University Press), nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. Deborah Pope is the author of two other poetry collections, Fanatic Heart and Mortal World. She is on the faculty at Duke University. Reprinted with permission.

Thanksgiving and family

The reason that Thanksgiving is, for many of us, our favorite holiday of the year can be summed up in one word: family.

On Thanksgiving, we gather around a dining room table loaded with good things to eat and focus on one thing: the family.

We don’t exchange presents. We don’t shoot off fireworks. We don’t dress up in costumes. We just get together at one table, put aside our smartphones, tablets, and computers, look at and talk to each other. With no imperatives other than the preparation and serving of a multi-course meal, raucous kids, the clash and clang of ongoing interruptions and disruptions.

We’re not necessarily related by blood. We are friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances who might see each other only on Thanksgiving, and only at this table. But, for the duration of this meal, and this visit, we’re family.

We’ll go our separate ways after the meal, perhaps encounter each other at hurried holiday festivities, perhaps wish each other a happy new year. On Thanksgiving, however, for those few hours, we are a close-knit family. Knit together by a consciousness — perhaps not openly acknowledged but felt — of how we depend on each other for love and support.

On Thanksgiving, nothing takes precedence over family — including the ongoing chaos of a country settling uneasily into a new reality. We can’t ignore but we can put aside the differences that divide us.

I am so very thankful for this holiday, because it reminds me of who I am: part of a family that is tolerant, inclusive, diverse, accepting — and hopeful.

Happy Thanksgiving.