Reading · Teaching

Stories, Friends, and Order in the Universe, or Why Do We Read?

Today was that day in class when, compelled by the chaos of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, my seniors tried to define what kind of reader they are.
The novel is basically about reading. It begins with a Reader trying to read his new copy of If on a winter’s night and careens through the lives of an Other Reader, a Non-Reader, a publisher, a translator, an author, a student, and loads of other people. With all these different perspectives on text production and reception, it’s kind of natural to try and orient our own reading style. (It’s also easier to talk about ourselves sometimes than it is to sort out the labyrinth of the latter half of that novel in an hour, so it’s a common digression.)
But it’s important too, you know. Self-knowledge and all that. Good in itself. This is just the readerly fragment of ourselves.
There are a number of ways to read that my friends, colleagues, and students have described over the years. Today we mostly fell in to five camps:  those who read for character, plot, form, “aesthetics,” and “immersion.”  Some of these will need defining, as you can already see.
People who read for character view every new book as an opportunity to meet new people. They may love or hate them, but mostly they read because they are fascinated by people—by their motivations, their quirks, their backstories. These people tend to need to find someone they like or identify with (in fact that’s the main goal, probably, to find little bits of themselves in other characters) in order to finish the book. If all the characters are reprehensible, it’s hard for them to keep turning pages. These are the people who suffer when movie versions are different too—when the people they loved on the page are altered on screen, they take it very personally.
Those who read for plot want to see how everything turns out. These people read the fastest, skimming when they need to, and are often the ones who can’t recall details, and they certainly can’t quote lines, but they can summarize neatly; they know the story cold. These people tend to like action-packed adventure books or stories with twists or puzzles. Reading is an adventure—a puzzle to solve, a game to finish.
The “form” folks appreciate the structure of a book. They like repetition of scenes, especially when they differ slightly and mean something a little bit different each time. They read a book like a musical score, looking for motifs and waiting for the variations. This is fairly cerebral reading, and they appreciate clever authors with somewhat mathematical or mechanical minds. There are exceptions, of course—some books (and authors) build structure in more organically, like a vine rather than a skyscraper, but these readers still appreciate the order inherent in the story.
The “aesthetics” group is not just the Ivory Tower snobs (it may also be, but not exclusively.) These folks read for something striking—a particularly beautiful image that takes shape like a sculpture in their minds, or a line that feels more like poetry than prose. These are the ones who read with pencils in their hands, not wanting to lose a section that sings in the middle of a 500-page novel. For these folks every new book has loads of potential: who knows what gems they may find inside? They read to discover and to connect and to feel.
To Feel. The last group I add today is a response to my class today.  Four of eighteen students (English Literature and Language majors) said they read for “immersion.” When pressed, some of them said things that made me think they appreciate world-building and like to get lost in cultures and scenarios different from their own lives. They like science-fiction and fantasy but also historical—anything that makes them forget their own world for the duration of the book and completely lose themselves in the book. Otherwise it’s not really worth the time for them. They need to feel another’s experiences so tangibly, it’s like they are living the scenes as they unfold. This sounds to me like classic escapism, but some of them argued for aesthetic and intellectual pleasures as well.
Later in the quarter I’ll ask them if they have a favorite literary theory, and I’ll see if they match up.  Maybe the Plot People will turn out to be New Critics, and the Character Crowd will favor psychoanalysis. The Form Folks will certainly be Formalists (I hope), but what will the Beauty Bunch be? Romantics? And the Immersionists? Maybe they’ll all love Reader-Response. More likely, though, they’ll all surprise me again. Probably we’ll all need tee shirts like team jerseys, so we can easily find our tribe out in the world. We all read so as not to feel alone, after all.

Beginning the Mabinogion Again

This is an excerpt from a new project I’m working on–a reworking of the Welsh Mabinogion.  It’s just a bit–just because I’m swamped this week and need to use something here that already exists.  I hope you enjoy it; I’m having a blast.

Chapter 1: The Hunt Gone Wrong
Sometimes a hunt is nothing but sweat and dirt and waiting. Not this time. Pwyll’s heart beat in time with his horses’ pounding hooves, and the trail was hot. He was chasing a stag, fast and sleek, and instinctively elusive. But this one wouldn’t get away. This one was white, and stood out in the dark leaves like a beacon, luring his dogs on in to the woods. When something leads you like that, you follow, and you ask questions later.
In and out of trees, the stag seemed to flow like a river, without stumbling or snagging a single branch.  Later he might reflect on that and find it odd, but not in the moment.
Adrenaline pumping, he charged recklessly after the dogs. Five dogs:  there were generally four together and then Finn swerving around, herding them, faster than the others and capable of switching back and steering the whole pack.
The barking was steady for several minutes, and Pwyll’s energy was flagging. He couldn’t keep up this breakneck pace forever. His horse was tired, and so was he. They had to end it soon, or there would be nothing but sweat and dirt to take home. A dog yelped shrilly, and the barking stopped. Finn bayed like they must have cornered the deer, but when the horses caught up with the dogs, what Pwyll saw made his breath catch. The dogs were circling a small mound in a clearing that backed up against a sheer wall of stone. Pwyll quietly said a prayer of thanks that he hadn’t run his horses headlong in to the clearing—they surely wouldn’t have been able to stop in time and would have smashed in to the stone.  The stranger thing still, was the deer had vanished.
Finn looked miserable. He ran the opposite way around the circling dogs, howling, his eyes sweeping the clearing for any trace of his quarry. The dogs sniffed furiously, noses to the ground, one after another around the mound.
“Where’d it go, Finn?” Pwyll asked cautiously. “It didn’t leap up that wall, surely.” Of course not, the dogs’ noses were saying, as they rounded the hillock again.
Pwyll hopped down from his horse and joined the procession of dogs. Finn stopped baying and looked up at him quizzically. “What now?” he seemed to ask. “I don’t know, buddy.”
Pwyll sat down hard on the mound, exasperated, and a puff of dust rose up around him.
Finn sniffed the dust and sneezed. Then he backed up, growling.
“What’s up, Finn?”  The words were just out of his mouth when the dog blurred and shimmered, and the sound of running animals startled Pwyll off the mound.  As he scrambled to his feet, the stag streaked past him, and the dogs took off back in to the woods.  “Where did he come from?” he yelled to no one, and headed back to his horse. He began to swing on to the horse, and a pack of snow white dogs barreled by him, knocking him to the ground.
“There must be twenty of them! Whose are they?” This time he was asking the horse, Llewellen, who snorted indignantly. As they resumed the chase, Pwyll heard the barking, steady and loud and cacophonous, and then it thinned, like fewer dogs were barking. In a few seconds, he understood why—his dogs had been passed up and then left behind. The white dogs were faster, and they had led the quarry away.
“No!” Pwyll shouted, drawing up Llewellen in to a slow trot and letting everyone catch their breath. “And we were so close!  Where did those dogs come from?”  he hounds whined sympathetically, and panted prodigiously. They were worn out. “Let’s go get a drink,” said Pwyll, and he led them over toward the river.
Sweat and dirt again. He sighed. As he walked his horse and his tired dogs through the trees, he thought of excuses he could give for coming up short today. They wouldn’t believe his story about crazy white dogs that appeared out of nowhere. He could already hear Gwyn mocking him.
As he dipped his hands in to the river for a drink, he heard the barking start up again, distantly. They were coming back. He splashed the water on his face instead of drinking it and hopped back on Llewellen. “We might have another chance!” he called, and off they drove in to the trees.
They found the dogs back at the mound, in a pack around the deer, who lay on its side on the earth. “Hah!  Off!  Off!”  He ran his horse in a circle, hooves pounding and breaking up the dogs. Two of the white hounds left the deer and attacked Llewellen. Pwyll stabbed his spear down in to the fray, skimming one on the shoulder and piercing one through the leg.  He swung the dog around by that leg—the dog’s ears were bright red—and tossed him off to the side. He chased the other dogs away from the deer, back in to the woods where he came from.
When he returned, his own dogs were harrying the deer. They knew not to eat the body, but the deer was dead, and they were chewing on its legs and antlers. “That’s enough, guys. Let’s get this beauty home,” he called. He leaped to the ground and knelt to inspect the stag.  “It’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it.” The whole pelt was white, except the ears, which were blood red. The eyes, too, open in that awful, frozen stare, were red.  He closed them gently and shook his head. “I’ve really never seen….”
“Of course you haven’t,” came a stern voice from behind him. “It’s not from around here.” A tall, black-clad man on an enormous, heaving stallion stood so close to him, Pwyll jumped. How had he not heard his approach? The horse snorted, and the man leaned down, pulling his hood back off his face, enough to reveal intricately tattooed skin and sunken, fiery eyes.
“Neither am I.”
(That’s a map of Medieval Wales, by the way.)
Living · Writing

Metamorphosis–Giving Myself Permission to Change

I got my fifteen year pin at work. That’s half a career. It feels like a perfect time to shift some gears.
I sometimes have to remind myself not to be afraid of change. I’m pretty good about trying new foods and restaurants, but big changes, I resist. I’m done moving. I chose a career with job security.  I’ve been married to the same guy pretty much all of my adult life.
But I know change is good. I know it’s invigorating, and I know it’s necessary. Since I’m not willing to trade in my husband for another model, it had to be work that changes.
I certainly am not stopping teaching, although some shifts are coming there too, as we change to semesters, and I step out of the King Arthur class and in to some new territory after “semester conversion.”  But this is a multi-faceted job I’m in, so I’m shaking things up in terms of writing.  Really, I’m giving myself permission to revisit a dream.
If you had asked me at fifteen what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d have said write, and at that point, I’d have meant poetry. I wrote a lot when I was young, but I could never have been so bold as to try to make a career out of writing creatively.
After about twenty-five more years of reading, though, I feel like I have something to write.
It started with a book for my kids. After reading so many books to them, I felt like I could tell where the gaps were, and what worked and didn’t work. But I still wasn’t ready to commit to thinking of myself as a writer.  It took five years to write one little novel. The kids I wrote it for have grown up; that doesn’t sound like I’m a writer—more like a scratcher in the sand.
This year, though, I’m picking up speed. I got awarded a sabbatical to wrap up the novel. That was very validating. I started a blog about reading. It turns out that counts as writing! Before I finished my first novel, I started thinking about the second one. And as I start getting in to critique groups and searching for an agent, I find I have reached a critical mass of baby steps toward a new identity and now don’t feel like an impostor when I call myself a writer.
There is a delicate dance, being a reader and a writer, and we can go from being one to another and back again in an endless circle. I have always considered myself a reader, but only a dilettante writer.  But I have come around to writer again, and this time I’m not begging off.
The best bit of wisdom my dad ever gave me was “If you do what you love, you’ll never work again.”  At the time, I dropped the biology degree and ran headlong in to literature and languages.  And he was right (except for grading). What he forgot is that there can be more than one thing you love.

Retelling and Rewriting–Myth edition

Neil Gaiman’s new rendering of the Norse Myths came out last week.  I looked forward to it and dreaded it.  I love his writing, and I love Norse myths, but I was worried his new book would be so awesome it would blow any need for me to write out of the water.  I am writing a Norse myth, you see.  Why on earth should I do that when Neil Gaiman is already doing that?
Whew.  He just translated them.  He revisioned a few scenes, and I was especially grateful for the ones where the Edda are sparse.  For instance, we know that Odin trades his eye for wisdom, that he hangs on the World Tree–a sacrifice of himself to himself–in order to learn the runes, that he visits Mimir’s severed head in the well where Odin preserves it, where it continues to give him counsel. But these are mentioned in passing in the Edda as things you should already know; they are not narrated.
So as I said, I was especially interested in and moved by Gaiman’s telling of the scenes that must have taken place but were never spelled out.  Now these events have a shape, and it’s a faithful, respectful, even loving rendering.  Mostly he is retelling, sometimes modernizing, definitely providing some connective tissue and providing an order that makes sense, but he’s not changing the narratives in any dramatic way.  It is a text I could use in a lower division myth class.  I like to assign direct translations of the primary texts for upper division English majors, so we can talk about manuscript transmission and scribal culture, which Gaiman doesn’t address, and his rendering muddies a bit, but I could use it for non-majors.  Thanks, NG.
So that’s what he did do.  What he did not do is recreate.  He didn’t add content, update, fictionalize, develop shadowy characters, or change plot lines.  Whew.  So I can.
I am writing a book based on one of the stories Gaiman collects, but I am writing a new story.  A character he expresses interest in as well as dismay at not having more information about, I am using for my villain.  A character for whom he constructs a viable exit (having surely noticed she simply disappeared from the myths without a trace or a regret), I have made my hero.  I am transforming the story of Thor’s visit to Jotunheim in to a hero quest for a girl, not Thor. And I do so now knowing more people will know the base story than would have before someone like Neil Gaiman threw his professional weight and his geek-cred behind it.
Meanwhile, I have work to do.  I have a new plot from old roots, a new character from old stock, and a world that may well take less “building” now.  My job is to fill gaps and expand ideas, to translate a story, not just a text.  When Thor and Loki visit Jotunheim, Thor acquires two children on the way, as compensation for breaking the thigh bone of his goat.  In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, the boy continues on the journey, but the girl is never mentioned again.  I’m writing her story.  It’s exciting and terrifying, and I’m loving every minute.