Wandering the Inferno Without a Guide: The Fiction Reader’s Experience of Morality

Something that has always fascinated me as a student of reader-response criticism is the idea that as readers, we are voyeurs into a character’s life, and our sympathies within a work of fiction may not lie where they would in the same real life situation.

As readers of literature, we are trained and therefore predisposed to look for conflict, to not want everything to work out for the main characters (otherwise, we may as well be reading fluff fiction in which there is always a happy ending—boring, yes, but every reader has his or her own tastes.  The real point here is that fluff fiction, where all the characters get what they want and nobody gets hurt or experiences any adversity, is not a true imitation of reality.)

Drafting chapters of my novella, I have kept Stanley Fish’s thesis in mind from Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost*;  Fish argues that the reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan over the character of God because of the reader’s own fallen, sinful nature.  I don’t entirely agree with this statement, but it serves as the basis for my own claim that readers who have an inherently good nature (as the binary opposite to evil…oooh, should we go there?) cannot help but wish to witness or experience the bad in fiction, the morally questionable thoughts and deeds of a main character such as this narrator, because these good-natured readers would never make such choices in real life.

However, where Fish argues that reading a text in this way—cheering on the “bad” characters—is a reflection of the reader’s sinful nature, I believe the reader’s choices are simply made by looking for that which we would not or could not ever experience in our own lives and “aligning” ourselves with deviant characters for the duration of the text, safe within the confines of the imagination.                        

First-person narration is also effective in any story with such gray areas of right and wrong, sympathy or hatred toward the narrator, because there is no didactic third-person voice (representative of the author or reader’s conscience) to moralize and analyze the characters and their situations—it’s like trying to move through the darkness and confusion of Dante’s Inferno without a guide, a much more exciting prospect than being told how to think or feel within the text.

I’ve realized that the negative characteristics of my narrator and those with whom she interacts may be considered evil, but all are directly influenced by the situation or context in which they occur, and I have ultimately found in writing these chapters that the notion of evil, just like that of morality and goodness, is nothing if not relative.

*Fish, Stanley.  Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

**Image Credit – Engraving by Gustave Dore (1870). Photo Courtesy: iStock

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Meaning, Montoya, and PostStructuralism in Business Writing

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya

It’s been a while since the last post, so I thought sharing a bit of my current research project/obsession would be a good way to convey writing productivity simply through creation of another page on this blog. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

The nerd in me would like to highlight that this creates a rhetorical situation of authoring content with two potential outcomes–1) sharing what I think is an interesting element of professional writing, or 2) crafting an illusion of blogging productivity by re-purposing content originally (and 15-minutes-ago-recently) written to help sketch out a research interest.

Either way, here it goes.

Business and technical writing requires that the author and the reader are closely aligned in linguistic interpretation and intended/conveyed meaning.

Understanding Derridean linguistic and poststructuralist theories allows the professional writer to use language and narrative structure to strategically position a product or company in the marketplace.  It also reinforces the need for consistency in internally adopted and externally promoted language to reduce interpretive misses.

The following is a summary of Derrida’s essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”* to help explain the notion of destabilized language and meaning.

Because it relies on the reader and changes due to the arbitrary nature of signs, Derrida presents meaning as decentralized and unstable; this status of discourse, and specifically language, produces a continuous (inter)play of signification.

The instability of meaning based on signs and symbols alone forces consideration of narrative structure as a method of making meaning out of this linguistic interplay. Derrida goes on to show how structure, too, can be deconstructed and destabilized based on author or audience presence, metaphysics, proximity, repetition, and disruption.

Derrida discusses Lévi-Strauss’ position that only nature can be universal, and dependence on social structure is indicative of cultural influence. He concludes that the interpretive process is a posthuman act of creating truth, performed in absence of a collective origin of meaning or affirmation of signs and their signification.

* Derrida, J. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978. 278-294.
** Image Source: Unencyclopedia.

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On Revision

“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Here we sit, my novella and I. It’s dusty and yellowed from spending a few sedentary years on the bookshelf. It was half-buried under a growing stack of magazines and portfolio clippings I’m too lazy to digitize, the articles, newsletters, and case studies pushing the thesis and its stories further down, out of my line of sight.

A friend reminded me recently of the story I’d written for my MFA thesis, suggesting I revisit the work and see what happens.

It’s been a good 5 years since I’ve done any real writing. That “thing” that makes the stories happen is dusty and yellowed, too, it seems. But we’ll see. (Never mind that I’m here with this blog post rather than re-reading…)

While procrastinating, I made a few observations to help wrap my brain around the project ahead. Because that’s what the older me does. Makes observations first. (And will that hinder creativity?)

  • About 95% of the actual words need to be rewritten. It no longer flows off my tongue.
  • On the other hand, every once in a while there’s a turn of phrase so delicious that it shapes an entire chapter. (Oh, admit you like your own work sometimes. Don’t reject the manuscript before you submit it.)
  • And even with those few delectable pieces of prose, there’s always just one more little tweak to make. With every reading.
  • The revision process is interesting from the perspective of the writer’s relationship to the text and to the reader, and even more, how the revision process fits into that paradigm given that the writer then becomes her own reader.
  • Either the perspective or the structure of the narrative will change in the next draft. In other words, I see the story differently now, as both reader and writer.
  • There are at least two subplots that had not been explored at the time of thesis binding. (Or since then, of course, but it sounds better to blame the print medium for a story abandoned after it printed ‘cause the ink’s already dry.) How will this affect the overall story?
  • I “hear” the narrator more clearly now, and she may have grown a few years older, too. (She’s about 17 or 18 in the current version.)
  • If this thing ever does get published, how/will it affect my professional writing career? Would I care?
  • This project is long overdue.
  • Do I have to read the whole thing before getting started? (It’s called The Raining Tree, if you’re curious.)

There will never be a final draft of any writing, of this kind. Even if it’s something as simple as Oscar Wilde’s comma. it matters because it’s part of how we get there—to that thing we create, the conversations we start, the questions we ask, and the roads we travel.

Thanks, tt, for reminding me to clear the dust.

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Splitting Infinitives with Abandon: The Technician vs. The Artist in Writing & Dance

Freedom of form and expression is a religion for artists, whether they’re writers, painters, sculptors, or performers.

In order to find that freedom and use it purposefully, we learn and master the basic rules, conventions, and technicalities of our art, no matter the medium.

We do this so we can break those rules, make them our own.

Writing lends itself well to an analogy of movement, so let’s compare it to dancing as an example of this study-master-create-destroy relationship, specifically technical/creative writing and ballet/modern dancing.

Both are art forms best practiced on a foundation of technical knowledge, so it will never be a case of either/or but rather and/also—as knowledge and experience grows in one genre or discipline of an art form, it informs our work in other genres. It’s why the technical writer should take a creative writing class, the fiction writer a poetry workshop, the ballerina a modern dance class, the stage actor a ballet class.

The technician (the technical/professional writer, the ballet dancer) versus the artist (the creative writer, the modern dancer).  The latter creates art, while the former creates understanding.

This echoes a concept in an essay I just read for class, if you’ll spare a moment for theory. In “Authors and Writers,” Roland Barthes proposes that language is a structure that can be redefined or lost entirely for the author who functions to create ambiguity (a means), while the writer is bound to language as a vehicle for clarity (an end).

Applied to the real world, it’s why undergraduate writers with romantic notions of coffee shops, turtleneck sweaters, and dark-framed glasses may perceive technical writing as boring, not as sexy and free as creative writing. (If only they knew it was really us in those dark glasses, jacked up on caffeine and pushing deadline for the script of a video that demonstrates new software functionality, not a wandering soul contemplating the influence of religious and social construct in the coming of age of the heroine in a new novel, which surely everyone will read…)

Anyway, as a creative writer I’ve lived through moments of sheer boredom in various gigs as a technical writer, like creating documentation for an open-source content management system that seemed to bear ill will toward the end user who hoped to create, organize, and manage their content. (This boredom came before I started thinking critically about the theory and practice of technical writing.)

However, I’d argue there isn’t a creative writer out there who wouldn’t savor the precision and power of language involved in technical writing, the first step toward artistry and manipulation of structure.

Getting there requires an understanding of the foundation of the technical aspects of the medium, be it movement or language.

The appeal of creative writing—and I am definitely in support of following this path—reminds me of my daughter’s attitude toward dance when she first started (granted, at 2 ½-years-old). She thought hip hop, jazz, or even tap would be preferable to learning the technique of a plié in the five positions at the ballet barre (skipping third), drawn instinctively to what seemed to be a total freedom of expression in movement in the other disciplines.

The freedom of creativity seems more accessible than rules, structure, and technique, at any age.

Just as the dancer learns basic language, positions, and articulations at the barre and puts them together in combinations at center floor, the writer both masters and challenges the conventions of their genre through practice not only in grammar and mechanics, but also craft and artistry in language and storytelling.

Again, we learn the rules in order to break them and re-create them. The act of creating itself is an act of discovery articulated through a re-creation of the set of symbols (language, steps) we learn as technicians.

In creative writing, this is the freedom to split infinitives with abandon, to fragment our sentences for the sake of authenticity or effect, to prefer ambiguity for our Dear Readers over clarity. It’s how we share what Joyce Carol Oates refers to as “the child-self…a sort of flame that continues to burn throughout our lives, to which the writer or artist is by nature more attentive than other adults.”

Too much precision and “correctness” would extinguish that flame for our reader. But of course, it’s the creative writer’s duty to ensure this ambiguity is a result of artistry, not poor command of language and technique. Working outside genre conventions? Make it a challenge to current thinking in the field, not an oversight.

Artistry is a product of both originality and technical mastery.

The trained dancer is bound to the same paradox of technique and control versus creative freedom and individuality. A good example here is in modern dance–you have to know where a traditional position is and be able to “hit it” in order to break it, as dictated by choreography or spirit of the moment.

This reminds me of a statement in a modern piece choreographed by a beautiful and brilliant master. It was a move aptly named the “oh, s%&t!” because it required not a specific form or number of steps, but rather the dancer (me) had to literally throw herself onto the floor—a move that couldn’t possibly be fully scripted or choreographed, and it varied each time. (Writers, ever revised your work with the same sentiment two times in a row? Didn’t think so.)

Technique came in, though, as the momentum of this throw—initiated by the action of an arm toss—recovered into a very specific turn that led into preparation for the next movement.

Creative writers make this “oh, s%&t!” move all the time. We throw ourselves into our craft and work toward something beautiful, but we cannot predict the finer details of the outcome nor the ways in which our audience will perceive it. The artistic and poetic will always grow out of our technical control, the fulcrum on which we balance our turns of creativity and clarity.

References:
Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1983. 185-193. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. xvi. Print.

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Working Your Ass Off To Get There

“We as humans have the ability to create amazing things, which will never be hindered by automation. It’s a process change that results in more time to think and be creative, which is what advances civilization.”

So begins the response to an interview question on to what degree today’s workforce will be replaced by a bunch of automatons.

Recently Avenue Right’s founder & CEO, Brian Gramer, was interviewed on IdeaMensch and MO.com. Sure, this post is a shameless mention since I’m also the PR person there. But nonetheless, both interviews are good reads if you’re interested in life at a technology startup and how ideas are turned into products and brought to market.

These interviews are worth mentioning out here for a few more reasons:

1) it’s great to see people writing about Avenue Right,
2) the content is interesting, even if you’re not in the advertising business, and
3) these interviews give a good overview of Avenue Right, where the vision came from, and why we do what we do.

MO.com

This interview delves into the where our company sits in the “clash between old and new media,” the advancements in technology that allow for automation, and whether these advancements in the long run hinder creativity.

IdeaMensch

This one covers what’s happening now with Avenue Right and offers an individual profile of the creative processes involved in “bring[ing] ideas to life.”

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Lanes of Learn’d Bastards

Digging through stacks of dusty old notebooks, manuscript piles, and ancient issues of Writer’s Chronicle, I actually found the object of my lazy and nostalgic adventure in office archaeology. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

Even better was finding the little poem a few of us MFA grads wrote while sitting through the commencement speech and role call. I won’t say how many years have passed since then, but it has been enough to make this seem an artifact. So here’s the poem, written by KC, Athena, John, and me. It doesn’t have a title, but it doesn’t seem to need one (how very postmodern). And it speaks of learn’d bastards with greatest affection, as that’s what we all strive to be (or, unconsciously become).

Eight graduates with Fine Arts Masters,
Commenced ‘tween lanes of learn’d bastards,
Clad in gown and caps,
Collectively thinking, perhaps
‘twould be better if this thing
would go faster.

More love for the MFA degree can be found here.

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Tight Lines: 12 Reasons the MFA is a Solid Degree in the Technology Space

Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting around a table drinking wine and sharing crème brûlée with some friends from graduate school, specifically the MFA program in creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Pulling up in my minivan I realized it had already been a good 5 years since my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

One discussion stood out over the Cabernet and custard, perhaps because of where I’m at academically, professionally, and personally. It was whether an MFA degree had any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching at the college level, and how those skills might be applied in the workforce.

At the table for tonight’s conversation were four MFA graduates and a faculty member. The grads included a software developer, a local magazine editor, a PhD student/professor, and a marketing director. Not a bad as products of the program, I’d say.

This post outlines some key areas where the MFA program directly relates to the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market. It’s time to start that dialogue around how those of us in the arts and humanities can create some pretty kick-ass careers for ourselves.

The perspective here is from a fiction writer (as opposed to poetry or nonfiction), and it’s from the marketing point of view (versus a visual art like design or a sales role such as business development).  It deals mostly with applied professional writing—as a “creative” on an in-house team or at an agency, for example. (I’m sure the linguistics or communications theory-laden post will soon follow.)

One more disclaimer is that I have split personalities when it comes to writing about marketing.  I’m a B2B marketer marketing an advertising product to folks who market B2C. But at the end of the day, we’re all fucking human. Write that way and you can sell a product or service or otherwise inform and persuade an audience. That’s all we really need to do.

Here’s that list, from my own experience as an MFA graduate with a pretty sweet career. I may not have been placed on that path because my credentials state this particular degree, but the skills needed to get there tie directly to experience in a creative writing program.

Copywriting

1. Tight Lines. These people have the ability to write tight lines that are both creative and persuasive. In fiction, the writer needs to create believability and truth, or verisimilitude, in the story.

2. Plot Lines. Web copy, for example, needs to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in that person taking an action, whether it be submitting a contact form, calling a business, or even moving on to the next page. Creative writers, too, drive their visitor—their reader—along with intent. The audience is brought on that proverbial journey, as the business writer strives to both pull a prospect through a sales funnel and engage them in interactive content, and a fiction writer so convincingly delivers a narrative that can pull the reader along the story’s path without question of the reality or the characters created—they simply must get to the next part of the story.

3. Buyer Personae. This one is huge, but it’s covered in the Marketing/Sales Cycle section below.

Public Relations

4. Positioning. PR positions the company, setting the scene for the action to take place. It’s important in PR to be completely transparent, to stay away from embellishment, but this is where command of English language comes in handy.

5. Storytelling. These are the folks that tell the company’s story, and they need to do it well. Hire a storyteller. Or become one. Enough said.

Marketing/Sales Cycle

6. Audience. Identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is akin to developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

3., Part Deux. Buyer Personae. The ability to serve up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers need to create what’s called a buyer persona to guide their efforts, to know what makes that target audience tick. This is literally an outline or profile of a character—for me, it’s all those characteristics scribbled on sticky notes across my desk and color-coded to indicate mannerisms or role in the story. But again, working within the framework of buyer personae is where the ability to create and develop characters in a fictional work becomes a skill that transfers nicely.

For these writers, it goes well beyond the numbers that identify age, location, and income— the ability to create and give voice to these buyer personae, understand their pains and how to manage their egos, and bring them along on that storied journey are inherent in those who’ve spent time writing fiction in first person or as a member of the opposite sex, to name just one exercise in character development.

7. Lead Generation and Nurturing. Think like the characters do. Where would you place the ads that would reach you if you were that character? Where would you be located? And engaged in what media? Where and how do you participate online? Think of what content gets the most downloads, and later, analyze what content was downloaded by the most qualified prospective customers and focus your editorial efforts accordingly.

8. Content Strategy. Oversimplified, this is creating, running, managing an editorial calendar.

In addition to providing the right content for your audience, this includes understanding how to work with people in order to elicit guest posts and suggest changes that keep the contribution on par with the quality of other writing on the site while maintaining author’s style. Experience in MFA program workshop dialogue, copyediting, and working with any published or up-and-coming authors are all great ways to develop a foundation for business content strategy and how to execute on it successfully.

9. Engaging. For marketers, this means creating dialogue around a topic or issue, whether in person or online. For MFAers, it’s the ability to deconstruct, put back together, and discuss what we read. “Nice work” is a comment that brings nothing to the table.

10. Case Studies and White Papers. The former is an in-depth profile that tells the story of how a business solved a problem or made more money using your solution. The latter is a paper that also solves a problem, typically research-intensive and from a thought-leadership perspective looking at improvements that can be made overall in an industry (and of course, in the About section in tiny print on the last page, how the corporate author is positioned to solve those problems).  Naturally, these are my favorite pieces to write.

Software Development

11. Stories. Using sticky notes and whiteboards to piece together the story of how functionality or a process will work in a software application is similar to performing this exercise in order to piece together a novel, story, or poem, or even the core argument for an essay (for the creative writer, it’s possible the whiteboard is instead a Moleskine®). This also applies to telling the story from the end-user’s perspective and the actions they take during the software testing/QA process.

12. Complexity. Being able to understanding complex processes and communicate them is useful skill. The correlation? A research paper on something like “Burnt Norton from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Other Skills

  • Interviewing for a job (MFA: Engaging conversation and defending position in MFA workshop.)
  • Taking (and applying) feedback and critique of professional work (MFA: Feedback from professors and peers during workshop.)
  • Working independently (MFA: We write alone.)
  • Write simple code for web development, design, and animation (MFA: Knowing how language works.)
  • Research skills (MFA: If it’s out there, we can find it.)

Thus ends my preaching—for now—on the virtues of an MFA degree for those who aren’t ready to or have no plans to teach.

It’s interesting to note it wasn’t until later in the evening that said software developer, local magazine editor, PhD student/professor, and marketing director observed that none of us had actually graduated the MFA program together and were, pretty much, barely classmates. This attests to the community surrounding writing programs such as these and the craft itself.

If you do nothing else in life, perfect your craft. If you have a talent, use it. Get involved with the community around it. As fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

Exploring the craft before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether we realize it or not. We MFA grads had the opportunity to develop a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

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