9 Blogs I’ve Discovered Through Literature & Psychology

Because I’m particularly interested in the intersection between literature and psychology, I curate Literature & Psychology, which I update regularly. Through this curation I’ve discovered a number of interesting blogs and web sites.

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious describes herself as “a teacher, student and person.” She teaches college English and writes fiction (both novels and short stories). “She holds one undergraduate degree in English, one in second-language education, and a masters degree in English and creative writing. She is currently working on a masters in education.”

On this blog Siobhan Curious discusses not only teaching, but her own experiences as a reader and writer. There are lots of book reviews here, and she also links to her fiction.

I see that she hasn’t updated this blog since August, but I feel certain she’ll get back to work on it when she can. Between teaching, working on that second master’s degree, and writing fiction, I’m sure she has her hands full just now. Her archives go back to August 2007, so there’s plenty of material here to look at while waiting for her to reappear.

The Fiction Reboot and the Daily Dose

Dr. Brandy Schillace is chief editor of this two-pronged web site. I’ll let her describe it for you:

The Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose is a combined blog that promotes the medical humanities and intersections between self and story. Our mission: promote authors (fiction and non-fiction) and share perspectives about narrative, medicine, history, anthropology and sociology across cultures and disciplines. We seek to engage those working at the intersection, intrepid souls adding to our shared knowledge of what it means to be human.

Dr. Schillace is managing editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and a research associate for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. She writes both fiction and nonfiction.

Storycraft: Craft-based analysis for fiction writers

This is the blog attached to the main web site of novelist, essayist, and lecturer Tim Weed. He is a frequent presenter at writing workshops, and his blog reads like an ongoing workshop for authors. In clear and unpretentious language he explains topics such as how plot works and how good writers develop fictional character. He’s teaching authors how to write, but as a reader I also learn a lot about how to appreciate the writer’s process as I’m reading a novel.

The Literary Traveler

Francis and Linda McGovern founded Literary Traveler in 1998 with the following purpose in mind:

Literary Traveler is dedicated to the exploration of the literary imagination. We hope to bring you inspiring, informative articles about writers, creative artists, and the places that they lived and traveled.

Their web site features book reviews and general articles about literature, such as “From Page to Picture: The Dilemmas of Adaptation.” They also arrange literary tours. Some of the material here focuses on the relationship between writers and the places where they lived and/or worked.

Psychology And Cognitive Aspects Of Reading

This is a Flipboard collection of articles about “Psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroergonomics and many other research fields which affect a way we read.”

Book Movement

This site is aimed at book groups. Members can join for free and can create a private web page for their group. Other features include listings of top book club choices and book giveaways for book clubs.

Lovely Literature

Two aspiring writers blog about their relationship to all things literary. They post regularly. This is a good site to check if you’re interested in what ordinary people, as opposed to professional literary critics, think about particular books.

Interesting Literature

Welcome to Interesting Literature, an online library of all that is most interesting and captivating about literature. Here you’ll find fun facts, interesting research into writers and their work, and blog posts which seek to capture the most fascinating facets of the literary world.

The site is run by Dr. Oliver Tearle, Lecturer in English at Loughborough University in England.

open culture: The best free cultural & educational media on the web

Open Culture brings together high-quality cultural & educational media for the worldwide lifelong learning community.

Open Culture curates free “intelligent audio and video.” And boy, is there a lot of material here, including the following:

  • 950 free online courses from top universities
  • 675 free online movies
  • 550 free audiobooks
  • 600 free ebooks

Dan Colman, the lead editor, is the Director & Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, though the site is not associated with Stanford.

“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

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This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

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Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

Consensus is that Go Set a Watchman is the manuscript that Harper Lee originally submitted to publisher J. B. Lippincott Company in 1957. Editor Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known as Tay Hohoff, deemed the novel not ready for publication, but she saw potential in the story. For two years Hohoff and Lee worked on revising the manuscript, which eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. (Harper & Row bought Lippincott in 1978. Harper & Row eventually became HarperCollins, the publisher of Watchman.)

A comparison of Watchman and Mockingbird as literary works provides a lesson for both writers and readers in how fiction works.

Telling, Not Showing

The most common piece of advice offered to aspiring novelists is “show, don’t tell.” This means that the work must demonstrate characters’ qualities, not simply state them. Here’s a made-up example of telling:

Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe is angry with Mabel because she told him he needed to get a job right away.

Here’s how showing works to communicate Joe’s state of mind:

Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe pounds his fist on the table as he leans in toward Mabel. “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you, is it?” he hisses. “Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I’d like to be able to count on a little support from you instead of just constant criticism.”

When a writer simply states that Joe is angry, readers are passive recipients of that information. But when a writer shows Joe acting with anger, readers participate in receiving that information by evaluating Joe’s behavior to understand it. Showing rather than telling engages readers by making them active participants in the reading experience.

Watchman does a lot more telling than showing. Here, for example, is the narrator telling us about the character of Atticus Finch:

Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch… . Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. (p. 124)

Compare this characterization with the one we receive in Mockingbird by hearing Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson at trial and, later, by seeing him spend the night at the jail to protect his client from an angry mob. Those scenes make readers themselves respect Atticus Finch by demonstrating his character instead of just telling readers that other people respect him.

Narrative Structure

Narrative structure (see narrative with plot) is the order in which novelists reveal key events in relation to the times at which those events occurred. When authors need to present something that happened earlier than the novel’s present, they use flashbacks.

In the present time of Watchman, Jean Louise Finch is 26 years old. There are several times in the novel when she remembers events from her childhood, such as when she, her brother Jem, and their summer neighbor Dill used to play Tom Swift. These flashbacks engage readers by allowing them to observe the children directly, without the intrusion of a narrator telling readers what to think or believe. Because the flashbacks allow such direct observation, they are more interesting than anything that happens in the novel’s present time.

These flashbacks, which show rather than tell, contrast sharply with the predominantly plodding prose of the novel’s present. But they don’t have much to do with the rest of the novel. They do not help move the action of the present forward, and they do not resonate with other themes in the novel except, perhaps, in creating a general atmosphere of nostalgia.

Finding the Story’s Center

The flashbacks that feature the novel’s most engaging writing are the first indication of where the center of the real story lies: in Jean Louise’s childhood. This shift in time from Jean Louise’s adulthood in Watchman to Scout’s childhood in Mockingbird is the most significant—and the most effective—change from the earlier manuscript to the later novel.

Once the focus of the story changes from a 26-year-old Jean Louise to a six-year-old Scout, the moment of revelation must also change. In Watchman Jean Louise has her epiphany while spying on Atticus at a political meeting from the balcony of the county courthouse. Mockingbird retains the courthouse balcony setting but must change the nature of the revelation. Whereas the older Jean Louise observes what she considers her father’s hypocrisy, Scout and Jem realize the outstanding character of the father who had before seemed simply ordinary to them.

The Result

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdRelocating the center of the story to the children’s realization of their father’s courage and strength of character is what makes Mockingbird an essentially different book than Watchman. This is one reason why it is not necessary to reconcile the Atticus of Watchman with the Atticus of Mockingbird.

A second reason is that what we are dealing with is fiction. Watchman and Mockingbird are two different books. They are allowed to have different characters. Atticus Finch is not a real person.

Much of the discussion about Watchman has centered around whether Harper Lee was truly capable of agreeing to its publication. We may never know. But of one thing I am sure: Judged solely as works of art, To Kill a Mockingbird is a better novel than Go Set a Watchman. Looking at the two side by side provides a good picture for both writers and readers of how effective fiction works.

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

In his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot wrote “Do I dare/disturb the universe?”

Erin Haley looks at novels that present characters who dare to ask the same question as Prufrock. The main theme is independence, she says. Such characters “challenge the status quo.” Because challenging the status quo and seeking independence are classic undertakings of adolescence, many of the books about characters who dare to disturb the universe are in the YA (young adult) category.

Haley lists four books in which characters dare to disturb the universe:

  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  • And One for All by Theresa Nelson
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

I’m only familiar with the first two books on her list; the first is a YA novel, while the second is not.

But the question of characters daring to disturb the universe got me thinking about my own reading. I wonder if all fiction doesn’t deal with this topic in some way or other. The basic requirement for fiction is conflict, and conflict usually involves challenging at least some aspect of the status quo.

Since disturbing the universe is just about a given in YA literature, I decided to look for adult books that explore the same concept. After a quick look over my most recent reading list, I’d include these novels on my own list of books featuring characters daring to disturb the universe:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

No matter what the topic, I usually turn to this classic novel to illustrate it. Not only does Atticus Finch dare to question the status quo by defending (both legally and literally) Tom Robinson, but Scout and Jem follow his example in their unusual relationship with Boo Radley, the town recluse.

Cover: Broken for YouBroken for You by Stephanie Kallos

The two women in Kallos’s first novel dare to disturb the universe by reaching out to each other and, in the process, by redefining the concept of family. This is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman

Here’s another Alice Hoffman novel. In this one a woman must rethink the meaning of her whole existence when she discovers that her current reality is based on a lie. It takes a lot of courage and strength to redefine yourself and rediscover what you believe in.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I can’t say much about this novel without giving away a critical plot point. What I can say is that the protagonist admirably rises to the occasion of living an unconventional life.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Would you be willing to betray social conventions if that were your only chance for living an independent life? The female protagonist of this novel said “yes.”

 

I’d love to hear what books you’d include on your own list. Please let us know in the comments section.

Psychological Text Analysis

Shakespeare’s Plays Reveal His Psychological Signature

A hot trend in literary criticism is the use of computers to analyze text, a field known as digital humanities. Recently Ryan Boyd, a graduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, and James Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the university, conducted one such analysis to determine whether Shakespeare wrote a play whose authorship has been disputed for centuries. Their results have been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The play in question is Double Falsehood, published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald. Theobold claimed that he based this play on three original manuscripts by Shakespeare that were later destroyed in a library fire. The true authorship of the play has been disputed since its publication. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was the true author, while others think the play was an original work by Theobold that he tried to pass off as an adaptation. Although today no author would want to pass off an original work as an adaptation from another author’s work, Theobold would have benefited at the time from an association with Shakespeare.

Boyd and Pennebaker used text-analyzing software to establish psychological profiles of the Shakespeare, Theobold, and John Fletcher, who sometimes collaborated with Shakespeare:

“Research in psychology has shown that some of the core features of who a person is at their deepest level can be revealed based on how they use language. With our new study, we show that you can actually take a lot of this information and put it all together at once to understand an author like Shakespeare rather deeply,” says researcher Ryan Boyd.

They examined 33 plays by Shakespeare, 12 by Theobald, and 9 by Fletcher. The software examined the use of function words (such as pronouns, articles, and prepositions) and words that represent various content categories (such as emotions, family, sensory perception, and religion). The software analyzed the themes present in each of the works to create a thematic signature for each author.

The researchers also had the software examine how “categorical” the writing in each work is:

Categorical writing tends to be heavy on nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it indicates an analytic or formal way of thinking. Research has shown that people who rate high on categorical thinking tend to be emotionally distant, applying problem-solving approaches to everyday situations. People who rate low on categorical thinking, on the other hand, tend to live in the moment and are more focused on social matters.

By combining the thematic signature with the categoricalness of the writing, the researchers created a psychological signature for each author. They then analyzed the text of Double Falsehood who determine which of the three writers was the most likely author of the play. When they analyzed the disputed play by acts, the results suggested Shakespeare as the most likely author of the first three acts, and either Shakespeare of Fletcher as the likely author of the fourth and fifth acts. They concluded that Theobold’s influence on the text appeared to be minor.

By using measures that tapped into the author’s psychological profile, Boyd and Pennebaker were able to see that the author of Double Falsehood was likely sociable and fairly well educated — findings that don’t jibe with accounts of Theobald as well educated but also rigid and abrasive.

Together, these findings clearly show that exploring the psychological dimensions of a literary work can offer even deeper insight in the process of textual analysis.

Also see the University of Texas at Austin news release Shakespeare Wrote Contested Play, Suggests Psychological Text Analysis.

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg. Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, in “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Reading in Flow

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Flow and the Reading Process

If you’ve ever had the experience of getting lost in a good book, you’ve experienced flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s general characteristics of flow describe this experience. The key to flow is complete absorption in an activity. For readers, the flow experience means that they enter a new reality, the world they create from the text.

woman readingOne characteristic of reading in flow is that we gradually enter the fictive world we’re reading about. All sense of awareness of the real world around us slips away as we enter a new dimension. In other words, reading in flow occurs outside of our conscious awareness. As soon as we start to think about what is happening, we are bounced out of the fictive world back into our real world. For this reason the process of reading in flow is difficult to talk about and even more difficult to study. Nevertheless, researchers continue to try to devise ways of studying how we read. Here’s a summary of their hypotheses about how the reading process works.

Gerrig has extensively studied the cognitive processes involved in the reading process. He uses the phrase narrative world to refer to the situation model readers create while reading. Like Rosenblatt, Gerrig sees reading as a transactional process: The reader interacts with the text to construct the narrative world, and the narrative world completes the transaction by reconstructing the reader. This mutual exchange becomes a continual process through which the reader creates and revises the situation model as long as the flow experience continues. This process takes place outside of conscious awareness.

In creating the narrative world, the reader interacts with verbal clues provided by the text. These textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention by activating some of the “magnetic fields,” what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “bits of information” stored in the brain. The textual clues forge associations between these various mental constructs, and from these associations the reader continuously constructs the narrative world through what Copland calls cognitive mobility. These processes move both backward and forward in the sense that readers are able to hold in abeyance contrary or ambiguous suggestions of meaning that later details may either confirm or preclude.

One means by which textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention is foregrounding, the use of “unusual linguistic features … to place emphasis on the form of the text, prompting a fresh perspective on the meaning of the text (Emmott, Sanford, & Dawydiak, p. 206). Aspects of foregrounding include direct juxtaposition of concepts, linguistic techniques such as simile and oxymoron, and stylistic techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, sentence length, sentence structure, and paragraph length.

The field of psycholinguistics attempts to study foregrounding by examining depth of processing as a way to determine the amount and kind of detail readers notice while reading. The main method for examining depth of processing is anomaly testing, which presents readers with questions such as this one: “After an aircrash, where should the survivors be buried?” Most readers, according to Emmott and colleagues, will consider the question of where burial should occur without noticing that survivors would not be buried at all. This is an example of shallow processing.

A newer experimental technique for studying depth of processing, the text change detection method, presents study participants with a textual passage, withdraws the passage for an interval of 100 to 500 milliseconds, then presents a text passage again. In some cases the second passage of text is identical to the first (control condition), while in other cases the second passage differs from the first by one word. Participants are asked whether the second passage is the same as or different from the first. Using this technique, the researchers found that stylistic devices (such as sentence structure and paragraph formatting) often used to foreground details did increase readers’ depth of processing. However, the researchers also found that, contrary to their expectation, narratological cues (such as an announcement that upcoming events were important or surprising) decreased rather than increased the amount of detail that readers noticed.

Another method that literary texts use for focusing the reader’s attention is conceptual blending, described by Copland and by Freeman. In conceptual blending, elements from two different domains are brought together in a way that highlights both their similarities and their differences; in creating the blend, readers construct a third entity that incorporates both the similarities and the differences. Through this “typically unconscious process” (Copland, p. 140) readers constantly build and rebuild their situation model of the narrative world: “the theory of conceptual blending is particularly powerful in revealing the ways in which the embodied mind articulates the many dimensions of human experience … through language” (Freeman, p. 107).

Both of these textual techniques for focusing readers’ attention—foregrounding and conceptual blending—work through defamiliarization and refamiliarization. Both techniques present readers with two items, A and B. By associating A with B, the text leads readers to see A in a new and different way. In other words, the text causes readers to defamiliarize themselves with their usual, or automatic, concept of A and then to construct a revised concept for A that includes the new element acquired from the comparison with B; this latter process is called refamiliarization. Through these interlocking processes of defamiliarization and refamiliarization, readers continuously create and re-create meaning from the text. Such cognitive processes produce the intentional ordering of consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi says constitutes flow.

In general, the cognitive processes at work during reading in flow probably are similar in all people. However, as reader-response literary theory hypothesizes, all individuals bring their own personal history of experiences to their reading. (Also see Rosenblatt ). Miall proposes that what directs each person’s unique transaction with a given literary text is affect, or emotion. He defines affect broadly:

For the purpose of this article I will understand affect to denote the subjective experience of emotions and feelings, including (necessarily for my argument) feelings that have little or no cognitive content but which operate immediately as judgements, preferences, and the like. (Beyond the Schema Given)

He further describes three characteristics of affect: (1) it is self-referential; that is, it allows readers to apply experiential and evaluative aspects of their self-concept to the task of reading; (2) it enables cross-domain categorization of text elements in processes such as foregrounding and conceptual blending; and (3) it is anticipatory and prestructures a reader’s understanding of the meaning of a text early in the reading process.

Other researchers also point out the role that affect plays in reading. For example, van Peer reports that studies have shown that an accumulation of foregrounding devices has an affective impact on the reader. Freeman says that any theory about how the reading process works must account for both intentionality and feeling. Gold writes that literature allows our brains to combine memory, language, and emotion: “The defining characteristic of fiction and poetry, the power of literature to influence, entertain, help and illuminate, resides in its ability to call forth feeling along with thought in the reader” (p. 19). Affect works, according to Miall, by activating in the reader “vectors of concern” that resonate with the reader’s current concerns about the self.

Another condition that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as necessary for flow is a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Gerrig suggest that all people without some form of brain impairment (organic brain disorder or attentional deficits) have the cognitive processes necessary for experiencing narrative worlds—or reading in flow. Many people read in flow naturally, without any special training beyond the rudiments of learning to read. However, it is possible to court flow and to become more proficient at it by studying techniques of literary criticism and, perhaps more important, by reading widely.

The example of a reader who finds a rose in a fictive world may explain how the flow process of reading functions and can be enhanced. The rose has become a common literary symbol for love because its beautiful appearance and pleasant aroma suggest the positive attributes of the human emotion of love. But the same stem that supports the beautiful flower also bears, lower down, thorns meant to protect the flower from being picked. The beautiful flower thus becomes associated with the potential pain involved in trying to obtain it. Logically, this new attribute contradicts the previous pleasant associations of the rose, but affectively most readers comprehend the aptness of this symbol for the mixture of pleasure and pain involved in love. In addition, a rose eventually opens too wide and surpasses its point of fullest beauty; the petals of the full-blown rose soon begin to die and fall off, further suggesting that, like all living things, the perfect rose contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Moreover, readers who know other literary works that present a rose as a symbol of love—such as Robert Burns’s famous poem “My love is like a red, red rose” or William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily”—will make associations between the rose imagery in those works and the current image. In this way the current appearance of the rose will acquire additional layers of symbolic resonance for readers whose previous exposure to literature provides them with many available concepts for rose.

Benefits of Reading in Flow

Although Csikszentmihalyi believes that achieving the flow state is its own reward, there are, nevertheless, benefits of reading in flow. Some researchers look to brain functioning to explain how reading enhances readers’ lives. Miall, for example, says that because the brain’s right hemisphere appears to play an important role in mediating one’s self concept and also in literary response, “literature may offer one of the most significant vehicles for development and change in the self.”

Joseph Gold, who is both a licensed therapist and a professor of literature, believes that reading narrative fiction contributes to personal development in two ways: (1) by activating the pre-frontal cortex and the temporal lobes, the major language centers of the brain, and (2) by assisting in the building of personal identity in narrative form. It is fiction’s ability to engage both cognition and affect that gives it its power to help us “reorganize and rethink our ways of seeing and thinking about things” (p. 36). Such reorganizing and rethinking is called reframing, and it allows us to imagine alternative contexts. As Copland explains, the mental processing that occurs during reading acts as “a mental gymnasium in which through reading, we can exercise new modes of being in the world and new modes of world-making” (p. 158).

Reading can especially help readers in dealing with negative feelings and negative self-concept issues by placing such feelings in a critical context with other feelings and ideas; this new context allows readers to better understand those negative feelings. By taking readers outside of immediate experience, fiction can give them the distance necessary to understand and control a situation. On a more concrete level, Nell writes that reading can provide the opportunity for “the covert rehearsal of real-life coping strategies” (p. 245). The extent to which a work of literature can transform a reader’s concept of self depends upon the concerns that result from that reader’s prior experience.

Bibliography

Copland, S. (2008). Reading in the blend: Collaborative conceptual blending in the Silent Traveller narratives. Narrative, 16(2), 140–162. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Dawydiak, E. J. (2007). Stylistics meets cognitive science: Studying style in fiction and readers’ attention from an interdisciplinary perspective. Style, 41(2), 204–224. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Freeman, M. H. (2006). Blending: A response. Language and Literature, 15(1), 107–117. Retrieved February 6, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

Gerrig, R. J. (1998). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1993)

Gold, J. (2001). Read for your life: Literature as a life support system. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside. (Original work published 1990)

Miall, D. S. (1989). Beyond the schema given: Affective comprehension of literary narratives. Cognition and Emotion, 3(1), 55–78. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/688/0/Beyond_s.htm

Miall, D. S. (1995). Anticipation and feeling in literary response: A neuropsychological perspective. Poetics, 23, 275–298. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/40/0/NEUROLIT.htm

Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

van Peer, W. (2007). Introduction to foregrounding: A state of the art. Language and Literature, 16(2), 99–104. Retrieved May 4, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

 

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.

Review: “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins

Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train
New York: Penguin Group, 2015
ISBN 978–1–59463–366–9

Cover: The Girl on the TrainRachel rides the same train every day on her commute to and from London, right past the street where she and her husband used to live. She’s still reeling with despair over the failure of her marriage two years earlier. Looking at their house, where her husband now lives with his new wife and their baby, is too painful, so Rachel concentrates on a house a bit down the street. Every day she observes the couple living there, a golden couple, as she thinks of them: happy and loving, comfortable with each other. Rachel fantasizes about the couple, whom she calls Jess and Jason, imagining their sophisticated careers and their perfect life together.

We learn early on that Rachel really is an emotional wreck. She’s still living in a college friend’s spare bedroom, where she crashed after the break-up of her marriage—just until she could find a place of her own. And she’s an alcoholic, a fall-down drunk subject to blackouts and lost memories. It’s no wonder she’s so obsessed with Jess and Jason’s perfect life. So when she sees something out of the ordinary going on in their back yard one day, she can’t keep herself from getting involved.

Rachel is the book’s main narrator, but there are also two other women whose viewpoint we occasionally see. As with most cases of multiple perspectives, discovering the truth requires the reader to triangulate the three narratives. The novel’s main theme is love and marriage, but equally important is the theme of control, over both one’s self and one’s life.

This book is often touted as a good read for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which is the reason why I picked it up. Like Flynn’s novel, The Girl on the Train is a twisted love story. But it’s not nearly as tightly written or as compellingly crafted as Gone Girl. Rachel is so overdrawn that it’s hard to believe some of her outrageous actions, even given the circumstances of her life. The use of drunken blackouts and memories that tantalize and then retreat just out of reach is a convenient and common literary technique. And anyone who reads the book even half carefully will most likely figure out the catch well before the big revelation at the end.

Update

There’s an interesting article on Hawkins and The Girl on the Train here. Writer Alexandra Alter offers this insight into the runaway success of Hawkins’s novel:

American crime fiction travels easily abroad; the converse is less often true, unless the author happens to be a J. K. Rowling or a Lee Child. But “The Girl on the Train” may have benefited from a wave of popular and unconventional suspense novels that have eroded the already thin boundary between literary fiction and thrillers. Ms. Hawkins joins the ranks of a new generation of female suspense novelists — writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Gillian Flynn — who are redefining contemporary crime fiction with character-driven narratives that defy genre conventions. Their novels dig into social issues, feature complex women who aren’t purely victims or vixens, and create suspense with subtle psychological developments and shifts in relationships instead of procedural plot points and car chases.

Getting Lost in a Good Book

Getting Lost in a Good Book: Scientific Research on Reading

Have you ever gotten so absorbed in reading a novel that you lost track of time and of what was happening around you—-even, in fact, that there was a world around you outside of the one you were reading about? Most serious readers have had this experience, and science is trying to learn exactly how and why it happens.

Here’s the Scientific Reason Why You Get Lost in a Book describes recent research on the fiction feeling hypothesis. Scientists used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of people who had read particular passages from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some participants read “narratives with emotional contents,” which the study abstract describes as “fear-inducing … descriptions of protagonists’ pain or personal distress.”

The experiment found that readers of fear-inducing passages exhibited more “involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy” in the brain than did readers of neutral passages. The researchers concluded “the immersive experience was particularly facilitated by the motor component of affective empathy.”

The Bustle article, which says that the study report does not specify what passages from Harry Potter books were used in the research, offers a couple of passages from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that it thinks illustrate the difference between the two kinds of writing. The article goes on to say that this research “does showcase how books not only teach empathy, but the types of writing that can boost empathy even more.”

A novel look at how stories may change the brain reports on a 2013 study from Emory University:

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

The study focused on changes in the brain that linger after people read a narrative. Participants read Pompeii, a 2003 novel by Robert Harris chosen because “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way.” Over nine days participants read a passage from the novel in the evening, then underwent a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan the following morning:

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

The researchers also noticed increased connectivity in areas of the brain associated with making representations of sensation for the body. (This is a phenomenon long recognized in sports: that visualizing an activity such as running, skiing, or swimming activates the neurons associated with that physical action.)

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

This study showed that the neural effects of reading persisted for five days. Further research is necessary to determine exactly how long these neural effects last. But, Berns says, these results suggest that “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

A 2012 study (“Losing Yourself” in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life) found: “When you ‘lose yourself’ inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character”:

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

According to Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about.” But experience-taking can only occur when people are able “to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading”—in other words, when they get lost in a book.

Not unexpectedly, one part of this research found that participants identified most strongly with protagonists in a story narrated in first person by a character the participants consider to be similar to themselves. The researchers then wondered what would happen if readers didn’t learn that a character was not similar to themselves until late in the story. To find out, they divided 70 heterosexual male students into three groups. Each group read one of three versions of the same story: “one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual.” Students who learned early in the story that the character was gay reported little or no experience-taking. But students who had read the version of the story that reveals the character as gay late in the narrative reported the same level of experience-taking as students who had read about a heterosexual character.

The research revealed a more significant finding:

Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

“If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them,” Kaufman said.

Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, in which people try to imagine another person’s thoughts without losing sight of themselves: “Experience-taking is much more immersive – you’ve replaced yourself with the other.”

The other important aspect of such immersive experience-taking is that it’s spontaneous: it happens naturally under the right circumstance. And it’s a process that happens outside of our conscious awareness, which is exactly why we call it getting lost in a good book.

In a 2013 article (How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation) researchers from The Netherlands reported on studies exploring what they call transportation theory. They hypothesized that when people read fiction and are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Their results supported this hypothesis: “Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story.” People who were not emotionally transported into the story and others who read nonfiction instead of fiction did not exhibit increased empathy.

So what does all this research on the phenomenon of getting lost in a good book mean? What Hephzibah Anderson says in a recent article for the BBC (Bibliotherapy: Can you read yourself happy?) seems to sum it all up: “We think of novels as places in which to lose ourselves, but when we emerge, we take with us inspiration from our favourite characters.” Our experiences reading fiction can change both our attitude and our behavior toward people who are different from ourselves.