We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live is the first and only documentary being made about Joan Didion. While her writing is fierce and exposed, Joan herself is an incredibly private person. We have the privilege to know Joan as a subject and also as a member of our family. Our director, Griffin Dunne, has known Joan his entire life. Joining Griffin as co-director is award-winning filmmaker, Susanne Rostock.
We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live traces the arc of Joan’s life through her own writings, and in her own voice. Our film will tell Joan’s story through passages she has chosen and will read aloud from her work, as her friends, family, colleagues and critics share their accounts of her remarkable life and writing.
- Introduction to Life Stories
- “Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember
- Life Stories: The Personal Component
- 11 Novels That Feature Life Stories
- Must We Like Fictional Characters?
- “Mr. Mercedes” by Stephen King: The Power of Characters
Although the concept of life story originated in the field of psychology, where it pertains to real people, every major fictional character also has a life story. Good writers create memorable characters by building a character’s full life story before beginning to write their novel or short story. The character’s life story then becomes the back story against which the novel unfolds. By looking at some guidelines for writers about how to create characters, readers can learn how to evaluate and appreciate the writer’s craft.
All authors start with an idea. It could be plot first or character first. It doesn’t matter. But, if something happened, it happened to someone. And this is where my character biography begins. I start out with perhaps a paragraph of the things I know about this person. I add details as my first draft progresses.
The character biography, Botha writes, contains three parts:
- the physical.
- the sociological.
- the psychological.
She says that she writes down the character’s biography before starting her novel, then rereads and, if necessary, rewrites it every few thousand words as her manuscript progresses.
Every protagonist needs an antagonist to provide the conflict necessary for a story to develop. Nancy Fulda advises writers on the types of possible antagonists, commonly known as villains, in Variations of Villainy:
Villains have their own priorities, goals, fears and aspirations. The more effectively you demonstrate these differences to the reader, the more compelling and believable your villains will become. The old adage, “Everyone’s the Hero of His Own Story” applies here.
Fulda describes five “basic personality types which frequently appear in villainous characters.” But while it’s useful for writers to know these basic types, Fulda points out, the types often overlap. It’s the writer’s job to flesh out these types with enough details to create a fully developed character. Readers will look for such details when evaluating whether a character is credible within the context of the novel.
When creating villains, it’s helpful to ask the same questions one asks when creating protagonists. What does this person yearn for? What does she fear? What is the best thing that could possibly happen to her? What can she least afford to lose?
For story purposes, a villain exists to oppose the protagonist. But for believability purposes, the villain exists as a being in his own right. Take time to discover who he is, and your stories will be richer for it.
Of course, not every detail of the character’s back story will find its way into the novel, but the writer must know those details in order to choose which ones to include. Great authors, says Botha, “know what is important for the reader and the story.”
“Consumers may choose to read a tragic fictional story because they assume that knowing it was fictional would make them less sad than reading a less dramatic but true story,” said study authors Jane E.J. Ebert from Massachusetts based Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis from New York University.
This result makes perfect sense, though, to anyone who has ever been fully transported into the world of a well written novel.
”Our results suggest that while emphasising realism may increase sales, it does not necessarily increase satisfaction,” the authors concluded in a paper appearing in the Journal of Consumer Research.
You know the scenario: You’re chatting with someone you’ve just met, and you naturally ask what the other person likes to read. And he or she replies, “I don’t read.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often. But when it does happen, here are some animated GIFs that illustrate your possible reactions to someone who doesn’t engage in an activity that you consider second only to breathing.
“Every inch of that place, every grain of sand, wanted desperately to kill us.”
That’s a line from a compelling new novel about the Iraq War, written by former Marine Michael Pitre.
Pitre was a history and creative writing major at Louisiana State when he joined the Marines after Sept. 11. He became an officer and served two tours in Iraq’s Anbar province working in logistics and communications.
NPR interviews the author of the new novel Fives and Twenty-Fives, which follows an American road repair crew and bomb disposal team in Iraq.
For more than two centuries, the Darby Free Library has remained both a vital part of its community as well as a historical landmark. Built in 1743 by Quakers, it remains the oldest public library in the nation. But a financial crisis has left it in danger of shutting down by the end of the year.
The former English teacher in me cannot refrain from commenting: You don’t “graduate college”; you “graduate FROM college.”
When I was in college, I didn’t have time to read much of anything that wasn’t required for one of my classes. But Radhika Sanghani, author of the novel Virgin, did: “I have a few books I’d recommend. All of them helped me through the student-to-adult transition when I left college a few years ago, and I still re-read them for pleasure, comfort and some good old-fashioned perspective.”
Why does she recommend these books?
Because, college is a bubble. Whichever one you choose to study at, chances are your entire life becomes based around the same people, lecture halls and bars. For me, reading was the best way to get out of that bubble and remember there was a wider world out there that I was just about to enter and should probably know a little bit about.
So check out her list, which she describes as “a mixture of good classics, contemporary reads, and a little bit of self-help for a time when you really need it.”
And so this report intrigued me:
In literature, motorcycles — and the people who ride them — often represent an outlaw spirit, danger and sex. For motorcyclist Allie MacKenzie, that’s a no-brainer. “Who in their right mind can pass up a bad boy on a bike?” MacKenzie rides a Harley Sportster Forty-Eight. At Bartel’s, she picks a passage from the book Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley: “I was panting, and he was cursing. It was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. If he would have asked me to, I would have jumped on the back of his bike and ridden to the ends of the Earth with him.”
Anyone who has ever taught English or writing at just about any level has wrestled with this question.
[Julie Schumacher] took up her nonfiction pen to write an Opinionator piece for The New York Times about her own experience (in 2008) with a student who had been writing disturbing poems (about killing people) and frightening a teaching assistant and classmates. Schumacher, the TA’s supervisor, had been called upon by university administrators to intervene, and ask the question: “Do you plan to harm yourself or anyone else?”
The world’s greatest writers use their literary genius to illustrate and comment on the human condition. And yet, those who could be considered to have the best understanding of human feelings often choose to hide themselves away from the public eye. The stereotype of the reclusive author is not always true, but for these literary greats, a life of solitude had more appeal than the draws of fame and awards.
And the battle rages on:
Stephen King, Nora Roberts and Donna Tartt are among the hundreds of authors who have added their names to an online letter criticizing Amazon.com for restricting access to works published by Hachette Book Group.
After a three year effort, World Book Night officials said this morning they are suspending its operations. In a statement, executive director Carl Lennertz cited lack of outside funding as the main reason for ending the book-giving project.
World Book Night is a project that aims to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be inclined to read. Seeing it go down saddens me.
Written in 1986 as the introduction to a Dolmen Press edition of ‘Dubliners’ illustrated by Louis le Brocquy, but never used, this brilliant essay, recently found among the papers of the author, who died in 1993, appears here for the first time
Happy Bloomsday! (June 16, the day during which Leopold Bloom takes his famous walk around Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses.)
And The Irish Times offers a perfect way to celebrate by reading this essay about one of Joyce’s other most famous works.
This is a good list, with insightful commentary:
- Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath
- Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
- Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger, Harry Potter
- Winona Ryder as Jo March, Little Women
- Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs
- Sissy Spacek as Carrie, Carrie
- Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
- Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, Fight Club
Shakespeare, magical realism and “House of Cards”: A conversation between authors Alexi Zentner and Téa Obreht
Alexi Zentner’s new novel, “The Lobster Kings,” is set in a lobster fishing village and focuses on Cordelia Kings. Inspired by “King Lear,” Zentner’s second novel is the story of Cordelia’s struggle to maintain her island’s way of life in the face of danger from offshore and the rich, looming, mythical legacy of her family’s namesake.
“The Lobster Kings” has already been getting raves from Ben Fountain, Stewart O’Nan and the Toronto Star, which said “Zentner displays more talent and controlled craftsmanship in ‘The Lobster Kings’ than many other writers will manage in a career’s worth of novels.”
Alexi and Téa Obreht (“The Tiger’s Wife”) met recently to talk about “The Lobster Kings’” inspiration and influence, Shakespeare, writing outside your voice, and the way myth and magic work in fiction.
In Salon, two authors hold a wide-ranging discussion on how and why they write fiction.
No one denies that Donna Tartt has written the “It novel” of the year, a runaway best-seller that won her the Pulitzer Prize. But some of the self-appointed high priests of literary criticism—at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review_—are deeply dismayed by The Goldfinch_ and its success.
We couldn’t have a week without a controversy within the halls of literary criticism. In this article for Vanity Fair Evgenia Peretz looks at the high-brow critics’ negative reactions to a novel that the public seems to love.
Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s greatest writer, was a soldier of little fortune. He died broke in Madrid, his body riddled with bullets. His burial place was a tiny convent church no larger than the entrance hall of an average house.
No more was heard of the 16th century author until the rediscovery of a novel featuring an eccentric character called Don Quixote rescued him from oblivion.
By then, nobody could remember where his grave was. Four centuries later, Spain intends to do the great man justice.
Preeti Chhibber, who works in marketing for HarperCollins, writes on BookRiot that “there are inherent racial issues that exist inside publishing a book with multicultural themes written by a person who doesn’t have a historical connection to that culture or race.” For example:
A few weeks ago, the news broke that Simon & Schuster would be publishing a prequel to Gone With the Wind, called Ruth’s Journey. This book is going to be about Mammy. This book is going to be written by a 73-year-old white man named Donald McCraig.
There are, she says, really two issues here: “The first issue is diversity. The second issue is authenticity of voice.”
We want diverse characters written by everyone, and we want enough writers of color that come to mind just as easily as white authors. We have to stop defaulting to white writers, from both the publisher’s and the reader’s perspective. And we have to stop seeing multicultural characters as an anomaly. I want to see those characters in my literary fiction, in my sci-fi, in my historical fiction. And I want stories of their lives and their cultures.
The Telegraph [U.K.] presents the best books from the science fiction and fantasy genres
This is quite a varied list. Since I don’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, I was surprised at how many of the books on this list I’ve read.
And be sure to look at the comments, which will suggest many more titles to add to your TBR list.
No matter what the title under discussion, book lovers almost inevitably say, “The book was better than the movie.”
But visual media—film and television—are very different from books, because our brains process written and visual material differently. Therefore, changes from the book in the film or TV versions are often necessary for a successful adaptation.
Of course there are also times when the film or TV version makes wholesale changes in the book that aren’t necessary for the adaptation between formats. For example, in his film of David Baldacci’s novel Absolute Power, Clint Eastwood changed the whole story line. The reason? Eastwood starred as the lead character, who is killed about midway through the book. This plot change wrecked the whole point of the book. But it’s no surprise that Eastwood would not want the character he portrayed eliminated so early. Hence the change.
I have not read Game of Thrones nor watched the HBO series. Nevertheless, I found this discussion of differences between the books and the TV shows informative. What do you think?
Over at Lovely Literature bloggers Ashley and Anne have each compiled a fun list of despicable characters.
Are there any other literary characters you’d add?
Because I am in Nashville cheering on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s pursuit of yet another national championship, this week’s entry is an abbreviated one.
Emma Donoghue is the author of eight novels and four short story collections, in addition to a number of dramatic productions. Her 2010 novel Room was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Her latest book, Frog Music [Little, Brown, $27.00], publishes on April 2.
Read why Emma Donoghue includes “a bitch character in every book.”
I was intrigued by the description of English major Katie McLaughlin’s winning paper:
When senior English major Katie McLaughlin decided to write her capstone paper on collaborative Internet fiction, there was no official name for what she was writing about. So she made one up. She dubbed websites where people write, edit and read stories together “narrative communities,” and these narrative communities are what inspired her capstone paper, “‘Everybody Writes’: Re-imagining Reader, Writer, and Text in the Online Community.”
New reprints of classic dystopian novels show that a bleak view of our future has enduring appeal. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up titles by George Turner, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Russell Hoban and John Wyndham.
Here’s the book on Wright’s list that most piques my interest:
Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (Gollancz, $17.95) is easily one of the most ingenious novels ever written. Set during a distant Dark Age long after our current civilization has given itself to the fire, the entire narrative is rendered in a hyper-phonetic, punning version of devolved English. We riddle along with Walker as he grapples with obscure legends of our own bad times, including that particularly seductive myth: the myth of progress. Readers who get the hang of Riddleyspeak (it’s easier than it looks) are in for a profound, transformative journey into the human heart, where fires of creation and destruction are kindled.
This sounds like “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” the central portion that functions as the turning point in David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Set in the future, this section features language like this:
Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekking’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies. Evenin’ catched us up early, so we tented on the southly bank o’ Sloosha’s Crossin’, ‘cos Waipio River was furyin’ with days o’ hard rain an’ swollen by a spring tide. Sloosha’s was friendsome ground tho’ marshy, no un lived in the Waipio Valley ‘cept for a mil’yun birds, that’s why we din’t camo our tent or pull cart or nothin’. [David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (New York, Random House, 2004, rpt. 2012), p. 239]
Although this language looks strange, I soon found that, as Wright says of Riddleyspeak, it’s easier to decipher than it looks.
The Conclusion of Women’s History Month
Though many truly badass women authors are alive and working today, their stories aren’t yet finished. So as Women’s History Month draws to a close, we wanted to look back on some of the incredible literary women from history and remember how both their work and their lives broke new ground.
Read why Huffington Post thinks these female authors were totally badass:
- Louisa May Alcott
- Mary McCarthy
- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
- Nellie Bly
- Edith Wharton
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
- George Eliot
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- Carson McCullers
- George Sand
- Hannah Arendt
- Harriet Ann Jacobs
- Katherine Anne Porter
Though James Patterson might be the one getting 17-book deals for millions, some of the best writers of crime, thrillers, and mysteries have been women. Here are some of the best examples of these genres from the past century that will keep you reading past your bedtime (and possibly unable to sleep forever).
Among the authors Jessica Grose recommends here are Agatha Christie, Ann Rule, Edna Buchanan, and Patricia Highsmith.
“WHAT’S your book group reading?” I say to a friend encountered on the street. Not: “Are you in a book group?” I have no idea whether Clara is in a book group. We’ve never talked about it. All the same, I just know. Why? Because it’s a safe assumption to make these days.
By some estimates, five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room or in a bar or bookstore or local library to discuss the finer points of “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” (A perfect number is hard to pin down because some people belong to two or three clubs, and of course, there’s no central registry of members.) Among them is Clara, whose book group even has a name: the Oracles. They’re reading “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner.
James Atlas learns why book groups aren’t just a fixture of New York City.
What determines a city as ‘literary?’ It’s not enough to have a large library, unique bookstores, or be the birthplace of a famous writer. Nor is it enough to be one of the top literate cities in the United States Most literary cities have a strong writing program at one of their numerous colleges and universities, as well as bookstores and institutions hosting event after event. If anything, a literary city is a blend of the historical, cultural, and modern parts of literature, encouraging and inspiring future generations to appreciate and take part in the literary world.
See what cities (other than New York City) Gabriella Tutino has chosen for this article in Highbrow Magazine.
In this unusual take on literary criticism, Allison K. Gibson describes her literary cravings during pregnancy:
While I was pregnant, I learned to follow my instincts — my hunger — to lead me to stories that would nourish me. And, as I learned from that first 3 a.m. craving for “The Night of the Curlews,” certain stories are meant to be savored so that the words continue to nourish long after the last sentence has been swallowed. The best stories leave an aftertaste.
Writers are terrible procrastinators, and I’m pretty sure that’s because writing, although it can be exhilarating, is also just plain hard. Here author Bill Cotter, who has his own love-hate relationship with his profession, offers some (comforting?) remarks from writers including Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Virginia Woolf.
Anyone who loves books will be interested in this book, which tells the story of typography:
Writing matters, says Ewan Clayton, calligrapher, former monk, design and media professor and visual consultant to Xerox in Palo Alto, Calif., the folks who made the first networked home computer. Not just who cut the typeface, not just the letters and words. But the manner in which over the millennia we’ve inscribed, carved, painted, brushed, printed and now text them. Writing tells us how we inhabit our world, how we move through it and interact with each other.
Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University’s poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible
As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war approaches, many texts—including a few novels, “memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle”—are entering the public domain and becoming freely available.
On the University of Oxford blog Practical Ethics, Anders Sandberg considers an article by science fiction author Cory Doctorow about a couple of stories that feature ethical dilemmas:
By imposing the right boundary conditions an author can make even extreme behaviour moral. This makes for good stories, but they are not teaching us how to think well about the future since they depend on a contrived situation. Maybe such contrived situations could occur, but real situations have far less coherent contexts and hence make the moral issues far more non-trivial. Since well written stories are salient and memorable, we often use them as examples when reasoning about the real world… despite the risk of their conclusions being arbitrarily prescribed.
My own favourite example of this kind of induction of conclusions is Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is often used as an argument that cognitive enhancement will not be good for people. However, the reason the protagonist suffers is that he and the world is written that way. While it makes for a good story it doesn’t help us think much about the nature of intelligence enhancement despite apparently giving us an argument.
This suggests that writers trying to be moral should do their best to refrain from overly constraining their fictional worlds in order to tell stories that actually help us think about acting morally in the real world.
Sandberg’s point that an overly contrived story that can lead to only one solution does not really help us learn to think ethically is an important one, since it’s easy to be taken in by such a literary work.
And be sure to look at Doctorow’s article, which Sandberg links to in his introduction.
Paste Magazine introduces its 50 States Project with a list of “10 contemporary authors from Georgia who are contributing to the evolving landscape of Southern literature.”
I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of any of these authors. It’s time to expand my reading list.
This week, Thomas Mallon and Anna Holmes discuss what it’s like reading “Peyton Place” today, 50 years after the death of its author, Grace Metalious.
Opposite views of what this historic salient novel, whose title has become part of the common parlance, offers today’s readers.
The Coretta Scott King Book Award was founded in 1969 in honor of the late Mrs. Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for her passion and dedication to working for peace. The awards are given to “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” Created by the American Library Association, this page provides a variety of resources, including a section on the history of the award and a list of all past award winners. Another great facet of this page is the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Donation Grant. The goal of this program is to increase children’s access to books by building the libraries of nontraditional institutions that provide services to children. Within Resources and Bibliographies, a series of educational materials related to multicultural and diversity resources and collections are also available.
From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2014. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/
The Oxford African American Studies Center has created this website to house its comprehensive collection of scholarship documenting the many and varied experiences that make up African and African American history and culture. Along with over 10,000 articles, 2,500 images, and 200 maps, the site features an excellent “Focus On” series each month, in which the editors compile various short articles, picture essays, and links on a designated topic. The Focus on Women and Literature is particularly noteworthy. Here, visitors can explore the life and works of influential women in American literature, from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison. The site can be easily navigated by subject or by specific biography, with suggestions for related sources and content provided in each section. Additionally, curious visitors will find links to all of the previously featured subjects within the series, ranging from African Americans in Science and Technology to Black Homesteading in the American Western Frontier.
From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2014. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/
A newly uncovered manuscript in which Jane Austen writes of men reciting prayers unthinkingly could shed light on the gestation of one of her novels.
The scrap of paper features a fragment copied out by the author from a sermon written by her brother, the Rev James Austen.
Now conservation experts are painstakingly lifting the snippet from the book it is stuck into so scholars can read the mysterious words she wrote on the back.
The passage in Austen’s handwriting, dating from 1814, states: “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning.”
This reflects a theme that she wrote about in her novel Mansfield Park, which was published in the same year.
Few figures in American literature have suffered as strangely divided an afterlife as Robert Frost.
Even before his death in 1963, he was canonized as a rural sage, beloved by a public raised on poems of his like “Birches” and “The Road Not Taken.” But that image soon became shadowed by a darker one, stemming from a three-volume biography by his handpicked chronicler, Lawrance Thompson, who emerged from decades of assiduous note-taking with a portrait of the poet as a cruel, jealous megalomaniac — “a monster of egotism” who left behind “a wake of destroyed human lives,” as the critic Helen Vendler memorably put it on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in 1970.
A preview of The Letters of Robert Frost, “a projected four-volume edition of all the poet’s known correspondence that promises to offer the most rounded, complete portrait to date.” Harvard University Press will begin publishing the collection in late February.
Some writers would rather do anything but discuss their own work. Not Jonathan Lethem. A wiry bundle of passionate and lucid self-analysis, the guy can talk. And talk.
I’m waiting at his publisher’s office near the Thames when he swoops in from the rain, ready to bat for the British release of his new novel, Dissident Gardens. A postwar family saga about Rose Angrush, a Jewish communist in Lethem’s native New York, it’s a funny, often filthy book with a heavy subject – the slow death of political alternatives to capitalism after Stalin tainted Marxism.
For a writer who lifts tropes from science fiction and superhero comic strips, it feels like a gear change. His 2003 novel, The Fortress Of Solitude, featured two boys who procure a magic ring that enables them to fly. One reviewer ordered Lethem to grow up.
‘It’s like I took his advice, right?’ he laughs. Not really, he says, preppy in neat specs and trim blazer. ‘I turn 50 in a couple of weeks. It’s kind of funny the idea that I might have suddenly matured, as if everything up to this point was a retarded adolescence and – like the Hulk – I shook it off and became this mature novelist.
‘If you were to put my work into a really super-deliberate two-word synopsis, you might call the whole project “against escapism”. Ideology in Dissident Gardens is like the flying ring in The Fortress Of Solitude. It’s the thing that doesn’t help you live in the world.’
William S. Burroughs, literary scourge of the banal and the boring, best known as the author of the still outrageous Naked Lunch (1959), would have turned 100 on February 5.
Whether as novelist, essayist, painter, filmmaker, recording artist, mystic, expatriate, psychological patient, Scientologist, Beat progenitor, plagiarist, punk music godfather, anti-censorship activist, queer hero, science-fiction guru, junkie, media theorist, advertising model — or accidental murderer — the figure of Burroughs (1914-1997) casts as many shadows as the limits of each of these labels.