Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Write What You Know (But What Does That Mean?)

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Aspiring writers are often advised to write about what they know. This is sound advice. However, those who would heed it often put too narrow an interpretation upon this counsel. By “write about what you know,” the advisor is not suggesting that, for example, a bricklayer write only about laying bricks or that a chef write only about preparing meals. Let me quote from a not-always-reliable source that many would advise you (and well) not to use, Wikipedia, a free, online encyclopedia the fault of which lies in the fact that anyone is allowed to “edit” almost any article at any time, concerning Hans Christian Andersen.

Plain in appearance and painfully shy, especially around women, this ugly duckling longed for a life of love, but had to settle for one of fame. I quote the article concerning Hans Christian Andersen and the pathos of his life:

Andersen often fell in love with unattainable women and many of his stories are interpreted as references to his sexual grief. The most famous of these was the opera soprano Jenny Lind. One of his stories is “The Nightingale”, [sic] was a written expression of his passion for Lind, and became the inspiration for her nickname, the “Swedish Nightingale”. [sic] Andersen was often shy around women and had extreme difficulty in proposing to Lind. When Lind was boarding a train to take her to an opera concert, Andersen gave Lind a letter of proposal. Her feelings towards him were not mutual; she saw him as a brother. . . . A girl named Riborg Voigt was the unrequited love of Andersen's youth. A small pouch containing a long letter from Riborg was found on Andersen's chest when he died.

At one point he wrote in his diary: “Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!” Other disappointments in love included Sophie Ørsted, the daughter of the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, and Louise Collin, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin.

Unlucky at love, Andersen was happy to find friendship with Charles Dickens, but, alas, during a visit to the English author’s residence, he overstayed his welcome, and Dickens never answered his fellow writer’s and former houseguest’s subsequent letters:
In June 1847, Andersen paid his first visit to England and enjoyed a triumphal social success during the summer. The Countess of Blessington invited him to her parties where intellectual and famous people could meet, and it was at one party that he met Charles Dickens for the first time. They shook hands and walked to the veranda which was of much joy to Andersen. He wrote in his diary “We had come to the veranda, I was so happy to see and speak to England's now living writer, whom I love the most.”
Ten years later, Andersen visited England, primarily to visit Dickens. He stayed at Dickens’ home for five weeks, oblivious to Dickens’ increasingly blatant hints for him to leave. Dickens’ daughter said of Andersen, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” Shortly after Andersen left, Dickens published David Copperfield, featuring the obsequious Uriah Heep, who is said to have been modeled on Andersen. Andersen quite enjoyed the visit, and never understood why Dickens stopped answering his letters.

As unlucky in friendship as he’d been in the pursuit of love, Andersen was a lonely man who longed for continuous companionship, which led, perhaps, to the many hours he spent in writing the stories for which he was famous, many of which deal with characters who, like Andersen, made unhappy attempts to establish lasting and meaningful, if not intimate, relationships. In other words, in a larger sense than our bricklayer would write only of laying bricks or our chef who would write only of preparing meals, Andersen wrote what he knew: the heartache of loneliness and rejection such as make up the themes of such of his tales as “The Angel,” which is “about an angel and a dead child gathering flowers to carry to Heaven where one flower will sing when kissed by God”; “The Fir Tree,” which “was cut down for a Christmas tree. . . . bought and decorated” and “expected the festivities to go on,“ but, instead, “was was burned and the happiest day of its life was over”; “The Match Girl,” which is “about a girl who dies selling matches on a wintry New Year's Eve,” soon after seeing “a vision of her deceased grandmother, the only person to have treated her with love and kindness”; “The Little Mermaid,” which is “about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a merperson to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince”; “The Nightingale,” which is “about an emperor who prefers the tinkling of a music box to the song of a nightingale“ and “is believed to have been inspired by the author's platonic relationship with opera singer and fellow Scandinavian, Jenny Lind”; “The Ugly Duckling,” which is about “a cygnet” who is “ostracized by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness,” but “matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all”; and others in the same vein. It is not difficult to see how these stories might be derived from the author’s own feelings of rejection and loneliness.


Another example of a writer who seems to have written many of his short stories, if not so much his novels, from what he knew is that of H. G. Wells, who, John Hammond, founder and president of the H. G. Wells Society and the author of the “Introduction” to The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells tells us, suffered “several ‘false starts’ in life” before winning “a scholarship to the Normal School of Science at South Kensington (now part of Imperial College) where he studied biology under T. H. Huxley,” graduating in 1890, only to have “his subsequent career as a teacher. . . cut short by ill health” and “a breakdown” that occurred in 1893. While “convalescing” from this “breakdown,” Wells “began articles and short stories and was soon earning his living as a journalist.” The victim of ill health and other setbacks, Wells wrote stories that followed a set pattern, or formula, Hammond observes:

In each case the central character is an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality.
. . . [His] stories are undoubtedly entertaining and are meant to be read for pleasure, but of course Wells had a more serious intent in mind. They are designed to stimulate thought, to suggest possibilities of behaviour and to alert the reader to the immense role of chance in human affairs. The typical Wells hero is a person going about his everyday affairs whose life is turned upside-down by a random event or
encounter. . . .
--much in the same manner, we might add, as his own life was turned topsy-turvy by his “ill health” and “breakdown,” which diverted his career from one of science to one of “journalism” and the writing of fiction. In other words, like Andersen and many other writers, both of horror and other genres, Wells wrote about that which he knew--about “an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality” and about “the immense role of chance in human affairs.”

In most people’s lives, there is a defining moment, “a random event or encounter,” as Hammond characterizes such a time, that transforms one, making him or her what he or she becomes. If one aspires to write, it is of this moment that one should write, letting it give shape to narrative after narrative. It is this that is meant by those who counsel aspiring writers to “write about what you know.”

Sources
“Angel, The,” Wikipedia
Complete Stories of H. G. Wells, The, ed. John Hammond. J. M. Dent, 1998.
“Fir Tree, The,” Wikipedia
“Hans Christian Andersen,” Wikipedia
“Little Match Girl, The,” Wikipedia
“Little Mermaid, The,” Wikipedia
“Nightingale, The,” Wikipedia
“Ugly Duckling, The,” Wikipedia

No comments:

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

Product Cloud

You Tube Player

Loading...
There was an error in this gadget

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

Popular Posts