All posts by ashleymcarmichael

Every story has a story


Every story comes with a trace of other stories it could have been.


This is a truism, a statement from our discussions this summer that really struck me hard. Not only did this statement sum up what we discussed in our class sessions, but it also came in a moment where I was preparing to publish a novel and I was struggling, as I read through it, with some self-esteem issues about how it would be received in the public. Let’s be honest, I’m still struggling with that, but riding on the tail skirt of this statement has helped me come to terms with where I can and will go next with writing, and to some degree what I love about the process of writing itself.

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Window in the rock formation at Big Sur (Pacific Coast Highway RT 2014)

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love a good story. I’m pretty sure I came out of the womb begging to be a part of a great story (ask my parents and the doctors—I made quite an entrance with the cord wrapped around my neck and trying to be a Smurf instead of a human. I don’t recommend this to any babies out there). By the time I was able to talk, I was begging to be told stories—I have the fondest memories of my mother reading me bedtimes stories from longer novels even when I was a toddler—Hop on Pop just wasn’t enough for me. But I didn’t stop there. I began to live in a world with these stories, sometimes pretending that the characters were real and sometimes making up new endings, or sequels. For a large part of middle school, Jo March was among my very best friends and I would sometimes ask myself what would Jo do in this situation? It wasn’t enough for me to just read the story; I had to be a part of it.

Which I guess is a tell-tale sign that you are born to tell your own stories, because you can see the traces of stories within the stories that you love so well. I remember asking questions about the stories like “What do you think happened to Susan in America after her whole family was whisked off to the Narnia/Heaven at the end of The Chronicles of Narnia?” It broke my heart to think that Susan was the only one left on Earth—having lost her whole family in one fell swoop. Not that Susan was my favorite character, but no one deserves to be alone. And at the end, she was utterly alone. There is a story in there, one I wish had been told, but one I’m also terrified of. Now I know Susan is just a character and she’s not real, but she represents millions of people who are real, and not every story has a happy ending when it is told to its ending—if there is ever really an ending at all.

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The Village and The Farm on UCSC campus

For that matter, traces of other stories are never limited to just endings. One event can change the course of an entire story and if an author had chosen to write it another way, then the story would reveal other truths about characters than what we are currently privy to. For example, what if Pip had succeeded in getting Magwitch out of England?  That is an entirely different story with great potential for…something?

The point is, stories are like life. Full of moments. Moments where decisions are made and people are molded from the events that happen in their lives. Each day we get up and we have the potential to change our story solely by making new decisions, meeting new people, or accepting new challenges. Or not doing any of that. Because just like stories we are full of potential stories that may or may not get told.

So as I’m preparing my novel, I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of stories bursting forth from the one story I’ve told and that’s not a bad thing. When I’m satisfied with what I’ve written, then I might as well stop writing altogether, because there will never be an end to the whispered stories that come in and out of what is and isn’t told. And that is actually quite lovely. 

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Full Moon over the Pacific Coast Highway

Adventures: Surf’s Up

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Every once in a while you are afforded an opportunity to do something pretty amazing completely by, well, not accident exactly, but unexpectedly. When I started this trip, I knew that California had endless possibilities, but did I really think I would take surf lessons? Let’s be honest, I lived in Wilmington for four years and there were plenty of opportunities for me to learn how to surf (albeit East coast surfing, but still I could have learned easily! Lots of people surf in Wilmington!) and I never did it. So, why on earth did I think I would actually do this when I came to California?

Because it is California.

I find that when you travel to new places, you want to have a wide variety of new experiences that capture the essence of the culture you are living in. Surfing in California, therefore, just makes sense.

So I went.

And it was amazing.

I’m not a surfer. I did okay, much better than one would expect (considering that on this trip alone I have fallen flat on my face 2 times just walking and fallen upstairs once…I’d say I did quite well surfing). However, the experience was thrilling. We went out at 8am. If you didn’t already know this, the Pacific Ocean is FREEZING so I was a little worried about this timing for this lesson; however, wetsuits did their job quite nicely. I was surprised at how warm they were. I wasn’t cold at all in the water, which is really saying something to everyone who knows me. After a 10 minute lesson on the beach, we headed for the water.

In the stillness of the morning, the waves were crashing on the shore. I could feel my anxiety building up inside of me as I followed the instructor, Jodi and Whitney (both of whom have no fear) out into the water. Megan, Jodi’s sister, was close behind me, and we were ready to face this beast. We made it to the crashing point of the wave and climbed aboard the boards. Arching our backs, the boards sliced through the water over top of the waves just as they were peaking and we smoothly paddled into the calmer waters of Beercan Beach (no, I’m not making that name up). And then we saw them. Little tiny brown and speckled heads began popping up only a few feet from where we were floating on our boards.

“Oh my gosh,” Whitney exclaimed, pointing to where a head had popped up and then disappeared again. “Did you see that seal?”

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I wasn’t quite as excited as our resident Disney Princess (and I mean that in a good way—I have never seen someone charm animals as much as Whitney—she has fed baby squirrels from her hand, poured water over baby calves heads and they try to escape the afternoon heat, the fawns and does practically flock to her. It’s is incredible). I mean, it was cool that they were swimming near us, but my thoughts were in a slightly different direction.

“That’s really neat and all,” I said scanning the murkey water. “But where the hell did he go? I mean are they going to come and nibble on our toes or something thinking they’re fish. I’m really not down with that.”

Jodi and Whitney laughed but I saw Megan nodding her agreement with me too as another little head popped up even closer to us.

“Look at Kristin!” I pointed over at the other group where Kristin was already up and riding a wave, standing like she had done this her whole life. 

“Hashtag natural,” Whitney smiled as she shook her head in amazement.

“Alright, who is first?” Johan asked as he situated his board close to us, but nearer to the breaking point. Whitney was nearest, so she flopped down on her belly and paddled forward showing no fear.

“You got this Whitney,” I cheered her on, not at all jealous of her. My butterflies were moving their way from my stomach to my throat now.

“Oh my gosh! Look at that!” I turned my head back to where Jodi was now pointing out at the ocean and about twenty feet from us two dolphins leapt in the air and then back in the water again. My jaw dropped.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered, staring in awe as they jumped again and then another seal popped his head up and back down. “It’s surreal.”

“Worth every penny I paid.”

I nodded not able to take my eyes off the ocean.

“Do you guys mind if I go next?” Megan asked. I could tell she was eager to get this show on the road and I didn’t blame her. I knew how she felt. I shrugged. I was content just floating for now as long as no seals nibbled on my toes. We watched Whitney’s attempt and then Megan was up. Johan did an excellent job explaining what we were supposed to do to be the most successful with our surfing, but as he was speaking to Megan I saw him pointing to the distance and then raise his voice. I looked out at sea.

“See that whale?” he asked nonchalantly. My eyes widened and I really had no words. Not only did we see it, we could hear the whale as it expelled air and water from it’s blowhole.

Then it was Jodi’s turn. I heard Johan yell ‘up’ for Jodi, who made her attempt and then it was my turn.

I paddled over to our instructor and tried to listen to his advice, but the perfect wave came before he was able to impart much.

“Okay, paddle now!”

So I did and then I heard, “UP!” and I just didn’t think about it. I mechanically tried getting to my knees and suddenly I was squatting on the surfboard, but I didn’t feel the wave behind me. I wondered where it was, so I looked back… and then I was underwater. But for a few glorious seconds I was nearly standing on a surfboard, on my first try. And it was exhilarating.

Popping up out of the ocean, I was no longer nervous. I knew I would feel the consequences of that fall in the morning (and BOY did I!), but for now I was ready to try that again. And paddling out into the ocean I went out to join the rest of the sea creatures that surrounded us for the most amazing two hours $90 could buy from the Richard Schmidt Surf School (http://richardschmidt.com/).

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Finding an Original

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Wrapped up in a Redwood

The Big Basin state park in California was established in 1902. It is the oldest state park in California and holds over 80 miles of hiking and walking trails—not nearly as famous as Yosemite, but the magnificent beauty of the California Redwoods is still evident in this state park. This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit the park and do a little bit of hiking—not strenuous, but still a beautiful trek into the natural world of California. Of course, we were a bit disillusioned by the paved trail running parallel to our hiking trail. Despite this, we still were able to experience a 2 mile walk among the magnificent Redwoods. And I had a thought. As I stared into the Hobbit holes of these trees, I began to think about how God is a lot like one of these nearly incomprehensible Redwoods. As you step inside the cavernous hole of one of the massive trees, you feel the tree wrap around you and until you experience this, you can never truly comprehend the reality of a Redwood tree. God is the same way—until you climb inside of God and let him wrap you in his glory you will never be able to see how small you are in comparison. It is a humbling experiencing, one we could all use from time to time.

And in a lot of ways, it connects to the ideas of adaptation we have been discussing in class the past few days (Really, I have been going to class. I promise!). Today we were honored with the presence of Thomas Leitch, a professor from the University of Delaware and a leading expert on adaptation studies. The first thing he had us do is to draw a picture of Dickens. Well, as many of you know, I am not an artist (as much as I wanted to be, I just couldn’t harness that talent). We all did our best, though and produced our images of Dickens. Then we had to explain how we knew this was Dickens. None of us had ever met Dickens, so where do we get our images—from portraits, pictures, caricatures, books. So what we really think of as Dickens is really just a copy of a copy—Dicken, not Dickens if you will. If you want to see the real Dickens you would have to look at an original photograph of Dickens—but even that’s a copy. So you would have to meet Dickens, but even that presents a problem because in different context we present different versions of ourselves. So do you ever really meet the ‘real’ Dickens? All of this led us to the concept of the inevitability of adaptation. It’s all around us—there is no original. Even people who look down their noses at copies will still conceptualize based on copies. Each and every one of us do this with ourselves and others. We construct truths about who we are and project these in different contexts and to different audiences. So we are often just a copy of ourselves.

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My drawing of Dickens

The only original that exists is God. And even God tried to adapt Himself. Genesis 1:27 reads “so God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In essence we spend our lives searching for meaning, for originality and in many ways it is deeply ingrained in our search for the ‘original’. I’m no philosopher or theologian, but it seems to me that these things interconnect in ways and we keep wanting to deny or explain them away. If we started to accept the interconnectedness of the original to the copies, well we might just live happier lives.

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Peering up through the Redwoods

Each of us has in our own mind a “right” vision of the ‘original’—be it the original Dickens or God or what have you. When someone presents us with a different adaptation of that original we get our panties in a wad. Perhaps it is time to stop getting upset about the differences, and start asking ourselves why these differences exist instead. We can keep our own visions, but have more intellectual discussions about how the differences developed and why the exist. And, who knows, we might just be surprised by what we find.

Which brings me back to the Redwoods. They are beautiful in the pictures that I see (and post), but the experience trumps the copies, and though the copies may try they will never BE the original. Adaptation is inevitable and valuable—it enriches our experiences and helps us to make meaning. But it doesn’t mean that we stop looking for the how, why, or where the original exists. And when we find a whisper of the original it can be a magnificent experience—especially when we start to understand that the original can’t be put in a box. Humility. It’s a beautiful thing.

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What do I know anyway?

The Culture Text

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Writing is a process. There is no doubt about that. You start by barnstorming an idea, then you slowly work on drafting it into a workable concept, and then you edit the fool out of it until you finally have a viable end product. And if you are really good at the process, then the work might be picked up by a publisher and “given” to the public. And that’s good…right?

Well, of course it is good, on one level, but it’s absolutely terrifying on another level. Once your work is out there, in the world, it ceases to be yours. Sure, you can “own” a copyright to that work and maybe collect some royalties, but you have lost control of the intellectual highways and byways and numerous pathways your work can take. And maybe that’s the ultimate goal of a writer—when your work becomes a “culture text” it becomes a hallmark of absolute success for writers.

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This is why we have so many adaptations of certain “culture texts”, why we get spinoffs and sequels and retellings. The text leaves the author womb (so to speak) where it was cultivated and takes on a life of its own within the culture that it was birthed. As an author, writer, English major, teacher I sometimes balk at the concept of an ‘bad’ adaptation or an ‘unfaithful’ adaptation but the more we discuss this concept of a cultural text the more I have come to understand that it’s not about an objective analysis of “good” or “bad”; it’s more about why people make the choices they do for those particular adaptations and how effective they are in achieving a purpose for the culture in which they are created, which is why a story like West Side Story makes me smile.

However, this is not all smiles and sunshine. For authors, it becomes a question of authority within the text as Paul Davis points out in his book The Carol as a Culture-Text. Once your story, novel, poem, etc. becomes a part of the culture in which it is released you no longer have control over what happens to it or with it—intellectually or otherwise. Dickens constantly battled copyright and other lawsuits, often winning (but at a massive cost to his own pocketbook—so did he really win?). Beyond the legal matters, as writers when we put our work out to the public we open it to interpretation. You say one thing, but the reader interprets something completely different—who is to say who is right? You may have written it, but does that make you the ultimate authority? It’s a part of the culture now. Doesn’t the culture have authority over that text? Doesn’t the culture have a right to own an interpretation? All one has to do is to read an adaptation such as The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge to see how words can be seen from different, but very logical perspectives as part of a cultural interpretation and adaptive process. We sometimes react strongly to these interpretative differences, crying “fidelity”—but fidelity to what? A recurring question throughout this study…fidelity to what…

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So perhaps that is what is so frightening about my impending authorship. I’m thrilled to have a book published, I’m nervous about reviews, but more than that—once it’s a part of the culture It’s a part of myself that I can no longer have back. Does that mean that I hold onto it for myself? I hoard it?

Wouldn’t that be Scrooge-esque.

As a result of these reflection, I’ve decided my project for this seminar will center around the culture text A Christmas Carol. The story of Scrooge “began as a text and became a culture-text” (Davis 5). Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol no longer is just a novel, but a communal experience—a way to connect humanity. How’s that for a discussion topic? This is a concept that I can not only discuss with my students, but it will become increasingly more relevant as we talk about the social issues of abundance that Dickens calls into question within the text itself—athematic concept seen in many of the works we cover in English IV (“A Modest Proposal”, Gulliver, Earnest etc.). I’m open to ideas, comments, suggestions on all this!

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A World of Abundance

 SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES   I walked 2 miles…uphill to class today. It was beautiful. And when I got there, what I learned was even more wonderful. 

We live in a world of abundance. Everywhere you turn there is excess to the point of grotesqueness. But this is not a new thing. Lack of resources has rarely been a true problem in our society or world. It is the distribution of resources and the generosity (or lack thereof) found within a society that has caused most of our problems.

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 Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is some kind of call for government reform. Some kind of socialist advocacy. But it’s not. Let me tell you why.

 Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has deep roots, having been influenced heavily by Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present and a previous work by Dickens in the Pickwick Papers entitled “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton”. What we learn from these two works is that A Christmas Carol is not just a fairy tale, it is a text that mimics the abundance of our world showing the best of the best and the worst of the worst. It is this world of superabundance that shows us that you can afford to be charitable. NOT the government, but YOU.

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 If we look at ”Captains of Industry” a rhetorical selection from Past and Present we see the influences of Carlyle’s ideas on Dickens more fantastical story. In the Victorian era there is a constant fear of rebellion, particularly as a response to the French Revolution having occurred at the end of the 1700s. According to Carlyle, the problems in our society results from isolation, idleness and mammonism, the unholy trinity.


 

 Isolation is a type of wretchedness that keeps us from interacting with our society turning us into savages.

 Idleness leaves people soulless. When you rob people of work, you are taking away their humanity.

 Mammonism is a worship of money based on Carlyle’s idea of the Cash Nexus; the concept that the only thing binding us together is money—but as a society we need more than money. Otherwise our soullessness becomes permanent and contagious.


 

 Carlyle explicitly says that the problems in our society particularly with the oppressed and the poor—those in want—cannot be fixed by the government. Instead it is a call to personal responsibility for the captains of industry to break the trance and become more aware of the problem. As he says,

“ Ye shall reduce them to order, begin reducing them. To order, to just subordination; noble in loyalty in return for noble guidance. Their souls are driven neigh mad; let yours be sane and ever saner. Not as a bewildered bewildering mob; but as a firm regimented mass, with real captains over them, will these men march any more. All human interests, combined with human endeavors, and social growths in this world, have, at a certain stage of their development, required organizing: and Work, the grandest of human interests, does now require it” (272).

He tells them to be nice! To treat their employees better and as a result a new kind of wholes can be achieved. It seems like common sense, but if it was so common—then why are there so many adaptations of A Christmas Carol teaching the same basic premise over and over again?

Which brings us back to Dickens. Most people are familiar with A Christmas Carol for a reason; because the text is recognizable and acceptable to most of our societal values. The lessons it teaches us are fast—thus bringing us once again to the abundance concept. Today in our NEH seminar I learned many things about the text from many shifting perspectives, but as a writer the most important lesson is what I leaned about how Scrooge teaches us how to show students the value of reading and what it can do for them. Like Scrooge we see things in novels and literature but we can’t interact with them. Novelists and writers are responsible for pointing us to certain things in our past, present and future and helping us to see how we approach and thus change the world. If we learn to read in the right way, we will be a better people because novelists are like the ghosts showing us how to change our futures before it is too late. This is why words, writing and reading is so powerful in our society.

So A Christmas Carol isn’t just about Scrooge or Christmas, but a lesson I how and why we read because it is a lesson in how and why we see things and what it does for us. If we learn this lesson properly we will learn how to change the world. Because the real lesson from Dickens and Carlyle is that we should be helping each other, not relying on the government (or other people) to fix problems that we should all be personally responsible for.

And that’s why I write. I want to help change the world. 

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