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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
The NEH grant I received is a terrific opportunity not only for professional growth but for personal growth as well. For those of you who are unaware of what NEH opportunities for summer enrichment are, you should check it out at http://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/summer-programs. As a nationally funded program, NEH grants are always in danger of being cut, but there are many reasons why summer enrichment and educational opportunities are so important for teachers, especially at the K-12 level. I won’t get on my soapbox about this; I could talk for hours. What I will do is share some of our discussions and my experiences so that you can see for yourself that I’m not just on vacation in Santa Cruz.
The program I was accepted to be a part of is entitled Great Adaptations: Dickens in Literature and Film (See the program website here https://sites.google.com/site/nehdickens2014/). Before arriving in Santa Cruz it was expected that all participants (16) have the 2 primary texts read: Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, both Dickens novels are what we refer to as the originary texts. Over the course of the next 4 weeks we will be discussing not only the core texts, but their evolutionary process in how they are adapted culturally, historically and contextually all of which will culminate in a final project which we will submit to our seminar director by September. By collaborating with a diverse group of teachers from across the nation I am able to compare ideas, incorporate strategies and brainstorm critical thinking strategies that not only help me reach my students, but also help me dig inside myself to become a better more focused educator, rejuvenated in the fall (which is vital in a profession that is under a constant barrage of internal and external negative energy).
Upon arrival I settled into my house. I am lucky enough to be staying off campus. At first I was nervous about being isolated from other seminar participants, but then I realized how fortunate I was because I have two unique roommates broadening my experience as a whole. Maggie is my landlord and she is a writing professor at a local college in Santa Cruz and Jennifer is a junior as UCSC. Jennifer has unique insight into what it is like to be a college student on this campus and has given me lots of advice on how/where/when to go places around town and the campus. She is working on campus this summer with a group of middle school students, girls, who the engineering program has designed a camp to intrigue and attract a more diverse range of applicants to their program. I look forward to more discussions with her and Maggie as the summer progresses as they are both separate from my program they give me a break from the academia and keep me firmly grounded in the “real world” of the here and now.
The house I’m living in is surrounded by walking trails that are beautiful. There is a pond behind the house that is very low right now because the area is in the third year of a summer drought. This places a strain on the local ecosystem (which is filled with wildlife! I cannot even count how many deer I have seen on campus and they let you get so close it is a little frightening. And don’t get me started about the Mountain Lion signs all around the place and “what to do if you see a ML”. My favorite part is that it ends with: “And people have successfully fought off mountain lions with their bare hands.” As our tour guide said today (who kind of looked like Zach Morris, I’m not going to lie), it’s only a little comforting to know that I can punch a mountain lion in the face and hopefully win…um…yeah…FORTUNATELY that seems to be unlikely. SO we’re going to go with no mountain lion sightings this trip.
The campus itself has, in addition to the wildlife, given be a broader appreciation for local produce and farming. This campus has a sustainable farm and only about 50% of the land is used so that it can sustain much of its own produce. I wish that more places could be like that. Each week the campus sets up a farmers market at the base of campus to benefit the interns and farm and about 23% of the campus dining is supplied by the on campus farm and agricultural school. I find that to be amazing, not only because they choose to do it, but also in extreme whether challenges, such as draught conditions, they still make it work. Commitment is key.
Which brings me back to our coursework. Being committed to our study here is vital which is why I am so excited to be here to learn. One of the things we discussed today was the concept of adaptation. There are many ways to adapt a work: From x to y, of x for y, of x through y, of x beyond y. Each of these are done for different purposes and different audiences, different contexts and different cultures. When we begin our discussion of the adaptations, we have to keep all of that contextual information in mind not only when discussing the originary, but also the adaption and how that helps us with shifting perspective. Often when we look at adaptations in a class we ask our students to compare and contrast which leads them to only one conclusion: one is better than the other; they’re alike but they’re different. That is not the type of critical thinking we really want from our students. We don’t just want them to compare and contrast we want them to look at the purpose behind the choices authors, directors, and creators make when adapting a work for those different ideas. That’s where the deep thinking occurs.
This reminds me of what a student said to me earlier this year: “Ms. Carmichael, you’ve completely ruined movies for me.” “Oh?” I responded. “Yes, I can’t just watch anything anymore. I’m always looking for meaning.” I laughed and said, “Then I’m doing my job!” I want students to look at more things this way, not just movies but every text they read they need to look for intention. If we had more people in our world thinking critically on a regular basis, decisions would be a lot wiser.
Which is the point of the seminar. I love that we will be looking at just that. Here are a list of questions the participants posed for the rest of our discussions over the four weeks and I look forward to hearing what will be said and discussed:
1) How does the idea of authorship work as an obstacle to adaptation? (intentionality and ownership)
2) How might we begin with the adaptation before the orginary text?
3) Why are we afraid of “losing the text”?
4) How can the multiple versions coexist?
5) Do we even read the orginary text? (adaptation in lieu of rather than in conjunction with)
6) How does success of an adaptation or desire to produce, adapt and reflect cultural values?
7) What are we wanting to give our students? (cultural skills)
8) What are we teaching alongside these texts—how does curriculum fit together?
9) How can we engage students in a conversation about adaptation?
10) Why do we feel we must choose the “best” adaptation?
As I continue with this program, I am excited to learn not only from my colleagues and roommates but also, hopefully, from others too. This is a broad topic and one that applies not only to literature of Dickens but to the culture at large especially to the writing culture. As a writer I see the value in adaptation, not only studying and reading adaptations but even to a degree incorporating it in your own work sometimes which is why people write books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Emma, Mr. Knightly and Chili-Slaw Dogs. We truly do live in the ‘culture of the copy’ as Hillel Schwartz says. But is that such a bad thing?
In teaching Of Mice and Men this week, I came to the startling realization that I have a crush on Slim. Yes, Slim. Why Slim, you ask? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I love a real man. As far as fictional characters go, Slim as about as manly as it gets, and though he is idealized in a lot of ways, he is also very real.
Slim isn’t the only character I’ve gotten attached to over the years. There have been many. Fitzwilliam Darcy (what woman hasn’t fallen in love with this terrifically flawed ideal?), Theodore ‘Laurie’ (Teddy) Laurence (I was devastated when Jo said no; though it was really the only answer she could give—I still felt it deep), Tom Shaw, among a myriad of others. And what is about these characters that attract my admiration?
Loyalty. In a world where people flit from idea to idea, object to object, relationship to relationship—loyalty has become old fashioned. Call me an Old Fashioned girl, but I find loyalty to be a honorable quality that few people can truly define, but most men in my “literary crush” repertoire possess. We need more people in the world who feel a deep sense of loyalty not only in relationships but to other aspect of life as well. Because, after all, if you can’t be loyal to something or someone, what purpose do you live for?
As an avid reader, I’m often invested in characters on levels which are borderline unhealthy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grounded in reality, which is probably why I’m still single. I realize that no matter how much I want them to, the men I date don’t stand a chance when compared to my ideal built up in years of reading and building a personal character study. And maybe that’s unfair, but it’s out there and like it or not, it’s a real part of who I am.
So what do I do with this realization? Do I stop reading? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s actually becoming more of a challenge for me. Instead of focusing on how people (myself included) do or do not meet my qualifications for the ideal, I wonder if I can’t start treating them as characters in my own story. If I start viewing people as terrific, albeit flawed characters, maybe I can begin to judge less and accept more. That is, after all, what I should be doing all along.
Art mimics life; life mimics art—it’s all entwined.
So here are my questions for you:
Can we see people as characters, or will they always just be people? Is there even a real difference?
Who are the people of your literary dreams that cause you to ponder, wonder, and question the world?
Encouraging restoration, healing, and expression through writing.