The Lost Art of Penmanship and Letter Writing

Our digital age has nearly robbed us of one of the most fundamental cognitive-physiological impulses: writing by hand. Nothing compares to the pleasure of putting pen or pencil to paper, the feel of the ink gliding across the surface, the way in which we control the strokes thick and thin. What a beautiful phenomenon: thoughts materialize into something as concrete as words on the page!

Being able to write, however, is a privilege that most of us in the modern, industrial world take for granted. Even in the West, people were not largely literate until recent centuries. And for those who were, paper was still rather a luxury. For those who were able to afford it, there was the choice of the type of paper or material upon which one could write, such as skins, parchment, and then different types of stationery. There are certain parts of the world in which paper and papermaking are still an art. Think of the beautiful swirling patterns of Florentine paper, or the delicate, colorful ones of Japanese origami paper.

There is also the matter of handwriting. I’m rather alarmed to learn that many students are not learning cursive in schools anymore. Before our current age of texting, kids used to delight in writing notes to each other and slipping them to each other during class or in each other’s lockers. Making cards was great fun. Having pen pals, getting to choose the stationery and the colors of ink and the types of pens or markers and stickers were also things every kid looked forward to. But this wasn’t simply all childish entertainment: this was helping us develop our motor skills and visual-spatial abilities. I recall getting a set of calligraphy pens that came with the little booklet on how to write the alphabet in calligraphy, which I believe is a dying art. Spending quiet time learning how to write in calligraphy was as instructive as it was artistic. The Duchess of Sussex, formerly Meghan Markle, supported herself while an auditioning actress by doing calligraphy for invitations. Perhaps for some this might bring back horrifying memories of being graded poorly for “penmanship,” but I have to say there is something to being able to write legibly, if not beautifully.

None of this is a modern phenomenon. Humans have been writing, however crudely, by pressing shapes into clay tablets, then on papyrus, and then on roughly made paper. Islamic culture places a high value on the written word and therefore we can see many examples of beautiful calligraphy that is centuries old. Not to mention all the illuminated manuscripts from medieval times. One genre of writing is called the “epistolary novel,” which is a novel in letters. I think this appeals to our surreptitious delight in reading what somebody else has written, the furtive sense of snooping. Examples include the medieval correspondence between nun Héloïse and monkish scholar Abélard, and Samuel Richardson’s (dare I say) tedious Pamela. In the 90s, the brilliant artist Nick Bantock created a stunning series of “Griffin and Sabine” books that illustrated a correspondence between a man and woman, complete with colorful letters and cards that were works of art that the reader would draw out of an envelope mounted on the page. This continued into another series by Bantock known as “The Morning Star Trilogy” and then another book that filled in the time between the two trilogies. This is one of the best examples of a modern epistolary novel, and one that engages multiple senses.

I believe we need to write more letters and cards. To get away from the two-dimensional, black-and-white, non-curving nature of our digital writing. Write thank you notes by hand; send your friends a letter. They might thank you for it, and you will also be continuing the wonderful historical act of writing by hand and epistolary communication.

Bad is Good: Downfall in Literature

I recently finished rereading Anna Karenina, and I am currently watching the latest Clint Eastwood film, “The Mule,” which is based on a true story. And it is absolutely delightful! A charming Midwestern octogenarian horticulturalist becomes a drug runner for a Mexican cartel, and finds himself more and more embroiled in their world, unable to escape for fear of retaliation or death. Though initially a means to earn money to help pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and other expenses once he is foreclosed, “Grandpa Earl” seems to slowly relish the life he has now attained, complete with gold bracelet, Lincoln pickup truck, and easy women.

This led me to think about the theme of downfall in literature: what makes it so compelling? Why is it such an interesting and oft-repeated trope or topic?

In Anna Karenina, we can’t entirely say Anna is a fallen woman; that would be too simplistic. We initially feel sympathetic for her, a vibrant woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat. However, her passion and her desires lead her to lose sight of what is important, separate her from her son, and make her so jealous that she commits suicide. We see this downward trajectory throughout the course of the novel. Her narrative arc is the key driving force of the novel. Roxanne, by Daniel Defoe, is another such example, and probably one of the best. A woman of virtue, she resorts to any means she can find to support herself and her children, which includes becoming a mistress. And lest we fault women, we can also remember that the juicy, Gothic classic The Monk by Matthew Lewis is also from this time. A lustful monk ends up committing murder, and there are all kinds of other peccadilloes along the way, including pregnant nuns.

In modern times, we can look at Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel so over-the-top that it is truly singular in its first-person narrative voice. Alexander Portnoy is a nice Jewish boy from a good family, but his sexual appetite becomes his undoing. And as the reader, boy, do we enjoy the ride! One of my favorite stories, Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” one could argue, also deals with the theme of downfall. Jackson Jackson is a homeless Native American who needs to obtain money in 24 hours in order to buy back his grandmother’s regalia. But rather than judiciously saving the money, he squanders it in the course of the day. The ironic–and funny–twist is that (spoiler alert) despite his misbehavior, he ends up getting the regalia in the end. And of course, we can’t go without mentioning another doubly named antihero, the infamous Humbert Humbert of Nabokov’s Lolita. An intelligent, cultured man, the protagonist not only seduces his landlady’s daughter, but then kidnaps her and takes her on a wild ride. He meets his due, captured by the police at the end. The rich prose is a hallmark of Nabokov, who creates such a rounded character in Humbert Humbert that we cannot help but be engaged with the novel.

What do these novels and stories have in common? I would argue that they harken back to the most fundamental of Christian themes: the fallen angel. Also, by setting up a protagonist on some sort of moral high ground–something that is implicitly of the basis of our Protestant/Anglo cultures, the author creates the expectation of morality, that the lead character should behave in some sort of ethical way. We have our societal expectations of how people should or shouldn’t act, and when a character deviates from that, there is the cognitive dissonance between the expectation and the action. This gap makes for great literature and a great story. Also, what is the trajectory that this character goes through? What are the trials and tribulations? Is s/he justified? Is s/he really a victim of society, or does s/he have agency to make rational decisions? Finally, is there any redemption for the protagonist, either through external means, or self-redemption? These are significant questions an author must answer. Also, the author must establish a certain degree of virtue in the protagonist at the beginning, create her or him as likable and establish a rapport with the reader.

The journey of this character on the downward spiral is what makes for great reading. Yes, we may know the outcome or answer already, but how we get there is what is so delightful. Rich prose, a variety of obstacles, thwarting expectations, acting out of the need for survival–these are just some of the elements we might find in a downfall novel or story.

There will always be prudish readers who dislike these anti-heroes, who lament their lack of virtue. But shouldn’t literature and art be a fantasy world in which we can act out or explore our baser emotions in an enjoyable way?

The Women of Letters Celebrates 7 Years!!

Dear readers,
I am so happy that you have been with me on this journey for the past seven years as of this month. This blog has been nothing but a delight to write, and I hope you have enjoyed reading it is much as I have enjoyed writing it. And, I hope this might inspire you to write a blog of your own! Here’s to another seven more years. Keep writing, and keep reading, whatever the genre. Thank you so much for your support!
Love,
Sonja

In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.

 

In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. The best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!

Important Questions on Privilege and Power

In the past few months, discussions of privilege and power have come up in both professional and personal aspects of my life. I feel I am in a position to see both sides, as I have been both treated well by white mainstream culture as a minority, but have also been in a very bad academic situation which was both racist and sexist (and just terrible to students in general), and experienced a lot of racism while growing up. I have been speaking with people who feel very wronged, and with people who have no clue about differences. Sometimes I have seen reverse racism, which I think is equally as destructive as racism. I have seen outright insensitivity—and also its variant of ignorance.

Over the years, I have worked with extremely diverse populations and done a lot of work with international education in addition to higher education (in which I hold a master’s degree). So how do we heal rifts and divides? These are very complex issues, and the unfortunate Trump regime has brought a lot of negative aspects of race and privilege out of the woodwork. This has shown us that many people feel there is a downside to diversity and political correctness, and perhaps teaches us that we have left some people out of the discussion, no matter how wrong we feel they are. We have to be careful to avoid simplistic and knee-jerk responses and actions as liberals. We cannot threaten or implicate people just because they belong to a certain background. Doing so only creates more animosity and tension. We all need to inform ourselves with hard data and statistics to get the facts straight. But then we need to act with empathy.

So here are some questions that I feel are important for discussion. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts to avoid dichotomizing, I have created a dualistic model here. However, this does not simply mean white man versus minority woman. There are many white men who are in disadvantaged positions, and the recent Chicago mayoral election of Black lesbian Lori Lightfoot has raised many qualms that she is not necessarily “of the people.” Many of us may be in situations where we are in a position of privilege as well as situations in which we are not.

For those in positions of power or privilege, or who may be PERCEIVED to be in such positions, consider the following:

-Is it possible that you are not aware of the fact that you do hold some privilege due to your birth, SES, race, or favoritism? Self-awareness is key.

-Are you aware that others may feel your privilege and power as a threat? This is not to fault to you, but just to make you conscious of how you are seen.

-You and your ancestors may not at all have played a part in it, but are you aware of the roots of racism in America, especially with regard to slavery, the extinction of Native Americans, and immigration policy?

-You and people in your circles may personally be wonderfully supportive, nondiscriminatory, and nonracist. However, there is such a thing as institutionalized racism and if we look at the statistics, we cannot deny that there is still a lot of discrimination toward minority groups.

-What you might consider an innocuous comment might be perceived as a micro-aggression by the other person.

-Skin color does indeed make a difference and hold an advantage in American society. If you have never been in the physical minority before, visit a country or culture opposite to yours, and you will understand.

-I personally believe as an artist or writer that you have the right to include other cultures in your work or to create things in a style of a culture that is not your own. However, have you done it in a sensitive, informed, and culturally-appropriate way?

For those who are part of any sort of minority group or PERCEIVE themselves to be in such positions, consider the following:

-While hard data shows us it is true that white people generally hold more power and advantages in American society, be careful not to lump all white people together and make assumptions. A power-hungry white male Ivy League dean is not the same as a second-generation Hungarian factory worker in Cleveland. Many white people who appear successful now have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and worked their way up the class system.

-Rude, hurtful, or unpleasant remarks people have made to you may have come from a place of malice. Or they may have come from a place of ignorance or without any ill will. Is it possible in some situations you may be reading into things due to previous bias and negative mental filter?

-How are people really treating you/what are their actions? They may not be using the right terminology that is considered politically correct or culturally sensitive, but are they ultimately respectful and goodhearted? Don’t get obsessed with language.

-What baggage are you carrying that may affect your day-to-day life? While I agree we cannot deny the statistics that show there still is indeed a disturbing amount of discrimination on many fronts, be sure to work on your own mind, body, and soul to be able to distinguish between what is self-caused unhappiness versus that from the outside world. This is a very Buddhist/Asian perspective, and it is most important to start with ourselves, to have peace of mind before we attack or accuse others.

-Just as all white people are not the same, not all minority groups are the same. While this might sound like a no-brainer, sometimes there is a conflation of too many issues that do not apply across the board. Some minority groups might be privileged in certain ways, while disadvantaged in others. For example, an upper-middle-class gay male will still enjoy advantages if he is white and male, though he may face discrimination for his sexual orientation, as we can see with dynamic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Indians in America are the most economically successful minority group in the country and are highly educated; however, we have a different skin color, and most of us do not practice the mainstream religion of Christianity, so we may experience discrimination in ways that other minority groups do not.

-Many minorities are of immigrant origin and have opted to come to the United States. So, their narratives are not necessarily one of oppression as they would be for other groups who were brought here against their will, or who were already here and exterminated through genocide.

-Hostility and anger will get us nowhere. Work in constructive, positive ways. Build bridges, find allies.

We still have a long way to go with healing a lot of rifts and divides in American society. But hopefully these questions can help foster peace, communication, and constructive action.