“Of course, I had already had a rundown on the members of my class from my friend Seamus. No bullies, no snitches, no crybabies, no showoffs — a pretty good bunch, he thought.”
The Neddiad ch. 30
Last week, I had the pleasure of watching a staged adaptation of CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. In advance of the show, I sat down and read the book.1 There was something near the end of the story that seemed like a good jumping-off point for a topic I’ve been meaning to blog about for ages.
First, a little setup: Lewis’ book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid & Psyche. It follows Psyche’s scorned older sister, Orual. After losing her beloved sister, Orual becomes embittered and angry. At the end of the story, she finally gets an audience before the gods — a chance to make her case for how they have wronged her. But instead of giving a sympathetic plea, she unleashes a tirade that betrays her own selfishness.
Orual hears the ugliness of her own anger, and it prompts a revelation:
“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. … When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should we hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?“2
This “word” that Lewis eludes to is the magical, rare moment when a person sees him or herself with clarity for the first time. Aristotle (the grandfather of writing analysis) had a word for this moment in a character’s journey: “anagnorisis.”
Let’s let the man himself explain the term (through Wikipedia):
There you have it. Anagnorisis is the moment when someone understands a Truth so powerful that it effects change in their lives. I don’t know about you, but this moment is the reason I read stories. In fact, I judge the quality of a story by the quality of its anagnorisis, because when done right, I share in the character’s epiphany.
A great number of Aristotle’s playwriting terms have survived into the present age (climax, catharsis), but none of them are so valuable to understanding the power of a story as anagnorisis.3 Unfortunately, this word is all but forgotten — it’s not even in the OED.4
I have a card with “anagnorisis” on it taped to the wall above my desk, because I never want to forget that every chapter, scene, and word is working to that one profound moment. After all, How can my characters meet audiences face to face till they have faces?
- This was long overdue; people have been telling me that I would *love* this novel for years. Summary judgment: I think this is a book that would have blown my mind in college, but less so as an adult. ↩
- The excerpt is from Part II, ch. 4 ↩
- For those interested in learning a bit more about Aristotle, screenwriter Matt Bird just posted a great summary of how Poetics has influenced screenwriting for better and worse. ↩
- Neither, I might add, is the word “scop.” ↩
“If I had to sum up my first impression of Los Angeles in a few words, I would say it’s a perfect combination of glamorous and crummy.”
The Neddiad ch. 22
At long last, PeterNimble.com is live!
The site is the result of some work by me and a ton of work by the brilliant Amanda McPherson (who also designed The Scop)! At PeterNimble.com, you’ll find everything you’d ever want to know about the greatest thief who ever lived — including reviews, an illustration gallery, interviews, event photos, and an awesome “mischief!” page for aspiring delinquents!
Also, if you’re so inclined, I would love for fans to Tweet the word by clicking here!
Start of a chapter after the hero steps on a plane for the first time:
“I love flying! I love flying! I love flying!”
The Neddiad ch. 16
No fancy post today because I’m visiting schools in anticipation of a signing event at Mrs. Nelson’s Bookstore in LaVerne TONIGHT at 5:00pm!!!! Come check it out. If you can’t make that, I’m having my first LA signing tomorrow at Chevalier’s in Hollywood from 1-3pm — please, oh please come!
In the meantime, I thought I’d post a picture I drew a while back. I was showing my younger cousins Jude and Asher (5 and 7, respectively) how the drawing tablet on my computer worked. I asked the oldest one what I should draw. He said, “Darth Vader!” I asked the younger one where Darth Vader should be. He said, “In the bathroom!” And there you have it …
I’ll admit, not my finest work!
“Billy the Phantom Bellboy said this was the best thing that had ever happened to him in his whole death.”
The Neddiad ch. 14
The above picture is from Kelly Butcher’s excellent blog, the Lemme Library. Note the second name on that checkout list!1 Yesterday I had the honor of teaming up with fellow Abrams’ author Tom Angleberger to write a guest post for Kelly on a topic very dear to my heart: What to do when you hate a classic
It’s a lively conversation and definitely worth checking out if you’ve ever felt at odds with the critical mass. (Tom may or may not refer to Peter Pan as “dreck!”) In the post, I mention three books that I was forced to read in school that turned me off from reading: The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Romeo & Juliet by … some dude … can’t remember his name …
Anyway, a few readers expressed a desire to learn what about those particular books bothered me so much. I thought I’d take a crack at answering the question here!
First off, a disclaimer: I am not saying these books are actually bad, only that my experiences with them were negative. But the fact remains that they did more damage than good.
The Yearling – I read this book in seventh grade Language Arts class. Nothing too pointed in my criticism beyond the fact that this book had nothing to do with me or my life. By that age, I was enough of a reader to know that there were many wonderful, exciting books out there. But instead of reading Ray Bradbury or SE Hinton, we were stuck with this story of a farm kid and his pet deer. What was the damage? The choice of text led me to believe that great stories (which I read at home) and English Literature (which I read in class) were completely unrelated things.
Romeo & Juliet - I read this play in grade ten. There is a common problem in pop culture where Romeo & Juliet is peddled as a love story when it’s actually a cautionary tale. Even as a young adolescent, I could tell that whatever Romeo and Juliet had going on between them was not real love — certainly not an ideal to aspire to. And yet the play was presented to me as some kind of timeless love story. I remember reading it and thinking, “If this is Shakespeare’s idea of true love, then he doesn’t really know much about the world.” What was the damage? When I later read other Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream), I was unreceptive; I had already made up my mind that this was a writer who had nothing to teach me.2
A Tale of Two Cities – I don’t know what makes educators think that this book is a good introduction to Dickens — yes, it’s short, but it is also devoid of Boz’ trademark humor and charm. I read this in my junior year of high school, and I hated every word.3 I already knew and liked some of Dickens more kid-friendly stories (Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol), and I deduced wrongly from Tale of Two Cities that this was what happened when authors wrote “serious” books … they got boring. I suppose a positive effect of this experience was that it drove me to further embrace children’s literature as the sort of stories I wanted to write!4
So those were a few classic books with which I really struggled. I’ve since gone back and re-read the latter two, and I have to say they were better the second time around. I’m not sure whether a different teacher could have gotten me to respond to the books or whether I was simply too young.
My wife and I were discussing this topic yesterday, and I asked her what the solution might be. She said the best thing for her in high school was a (wonderful) English teacher who alternated between fun and challenging texts: students read one difficult assigned book, and then they read one book of their choosing (from a list). Seems like a nice carrot-and-stick compromise!
- I would be lying if I said the thought of Peter Nimble checking out a book also read by Lucy Pevensie and Edward Tulane didn’t make me cry a bit! ↩
- Of course I could not have been more wrong on this point — I owe a tremendous debt to both Julie Taymor and Niel Gaiman for setting me straight! ↩
- Looking back now, I think I struggled because I lacked the necessary historical context. To really appreciate this book, you need to have a sense of both the French Revolution and the Victorian social reform movement — only then can you start to understand why Dicken’s English readers would be interested in things that transpired half a century earlier in a different country. ↩
- It took me even longer to come around to Dickens; I didn’t start reading him again until I went to graduate school and met an pretty young Victorianist with pigtails! ↩
Seeing the Grand Canyon:
“He kept thinking it was some fantastic big painting, or a movie set. There was a little building put up by the park service, with a model of the Grand Canyon made out of plaster and painted to look real … in some strange way, looking at the model was more comfortable than looking at the actual thing. After looking at the model for a while, we went outside and found we were able to deal with the real canyon a little better.”
The Neddiad ch. 14
What’s the difference between irony and sarcasm? Most thesauri list them as synonyms, but anyone who’s been on the receiving end of either type of humor can tell you the difference at once: ironic statements make you laugh, and sarcastic statements make you cry.
Many a protective parent has assured his or her teased child that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. And the word sarcasm literally translates to mean “to tear the flesh.” But what exactly is it it about a sarcastic statement that makes it a low form of humor? And what makes it “tear the flesh?” I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now, and I think I’ve landed on an answer:
Sarcasm happens when the observed irony does not extend to the speaker.
That is to say that an ironic person includes himself among the mocked, whereas a sarcastic person stands outside the situation in judgement. See how it might play out in the below scene involving a bunch of nerds camping outside of a movie theater:
In this instance, the guy making fun of the people is including himself in the joke — after all, he’s in the line, too! But consider what happens when the speaker is not in line with the others:
Sarcasm is the one kind of joke that can be made by someone who does not actually find something funny — it is humor for the humorless. In life, I have a problem with sarcasm because I don’t believe that any person has the right to laugh at others unless he can first laugh at himself.
And what about sarcasm in storytelling?
To be clear, I’m all for sarcastic characters (I enjoy Holden Caulfield as much as the next guy!). But sarcastic authors are a different thing altogether. Sarcastic authors attempt to point out absurdities in the world, but they try to do it from a safe distance — never letting themselves become a part of the joke. The only way to do this is by creating straw men for the express purpose of knocking them down. Ironically(!), this ends up undercutting the author’s initial goal, because now instead of critiquing the world, he is critiquing some flimsy characters who bear little resemblance to the world.
The end result is a thing neither funny nor true.