Thursday, October 27, 2011

The growth mindset

I heard this interview with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck last weekend on To the Best of Our Knowledge. The 10-minute recording is well worth a listen. She's talking about her new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which describes her research on factors leading to resilience and self-esteem in children.

The upshot is that parents seeking to raise resilient* kids should praise process, rather than end results or innate qualities. For example, "That's a really interesting mistake. What should we do now?" Or: "You chose a really difficult problem; you're going to learn a lot from that." The kinds of praise kids hear more often--"Good job!" or "You're so smart/talented!"--are actually detrimental, because they suggest an either/or situation. Either you did a good job or you didn't; either you're smart and talented, or you're not. This leads to a "fixed mindset," in which the child believes every problem is a test of his or her innate abilities, and becomes terrified to fail. He or she starts to avoid challenges, and has a harder time learning and growing.

With the alternative, the "growth mindset," kids see intelligence, athletic ability, etc. as things that can be developed over time. Not only do they not fear challenges, they enjoy them and seek them out, and their abilities improve accordingly.

The really good news, according to Dweck, is that this mindset can be learned at any age.

*The term the interviewer and Dweck both use here is "successful," but I am having trouble tossing that word around without extensive qualification. "Success" in this culture so often just means wealth and/or prominence. I would almost prefer the term "happy" here, or "fulfilled." Of course, the same mindset is necessary for any definition of "success."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is art too tiring?

So we got the first disk of Beckett on Film from Netflix (hooray, not Qwikster!) about two weeks ago. Today I sent it back unwatched. Instead of Waiting for Godot, we spent the last two weeks on a steady diet of Friday Night Lights alternating with Arrested Development.

Now, as middlebrow entertainments go, these two shows are near the top, critical-acclaim-wise. No Celebrity Liposuction for us!* And yet, compared to Beckett, neither can be called challenging. FNL has plenty of emotional drama, and often crosses the line into melodrama; I care about the characters and events, and am even strongly moved on occasion. So there's an emotional challenge, I guess--but I can't say the show makes me think or wonder, beyond "What's Tim Riggins going to do now?" And AD...well, it's just funny.

The thing is, I've always loved Beckett, or thought I did, so why didn't I want to watch the DVD? The answer seems to be that after a full day of writing and/or editing, I just didn't have the energy. I knew the Beckett was going to require something from me--even Godot would, and it's the least challenging of all his work. I want to be done working in the evening. Not that I want to turn my brain off, or have it bludgeoned into irredeemable stupidity by some reality show. I want to be engaged, but not asked to do too much; I'll row, but I don't want to be the one in front (or back, or whichever one does the most work).

But this is a worrisome realization. I think of myself as an advocate for high art--you know, literature and its ilk, the stuff you're supposed to need some sort of college-level training to enjoy. If I can't bring myself to pop in that Beckett DVD after a work day, what hope is there for people who have no stake in supporting the arts? What if most people just have too much going on mentally to devote any extra brainpower to the finer creations of humanity? Can we blame our overworked, overstressed populace if they pick their mental and emotional battles, and they don't pick art?

Maybe watching the Beckett would have refreshed and invigorated me with its greatness, whereas FNL and AD mostly soothed me. But at a certain point, soothing is what I want.

*I don't think this show actually exists.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hope for writers

Via Nathan Bransford, a very thoughtful piece by author Natalie Whipple on the struggle to stay hopeful when your writing dreams don't seem to be coming true.

I would add that I think it's perfectly fine to feel like crap about your writing once in awhile. Even more than once in awhile. After all, we writers generally get a lot more bad news about our work than good news--and more often than that, we get no news. I am not a big fan of accelerated cheering up. If you need to sulk, sulk. Just be aware that's what you're doing, and be open to the good things, even little good things, that can crop up while you're in the midst of sulking. Maybe a solution to a plot problem that comes to you while you're muttering "fuck" to yourself in the car.

In short, here's another way to think about not giving up: you can still write when you feel like crap about writing. You still go to your job when you feel like crap about it, don't you? So you can write.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Revising in bits and pieces

After getting some *great* notes on the first chapter of my new novel (thanks, KS!), it occurs to me that perhaps a better way to revise a novel draft is by breaking the whole thing into separate, chapter-size files and treating each like a short story. This idea also comes after my husband's remark last night, to wit: "Isn't a novel just like a bunch of short stories strung together?" To which I replied, "No, Jesus Christ, it's nothing like a bunch of short stories strung together."

But the advantage of working with separate, story-sized files seems to be that it prevents one (or me, at least) from racing through the revision process, skimming along the surface of the whole giant thing in order to get to the end (second draft: done!). With these 25-page files, I'm more likely to come to the end of each, and then go back to the beginning of that same file again, polishing and shaping each section on a sentence level--as I would when revising a story.

I'm a little leery of dealing with all these separate files, but I can already see that it slows me down and forces much closer and deeper attention.

Have I once again stated the obvious with a sense of great discovery?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Teens and adult fiction

So I basically agree with Brian McGreevy's article on Salon today, for reasons I'll blather on about in a moment. First, though, there's the article's subheading, or the first part of it, which just,, read it:

Parents push young-adult fiction because it's safe. But protecting kids from sex, death and adult themes is wrong

Can I just say: what is this safe young-adult fiction? OK, I don't have kids, and haven't paid much attention to the YA fiction of today. But back in my day, when YA fiction was chiseled onto blocks and hauled into the agora by mules, a hell of a lot of it was not "safe" at all. In fact it was downright lurid in comparison to adult fiction. For example, I remember a book called Run [Drat, what was the protagonist's name? I can picture the book cover--a teen with long blond hair, wearing a black turtleneck and looking warily over her shoulder for reasons which became only too apparent], Run. That book was pure pornography. My mother evidently agreed, belatedly, as the book disappeared from my shelf at some point and was never seen or mentioned again. And that wasn't the only example. By comparison, the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, or even Stephen King, is redemptive.

Though I was a rather sheltered child, I managed to read--either surreptitiously or in the amber light of my mother's weary approval--Jaws, The Exorcist, and Carrie, not to mention the subversive Judy Bloom, and a lot of other quite questionable stuff. Oh, and Dracula. I was, for the most part, not allowed to watch movies of the same ilk (I got to read Jaws in exchange for not seeing the movie), and I pretty much agree with that decision now. There's something about the visual assault of violent movies that doesn't occur when you're reading, although imagination can sometimes make things worse, generating images and sensations that linger creepily in your system.

But I do take McGreevy's point: "perverse and puritanical an instinct as there is in this culture to prolong childhood, there is a far stronger counter-instinct in children to analyze, simulate, and as soon as humanly possible participate in the challenges of adulthood." And: "They are entitled to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so." I think my own dark, semi-taboo reading experiences were somehow validating at a time when I needed validation. I was not the chirpiest, chipperest kid (unlike now!), and these books told me I was not alone in sensing something was seriously wrong out there. The books were scary, but oddly reassuring.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Strangeness in fiction

From John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist:

There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he's right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected [...], or those moments we experience in many novels when the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrate, or things common suddenly show, if only for an instant, a different face. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One has to be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one's being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself [...].

I've been thinking about this in the context of realistic vs. non-realistic fiction. From time to time I've implied a bias against "realist" fiction in favor of fabulist or magical realist fiction. But I'm not sure that's the right way to explain my preference. A novel like Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, not to mention The Brothers Karamazov, is perfectly realistic--the events depicted could literally happen on this earth. (BK does contain "The Grand Inquisitor," a story in which Jesus returns to earth during the Inquisition, but it's a story told by a character who's beginning to lose his mind.) Yet both of those books seem magical to me, and I think it has to do with Gardner's concept of strangeness.

Gardner doesn't do the best job here of explaining strangeness, but that's the point. It is one of those know-it-when-you-see-it things. He gets closest, I think, with the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrating. The briefness is important. If you create a world in which the ordinary is always extraordinary, then you have a sort of bizarro world as your starting point, and have to do even more to generate some kind of informative strangeness. (I'm sure this can be done, and encourage all attempts.) But brief glimpses of deep craziness can suggest the power of that craziness more strongly. We spend most of our time on land, but 71% of the earth's surface is ocean, and every now and then we hear its roar, or we fall in.

So I guess what I object to is not realist fiction as such, but fiction that takes the representation of ordinary reality as its endpoint. That sort of work surely takes skill and dedication. However, like Gardner, I think art ought to aim higher, and deeper.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Elegance and the everyday

I'm an Apple apostate. My first computer was a Macintosh 512K Enhanced. I worked that baby all the way through college *and* grad school, feeding it floppy disks like so many potato chips which I failed to properly label and lost. Then I went to work in the corporate world and everyone--except the graphic designers, those hippies--used PCs. There wasn't much of a choice back then, if you wanted to, you know, run software.

Over time one device intertwined with another, and I've been fully PC for over a decade. And it's been fine. Really. PCs work. It's only occasionally that I feel a twinge of envy as some Apple person breezes by in their architect eyeglasses, carrying some irresistible device that I really don't need. I console myself that my PC was cheaper and works just as well, and...

But PCs are the strip malls of personal computers. They are function without form. We need inexpensive groceries, quickly, and an easy place to park the car to get said groceries. Hence the giant parking lot in the center of town, ringed by bunker-like chain stores and anchored by the gigundous Safeway. You know, fine. It works. No one set out to build a temple here. But, Christ, it's ugly. And somehow a little disrespectful, as if consumers--which is all we are, in this mindset--really care about nothing besides saving money. We don't really care what our cities and towns and thoroughfares look like, just so they get us where we're going (which is where, exactly?).

I know, I know: meeting our basic needs as inexpensively as possible is important, especially in these times. You can't feed elegance to your kids. Also, it's not like Apple is a great roar of protest against the degradations of consumer culture. It is one of that culture's most potent sources of fuel, and waste--the lovely, pretty much unnecessary gizmo that causes you to toss your previous gizmo into the landfill.

Still. Steve Jobs and Apple insisted that the most utilitarian possible object, the computer, should be elegant. Using it should not just satisfy us, but please us. It seems like a small thing. After all, we can find beauty at the art museum, or on the mountaintop, or in the concert hall, if we need it, right? Why should everyday, functional objects also be beautiful? Well, because they pull us one step back from the abyss of what Russians call "poshlost'"--the depressing mix of banality and vulgarity for which there is no equivalent English word. Every ugly, purely functional, hastily slapped-together thing that catches our eye is another little poke in the eye: we don't need anything better; we don't deserve better; we aren't better. Not settling for everyday ugliness is a little rebellion.

So here's to Steve Jobs and the elegance of the everyday. I really do not need an iPad. But I really want one.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Would you read hypertext fiction?

Paul Lafarge has a very interesting piece in Salon today about hypertext fiction. Like Lafarge, I remember that moment in the 1990s when it seemed like hyptertext fiction was really the next big thing--as important an invention as the novel itself. But then, as Lafarge puts it, nothing happened. To his credit, Lafarge still thinks it's a form worth pursuing, and to his even greater credit, he is writing a hypertext story himself, Luminous Airplanes.

I took a look at the story. It's very well designed, and the craft, so far, looks lovely. But I have to admit that my overall feeling, as soon as I began clicking through, was anxiety. I followed a link, hit "back," and did not know where I was going back to. Was it the same "back" as if I had not followed the link? It didn't seem so. I stopped reading, becoming completely concerned with the question of "where I was." I wanted a flow chart.*

Now, presumably, the more experienced reader of hypertext is not only accustomed to the loss of a single main thread--the handrail of linearity, if you will--but embraces that loss. Non-linearity is the point. So maybe it is just a matter of experience, and of being willing to let myself be lost, not unlike the way one is "lost" in a good, absorbing novel. Perhaps I am like those audience members who ran screaming from the oncoming locomotive in an early example of another new art form, film.

After all, I have spent the past few months trying to read Pynchon's Against the Day (75% done!) and have been lost, as in disoriented, plenty of times. I go leafing back through the heap of pages I thought I had already read, trying to find out who the hell Cyprian is, because apparently I have been introduced to him, but danged if I remember. Lafarge makes the further point that many proto-hypertext novels already exist, such as Hopscotch, Pale Fire, etc., in which flipping back and forth and all over the place is a necessary part of the reading experience.

So what is the difference? Maybe the still-unpleasant aesthetic experience of reading on a computer, which is already being fixed by e-readers and the iPad. After reading Lafarge's article, I do feel I ought to give hypertext another try, as a reader if not as a writer (probably, definitely not as a writer). But it does feel like a lot of work.

*I should point out that there is one, and also a fair amount of help/orientation text, which I was too unsettled to poke around in on my first visit.