You’re sitting in your house, the freezing rain pounding on the windows as you sit in your pajamas even though its 1pm. Your cat looks at you as if she’s asking you what you’re doing there, this is her spot during the day when everyone is at work, and shouldn’t you be out somewhere, doing adult-human things? But it’s your vacation, and you’re at home, and you have spent the last few days only emerging out of your comfy space late in the day, because otherwise you have your nose in a book and you can’t get out of it. The story is currently your overwhelming reality. You’re thinking about it and dreaming about it and no matter where you go, you can’t stop thinking about the family that is split apart and at war, or the lost soul being tortured in an Indian prison, or the young girl trying to make her way out of poverty. You’re seeing their faces and feeling their pain and love and sorrow and joy and even their wretched sexual pleasures or horrifying grotesque physical pain. Their breath and words and laughter is yours, and you are so entrenched in this alternate, powerful literary reality that you haven’t brushed your teeth yet and it’s getting dark out, and you’re wondering what you can do to make these warring families understand each other – can’t they just see that they all want the same thing? – but then again, they are not real people and you are emotionally investing yourself in a fictional story and using up all your vacation time reading when maybe you should clean your room or something.
But that’s the power of narrative. That’s what good books do. They transport you to another time, another place, another reality, helping you to experience emotions and identities and terrains and universes that you never knew existed or never conceived of or could never relate to. All of a sudden these people, these beings, these Others, this individual is consuming your person, your being, your identity, your feelings, and you are feeling so deeply about things you never even knew you felt feelings about, about situations you have never experienced or related to. Whew. You’re emotionally exhausted. This is fun and draining and addicting, in a good way; maybe it’s time for a nap. How convenient that you’re still in your pajamas.
Reading is feeling and experiencing and knowing, within a deeper part of yourself that isn’t just the rational concept of that-war-going-on-in-some-other-country-that-you-forget-about-after-you-see-the-news. A news story might give you the facts, but a good story can make you remember, can put you in the place of the people at war, can express their point of view with sentiments that are more powerful than fact and rationality – because humans are sentient beings. Reading provides connection with difference. Maybe that person in your book isn’t “real”, but maybe their identity is something thousands of people can relate to. Maybe making that connection, between the reader and the character, will help a confused and racist teenager start to question their real life actions towards that Chinese boy who lives next door, or will let a middle aged mother realize that she has been hiding from herself all along. With the right narrative creation, words on a page can evoke incredible reactions from those who read them, especially when they provide the subtle transfer of experience through the construction of a scene as it was lived, instead of simply showing someone the detached facts of a situation.
There are a variety of ways to create narrative, and it doesn’t have to just be through words on a paper. Movies, music, art – these are all expressions of our own unique and profound human experience. I am drawn to writing and reading, particularly because of the possibilities that I see it creating for the ability to put the reader in the place of another person or reality; one that may be very different than their own concept of self and life, and that may open their eyes to new perspectives and ultimately further their ability to empathize and be compassionate with those who look, feel, act or live differently than themselves.
These ideas really encapsulate many of the reasons why I want to continue teaching and furthering my writing. In a certain sense, teaching literature or a language is a special way of teaching about life. When teaching a foreign language, it is necessary to start from the extreme basics – being, describing, the expression of basic needs. Learning a second language is like re-learning how to LIVE, just in another syntactic format. For us – social animals with an explicit form of conscious and dynamic existence – communicating with each other and spending time together and learning about ourselves and those around us is crucial to life. Social isolation as punishment is evidence of this fact. And the best way for us to learn is to come about our own realizations ourselves – simple exposure to a rational fact doesn’t always cut it. How often have you tried to make someone understand something over and over, but they never really got it because they had never lived it? How can you make someone who has never been heartbroken empathize with this unique form of suffering, or make someone who has never seen or lived through hunger really want to conserve their food? We humans need to FEEL it for it to be really true to us. That is where the power of narrative, and teaching and exploring language and language arts, comes into play.
Some might say that the Internet is killing narrative. And yet, creative writing circles have been growing in the United States of late. As Steve Almond so aptly puts it in this NYTimes article, “people remain desperate for the emotional communion provided by literature.” Further, he underlines the power of stories, “which remain the most reliable path to meaning ever created by our species.”
Sometimes, I question whether or not I really want to be an English teacher, whether or not I really want to pursue writing more full throttle. I wonder why it is that reading books, teaching, and speaking in Spanish are some of the most amazing things in my life (not barring music, festivals and wonderful friends, of course). I realize that these are all forms of language and human expression, a “communion” that I crave so deeply, with humans, with whatever else. Music and friends and festivals – these are, of course, other ways to encounter such “communion,” and they are each powerful in their own right (and definitely the topic for a future post). But reading can be accessible to basically anyone, especially with the global rise of literacy and the Internet. I can find a book or an article quite easily, and I can read them on my own time, from almost anywhere, in my pajamas, and without brushing my teeth. I can enter the world of an Other, and I can promote my own universal understanding of difference even without leaving my bed. And it is the wonder and ease of this power that will always bring me back to the written word, and will always fuel me to promote it to others, in the name of joy and sorrow and the comprehension of humanity on the most basic and complex scale imaginable. To where you find yourself, sitting on your couch with unkempt hair in the afternoon, biting your nails with anticipation about a character you’ve never met but with whom you feel a connection so deep that from that point on, you will carry their story with you for better or for worse.