Tutor profile: Julie S.
What is one common misconception that you want to debunk about writing?
I have heard it said before that people do their best writing when inspired by periods of depression or mental anguish. They would say that "normal life" is boring, and it is not until a writer has experienced true hardship that they may begin to write compellingly. I believe that this notion is not only incorrect, but harmful to young artists as they find their voices and subjects of interests. Depression will not make someone a stronger writer. This past fall, in response to the loss of my grandfather and the global pandemic, I had one of the strongest depressive episodes in my life. I also happened to be completing a one-act play at the time for a semester-long assignment. Although many of my characters were experiencing feelings similar to my own--disillusionment, fear, and suicidal ideations, to name a few-- it was often torturous to write a single line. I simply could not connect myself to my work. My head fogged like a windshield as my writer's block ached inside of me. My kind-hearted mentor became used to my submitting only two to three pages of work per week. Some weeks, I hardly had anything to show at all. I somehow finished the project, and my audience thankfully seemed receptive to it, but I still feel a sense of relief that that period of my life is over. Fast forward three months. My depression is by no means cured, but I have made great strides. I have decided to work with the same mentor on another project this semester: a full length play. As I worked up my strength and began to prioritize taking care of myself--letting my medications work, eating more nutritious food, regularly exercising, and tracking my sleep patterns--the ideas for my next project came pouring in. The writer who struggled to fill a single monologue was unrecognizable; I had sent my mentor a 101 page first draft that I completed in five days. I am now able to send him plenty of material per week. We've already accomplished so much in the few weeks we've had to work on this together. The fact that the final product will look much different than that first draft is irrelevant; as long as writers are writing, whether by outlining or daydreaming, they are succeeding. We just have to do, and do, and do. Does my mental illness make me a more compassionate human being or artist? Sure. Did my depressive experiences offer me anything to draw upon as a writer? Maybe, but my hindered cognition certainly offered nothing at the time to my creative process. Anything that I creatively gained from my battle with depression--which is very little--was only discovered in my period of healing and reflection. People can’t grab a piece of clay out of a burning kiln. It has to cool, and they have to be given the tools to shape their values and perspective out of that clay in the first place. The fire of my pain wasn’t the answer. People can make beautiful, touching, moving, and inspiring art without any fire at all. This is the misunderstanding about suffering in order to be an interesting artist. Sometimes writing about the simplest things can move a person to tears. People are inherently interesting. That’s why we love the stories that we find “real” even if its plots are entirely fantastical or unrealistic. Furthermore, the more that we press a narrative that one has to suffer to be a compelling artist, the more that three things will happen. First, we will drive away potentially terrific young writers who feel unworthy to create and perpetuate an unnecessary culture of creative elitism. Second, if every artist or writer has suffered, it undermines the hardships of those who have actually suffered in any way . Thirdly, and most importantly, it could drive people to dangerous or harmful situations, such as substance abuse or tolerating a toxic environment that begets “inspiration” for the sadness in their writing. I have much to learn in the grand scheme of things as a writer and artist, but I do know this: health, physical and mental, comes first. While people’s preferred genres will always differ depending on the person, writers write their best work when they are healthy, whatever that means to them. As long as writers maintain and nurture their creative wells, ideas will eventually flow. The notion that people need to have suffered or be suffering from a form of neglect, trauma, or mental illness in order to have a compelling story is nonsense; every human being has a story to tell, even if it is similar to many others. It is not always about how original and unique someone’s story is: it’s about how they can make it their own, even if it’s source may sound mundane at first. The best work comes from writers who know how to be the best versions of themselves, on and off of the page.
In Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, Duke Vincentio tells the virtuous Isabella: I have a motion much imports your good; Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine. So, bring us to our palace; where we’ll show What’s yet behind, that’s meet you all should know. Many scholars interpret this as a marriage proposal. Based off of their interactions throughout the play, would Isabella accept this proposal? Be sure to use textual evidence to support your claim.
In Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, few characters can cross between the worlds of royalty, the streets, and that of religion. Isabella is clearly the only woman in the play who seems to cross into all three worlds throughout the play. First, she begins in a nunnery, intending to live as chastely as possible. Once she is aware of her brother Claudio’s situation, she is forced to interact with men on the streets in the hopes of saving his life. Finally, in the very end, Duke Vincentio offers Isabella a marriage proposal, offering her a gateway into a royal life. What becomes ambiguous, at the end, is how she responds to the proposal. It is worth noting that, chaste or not, denying a marriage proposal from such a powerful figure would be an audacious move. One might subsequently argue that, since Isabella already put her reputation at risk by falsely “admitting” to sleeping with Claudio in Act 5, Scene 1, she wouldn’t hesitate to turn him down. However, there is an even greater case to be made that Isabella would accept the proposal. Even though the Duke deceives her by posing as a Friar, Isabella appears to be naturally drawn to him, the Duke saved her brother’s life, and she proves to be extremely forgiving of even her worst enemies. As we trace their relationship back through the chronology of the play, we can see why Isabella would accept the offer. Isabella and the Duke first appear together in Act III, scene I and appear to connect rather quickly. Even though she is in a state of hurried distress at her brother’s predicament, when the Duke asks her to stay back, she replies, “my stay must be stolen out of other affairs, but I will attend you awhile,” which may reflect her automatic curiosity toward getting to know him (3.2.179). The Duke speaks in terms that Isabella morally agrees with by praising inward goodness instead of outer beauty: he claims “the goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty brief in good, but grace, being the soul of your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair,” (3.2.202-206). It is difficult to imagine this statement, which is all about purity lasting a soul longer than superficial beauty, not at the very least impressing the virtuous Isabella. She certainly grows satisfied with the Duke’s overall mode of operating after this scene. Upon hearing his plan to trick Claudio by putting Mariana in her place, she sighs, “The image of it gives me content already, and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection,” (3.2.286-287). Pure as she is, she is not above lying to Angelo or others who do not know the reality of her situation. If she is able to get past the immorality of lying, she very well may be able to get past her qualms about getting married. An act later, her tears at Claudio’s alleged death are soothed by the Duke, who tells her that crying will accomplish nothing to avenge her brother. After a speech detailing the plan of deception, Isabella tells him, “I am directed by you.” (4.3.49). Even before she knows of his true identity, she sees and respects the Duke as a confidante who is worthy of listening to. Once she found out that this man wanted to marry her, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility of her wanting to spend the rest of her life directed by him. While the Duke is kind and helpful to Isabella, he is not entirely truthful to her. In Act 4, Scene 3, upon seeing another severed head that will be given to Angelo in Claudio’s place, the Duke claims “I will keep [Isabella] ignorant of her good to make her heavenly comforts of despair when it is least expected.” (4.3.117-119). In other words, he chooses to purposely not tell Isabella that her brother will be spared so that he can later make a dramatic reveal in his dukely position. He is most concerned with looking like a hero once he can “return home” as everyone believes he is gone. This plan appears to work, as Claudio is only presented as alive to Isabella in Act 5, Scene 1. The Duke even makes it look like something of a coincidence that Claudio was the spared prisoner, as he says “if he be like your brother, for his sake, is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake, give me your hand and say you will be mine, he is my brother too,” (5.1.562-565). Isabella would have to be extremely grateful to a man who spared the brother that she thought was already dead. She must be overcome with joy in this scene, and surely open to the possibility of marrying the man who made it all possible. It would even be understandable for a director to want the actress playing Isabella to cry tears of joy. Some may say that Isabella would be too angry to marry the Duke upon realizing that he was lying to her the whole time. However, this is far from the case; Isabella even apologizes to the Duke and begs, “O, give me pardon that I, your vassal, have employed and pained your unknown sovereignty,” (5.1.437-439.) She is apologizing for involving him in her plebeian troubles, which undeniably demonstrates a high degree of respect. Along with this clear acceptance of what he has done, we also see that Isabella has a profound capacity to forgive those who have wronged her. Despite all of the Hell that Angelo has put her through in the last five acts, from intending to kill Claudio to warding off his unwanted sexual advances, she still begs for Angelo’s life to be spared. Even before she knows that Claudio is alive, Isabella advocates, “my brother had but justice, in that he did the thing for which he died. For Angelo, his act did not o’ertake his bad intent, and must be buried but as an intent that perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects, intents but merely thoughts,” (5.1.513-519). Angelo and his despicable hypocrisy caused her unspeakable suffering. Nobody would blame her for staying silent during Angelo’s execution or even demanding that he pay the ultimate price for his crimes. Yet, she and her capacity for justice and forgiveness prompt her to beg that Angelo be spared. If Isabella can forgive Angelo for all that, surely she would forgive the Duke for his deceit, especially when she realized that he saved her brother from death. The versatility of his plays is part of what makes Shakespeare’s writing remain notable centuries after his death. By providing Isabella with an open silence, Shakespeare gives readers and directors alike plenty of space to imagine what her response would be to the Duke’s proposal. While there are several possibilities to consider, the most likely one would be for Isabella to accept the proposal. Other than the fear of consequences that would come with rejecting the most powerful man in Vienna, Isabella would be driven to accept by her genuine desire and appreciation for Duke Vincentio. Even before his true identity is revealed, the two of them naturally work well together, she would be eternally grateful to him, and she would easily forgive him for any previous discretions of honesty. It would be an extremely valid and compelling directorial choice after the last line in the play in Act 5, Scene 1, to have the Duke reveal a ring, Isabella remove her habit and kiss his nose, have the Duke hold her, and then have the lights fade to black.
In Neil Gaiman's Dream Country, he states, “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” Choose two twentieth-century texts that you have read to discuss the validity of this statement. How can authors tell the truth in their writing while still telling fictional stories? Make sure to use sufficient quotes to comment on the themes of both pieces.
Amongst the global pandemic, wars, and human rights crises that we are all living through or witnessing, we are undoubtedly experiencing one of the most hectic periods of world history. In this vain, cynics may question the necessity of telling stories when there is so much work to complete in the “real world.” However, Gaiman’s statement is quite apt: literature does not have to tell of actual events to ring true to its readers. While there are many books across many cannons that speak to this, two books that are relevant to this discussion are George Orwell’s Animal Farm and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Orwell’s Animal Farm is, on the surface, just a story about animals on a farm. Students who have studied the book will be aware that the plot is largely allegorical of the spread of communism during the Russian revolution. Even though a majority of the characters in this book are farm animals, their dialogue is reminiscent of several human world leaders. While the lines of Old Major the Pig, “Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever” likely represent Karl Marx’s anti-capitalist ideology, the oversimplification of a common enemy is reminiscent of the World War II era (Orwell, 5). Snowball, another pig, also states “The only good human being is a dead one,” which bears a chilling similarity to anti-semitic sentiments about Jews in the same era and beyond (Orwell, 9). As we can see, even though Orwell’s book is fictional, its insights about the humanity behind genocides and oppressive regimes remain truthful to this day. While we study history partially to avoid past mistakes, some will be made regardless. Even as mistakes are repeated, the truth remains with those who remember. As for Orwell's commentary on capitalism in Animal Farm, there are several characters who are manipulated in the same way that people are in reality. Boxer, for instance, is a diligent horse who responds to every setback with “I will work harder!” —which he [adopts] as his personal motto,” (Orwell, 25). This is similar to how working class Americans are expected to rise above financial challenges. We are told from a young age that if we work hard and play fair, regardless of our backgrounds, then there is no reason that we should not achieve all of our goals. Upon closer examination of poverty and other privileges, it is clear that people’s situations are often much more complicated than that; some will be miles ahead and others hopelessly behind regardless of how hard they work. Even so, we are often manipulated by those in power by the logic that Squealer, a pig, uses in Chapter 3: After being accused of hoarding apples and milk, he tells his fellow animals, “milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers...It is for your sake that we drink the milk and eat those apples.” (Orwell, 11). People throughout history have been convinced by those in power that deprivation of resources is necessary for their greater safety. What with both examples of how manipulation justifies the horrors of capitalism and suffering, we can see yet again how Orwell’s fiction mirrors reality. While Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye is a different novel than Animal Farm, it also contains truths about human nature. One of these is that morality is often ambiguous. Upon being expelled from his fourth prep school the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, muses on his teacher’s commentary of his situation by saying, “It's partly true, too, but it isn't all true. People always think something's all true” (Salinger, 9). While Holden’s adolescent generalizations have varying levels of basis in reality, this one is lucid: it seems to be in people’s nature to over-simply problems in order to solve them faster. In reality, one party might be as correct about a matter as another, but people often look past nuances of an issue in order to support their arguments. There is often more than one way to look at a problem in order to understand those involved, and Holden’s statement speaks to that reality. Holden also brings up interesting observations about the engagements of polite society. Holden claims, “I am always saying ‘Glad to've met you’ to somebody I'm not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though” (Salinger, 87). While people shouldn’t make a practice of suppressing their true feelings, sometimes it is best to keep our thoughts to ourselves to avoid hurting others. If people expressed their true feelings at any given moment in time, there would be no order or respect in society. Holden’s statement is true, even if it is not always fun. Lastly, Holden’s commentary on mental illness is very rooted in non-fiction as well. Holden laments, “That's the whole trouble. When you're feeling very depressed, you can't even think” (Salinger, 91). Mental health is as equally important as one’s physical health; severe depression fogs up the mind like algae in a lake and can prevent its victims from completing the simplest tasks. Holden is not a real teenager, yet many real teenagers identify with his struggles with mental illness. Neil Gaiman’s quote may have been referring more to dreams than literature, but ultimately, both are stories where writers intend to make sense of the world. In this way, even though the stories of Animal Farm and Catcher in the Rye are not real, they mirror the realities of life.
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