May 2014

He Tests... He Scores!

In a few days, I'll be entering final grades for this semester. I hate it. I try to be firm - you get what you get – but in reality I’ll end up browsing the final scores of each class, noting especially which students ended up a few points away from a different letter grade one way or the other.

What exactly am I attempting to measure here? Is it how much they've done? How far they've come? How well they've met state curriculum expectations? What they can DO decently in terms of social studies skills? Effort? Cooperation? Whether or not they're a huge pain in the @**? What am I measuring each time I give one of these 'grades'?

Useful Fictions, Part V - "Historical Fiction," Proper

Frederick J. Chiaventone, commenting on his own novel Moon of Bitter Cold:

One of the great delights of the historical novelist is the license to hang flesh on the bones of the actors and set the blood pumping through their veins. While the purist may decry this practice, others will find it useful and perhaps informative. There is a sense in which fiction can reveal more to us more of the truth than history in that historians are frequently constrained by their reliance on relics, some written, which are in themselves the products of imperfect and differently motivated human beings.

So while the historian can at best provide an objective account of the facts (however incomplete or imperfect), it is the province of the novelist to address not only the objective facts of a period and a people but their passions as well. To paraphrase Macaulay, it can be the difference between a topographical map and a painted landscape.

I like this, but Chiaventone does seem to lean towards a truth more at home in Kate Chopin than Doris Kearns Goodwin. He seems to promote moving past the factual in order to capture more important truths - which wistorical fiction can, and often does. But in my mind that’s not the most important or purest sort of historical fiction. Let’s try another…

Useful Fictions, Part IV - What's Your Story?

Perhaps you or someone you love are familiar with popular inner narratives such as…

“The Legend of the Frustrating Spouse Who’s Probably Never Going to Change So I Just Have To Bear My Cross and Deal With Him/Her.”
“Snow White Intentions and the Little Lies That Never Hurt Anyone.”
“The Story of the Woman Who Got Fatter and Older No Matter What She Did.”
“One More Step: How Real Happiness is Just a Few More Accomplishments Away.”

Oh be careful little mind what you think – words have power, and stories have lots of words.

Useful Fictions, Part III - Historical Fiction... Sort Of

I wrote recently about the 'urban legends' of American History – the colorful stories which tend to root in significant events. Even factually flawed, these myths proffer illumination beyond the events themselves through their framing – or even their distortion – of the mere facts of a happening.

Sometimes history is reshaped to reflect cultural priorities, other times to give a little extra ‘oomph’ to an important moment. Sometimes the distortion is malicious, or self-serving. Sometimes we just get it wrong.

"Historical Fiction" is a different creature...

Useful Fictions, Part II - The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Most of you are familiar with the story of the Tortoise and the Hare or some variation thereof. The stripped down version goes something like this.

A turtle and a rabbit are having a race on some pretense or other. The race begins, and the rabbit leaves the turtle far behind, as you would expect. The turtle just keeps right on moving as best he can, though, and after a time the rabbit gets lazy, or cocky, or both, and takes a lil’ nap – which is irrational in these circumstances but sets up the moral of the story.

Useful Fictions, Part I - Historical Myths

Often our memories help us out by actually altering the facts recalled in order to better fit the experience we had, good or bad. Great moments get better, bad moments get worse, embarrassing experiences grow more extreme, and our stories evolve each time we tell them.
And sometimes we just lie. But even those can offer interesting insights, once pondered.

These strange, not-entirely-factual accounts often illuminate important aspects of key events, or of ourselves processing these events, which are lost in the mere facts. Of course we must correct the inaccuracies - but first, let's look at why they resonate in the first place. What can we learn from some of history's most persistent nonsense?