Literary Theory, from a Slant
“It is an extraordinary document… and it makes me realize how lucky I was (when I was writing the book) that I didn’t know what in hell was going on.” -- E. B. White in response to a scholarly analysis of Charlotte’s Web
As a professor, I encourage taking apart children’s books, careful as cobblers, to understand how they were put together. Or is how the wrong word? As a creator, I don’t line up measuring tools, knives, and pencil as a shoemaker might. I don’t set theme, structure, tone, and pacing on the table, then stitch or clip away. It’s a messy process.
So are writers best off just writing, or should we study theory? In grad school, I focused on writing fiction, putting together what other students learned to take apart. While I begin writing fiction and poems in some sort of innocence – a person or image snags me, and I follow – at some point in revision, I start to identify structures, and knowing what Aristotle, Jung, or other theorists said can strengthen what’s on my page. None of us are writing a hero’s journey for the first time, and seeing how our work lines up with that of others can make us pare in the right places.
I’ve never set out with the idea that a stanza or paragraph needs a metaphor, but while I’m playing with an image, poking it for layers, I realize there’s one flickering under my pen, which if I lift at the right time, can set it loose. Perhaps this would happen if I hadn’t studied metaphors in literature, but my guess is not so much. This may be why many writers are addicted to craft books. Something happens in that gap between thinking about our work specifically and thinking of it in general terms.
Thinking about theory may make some writers feel too self conscious, but I find it useful as one part of the many rounds of revision. Sometimes, going back, I focus on continuity, tone, or imagery. And sometimes when I’m on my window seat wearing a turtleneck pulled over my chin, sweatpants, and fingerless gloves, I can call in the better-dressed person who draws narrative arcs on the chalkboard, or quotes Coleridge. Theories can give me enough of a shake to see what’s happening under my hand with fresh eyes. So I go back to writing without keeping much of an eye on a plan, then come out to consider the whole, perhaps maneuver a few strings and wires, then be sure they’re tucked away.
In grad school, I shared an office with a PhD. candidate who loved theory, and a poet whose dark eyebrows shot up at the sounds of her long, Latinate words. Somehow we all got along, at least for a while. We need them all: theorists, poets, and makers of stories, and maybe most of all when we look for all of them inside us.