If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler: Metafiction for a Cold Evening Read

Humor as a Device to “Lighten”

As a work of meta-fiction (a story within a story), author Italo Calvino (1923-1985) presents the beginnings of ten different novels framed by the singular account of the ‘Reader’ who encounters the beginnings and his journey to find the rest of the books. The stage is set by Calvino in Chapter One with, “So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it all.” From there, Calvino pulls ‘Reader’ through a maze of stops and starts (9). Admittedly, if you pick up this book and are not warned in advance of its structure, you, reader, may get very lost. However, it is worth the rambling journey.

Humor in literature may include irony, satire, parody, sarcasm, etc. Humor provides tension relief, describes a ludicrous situation, mockery, or explains character among other purposes. It’s cautionary to mention that one person may find something funny that another person does not view in the same way. Concerning Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, it is occasionally necessary to perceive his particular notion of comedy through the lens of cultural, historical, and sometimes individual backgrounds. His wit is brusque at times but stick with it.

Writing humor isn’t easy. Not everyone has the timing or the perspective to write funny. Calvino refers to humor as “lightness,” a principle explained in his posthumous publication Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). Indeed, without comedic relief, some of the intricate prose in Traveler would be cumbersome. To lighten the load on the reader of deep subjects like murder, Calvino inserts comedy, which give reader-me time to relax, take a breath, or smile before moving on into the complicated but exhilarating narrative structure of the novel.

This example from Traveler illustrates his ability toward the absurd:

  • Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback: and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. (3)

The image is comical and the addition of  “…or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness…” adds to the ludicrous tone and visuals. This is a pattern in Traveler: approaching serious topics from the light-hearted direction.

Take this additional example. To illustrate the nervous, comedic feeling experienced when trying to impress the opposite sex, this served the purpose:

  • Hmm, perhaps you could have coordinated it a bit better, but you have at least expressed the main ideas. Now it’s her turn. (29)

It is facetious the way he chastises the ‘Reader’ with internal dialogue, i.e., “You’re a screw-up, but at least it’s out there.”

Among the variety of topics in Traveler, Calvino mocks academia and the publishing world with exaggerated scenes implying that both groups regard themselves in high esteem. It’s been said that this may be due to Calvino’s frustrations with the publishing world of the early twentieth century.

For example, when the origin of a text is questioned:

  • “It’s a fake!” Professor Uzzi-Tuzii cries. “It’s a well-known case of forgery! The material is apocryphal, disseminated by the Cimbrian nationalists during the anti-Cimmerian propaganda campaign at the end of the First World War!” (73)

The overzealous, arrogant professor who uses bombast to dismiss a challenge to something he has based his whole existence on is easily recognizable. We’ve all been in that classroom. There are several passages where Calvino takes accurate jabs at academic haughtiness, competitiveness, and presumption.

Dark humor is evident in Chapter Five, “Looks down in the gathering shadow” and surprises with its comedic events of killing a man then discarding the body in Paris.

  • It was all very well for me to pull up the mouth of the plastic bag: it barely reached Jojo’s neck, and his head stuck out. Another way would be to put him into the sack head first, but that still didn’t solve the problem, because then his feet emerged. (103)

Putting someone headfirst into a plastic bag is not funny at first glance. However, some readers may see humor or lightness in the image of feet sticking out.

A particularly funny moment during a dark situation is evidenced here:

  • At that moment the gas that accumulates in the belly of corpses is expelled noisily; the two cops burst out laughing. (105)

The craziness of the sex scene in the car consummated while also holding a corpse upright in the back seat stopped me in my tracks with its rueful tone and hilarious descriptions:

  • Meanwhile with one hand she was holding the dead man and with the other she was unbuttoning me, all three of us crammed into that tiny car, in a public parking lot of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. (Calvino 111)

The contradiction of deadpan language for a ridiculous yet sad scene aptly demonstrates Calvino’s sense of using “lightness” to soften the blow of difficult material. He notes this tactic about his writing:

I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. (3)

It appears that the notion of anyone being offended by such treatment doesn’t burden Calvino.

It concerned me to poke fun at some very serious business such as mental illness, education, and murder, then I read  Six Memos and his thoughts about lightness. Traveler made more sense. Calvino’s remarks about lightness versus weightiness in science, philosophy, literature, and language helped me read behind the print on the page. Similar to the sweet details in Agatha Christie’s works, Calvino writes If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler to confound yet confirm his principles about writing fact and fiction. There is satisfaction in paying attention to the details whether one is reading Christie or Calvino.

Calvino artfully begs a reader to trust him, a writer, even though his method flies in the face of conventional fiction writing wisdom, which is grab the reader within the first five pages. But it works for Calvino to save the epiphany for the end where all great resolutions should reside. There’s also his choice to employ a second-person point-of-view which adds another dimension that is too much to consider in this post.

I encourage you to spend one of these chilly nights with If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler and Calvino’s particular sense of humor.

One more note. If you’re a poet, you will love this book…

 

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1979. Print.

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ship Fever” by Andrea Barrett: An Epidemic of Emotions

I first read “Ship Fever” six years ago. The current pandemic caused the short story to bubble up to the surface of my brain as there are tragic similarities between the typhus outbreak onboard a ship and the global trauma we are enduring today.

Andrea Barrett is a masterful storyteller and a beautiful wordsmith, but be aware that her tales, while worth the read, have the power to stay in the brain and the heart whether you want them to or not. A trait I appreciate…most of the time.

Barrett, Andrea. “Ship Fever.” Ship Fever. New York: Norton, 1996. 159-254. Print.

The setting in “Ship Fever” by Andrea Barrett is just as much a character in the story as Dr. Lauchlin Grant who follows his wish to bring meaning and purpose to his career by volunteering as a physician on the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station in Quebec in the spring of 1847. It is after the Irish famine that thousands of immigrants journey to America for a better life. Many end up contracting “ship fever” or typhus en route aboard ships without proper food, shelter, or hygiene resulting in the death of hundreds and a lifelong struggle by survivors who sacrificed their own health and lost loved ones to the deadly epidemic.

The place and period might be analyzed as characters unto themselves with the power they yield over communication and current medical knowledge. However, as I examine “Ship Fever’s” locale in relation to the trials and emotions of Lauchlin, I notice a mirroring effect as if what he experiences is a reflection of the setting he finds himself within at any given time. It is as if Barrett wrote him into particular places at particular times experiencing specific events to enhance the emotional impact of Lauchlin’s life choices.

We meet Lauchlin as he is living a dismal, lonely life and an unfulfilling professional path against the backdrop of a rundown house. Previous events beyond his control prohibit him from marrying the woman he deems his true love, but current circumstances permit him to visit her often. This makes the love-lost situation worse for him. His career as a doctor is bleak since returning from study in Paris, France with the latest procedures and thoughts at his fingertips, but the environment in 1847 Quebec is behind the times and doesn’t appreciate his skills.

He is frustrated in love and miserable as a research scientist and physician. His depression is reflected by the lack of energy in Quebec to seek new answers and take chances toward new discoveries. Disease prevention and public health are new fields as noted in the story (Barrett 171) but it is exactly where Lauchlin feels his training and expertise are most valuable. He leaves the smothering atmosphere of Quebec to land on an island, the quintessential metaphor for getting away from your troubles.

On the isolated quarantine station, Lauchlin is surrounded by a mammoth challenge to his desires to make a difference in the world of medicine. Thousands of people lay dying of typhoid fever everywhere he turns. It is as if he wished for an opportunity to show what he could do, and the setting provided him with more than any person might handle alone. In the safe, quiet upper class of Quebec, he believed that the surroundings kept him from realizing his true worth. His pouting and petulance landed him in a deeper dilemma. Lauchlin has two choices: stay or go home.

  • It was too much, it was impossible. He would go home at one, on the next steamer out, and when Susannah chided him he would tell that this was not what he had bargained for: this was madness, he could be of no help. (Barrett 181)

Then Lauchlin saves the life of the young immigrant, Nora, and the madness throughout the island becomes somewhat tolerable, and he notices a sense of hope developing in himself. As Lauchlin’s mental state slowly improves, so does the state of the medical surroundings. Lauchlin accepts the circumstances and sees the research potential of the situation. Fewer and fewer ships arrive, and the epidemic becomes somewhat manageable.

As things improve slightly, a sense of empowerment results, and he attempts to participate in the politics overshadowing the circumstances by returning to Quebec to appeal for aid and supplies. Things are clean, organized, and the same in the town where the quarantine island is exactly the opposite.

He meets with failure on political and personal fronts then returns to the quarantine station with renewed vigor because he has finally developed empathy for the survivors and their dreams. This is due in part to his relationship with Nora who tells him about her people and their reasons for leaving Ireland.
The words of writer Jessica Page Morrell support the idea of engaging the elements of setting to do more than offer a site to a story:

  • But setting is more than a mere backdrop for action; it is an interactive aspect of your fictional world that saturates the story with mood, meaning, and thematic connotations. (Morrell 151)

In “Ship Fever,” Andrea Barrett portrays the realities of human suffering as a journey made up of choices by placing the main character in a number of settings that reflect his emotions. Even with his interior self mirrored in front of him, he struggles to see his purpose and value.

~JEH

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Books By My Friends That I Recommend

“Books by My Friends”

 

Shopping local is my latest passion, and that includes books written by my writing friends that are available online. I will be sharing some of the latest titles hoping you’ll find a good read for yourself or someone on your holiday shopping list.

 

First Kiss at Christmas

Lee Tobin McClain

Publisher: HQN

 

I know Lee Tobin McClain from graduate school where she was one of my mentors while I studied writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. Lee’s books are well written stories of love, hope, working through struggle, and faith.

 

Blurb:

 

Not many women still have “first kiss” on their Christmas list, but somehow Kayla Harris is permanently in the friend zone with men. So when veteran Tony DeNunzio shows up in her preschool classroom with his nephew, Jax, her focus is solely on helping the troubled little boy adjust. But as Tony takes on a volunteer role at the school, she can’t help noticing his softer side is as appealing as his rugged male presence.

Tony will do anything to make Jax’s first Christmas without his mom a happy one. And that includes spending more time than is typical with the teacher who’s drawn Jax out of his shell. Beautiful and kindhearted, Kayla makes Tony long for family and a happiness he doesn’t think he deserves. But with the magic of Christmas in the air, a first kiss might lead them both to a forever love.

 

Falls Bend Christmas

Barbara Jean Miller

Publisher: Independent

 

Barbara Jean Miller was another of my graduate school mentors. Her books are fast, flirty, and fun with great storylines. There are many books in the Falls Bend series. Enjoy them all. This one is brand new and holiday-themed. Has a great mystery in it!

 

Blurb:

 

Nick Greyson comes to Falls Bend searching for his 5-year-old abducted son, Billy. Deputy Diane Flint pursues the case as she falls for Nick. When they rescue Billy he no longer speaks. Young psychic Evie Bovard is the key to healing Billy. But his addict mother is still on the loose and she has a gun, which may ruin everyone’s Christmas.

 

More Amish Christmas Miracles

Adina Senft and others

Publisher: Blessed Publishing

 

Shelley Bates writes across multiple genres and has a story in this new Amish Christmas collection under her pen name Adina Senft.

 

Blurb:

 

The Amish Cowboy’s Christmas by Adina Senft
In the beginning, there was no Circle M ranch. Thirty years ago, there was only the girl next door and the boy who was too shy to tell her he loved her…For Reuben, showing Naomi he’s the right man for her will take all the courage and love in his heart—and maybe even a Christmas miracle.

 

All good things,

Joy

 

Mindset, Motivation & Well-Being Online Workshop in November

MINDSET, MOTIVATION, AND WELL-BEING A TO Z FOR WRITERS WORKSHOP

BY JOY E. HELD

Hi, everyone!

I’m really looking forward to leading the online workshop “Mindset, Motivation, and Well-being A to Z for Writers” for AGED TO PERFECTION RWA November 1-26. As an author, educator, speaker, and dedicated journal keeper, the idea for this course came to me after reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. I was also inspired by The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works. Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph. D.

These topics readily apply to the writing life, and I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep myself and my clients motivated, healthy, positive, and forward moving. Both books mention the stick-to-ive-tive-ness of several famous authors, and I started to collect a list of all the modes and methods suggested by Duckworth and McGonigal. The list was long. To make it manageable, I alphabetized each idea and POOF! This workshop blossomed from there.

As a lifelong learner, I put the ideas into practice and recognized immediately how practical and accessible the techniques are. I decided to share my experience in a workshop in the hopes of helping others achieve their dreams, goals, and aspirations. Besides alphabetizing the tips, the workshop demonstrates the specific ways writers can make use of them in daily life and work.

What Is Mindset, Motivation, and Well-Being?

Here’s the workshop description:

“Mindset, Motivation & Well-being A to Z for Writers” presents a host of suggestions for overhauling your writing life inside and out. Some of the topics will resonate and some will need to percolate for a while, but everything from coping with anxiety to applying zero-based thinking can potentially recharge your existence until you are unstoppable in every aspect. These premises apply to more than just writers, but the creative juices needed to produce stories is more draining than it looks. These concepts could be the missing ingredient you’ve been searching for.

The course will present the ideas and offer outside readings or internet links to explain each one. Course participants will be encouraged to post experiences and thoughts.

Mindset

I like how psychology researcher Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. of Stanford University describes mindset:

“Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” (16)

There are basically two mindsets: fixed and growth. In the workshop, we’ll tinker with what this means to writers.

Motivation

Of course, motivation means how much horsepower or get-up-and-go you have to accomplish a task. Looking at motivation from a writer’s perspective, we’ll take a peek at the consequences, competence, choice, and community aspects involved in being motivated.

Well-being

Although the term wellbeing is typically associated with emotional stability in psychological circles, I look at it with a wider lens that includes the areas of physical, emotional, spiritual, and communal strength. For my purposes, the hyphenated version well-being is more accurate because I’m a writer and because ‘well’ is an adjective and ‘being’ is a verb and such things require the punctuation. The workshop will present a myriad of ways you can choose from to improve your personal well-being.

From Action to Zero-based thinking, I’m sure you’ll discover something new in this workshop that can be added to your personal tool kit to move you from confused to confident when it comes to your writing career. Writing is not just about arranging the twenty-six letters of the alphabet over and over. Writing success depends on the writer/operator maintaining a good attitude and making the best choices. Please join me in the workshop to learn how the right mindset, motivation, and well-being attitudes can support your health and career.

Questions? Love ‘em!

writerwellness at gmail dot com

Be well, write well!

All good things,

Joy

Women with clean houses do not have finished books! ~Joy E. Held

Works Cited

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballentine Books, 2016.

Registration link:

https://agedtoperfectionromancewriters.com/workshops/

Every yoga pose is a profound teacher. After years of practicing and teaching yoga and meditation, it’s a daunting chore to pick one favorite pose because I am keenly aware of the subtleties and micro-practices inherent in each asana. However, with its many challenges, effects on perspective, and demands on concentration, headstand is my favorite yoga pose.

The first reason headstand finds its way into my practice is the respect it demands from me. Core strength, breath awareness, spinal alignment, and laser mental focus combine for a successful headstand. Of all the balance poses, headstand requires wholistic stamina and physical control and rewards me with a new understanding of what equity means in my corporal and spiritual senses.

The lesson in humility is the second reason I like headstand. Because of how it changes my perspective, headstand insists that I appreciate a different view of myself, the world, and others. The pose teaches me perspective through attention to detail then laughs when my mind wanders. My body follows my wayward focus, and gravity pulls me into its palm. And I fold like an ocean wave finally reaching the sand.

Lastly, I like headstand because of the determination it encourages. Every headstand offers me the opportunity to approach the edge of my comfort zone then accepts my decision to either step over the boundary or back away from the question. I take this education from my mat into the world where I set healthy boundaries with self-love and courage.

Online Workshops in November

“Learning from the Masters” looks at the journals of published authors, explores how they used them to support their creative process, and how you might emulate their practices.

HOST: Contemporary Romance Writers of America

REGISTRATION INFO:

https://contemporaryromance.org/workshop/learning-from-the-masters-journals-of-published-authors/?fbclid=IwAR3vHJT6C91ojQd4cX7WaB53Gt_c8Qgvga5HiJjaIJXQxZXFstRfH8ZehH0

“Mindset, Motivation, and Well-being A to Z” looks at a wide range of ideas for improving your overall inspiration and health.

HOST: Aged to Perfection Romance Writers of America

REGISTRATION INFO:

https://agedtoperfectionromancewriters.com/workshops/

All good things!

Joy

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Use your company’s blog posts to opine on current industry topics, humanize your company, and show how your products and services can help people.