Being in the Humanities

On Monday night this week I was working on a draft post and hit the publish button by mistake–these things happen. oops So if anyone received that draft, could you please ignore it, and read this post instead ….

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In my blog of last Wednesday, I noted what some institutions had to say about the Humanities, and how studying in this field can provide opportunities for students to broaden their scope. Now, in this post, I will talk about what the Humanities has done for me personally. I will begin by referring back to my last blog where I mentioned that some years ago now, I suddenly found myself at a crossroad in my life. I will expand on this little to reveal that I suddenly became very ill and had to retire from my permanent position as an educator in the school sector in order to undergo numerous life-saving surgical operations, spanning a period of over five years, followed by a lengthy convalescence. Added to that was my grief at having to suddenly retire from my job, and not being able to work in the interim. I felt as though I had been thrown on the scrap-heap, of no further use to society. But then, when my health began to improve a little, my wonderful doctors (and in especial my G.P.,)  and my lovely husband urged me to go back to university and pick up my studies in the Humanities, and start down a new path in life, and not forgetting to take time to stop and smell the roses along the way.

To say that picking up my studies in the Humanities and gaining my PhD saved my life, would probably be a little over the top. Yet to say that it changed my life somewhat, and was a major factor in helping me towards wellness and a new happiness, is probably an understatement, and then some.  So I will start by saying that during those years of study, while working towards my PhD, I had the most wonderful time. I hugely enjoyed the whole glorious, enriching journey and availed myself of as many of the side-trips it offered, as I could. I enjoyed myself so much that I did not want my journey to end. But I finished my course and graduated, then accepted the invitation to become a Conjoint Fellow to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of newcastle, Australia, and found my true niche in life, in academia, literature, and writing.

For me, involvement in this area has opened doors that I never knew existed, and has helped me to develop and grow in a multitude of ways,  and made me more aware as a person, and more aware of the world around me, and of the people I meet.  Working and studying in the field of the Humanities has broadened my scope, and has helped me to gain in self-esteem and self-confidence, and also gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of life, and an increased tolerance of others.

Aaron Ben-Ze’ev explains that it is not easy to voice one’s feelings (“modes of awareness which express our own state”) for the reason that it is far from simple to “identify the varying characteristics of the feeling component” (the “homogenous and basic nature” of feelings “typically entail both feeling and intentionality”) because our “actual mental states are complex experiences” which are being “continuously developed and subject to exponential growth throughout our mental life,” making it difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to describe them: “Indeed, there are few words for feelings, and we often have to resort to metaphors and other figures of speech in referring to them” (Ben Ze’ev 2000, p. 64). In everyday conversation ordinary people use a language of their own making when working to understand their deeper experiences and make sense of those experiences for themselves and the person they are talking to. Having the skills to voice oneself well, and knowing how to better communicate with others, allows one to develop new levels of understanding and gain a new and deeper knowledge of oneself and others and life. Through studying the Humanities I have learnt how to better communicate with others, and how to better voice myself, how to reason and form and present a logical argument, how to think, and how to better value learning. These are the types of skills that the Humanities encourages in one. Through my studies in these areas my life has become richer and my world has expanded. I enjoy my life and my role to the full.

On the “About” page to my blog, I revealed that I am a writer of various forms of nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and fiction.  Over the last few weeks I have written a couple of short stories and am currently in the process of drafting yet another.  I write these fictional pieces for fun and relaxation, and send them off to publishers. The type of short stories I am writing are literary, philosophical works.

A short story is a piece of prose fiction, and a literary device that defies easy characterization. The form  attempts to resist categorization by genre and fixed formation: there are no limits regarding style and genre, as the writer you are not limited by a certain genre or style. As well, as the writer, you are free to use simple language, or elaborate prose. Typically, a short story can be a small impressionistic scene, a literary illustration, a short essay, a fiction, and a work that can focus on one particular moment, or that gives an impression about an idea, setting, character, or aspect. The short story features a small cast of named characters, and in the main focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect”, an atmosphere, or mood. The form makes use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than that accepted for anecdote, but to a lesser degree than a novel. Like writers of  novels, the short story writer draws from a common pool of  literary techniques.

Short stories have no set length. They can vary in length, from very short to quite long. In contemporary times, though,  it is generally accepted that a short story be no less than a 1000 words in length, and no more than 20,000. A classic definition of a short story is that it can be read in a single sitting.  Like longer stories and novel forms, the short story has a crisis or climax. But the short story covers a shorter period of time than does the novel, and the endings of short stories are usually abrupt and may carry a message or a moral or a practical lesson of some sort. The one rule of the short story is, it’s important to show, rather than tell the reader.

So there are many different ways to write a short story, and many forms of short story.  Some of my short stories I base loosely on fact because writers tend to write best about what they know, and I weave factual bits into these stories to help create them as believable to the reader. Hopefully, this technique helps me to hook the reader, and rope her or him in.  I write my stories “slant”. Each story carries its own apparent and overt theme, and in which there are intertwined, interwoven levels that hopefully promotes a unified, but simple, whole.  In a short story the writer may, but not always, choose to reveal something of her or his self–in some of mine, I do.  The work often ends in some sort of a punch-line, an outcome or a surprise, or something different from the one that the reader may suspicion or expect.

Unlike writers of creative nonfiction, factual works, and memoirists,  novelists and writers of fiction (including writers of short stories)  are not bound by a strict code of ethics.  G. Thomas Couser (2012) posits that ethical dangers for memoir stem from the fact that it is “rooted in the real world and therefore makes certain kinds of truth claims,” and while “utter fidelity to truth” is neither possible nor desirable in such work, the writer assumes “two distinct kinds of obligations,” one to the biographical and historical record, and one to the people they depict” (Couser 2012, p. 10).

Nevertheless, there are certain codes for writers of fiction, especially those who closely portray life. As a writer of fiction, you have to be careful to avoid the traps: authorial  intrusion is a no-go, as is leading the reader and telling them what to think. Also, you have to be careful not to over-write or use “purple prose,” or be spiteful or judgmental in your portrayal of others in your story even they be “fictional” characters (this can turn  readers right off you), yet you try to be true to the anomalies and vagaries of human nature in your portrayals, and to the generally accepted “truths” of life.  As well, you try to set a scene and write in such a way as to excite your reader’s emotions somewhat in order to create a “suspension of belief” in the reader, so that the reader can get something for themselves out of the story and learn about the possible alternatives and courses of action one may take in certain situations, as well as develop empathy for others. For instance, with this last, some people cry when watching sad movies, and others can get so wrapped in a fictional situation as depicted in a story, that they feel quite strongly for and with the characters involved.

As I implied, amongst other things I write short stories that demand that one, as the writer, attempts to capture human nature and the various ways in which people are most likely to act, speak and move, and think, in a given situation, according to their character type and the actions of the other characters who co-exist in the stories with them. This type of writing demands that one, as the writer, possess an inherent keenness to mind other people’s business, and to closely observe human nature in all its aspects and moods and situations.  So what I’m saying here is, as a writer you are a natural sticky-beak, born and bred, and can’t help yourself. You keep your eyes and ears open, and blatantly eavesdrop on others, even strangers, while attempting to appear innocent, and looking as though you are someone who minds their own business–after all, it would never do to let the couple sitting across from you in  a high-class restaurant know what you were really up to. The outcomes could be quite unpleasant.

As a writer of fiction, one attempts to decipher and mentally record others’ individual characteristics and traits –ways of doing things or looking at life or, speech, turn of phrase, ways of moving, likes, dislikes and personal preferences–in order that you may transfer these qualities, good or bad or a mixture thereof, to one’s fictional characters, to help bring those characters and their story to life on the page, and create an inviting literary landscape which the reader can enter, be drawn into, and enjoy, and find informative. Writers can be very observant of others, and especially of those who are most frequently around them (e.g., friends and family). As a writer, in trying to create your characters as “real” to bring them alive on the page, you might find yourself being accused by your family members or friends of “writing” them into the story.  Moreover, if any of these people do not feel flattered, you (the writer) are likely to end up in a bun-fight, or create a family split, or find yourself being treated warily as someone to be careful of. This might be distressing, but truth is, by nature you are a writer, and with a writer everything is grist for the mill. We writers are adventurous creatures, and love to live life on the edge. Still, even a fiction writer needs to be a tad careful.

For me, one of the joys in doing my PhD in Humanities was in finding for myself a niche as a writer. Of course, not everyone wants to, or can, go to university and you don’t have to study Humanities to write something. But to my mind, for those who wish to undertake a course of study, the field of the Humanities can help one to develop and hone their writing skills, and also learn valuable life skills.

Works cited

Ben-Ze’ev, Aaron. The Subtlety of Emotions. “A Bradford Book.” Cambridge, USA: Massachusetts Institute Technology  Press, 2000. Print.

Couser, G. Thomas. Memoir: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2012. Print.

 

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