If a good psychologist is good because she builds realistic, extended theories about your reactions to the world, good novelists are often good psychologists in shorter bursts. 

 

Psychological wisdom in fiction comes through witty description: words that map small feelings or reactions in ways that feel new and true.  A psychologically smart description in fiction might describe an object in a room, for instance, so that it unpacks the irony with which we’ve often seen it but not articulated.  A good description of a character can explain a push-pull interaction inherent to certain relationships.  Psychologically wise sentences are quick revelations, like someone at a party who makes an “aha” comment in passing.  (The wit can hit you with envy: You want to follow this person's brain through the party, or wherever it goes.)

 

Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs is full of such psychological wisdom in bursts: quick blasts of light into the “why”s behind human perspectives and behaviors. 

 

I’ll just list some Lorrie Moore sentences that feel psychologically brilliant to me this week.  I don’t need to explain why they feel brilliant: They either pop or they don’t, I think.  But if they do pop for you, I’d love to hear how you relate the insight to life outside the book. 

 

I’d like to hear if you think all good fiction is psychologically wise, too.  Of course some people love fiction not for its psychology but for its formal qualities (a plot built like a puzzle, a whodunit), or its aesthetic qualities (descriptions of the ocean, say, that help you relax) or its idealisms (romance that’s not true to, but more exciting than, real life).  Why do you love the fiction you love?

 

Lorrie Moore’s Bursts of Light:

 

“My mother’s capacity for happiness was a small soup bone salting a large pot” (19).

 

“She had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange whirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone’s bored thick finger going whoop-dee-doo” (13).

 

“I had always felt…as secret and fetal as the curled fortune in a cookie, and such hiddenness was not without its advantages, its egotisms, its grief-fed grandiosities” (11).

 

“A distant memory flew into my head: a note passed to me by a mean boy in seventh grade.  Laugh less, it commanded” (22).

 

“It had started to worry me that if I wasn’t careful my meekness could become a habit, a tic, something hardwired that my mannerisms would continue to express throughout my life regardless of my efforts—the way a drunk who, though on the wagon, still staggers and slurs like a drunk” (14).

 

“I had once milked [my father’s cow] Bess [and] the intimate feel of her lavender-veined and hairy breasts had almost made me puke….  I’d leaned my head against Bess’s side to steady myself, and the sudden warmth, along with my own queasiness, made me feel I loved her” (18).

 

“I feared, as interviews went, I was in freefall.  I wasn’t sure why either of us was saying what we were saying” (21).  (The narrator is being interviewed for a babysitting job, and because she doesn’t feel the logic of the questions followed by answers, the spontaneity feels wrong to her.)

 

Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.


Comments
by on ‎12-19-2010 11:24 AM

The Soup Thickens

By

Sara Radall Holmes

aka:  No S**t Sherlock

 

My mother’s capacity for happiness was a small soup bone salting a large pot” (19).

 

Take One, Scene One:

 

 

Ordinarily, mother wasn’t much of a cook, but on this cold, rainy evening, she was given to inclinations of thinking she was; something to throw into the crockpot for tomorrow’s meal, she thought, as she plowed over recipes.  She thought, long and hard, while taking her evening shower.  POP! She came up with just the right recipe!

 

 

By day, mother was a high school teacher.  Lecturing was her imagined forte.   Her class was her imagined best of the best, and her imagined fool- proof method of gaining the attention of her class, silencing the yammering youngsters, was to stretch the length of her arm out, fist at the end. Open, and then close.  Open, close. Open, close, her hand in motion.  Mouths would open then close, open, close, open, close.

 

 

Charlie, our class clown, sits silently, unheard of for Charlie.  He watches my mother. Eyes intent. Open, close.  Open, close. Open close, my mother’s hand mesmerizing her audience.

 

 

On this particular day, for just one second, the rain stopped, and the clouds broke.  A thin ribbon of sun streamed through the murky classroom windows, hitting squarely on mother’s open hand.  Charlie jumps out of his chair, yelling,  “Ms. R, Ms. R. - Look at Ms. R’s hand!  She has a bugger on the end of her fingernail!”

 

 

The classroom was silent. Dead. Eyes flickered around the room.  Then titters and snickers were heard.  My mother looked at her finger, and then lowered her arm.  Shame washed over her, flooding the air.  The rain began, again.

 

 

This morning, as mother was preparing the soup for our evening meal, she carved the precious ham from the bone; the meaty bone was to flavor the soup.  She ran her fingernail along the long, hard, white surface of the bone, sucking the savory meat from under her fingernail, before sliding the hoc into the pot. Plop!

 

 

If there is a Plot to this story, I don’t have the foggiest.  POP:  Maybe to wash your hands after you make soup? 

by on ‎12-19-2010 11:41 AM

BTW:  Whatever I write is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places and incidents is either the production of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locals is entirely coincidental.  And any misspelled word is unintentional, Freudian or not.

 

Sara Randall Holmes

by on ‎12-19-2010 02:57 PM

Take one, Scene 2

Do Da, Do Da, Day

By

Sara Randall Holmes

 

 

Birthday Party?  A bore, especially when I, the recipient, am not interested in celebrating the occasion.  Surprise!  No surprise.  Oh, boy, another party, another year older, another reminder that I’m sliding down into the abyss of old age.

 

 

Mother’s imagination for birthday parties and gifts was legend.  Or maybe better put, lack-there-of made them legend.  A sweater, a pair of socks, etc., etc., etc., a clown who sculpts characters with balloons, etc., etc., etc..  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, etc., etc., etc….To mother, I was still her ageless preteen.  Mother passed away last year, so there ended the labors of her love.

 

A knock at the front door wakes me.  In my footed Jammies, a gift from last year, I pad along the hallway to see who’s thumping hard on the wooden frame.  What the hell? 

 

 

SURPRISE!  In walks a catering service.  Trailing behind is a long stream of people.

 

 

With written instructions to her lawyer, a party must be planned. Guests invited.  Guests arrive. A punch bowl overflowing with Champaign - Drinks bar tended.  Food, from around the world, served on silver platters.  A band plays my favorites.

 

 

I’m struck dumb, still standing in the hallway, moot.  A zombie, hung over from vodka and pills the night before.  My birthday?  Did someone say it was my birthday?

 

 

Mother’s lawyer reads the will:

“She had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange whirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone’s bored thick finger going whoop-dee-doo” (13).

by on ‎12-19-2010 05:11 PM

Act 3, Scenes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

 

The Fatal Fetal Positions

By

Sara Randall Holmes

 

 

“I had always felt…as secret and fetal as the curled fortune in a cookie, and such hiddenness was not without its advantages, its egotisms, its grief-fed grandiosities” (11).

 

 

Unearth these feelings from their hiding places, from hard encrusted depth.  Soak the folds with sweat and blood, lay me down without a breath.  Away, oh, please, away, not to face another….. – a gentle pull, away

 

 

I’ve always had a flare for the melodrama, especially after mother threw that last birthday party.  Boy, the big finger from the grave.

 

 

I remember so much, especially seventh grade.  Actually, it was in sixth grade I remember, first.  Going to camp, big deal, just another way for mother to get rid of her naughty little girl.  Always a bother, always causing more problems, at least that’s how mother saw it, so to camp I go.  I cried the whole time I was there.  Home sick, can you believe that?  Back to home I go.  Grief-fed.

 

 

Seventh grade caught me by surprise.  I hadn’t shed a tear since the day I got back from camp, my mother made sure of that, a beating I wouldn’t forget. Another memory invades the folded sheets and wet pillow.

 

 

“A distant memory flew into my head: a note passed to me by a mean boy in seventh grade.  Laugh less, it commanded” (22).

 

If I do what this note instructs, then what have I left?  The Sahara dessert has nothing on me.

 

 

“It had started to worry me that if I wasn’t careful my meekness could become a habit, a tic, something hardwired that my mannerisms would continue to express throughout my life regardless of my efforts—the way a drunk who, though on the wagon, still staggers and slurs like a drunk” (14).

 

Yeah, I got over that kid’s note, and schlep along in a fog of drunken stupors.   No meekness out of me. Better to be drunk in a stupor, than just stupid in a stupor.  My motto for the coming years, as mother was a stupid drunk, and shed the tears I couldn’t.

 

 

I remember the day I staggered around the yard, three sheets to the wind.  Dad asked me to milk the cow.  I said, what cow?  I didn’t know we even had a barn, let alone a cow named Bess.  Don’tcha just love flashbacks?  That’s what happens when you sober up.

 

 

“I had once milked [my father’s cow] Bess [and] the intimate feel of her lavender-veined and hairy breasts had almost made me puke….  I’d leaned my head against Bess’s side to steady myself, and the sudden warmth, along with my own queasiness, made me feel I loved her” (18).

 

 

Yeah, I just about puked.  Milk a cow, yuck, soft teats in my hands, warm milk falling between my fingers.  I licked my fingers. Bess was alive, giving me something I’d never had before.  I couldn’t put a name to it, other than love.

After I realized what love was all about, I traded in my VO bottle for Bess’s Best, and decided to see what the work place would hand me.

 

 

“I feared, as interviews went, I was in freefall.  I wasn’t sure why either of us was saying what we were saying” (21).  (The narrator is being interviewed for a babysitting job, and because she doesn’t feel the logic of the questions followed by answers, the spontaneity feels wrong to her.)

 

 

I think babysitting is over rated, and underpaid.  Grownups have a language all their own.  Babies are much easier to understand.  You don’t need a freaking interpreter to tell you that the smell is coming from the nether regions, but I wasn’t quite expecting to be handed a diaper full of S**t.   At that moment I thought, I don’t think I’m going to make this job my lifetime ambition.  I’m going to be a writer, and puke a bunch of nonsense on Ilana Simon’s Blog.

by on ‎12-19-2010 05:54 PM

sorry

can't edit mistakes

pure fiction 

don't reply

see disclaimer

by BrandieC on ‎12-19-2010 11:12 PM

I loved A Gate at the Stairs, too, but after comparing the sentences you picked to those I recorded in my reading journal, I'm not sure that it was because of any particular psychological insights.  The sentences that stood out for me, with the possible exception of the last two, provided an unusual descriptive "take" on something I had previously taken for granted:

 

"I had one elegantly folded cookie - a short paper nerve baked in an ear. . . . I would tug the paper slip from the stiff clutches of the cookie and save it for a bookmark.  All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages."

 

"Her features had fallen but I saw her lift them again, one by one, the way one rights light porch furniture after a wind."

 

"Her sense of humor was still not always explicit or transparent or of a finaly honed rhythm, and it sometimes left me not in the same room with it but standing in the hall."

 

"The difference between opera and life, I'd noticed, was that in life one person played all the parts."

by on ‎12-20-2010 06:06 AM

Michael Cunningham, By Nightfall.  Finished it at 9 last night.  This story is running through my head, and I can't sleep. 

 

"Banging on a tub to make a bear dance when we would move the stars to pity." (224)

 

What does this sentence mean?  I read this over and over and over, and thought how beautiful it was, but couldn't understand it....then it was written two more times......I feel stupid, that I don't understand.   I feel like Peter.  I want to cry, like Peter wanted to, but I can't, either.  This author is so invasive, it's as though someone stuck my fingers in a light socket, and now my brain won't shut off. 

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎12-20-2010 08:35 AM

Hi Kathy and Brandie,

 

Kathy, I love Cunningham, too.  Glad he moves you.

 

Brandie, I love the sentences you picked. I was going to include that fortune cookie one in my list, actually.  I didn't immediately remember the others you listed, but they are nuggets.  For some reason, the clarity in a good description always feels a bit psychological to me, as if a writer has arranged perception in an "aha" moment.  (I feel the usefulness of a certain metaphor, or recognize my investment in some vision/perspective.)  How would you describe the satisfaction of a striking description?

by on ‎12-20-2010 08:01 PM

Ilana,

I admit, I took this whole subject to extreme, more like a writing experiment, for me.  Could I do it in one sitting?  It's always fun to take what comes off the top of one's head, and throw it down into print, unedited.  Some of it was the truth, some of it wasn't.  Some of it, I believed, was my way of using fiction to translate the truth, as I know it.  Give me an inch, and I'll take a mile.  I didn't feel like being straight forward and serious in how I answered your questions, Ilana.

 

I liked all of these examples that you gave.  One more book to possibly read some day.  I can't answer the question, whether I think all good fiction is psychologically wise.  Maybe to me it should be, but I doubt that's the expectations of the majority.  As you said, not all books are read and enjoyed for that reason, to find insights.

 

During my reading of the Cunningham novel (my first experience with him), I felt uneasy, sadness prevailed most of the time...... these types of writers almost always have an adverse effect on my personal life.  Not always good for me.

 

Then I found it disconcerting when I could feel every inch of me tingle, someone was striking me as if I were a tuning fork....his words took my nerve endings, while I waited for the next sentence, or paragraph, to bring light into a subject that had to be viewed.  There were times when I caught myself holding my breath.

 

I won't express my every thought about this book, I just wanted to say that he doesn't shy from expressing himself, or his characters thoughts, when feelings can be difficult to see.  A gentle writer, giving you a glimpse of the world around, and the world within.

 

Oh, and that sentence I needed an explanation for?  I found it mentioned in a review of his book, and this is the reference to it:

 

...exaggerated turns of speech conceal mediocre affections: as if the fullness of the soul might not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since no one, ever, can give the exact measurements of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sufferings, and the human word is like a cracked cauldron upon which we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.
- Gustave Flaubert, "Madame Bovary", ch. 12
Kathy
by on ‎12-21-2010 11:26 AM

Ilana wrote:  Why do you love the fiction you love?

 

An introspective morning.

 

So, the question is, why do I read what I read, if it turns my world inside out, and upside down?  Just for that reason.  Where are we, who are we, what are we, if we are standing still in the dark? 

 

Some people like to live in the mundane, the ordinary, because it's safe.  It can't hurt you.  I don't live there, not any more.  You expanded my realm, Ilana.  We can't move beyond stagnant, if we're not challenged by the least expected; we'll never discover who we are.

 

Give me more. 

Life evolves.  

Dormant as dead.

 

I don't always feel comfortable, I admit this, being stretched to my limits by what I feel in the written word, but unless I experience it, I can't know it's there, and never realize I'm alive.

 

Give me more.

Deeper, Richer  

Appreciation for life 

 

I lean my head against Bess's side

 

Kathy

by on ‎12-21-2010 01:42 PM

An aside:

I'm now rereading VW's Mrs. Dalloway, in preparation to receiving and reading Cunningham's The Hours.

 

" 'Fear no more the heat o' the sun

Nor the furious winter's rages.' "

 is a quote from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, quoted in Mrs. Dalloway.

 

I see that SparkNotes has several different things to say about this quote, as it pertains to VW's writing in Mrs. Dalloway.

 

I guess, when I first read that quote, it was poignantly applied (simply meaning [to me] what I had just explained about my reading choices), in my previous post.

 

by on ‎12-22-2010 06:26 PM

One last thing I should have said.  The ordinary is what VW and Cunningham will tell you about.  I never intended for my comment of this subject to sound blase`.These intimate looks from these writers is what makes them, and what they see, extraordinary. 

by on ‎12-24-2010 10:31 AM

the prologue, the hours.  how dare he. he knows nothing.

by on ‎12-27-2010 02:47 PM

I'm okay, now.  Got my brain screwed back on.  I was hard on Cunningham, I know that, but he overwhelmed me, I was crying so hard I didn't know what to do, except stop reading.  I wanted to throw his book to the other side of the room, and never open it again.  I still haven't.  What he said about VW was like being in a vortex, an undertow.  Every last word felt like a high, and a low, at the same time!  it's rough feeling that unstable.  I wish VW would just let go of me!

 

I sometimes wonder just how much writers think about what their words can do to their readers, psychologically.  It can't be just me.

 

I hope your holiday/vacation was great, and if you're away, arrive home safely.....Stay warm!  All have a wonderful, happy, New Year!

 

Kathy, the resident psych barometer

xo

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