Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 23, 2012

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.




  1. The theory part is helpful to me when I’m revising. Writing itself involves sticking both arms deep into the subconscious, and it doesn’t work if I think about it too much.

    • Rose, you said in two sentences what I was trying to say in more. Thanks!

  2. While I was getting my MA in children’s literature, I toyed with the notion of becoming a children’s literature scholar (even though I hated writing papers). It seemed like such a glamorous job, much neater than being a writer. Somewhere along the way, I became annoyed with picking apart for the umpteenth time The Secret Garden or my beloved Charlotte’s Web. I didn’t want to be one of those people who trawled through already-written books. I wanted to write something new, brand-new, make my own path. I haven’t looked back once.

    • I’m glad you chose to be Margaret Wise Brown-ish rather than Ursula Nordstrom-ish, though I can see you and Miss Nordstrom laughing it up in that Harper and Row (or whatever version of Harper it was then) offices.

      I actually liked writing papers, but at least as a sometime prof I get to read them. Though I also like being the prof I wish I’d had and giving them choices for creative work besides the analytical.

  3. Oh my lord, you just get better and better!

  4. This is so beautifully written and expressed–a gem of a piece!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: