Read my most recent review (see below) for the New York Journal of Books
Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard
“. . . the book is neither Dr. Bates’ memoir nor a disquisition on the transformative power of Shakespearean language and imagery; it actually centers on murderer and prisoner Larry Newton’s story.”
Laura Bates, the author of this memoir, receives international recognition for her program, Shakespeare in Shackles, from many in penal and academic circles who celebrate its unique value.
Much of Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard unfolds in Indiana’s correctional facilities such as maximum security Wabash Valley.
As Dr. Bates explains, “I am sitting side by side” with a prisoner who after ten years in solitary confinement is allowed unprecedented permission to work one on one with her to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. This prisoner is one Larry Newton, a convicted multi-murderer. The book recounts their journey together.
As such the book is neither Dr. Bates’ memoir nor a disquisition on the transformative power of Shakespearean language and imagery; it actually centers on murderer and prisoner Larry Newton’s story.
Dr. Bates details the context of daily life in maximum security and other prisons she visits. Excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays dot the text, deliberately chosen “lessons” containing the words “prison” or “prisoner” or “murder” serving as springboards for the author (and readers) to enter the prisoners’ minds and world.
Speeches from (for example) King Richard the Second, Act 5:5 “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world . . .”, Macbeth Act 2:1 “Is this a dagger I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?” and Hamlet, Act 2:2 in Hamlet’s interchange with Guildenstern when Hamlet states “Denmark’s a prison . . . in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons. Denmark being one o’ the worst.”
Dr. Bates describes her initial amazement at prisoner Newton’s perceptive interpretations of these speeches and his ability to communicate verbally and in writing. “. . . I had never heard such an enthusiastic Shakespearean discussion in any college course I’d taken or taught.”
An autodidact, prisoner Newton is a compelling figure, especially if one buys Dr. Bates’ premise that her expectations were stereotypically shaped to never expect to encounter an “intellectual and philosopher” like Larry Newton in a prison.
How many other Newtons languish in other prisons? This question never arises.
Throughout Shakespeare Saved My Life Dr. Bates herself remains a shadowy figure: no self-reflection, no inner dialogue, little introspection—nothing of the very lifeblood of memoir writing.
We glean tidbits of events of her life while we plow through precise detail of her ingress and egress to and from various prisons, as well as multiple descriptions of procedural formalities inside various prisons.
The format of Shakespeare Saved My Life reads like a workbook, a series of lessons and responses from prisoners to substantiate Laura Bates’ brave and well-intentioned activities and the universal impact of Shakespeare’s canon, while along the way her program paves a path for her to secure tenure as a university professor.
Currently there are many volunteer programs in so many prison systems across this country: meditation, mediation, counseling, tutoring, even the esotericism of martial arts such as aikido. We can honor Laura Bates as one among many and hope someday someone will write a compelling personal memoir of experiences as potentially intriguing as these.
Janet Levine is a decades long freelance journalist and an author of four books. She writes for such publications as the New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe.
Having read and thought so highly of Tsukiyama’s 1996 book “The Samurai’s Garden” I was excited to pick up “Dreaming Water” last week. It is well-reviewed and Tsukiyama is an esteemed American novelist but this one was obviously not for me. The subject matter of the protagonist’s battle with Werner’s syndrome is intriguing but I found the narrative flow jarred by the shifts of POV. The book never “took off”, found a rhythm, drew me in. I so wanted to love this book but I never did. Perhaps you will.
, mind structure
In the psychology of personality if we use a model such as the Enneagram, we are helped to face our emotional avoidances. This is a huge step towards cultivating psychological wellbeing. If you are coping with an unexpected dire illness or accident, extended family issues that involve your spouse or other family members, abusive behavior by a boss, or any other intense experience, how do you react? We each have a strategy of avoidance.
Previously I highlighted three avoidances, failure, pain, and vulnerability. Let’s examine three other common avoidances. One is to experience intense stress as internalized anger, not anger that devolves on others but anger at oneself for not being perfect and so allowing the situation one is facing to have manifested in the first place. Those who avoid this kind of anger see themselves as moral standard-bearers and they see the potential for perfection in the world. Yet they can never make the world as perfect as they perceive it could be. The panacea for internalized anger is to try to bring an ever-expanding awareness that the way things are is perfect in itself. To see the “imperfections” caused by stress as perfection inherent in the way things are.
Another avoidance is feeling ordinary, living in a mundane. The cause of stress is processed as a feeling that you are special. Stressful situations are to be avoided and they pull you into a messy emotional morass where you do not belong. You are ill because you thought of yourself as too special to take healthy precautions, those routines are for others. Your extended family is in turmoil because no-one realizes your uniqueness and they blame you for relationships not running smoothly. Your boss is rude and harassing because (s)he does not appreciate your creativity, and anyway (s)he should never have asked you to do those mundane tasks in the first place. The panacea for those avoiding ordinariness is to cultivate compassion and empathy and see the basic goodness of all life in every moment lived—whatever that may be.
A third avoidance is not to form connections on an emotional level. You overvalue privacy and independence and draw back from personal conflicts. Engaging in stressful situations drains you and you guard your time and energy. You try not to let stressful situations arise by continually signaling your unwillingness to engage. You can easily withdraw into the safety of your mind, pull up the drawbridge of communication and interaction and literally not be present, even if you are in the same room. The panacea for those who avoid interacting on an emotional level, however low key, is be present in a calm, balanced and non-judgmental way that can be helpful to everyone in charged situations. If others feel your presence and attention they will accept and appreciate your rational perspective.
A methodology I teach for us to be able to enter our avoidances and include them in our emotional development is to write a letter to Dear Anger, or Dear Ordinariness, or Dear Emotional Connectedness. Ask what you are avoiding and why. Write a reply to yourself from these mind states. Continue the correspondence until you begin to engage with the avoidance. This is hard inner work but one way to ensure our psychological wellbeing.
In my next blog I’ll look at the final three common personality avoidances.
You can read more on the avoidance and other aspects of the psychology of personality in my books Know Your Parenting Personality and The Enneagram Intelligences. More information at http://www.janetlevine.com
, mind structure
Pundits I’ve read recently on common mistakes bloggers make, my guilt is like an egg on my face in some of my latest blogs. If I have bored you in the past, forgive me. The most egregious error; my complaints about the state of publishing and the new avenues of dissemination of the written word in our burgeoning Information age, even, if as I believe, it is sadly adrift. So I apologize to my readers for trying (in my blog) to make sense of why I am so frustrated about all of this. Too personal (I have learned), no one wants to read about someone else’s gripes. According to the pundits again, readers, like mine, enjoy blogs on parenting, spirituality, books and other recommendations, nature, gardening, meditation and Buddhism, and one of my areas of expertise, the psychology of personality. (I wrote two books on this and have lead many international workshops.)
According to the E-model (the personality paradigm that I use) facing our avoidances is a huge step towards cultivating psychological well being. If you are faced with an unexpected dire illness or accident, extended family issues that involve your spouse, abusive behavior by a boss, or any other intense experience, how do you react? We each have a strategy of avoidance.
Let’s examine three common avoidances. One is to experience intense stress as pain, not physical pain but emotional and psychological pain. Do you or someone you know avoid dealing with pain? Ways to avoid pain are to push down on it whenever your thoughts enter that territory. Or push away from it, not wanting to engage with the emotions around the source of the pain. You say to whomever wants to talk to you about the stress, “Do you have to go there?” You hide behind emails and avoid conversations. The panacea for pain avoiders is to always have another plan or option in mind that takes them away from the pain and into a pleasant activity or to turn conversations to less stressful encounters.
Another avoidance is failure. The cause of stress is processed as your failure. You are ill because you failed to do enough to stay healthy. Your extended family is in turmoil because you didn’t juggle the pieces well enough to keep relationships running smoothly. Your boss is rude and harassing because (s)he found out something about you that you are unaware of about yourself. The panacea for failure avoiders is to only operate in arenas where they can feel successful and win approval. Therefore their resumes shine, they have avoided failure.
A third avoidance is vulnerability. Engaging in stressful situations is dangerous it leaves you vulnerable. You don’t let such situations arise. You exercise control from the get-go. “It’s my way or the highway, baby.” You walk away from stress before it can jump you. Illness? You power your way through with every resource you have, and never trust medical help until you have established control of procedures. The panacea for vulnerability avoiders is confrontation and control, “the bull in the china shop” approach. If everyone is wary of your energy and confrontational anger you are no longer vulnerable.
A methodology I teach for us to be able to enter our avoidances and include them in our emotional development is to write a letter to Dear Pain, or Dear Failure, or Dear Vulnerability. Ask what you are avoiding and why. Write a reply to yourself from these mind states. Continue the correspondence until you begin to engage with the avoidance. This is hard inner work but one way to ensure our psychological well being.
In my next blog I’ll look at three more common personality avoidances.
, mind structure
, Triads Personality Inventory
This is a cautionary tale told by an experienced practitioner (me) directed mainly at myself to heed my own words. Earlier this week I received copies of the Portuguese translation of my parenting book, Que Pai Ou Mae Quer Ser?. Definitely an “UP” moment in my writing life not only because the book looks attractive and professional but also because of the timing of its arrival. (The birth of this book has a sub-plot whose synopsis is germane to this blog.)
In the summer of 2009 I received an email from a Portuguese Catholic priest who had read the original American edition of my book Know Your Parenting Personality, an application of the Enneagram to parenting. He said something to the effect that he wished every parent in Portugal could read the book and asked about translation rights. I replied that was a promising idea I supported and he should approach Portuguese publishers who may be interested and then email me. And to my pleasant surprise, he did. A year later one of them www.principia.com contacted me. My agent and the publisher arranged a contract, and she cautioned me that it would not be easy to “get funds from Europe” (remember the low point of the Great Recession out of which we are slowly climbing?) I did not hear anything for two years and then in October there was an email from the publisher to say that because of the recession he had put many publishing plans on hold but now they were going ahead with the parenting book. And lo and behold, ten weeks later I have the translation edition in my hands.
Now for the “DOWN” moment (turning out to be a long one and therefore the reason why an “UP” moment is so welcome.) I am trying the old-fashioned way to publish my latest work, a novel Veld Fire. I wrote my heart into this book; and yes, I do know that is not a “gimme” to being published. (Call out here to my excellent editor, Lorraine Fico-White at www.magnificomanuscripts.com who saved me from my excesses and helped me shape the manuscript into a novel I am proud to stand behind.) The protagonists are two women and their love story is the engine of the work. (Call out to President Obama who in his Inauguration Speech highlighted Stonewall and gay rights as central to the ongoing struggle for human rights.) What better time than now to publish this book? What better time for a book about two people who love one another (and are women) to flow into the literary mainstream? Liv and Rosie’s story is set in 1960 in South Africa, the significant year of the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath. It celebrates history’s neglected PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and his contribution to the human rights struggle, in addition to a cast of many other real and imagined characters.
Agents have lauded the writing. But no one bites. South Africa is far away. Lesbians are not as popular as vampires. Historical fiction is but a tiny niche in the fiction market.
This is not my failure. I am a Three on the Enneagram and the notional idea of “failure” is a big psychological hurdle for me. As a Three I am all about product and performance and “getting things done.” But here and now I need a dance partner. I do not want to self-publish, that smells of defeat; for me, for the whole publishing industry. How many thousands of worthy manuscripts languish and die every day? A writer once famously said the books that deserve to be published will find a publisher. Is this an old-fashioned maxim now as redundant as the traditional publishing industry is rendering itself? Maybe or maybe not. One of my sons, a writer himself, advised, “Let the process work.” But what process is he talking about?
Do I go Indie?
It took years for the Portuguese translation to reach me, this is my lesson to myself.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevinegrp Email: email@example.com
, human rights
, south africa
Winter Solstice 2012
Breathe, relax, center and smile. Let things come and go, and just let be. It’s not about trying not to think but about letting things come and go. Learning to relax, just be,center, and naturally meditate is a well known spiritual secret that people ought to be able to learn and integrate into life. Like mental flossing, it keeps one open and free, calm and clear.
–Lama Surya Das, Dzogchen Center, Austin, Texas
Season’s Greetings, I decided this year instead of a rundown of where I have been and whom I was with, and what I saw and what I didn’t see. As well as what happened to me and what didn’t happen, I’ll share two useful “message” out of the hundreds that come my way each year. The first is from one of my Buddhist meditation teachers, Lama Surya Das. How often this year I have heard these words in my head “breathe, relax, center and smile.” It is such a powerful mantra, and so useful as a centering or attention practice.
The other (below) came my way from another teacher, Lawrence Hillman, who quotes the Apple visionary, Steve Jobs (who literally changed our world). I love Jobs’ imagery of connecting the dots of our lifelines.
My heartfelt wishes to you and yours for a healthy and fulfilling 2013. May we all “connect the dots” awaiting us and learn a little more about where we are going.
Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
At this threshold moment in history, I wish to remind you that nobody can predict what will come in the future and that if you trust that part of you that knows this, you will connect the dots in due time.
, Janet Levine
, mind structure
In my last post on this topic I blogged on some aspects of the relationship of writers and editors. For myself I can report that while there is progress with my latest project, a historical novel, it is a vexed adventure. As you can see from the title of this post I have moved on to Phase Three of the process; the search for an agent. From all that I have read over past years and continue to read, almost daily, on the hopeless state of publishing with a “real” publisher (as opposed to plunging into the “new” self-publishing world with an eBook) the majority of writers who are self-published state they would relinquish that process in a heart beat to sign a contract with a publisher.
After much thought I decided to try the “old” road again and find an agent, the gatekeeper to the publishing kingdom, someone who will help me grab the publishing ring. I made this decision because several years ago I took the innovative route with my novel “Leela’s Gift” and found while I enjoyed the experience of producing the book as both easy and satisfactory, as I worked with a self-publishing company, the marketing and publicity process proved expensive and time consuming. In fact so focused on writing and then producing the book I neglected the before publication PR vital to selling the Product. At least with an “old school publisher” you have a shot at some “before publication” PR.
The back story? My first agent found me after I appeared on the PBS News Hour in an interview with Judy Woodruff. He was an “old school”, veteran New York agent, and after several fruitless leads found a “home” for my political memoir. The next agent came easily too. She was recommended to my co-author (we were writing a book on the psychology of personality) and she landed us a six-figure deal after sending the proposal to several editors in an “auction.” (The book project failed but that is another story.) This agent stuck with me and helped me secure publishers for my next two books. I felt assured of continued presence in the publishing realm.
Then? Then the publishing world began experiencing volcanic shifts as if its citizens lived on the lower slopes of a Vesuvius in near-constant uproar. Publishers failed to see the consequences heralded by the ramifications of the exploding Information Era and Information Technology Age. One of those ramifications being the democratization of accessibility to knowledge and to those who want to share their inner expressiveness with this vast new wave of readers. Amazon.com, whether generator or purveyor of this movement (or both) ruled and continues to rule the universe. Both reviled and praised, Amazon, and a legion of other web-based publishing enterprises, flourish while “real” books wither in the “virtual” Kindle and other reading devices onslaught, and once mighty bookstore chains as well as independent bookstores go the way of dinosaurs. Web-based book clubs and venues for readers to rate and recommend books proliferate…and so?
And so, writers still write books and readers read. Agents still exist, publishers publish (on an ever diminishing scale) what some writers write. Here is the rub, as Shakespeare said.
My agent moved on to other ventures. Finding a new agent is daunting. Several weeks ago I sent out several query letters based on recommendations from some people I know in the broader publishing world. One agent replied within ten minutes and asked me to send the manuscript. Another replied the same day with a similar request. A third asked for the “(in)famous” first three chapters and a synopsis. Could I have a “hot” property? How long will it remain that way? Week after week passed (it was August the “dead” spot of the publishing year) I heard nothing. Yes, during this time I could have self-published the novel…but still something in me wants to honor the “old” process. How much longer do I wait until I send out more query letters? Haven’t I been here before? I am caught in a time warp.
, human rights
, Leela's Gift
, south africa