Discovering who we are and what makes us tick is a lifelong journey. In today’s culture this is usually the province of psychology, but I ask you to remember another way--literature.

Consider The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I remember reading it in high school and dissecting it for plot, climax, metaphor, symbolism, foreshadowing, and themes such as man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature. Most of you will remember the story about Hester Payne, a woman who had an affair with the town minister, became pregnant, and was shunned by her community (man vs. society). I’m sure Hawthorne (a master at his craft) was aware of all the techniques of writing, but I think he wrote the story to help us understand ourselves and our place in the world better.  

Hawthorne used words to express his thoughts and opinions. His story evoked discussions that are still relevant today. For example, adultery, sin, guilt, love, lust, lies, and faithfulness. The plot and structure is not what makes The Scarlet Letter timeless, it’s the exploration of the human condition that does.

Anne Frank’s The Diary of Anne Frank is another example of how literature can help us understand ourselves better. It’s the story of a twelve year old girl who evaded the Nazis by hiding for two years with her family in an attic. Eventually they were discovered in 1944 and sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentrating camp.

My daughter is fascinated with World War II. She collects books, essays, movies and anything else she can find about the war. I consider Christina an expert on the topic and remember discussing Anne Frank’s story with her. We talked about our ability to adapt to and survive hardship, what darkness in our hearts makes us capable of committing such evil acts against each other, and even more importantly, how the story is a warning of atrocities that should never be repeated.

There are lots of more modern examples of literature and commercial fiction to read and draw your own conclusions about what motivates our thoughts and actions. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Nora Roberts Carolina Moon, and three of  Eli Wiesel’s books: Dawn, Day, and Night  are but a few.

While the mechanics of writing is important and is present in every great story, I’ve challenged myself to move beyond techniques and write from my heart, the inner me. This allows me to question the motivation of my characters--their struggles, strengths, weaknesses, passions, and the meaning of it all. My goal is to write complex characters that are as timeless as Hester Payne.

Can you think of other examples of how literature helps us on our journey toward self-actualization?

21 comments

  1. Anonymous // October 11, 2011 at 10:08 AM  

    I love your blog and like how you challenge yourself to write more complex characters.You have given me something to think about!

  2. Anonymous // October 11, 2011 at 10:08 AM  
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  3. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 10:36 AM  

    JB, glad you liked the blog. I hope it inspires you to reach for your dream of becoming a published author. You can do it. You're such a wonderful writer.

  4. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 10:36 AM  
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  5. Tamara LeBlanc // October 11, 2011 at 11:16 AM  

    What a thought provoking post!
    I wish I could think of some literature that might help me on my journey to self-actualization, but at the moment I'm at a loss.
    Hmm, for some reason the only thing that comes to mind is one of my favorite novels, The Call of The Wild. Sure its a book about a dog's journey, but it could definitely relate to us humans.
    Great post.
    Have a fantastic day,
    Tamara

  6. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 1:39 PM  

    Tamara, it's great to see you here. I also enjoyed The Call of the Wild. It depicts the enduring spirit of man and highlights our need for and relationship with the animals we love and care for.

  7. Connie Gillam // October 11, 2011 at 2:06 PM  

    Great post, Pamela.

    I think all writers would like to write a story that connects so universally that 300 years in the future our books are still being read.
    Jane Austen wrote about characters and their hopes and dreams. I'd love to have such a timeless book.

  8. Mary Ricksen // October 11, 2011 at 2:24 PM  

    Great blog Pam. I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and wanting to be a rural young American.
    Not so sure now. Kinda like this era!
    We all need inspiration!

  9. Patrice // October 11, 2011 at 2:33 PM  

    Pam,
    I agree that as you grow as a writer, you challenge yourself each time with fresh characters and story line. My "hero" stories are the hardest I've ever written, and I've learned and grown along the way.

  10. Mary Marvella // October 11, 2011 at 3:06 PM  

    Wow! I love it when a seasoned writer goes back to the story itself!

    Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote stories that are still relevant today.

    Jane Porter hits on the ways human nature works, especially family relationships.

  11. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 3:42 PM  

    Connie, oh to be as blessed as Jane Austin. Can you imagine it? Years later and people are still interested in her work.

  12. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 3:44 PM  

    Mary R, it's amazing how we connect with our characters so strongly that it often makes us wish for a new life experience.

  13. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 3:48 PM  

    Patrice, the joy of writing is that the more you do it the better you become. Cardboard characters no longer appeal to me anymore. I have to find something deeper in a character to love him or her.

  14. Pamela Varnado // October 11, 2011 at 3:52 PM  

    Mary M, for some reason, and don't shoot me, but I could never relate to Shakespeare. I enjoy the movie version of Romeo and Juliet but found the book too heavy a read. Maybe it's his love of tragic endings that makes me not want to read him often.

  15. Mary Marvella // October 11, 2011 at 4:32 PM  

    Ah, Pam. Othello is the story of love, hate, jealousy, betrayal, and a mixed marriage.

  16. Mona Risk // October 11, 2011 at 6:42 PM  

    Pam, what a great topic. Books touch the readers' heart when they feel the story comes from the heart.

  17. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 11, 2011 at 10:36 PM  

    Our eighth graders always read The Diary of Anne Frank. It is interesting to watch their evolution of self revelation during the reading. They start out invincible and defiant, I wouldn't let them do that to me--and slowly reach the self-actualization stage of--this is horrible, what if it happened to me? To think that the Diary of a 14 year old is amazing.

  18. Pamela Varnado // October 12, 2011 at 8:49 AM  

    Mona, I have books that I will never get rid of. They have just touched me so profoundly it would be giving up one of my children.

  19. Pamela Varnado // October 12, 2011 at 8:52 AM  

    Anne Frank's book made the war personal for us. We felt her fear, pain and the hopelessness of the situation. Otherwise it would just be this horribly sterile event that happened.

  20. Judy // October 12, 2011 at 9:22 AM  

    Pam, Great blog! I find I take away something from every book I read, whether it's a reaffirmation of something I think or believe in or don't believe in or a discovery of something new. Growing up in a small town I read a lot of books, opening a new world to me. I still feel that way about reading and now, of course, writing and creating my own worlds and characters.

  21. Josie // October 13, 2011 at 12:59 PM  

    Literature and books...Well, Pamela, you described my favorite pastime. Great blog!