The Eye aims to publish the best writing of community college students in the state of New Hampshire. Started on the campus of NHTI—Concord's Community College in 1991, the student board of editors are now soliciting submissions for this new online journal from students at all seven campuses in the state (Lakes Region, River Valley, White Mountains, Great Bay, Nashua, Manchester, and NHTI).
I don't know how to start. That’s the truth. It’s not writer’s cramp that’s holding me back. How can it be? I’m not a writer. You might be. Or, maybe, you’re a wannabe writer. Either way, if you don’t already know by now, I’ll let you in on a well known secret: writing ain’t easy. Writing hurts. Writing pains have no equal. You will discover that despair if you insist on writing that great American novel. For your own sake and sanity, please, don’t even think about it.
Here is what happened back in 2005. I had spare time, so I tried writing a story. I sat at my PC, tapped the keyboard every day, and watched as words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages appeared on the screen. There was no pressure. This is a piece of cake was my first thought. You caught that cliché right away. Sure you did. Not me, though. That’s how uninformed I was about writing. It didn’t take long for the comfort level to wear off. I kept writing, and nothing good seemed to be happening with the story. There was no plot, the characters were forgettable, and they remained dull nonentities in the story. I needed help.
The bookstore seemed to be a logical place to begin my quest for knowledge about the mysterious world of writing. Dozens of “How to Write” books lined the shelves and each reference promised a sure-fire way to write that great American novel. I bought a few books. Wow, this is great. I will bang out one terrific best-seller in no time. I believed that. I really did. Honest. You have a right to chuckle. Not one of you would be so gullible. However, I was. I figured that I was prepared to make my mark in the literary world of fiction writing.
Enthusiasm reigned during the next several months. I read the books and applied the writing tips into my manuscript. I wrote thousands of words each day. Then, reality shattered my dream world. My story was dreadful. Not one of you would write such garbage. What in blazes is going on? What should I do? This business of writing a novel was not as easy as I had anticipated.
My mind was fuzzy. I was depressed—that, I can remember. Perhaps you have experienced a similar letdown during your writing endeavors. If so, you may be able to empathize with my feelings. Some time passed—I am not sure how long—but I tried writing again. Nothing had changed. The prose remained mundane. I was stuck in a writing quagmire. It was time for action.
The word persist has always been a close friend of mine. That is why I took a fresh look at what had just taken place. I needed to learn the basics. Therefore, I started from the beginning by taking a writing course. The structure and discipline in a classroom helped. The immediate feedback allowed us to re-examine our work, make changes, and complete projects while meeting a deadline. This class gave me a solid foundation. My progress might have ended there had I not been fortunate enough to meet another teacher. We chatted one evening and she encouraged me to take a course that she would be teaching next semester. The thought of learning more about the writing craft appealed to me. I was thrilled to have a chance to sit in a class with eleven bright students. There was no doubt in my mind that the next few months in the classroom would enhance my writing skills.This did happen. However, I failed to anticipate the anguish that I would encounter.
Our teacher demanded excellence from every student. She expected us to work hard and to produce quality writing. This advanced writing course would be a challenge. My headaches started immediately. These were not ordinary headaches. I was sure that the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Black Hawks were battling it out for the Stanley Cup inside my head as hockey pucks kept rattling around and bouncing off the interior wall of my skull. That torture went away from time to time but returned on a regular basis during the remainder of the semester. That wasn’t all. Writing teachers might not want you to read what I have to say next.
I couldn’t sleep. Oh, yes, my friends who want to become writers, once you venture into the “Black Hole” of the writer’s world you will inherit permanent insomnia—guaranteed. Consternation will stick to your brain like Super Glue. You will toss and turn in your bed every night just thinking about your story. How do I make it better? Why can’t I come up with an interesting plot? Why are my characters so flat? Where is my creativity? The insanity of it all is making me cranky, irritable, and short tempered. Those images will haunt you day and night and will remain inside your guts as permanently as words chiseled in stone. Believe me. This is true.
Do I blame my teachers or the courses for this torment? I do not. Both improved my writing skills, although you would not know it after reading this. Despite the setbacks, the re-writes, the highs and lows, the impossible dreams, and the anguish, I have learned to love writing. I am hooked.
Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over!” That is part of my philosophy. I’ll keep writing.
Oh, yes, there is one more thing. Your frustration of not being able to write that perfect word, that perfect sentence, that perfect paragraph and that perfect story will linger forever. Do you still want to write that great American novel? Don’t even think about it.
When I met you,
you told me you were broken
and the frayed strings of your hair
when they crossed the bow of your tongue.
Too many unskilled hands
had convinced you that your frame was warped
had caused you to pull the strings from your own head
but you still sounded so sweet.
You discovered that
how you were made
has little impact on what you can make
and you stood straight
re-aligning the frets of your vertebrae.
The thousands of tiny scars
that blend in the varnish of your skin
only serve to refract the light,
harmonize, and amplify the perfectness of the notes
you have made and arranged in a way
to paint what you have been through
and give it a meaning more profound than pain.
Your eyes, sky-streaked with stratus
shine on the rosin,
your thousands of hidden fractures make you beautiful,
you are not broken,
you are priceless.
Victim memoirs, such as Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of the Holocaust, The Pianist, are written to bear witness to the horrors to which societies can fall victim. The memoirist’s words call up fear in the reader: fear of loss, death, and pain (Segal, qtd. in Klempner 76). By using his story to insist on our empathy, the author shares his pain and in doing so, adds the reader to the chorus of voices crying, “never again.” The writer of dystopian young adult literature, such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, depicts “societies whose structures are horrifyingly plausible exaggerations of our own” (Scholes, qtd. in Sambell 248), with the purpose of leading children to question the leadership of adults, to avoid blind, zealous faith in their leaders, and to infuse in children the belief that they can change the direction in which society is heading. The victim memoir and young adult dystopian novel appear on the surface to have little in common, but they also share a common societal purpose, that is to prevent future civilizations from falling prey to our human failures. The memoirist works from the truth of a horrible past, the dystopic author from the imagined failed future, but they are linked by their shared warning to humanity.
Although both Katniss, the protagonist in Collins’ trilogy, and Szpilman, the Holocaust memoirist, are separated by time, place, and literary genre, their experiences and responsibilities are very similar; whether in a lush and forested man-made gladiator arena or in the walled in and bombed out ghettos of Warsaw, their worlds are created to ensure their deaths, but how they succeed in surviving these imposed dangers, and how they tell their cautionary tales, varies. In the young adult novel, The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen was born into a fictional post-apocalyptic dystopia where America once stood. Her father died when she stood at the edge of childhood, hurtling her into an adulthood where she was not only responsible for her own life but also those of her cherished little sister and broken mother. Wladyslaw Szpilman’s World War II memoir, The Pianist, begins in 1939 when he was a twenty-eight-year-old pianist and Germany invaded Warsaw. What was once a sophisticated and fashionable city quickly crumbled around him as he tried to save himself and his family while the Holocaust was unleashed on Europe.
Katniss and Szpilman both took on the imposing responsibility for the survival of their families, despite their relative youth and the increased risk to themselves. Katniss left the guarded enclosure of District 12, the fenced-in limits imposed by the oppressive government of Panem, to hunt and gather food for her family when it became clear that her mother was not able to save her children from starvation. The young, female protagonist says:
I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips. I couldn’t walk into that room with the smoky fire from the damp branches I had scavenged at the edge of the woods after the coal had run out, my hands empty of any hope. (Collins 28)
It is at this point, when she feels like giving up, when she feels that she is not up to the responsibility of keeping her family alive, that she is bolstered by a gift of bread from a boy she doesn’t know. The bread and the chance at survival that it represents give her the strength to return to her home. It is the day after this hopelessness is transformed to hope by the simple gift of bread that she takes to the woods and begins hunting: an illegal activity in the districts. She risks death at the hands of predators and the agents of the government to keep her family alive. She puts herself in danger every day to protect her sister while at home by directly staving off starvation, and then indirectly when she lines up people to watch over her family and make sure they do not starve while she takes her sister’s place in the gladiator arena.
Wladyslaw Szpilman also turned aside chances to save himself time and time again because he was unable to afford to save his entire family and seemed crushed by his inability to do so. His piano playing for Polish Radio, a job that came with some renown, followed by his playing at the cafés that catered to the Jewish elite while the masses starved and died in the streets, brought in the only income in his family once the war started until finally, he lost even that. Szpilman writes:
I earned from one day to the next, and whatever I earned we ate. The beginning of the action in the ghetto had found me with only a few hundred zloty in my pocket. I was shattered by my helplessness, and by having to watch as my richer friends easily secured their families’ safety. . . I alone might somehow be able to save us, through my popularity as a performer, and so I felt responsible. (91-92, 94)
Research shows that many Jews chose not to flee as the Nazis arrived because of the perception that they added to the likely survival of the group. They believed that their skills or status could help guarantee safety of them all (Suedfeld 853-54). Szpilman continued to find more work, but it wasn’t enough in the end to save them. They shared a final meal together of a single caramel divided into six pieces before they were finally separated. Szpilman expected to be on the train with his family that took them to the gas chambers, but at the last minute he was pulled out of line and told to run, and he does run, driven, he describes, “by compulsive animal fear” (106). He is devastated as one who failed in his responsibility when he sees his family shut up in the trains and sent to their deaths. He writes, “I turned away and staggered down the empty street, weeping out loud, pursued by the fading cries of the people shut up in those trucks. It sounded like the twittering of caged birds in deadly peril” (102). All his sacrifices failed to accomplish what he so desperately worked for: his family’s survival.
Neither Katniss nor Szpilman have any control over the external forces exerted on their societies by the presiding regimes. When faced with a near absolute absence of power, both characters respond by trying to grasp control over the only thing within reach; the survival of their families. These two worlds, Warsaw under the Nazi regime, and Panem under the control of the Capital are cruel places, devoid of much kindness or compassion; strangers are often afraid to offer help to those in need, and they are often unable to help even children. These ravaged societies have devolved to the point where human decency is lost, yet both Szpilman and Katniss risk their lives trying to save their families. The perception of self-control correlates directly with psychological and physical well-being and survival (Bruce and Thornton 598) It is this perceived self-control over the survival of their loved ones that allows them to hope that they will survive when everywhere they turn they are faced with the certainty of failure. It is this perception that allows them to ignore the reality of their situations and to believe that they can change their inevitable fate. The reader is given hope for mankind by the survival of the protagonist of the young adult novel and also the resilience and survival of the memoirist.
Katniss and Szpilman both belong to groups marginalized and segregated by authoritarian regimes who carry out the brutalities depicted in both books but manage to survive in a David-versus-Goliath archetype in which the underdog prevails. Initially, neither is expected to live. Both survive, although their survival defies reason. Sixty years before her birth, the government that ruled where America once stood, found itself under attack from the thirteen districts that surround the capital. One is destroyed in a nuclear attack, the remaining twelve are crushed and remain at the mercy of the Capital. Katniss becomes a tribute from her district in the annual Hunger Games, an event staged by the Capital, which pits young men and women, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, against each other in a fight to the death. Katniss decided to step up as a “volunteer” when her younger sister was selected in the lottery. Katniss chose to take her place, likely guaranteeing her own death to give her sister a chance at survival. District 12 has only had two winners in the seventy-four-year history of the Game, “in District 12. . . the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse” (22). Katniss explains, “. . . the real message [from the Capital] is clear. look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen” (19). The Capital keeps the population in a state of near starvation, fenced in and away from sources of food, reliant on the scraps given by the Capital to those strong enough to work, and kills those who complain. But despite Katniss being outsized and out-trained by many of her competitors, she used her wit and skill to survive and win the Games.
Brutal statistics and decrees clearly paint the fatalistic chances of Szpilman, a Jew in Nazi-controlled Warsaw, surviving the Holocaust. In the epilogue of The Pianist, the German musician and poet Wolf Biermann tells us that there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland when Adolf Hitler came to power (qtd. in Szpilman 212). The Nazis killed all but 240,000 of these men, women and children, including Szpilman’s parents, brother, and two sisters. When the Nazis invaded Warsaw, they began issuing decrees requiring Jews to hand over money and property, forbidding them to ride the trains, and establishing the walled-in ghettos where Warsaw’s Jews were required to live and starve, unable to buy the food on the other side of the walls. The Germans made the punishment for not adhering to the decrees death, but they also doled out death for no apparent reason, keeping the Jewish population in a state of perpetual fear, reducing their lives to base luck. Szpilman spent four-and-a half years in Nazi-controlled Warsaw while all around him people were being murdered and starving to death. He came close to death himself more than once, but through it all he survived through a combination of luck, timing, and his renown as a musician.
Both of these texts show the reader the dark side of human failure through the repeated death of innocents and the cruelty of having one’s life mean nothing to those who hold it in their hands. One literary critic links these two disparate genres, writing that “dystopian warnings reside in a deeply pessimistic interpretation of human nature, which the atrocities of the Holocaust reveal only too plainly” (Sambell). Katniss’s sister survives because Katniss volunteers to take her place, but twenty-two other boys and girls die. In The Pianist, Szpilman describes witnessing a scared ten-year-old boy shot in the head for the arbitrary “offense” of failing to tip his cap to a German policeman (128-29). The nightmare-like quality of these two texts demands that the reader pay attention and make moral judgments. The reader must choose where he or she stands in this world depicted on the page; the reader must likewise choose whether to heed the warnings of the writers, which emerge in a chorus-like fashion.
Music does indeed run deeply through both Collins’ and Szpilman’s books. It begins in The Pianist with the whistles used by smugglers to communicate to each other. Wladyslaw Szpilman was a pianist and composer, his father a violinist. He used his musical skill and connections to keep his family alive until that was no longer possible and then he turned to his musical connections to help him hide for the remainder of the war. His final protector turned out to be a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, with whom he connected while playing for him Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor (177). The nocturne Szpilman played became a pure form of communication about the commonality of two men, one powerful and holding the life of the other in his hands. In exchange for this gift of music and the connection it allowed, Szpilman was given the gift of bread and life. Wilm Hosenfeld might well have offered bread and life to Szpilman without receiving this musical gift as shown in his own writings. Hosenfeld declares in his journals that “the greatest ideal on earth is human love,” and he shows that not only does he include Polish Jews in this, but that he is disturbed by and condemns the immoral acts of his compatriots (196). The connection, however, formed between the two men was much strengthened by Szpilman’s playing.
There are researchers who believe that music came before language as a way for humans to communicate (Swallow 41) and that music has great potential “for stimulating and cementing social integration and personal relationships” (Blacking, cited in Swallow 42). It is this innate communication that Szpilman and his German officer find together when they met in a world in which all spoken communication between their two groups was impossible due both to language differences and to disruptive stereotypes. The Nazi regime declared Jews to be on par with animals, and while this officer did not believe this to be true, as we learn in his diaries, there was a level of distrust between the two men based only on position that could not be denied (196). Chopin’s notes played through Szpilman’s hands gave the two men a common ground on which to truly meet as men and equals. Without the musical connection shared, trust and equality may have been nearly impossible to find.
It is through this constant scrutiny that Katniss finds her greatest means of survival. She must connect to and win the support of the viewing public to beat the Capital and stay alive. Back home, Katniss is a solitary person, having only one friend. She is seen as “sullen and hostile,” traits which will not endear her to the public. She must learn to open up to the cameras, show herself as someone who fights to survive and loves, whether that love is real or feigned and even if she is unable to discern the difference in this human laboratory the Capital has created. She must become someone the viewers can identify with as they fight for their own survival back home. The cameras are on Katniss every moment, and every action, every song, and every vulnerability are recorded and transmitted to all of Panem, offering an opportunity for human connection and a chance for her to demand that the Capital see her as “more than just a piece in their Games” (236), as an individual. This trait that both ensures her survival and ultimately endangers her. When Rue lies dead, Katniss covers her wounds in wildflowers and weaves these yellow and violet blooms into her hair, knowing the cameras will have to show the act itself or at least the result of her act of defiance, a small murdered child honored and mourned by someone who loved her. When Katniss does this, she is asking the bystanders to bear witness to this madness, forcing the viewers at home to recognize the wrong being done. According to Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatrist who has studied trauma and recovery extensively, victims demand “action, engagement, and remembering” from bystanders (Faimon 239). By engaging the viewers at home to this abuse, Katniss can enlist their help in defeating the Capital.
In comparison, Wladyslaw Szpilman must become invisible because to be noticed, to call attention to himself in any way, would mean death. He lives in abandoned apartments, a hospital, an attic with no roof, and even the building that houses the staff of the Warsaw fortress commando unit, silently, leaving no mark. It is only through ceasing to exist that he survives the greatest part of the war. It is only at the end and for a very short time that he is able to become visible and human again. When he uses his music again and plays for the German officer and sets himself in front of this man who could be his executioner, becoming again a man with a history and a possible future, he sets himself apart from the nameless men and women who have already been murdered. He then must fade back into the shadows to survive the final stretch leading to liberation. When he wrote his story, a year after his freedom from his Nazi oppressors, he, like other authors of painful memoirs, also required something of the bystanders; he asked them to “share the burden of pain” (Herman, qtd. in Faiman 239). He needed the world to remember the injustice and horror that millions of Jews experienced while millions of others looked the other way. He warned the future about its past.
The other way that the survival of Katniss Everdeen and Wladyslaw Szpilman appear so different lies in how they each maintain or mold their mutable identities. Wladyslaw Spilman, as the title suggests, is a pianist. That is how he sees himself, through the lens of music, performance, and composition. Even when he has no piano for two-and-a-half years, who he is to himself does not change, and he anchors himself to life during the darkest times with his music. Szpilman writes:
From early in the morning until I took this meal, as I lay there with my eyes closed, I went over in my mind every composition I had ever played, bar by bar. Later, this mental refresher course would prove to be useful: when I went back to work I still knew my repertory and had almost all of it in my head, as if I had been practicing all through the war. (168)
This ability to lose himself in the internal music allows him to remain sane and to keep hold of an immutable, essentialist version of who he is (Stein 449). When he and his German Officer are parting for the last time, Szpilman gives him his name, the last thing he has left to give, a label of some renown attached to his musical core, and tells him with absolute certainty that he will be working for the Polish Radio playing piano when the war is over. He says, “If anything happens to you, if I can help in any way, remember my name: Szpilman, Polish Radio” (181). He will have to learn to deal with the deaths of his friends and family, but he does not lose himself while he is struggling to survive.
Katniss, on the other hand, must entirely remake herself to survive the Games. She must use the skills that she learned as a hunter and gatherer, but at the same time put aside the air of a lone predator and open herself up for the world to see. Some of what she shows is true, some begins as an act, but this baring of emotion changes her in ways that she finds confusing. When the Games end and she is on her way, victorious, back to District 12, she describes trying to discover who she is now in this way:
As I slowly, thoroughly wash the makeup from my face and put my hair in its braid, I begin transforming back into myself. Katniss Everdeen. A girl who lives in the Seam. Hunts in the woods. Trades in the Hob. I stare in the mirror as I try to remember who I am and who I am not. . . I only know that I feel like I’ve been lying to someone who trusts me. Or more accurately, to two people. I’ve been getting away with it up to this point because of the Games. But there will be no Games to hide behind back home. (371)
Katniss finds herself alive, to a great extent because of the emotional connection she made to the viewers in their own homes, but she does not know how to mesh the character she played on television with the person she was before. She no longer knows which of these two selves is real. She is alive but divided.
No one knows how he or she will react under the extreme stress illustrated by these two books. Will he abandon responsibility or take on more? Will he lose himself or stay true to who he knows himself to be before the difficulties began? How will he survive? The writers of dystopian young adult novels and victim memoirs put forth the situations in ways that require the reader to consider their own reaction, to prepare to be asked and to also find ways to avoid the questions in the first place. Katniss Everdeen has to change who she is in full view of her world, to reach out in order to live. Wladyslaw Szpilman holds tight to himself as he and the world he knows fades into the darkness in order to survive and again bring his music into the light. In these two works—one fictional, one true—the reader sees two individuals struggle with these questions and answer them in some difficult ways while bringing the reader the hope that is necessary to change the questions asked.
Bruce, Marino A., and Michael C. Thornton. “‘It’s My World?’” Exploring Black and White Perceptions of Personal Control.” The Sociological Quarterly 45.3 (2004): 597- 612. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Books, 2008. Kindle file.
Faimon, Mary Beth. “Ties That Bind: Remembering, Mourning, and Healing Historical Trauma.” American Indian Quarterly 28.1/2 (2004): 238-51. JSTOR. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.
Klempner, Mark. “Navigating Life Review Interviews with Survivors of Trauma.” The Oral History Review 27.2 (2000) 67-83. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
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Swallow, Michael. “The Brain — Its Music and its Emotion: The Neurology of Trauma.” Music, Music Therapy and Trauma: International Perspectives. Ed, Julie Sutton. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2002. 41-53. Ebrary. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.
Stein, Alexander. “Music and Trauma in Polanski’s The Pianist (2002).” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 24.7 (2007): 440-54. Proquest. Web. 17 Apr.2012.
Suedfeld, Peter. “Reactions to Societal Trauma: Distress and/or Eustress.”Political Psychology 18.4 (1997): 849-61. JSTOR. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.
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