Arts and Entertainment | Books

SoA professor James Wood talks consciousness, creativity to packed audience

  • FULL HOUSE | Adjunct Professor James Wood talks to students at a creative writing lecture, dispensing thoughts on the topic of contemporary conciousness in works from the Bible to Austen.

Those not lucky enough to get into School of the Arts adjunct professor James Wood’s graduate writing workshop this semester had the opportunity to hear the award-winning journalist and author speak Thursday night.

Wood, who has taught at Kenyon College and Harvard University, spoke on Oct. 18 about contemporary consciousness, and about how a contemporary author might “go about putting it on the page.”

Wood broached the lecture’s topic by asking, “What is contemporary consciousness, and what does it look like?” He went on to talk in detail about the two types of consciousness—external and internal—through which authors develop their characters. External consciousness entailed implied interiority, while internal consciousness entailed examined, or articulated, interiority. Wood expressed his points clearly by citing prominent examples from the Bible and from luminaries such as Samuel Beckett, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, and Norman Rush. Before Wood began speaking, papers with the literary excerpts he was going to cover were circulated to audience members so that they could follow along.

The first example of external consciousness Wood discussed was the sacrifice of Isaac—external in that it is, as Wood said, “reticent, but fraught with background,” since Abraham’s only human gesture is the lifting of his eyes. In contrast, Wood provided the story of King David and his son Absalom as a biblical example of internal consciousness, since it is written in self-reflective terminology (such as “he said in his heart”).

Then, he then cited a more modern example from the 19th century—the point in literary history when the notion of stream-of-consciousness writing became popularized slowly, but surely.

“In ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ it takes 80 pages for Elizabeth Bennet to ‘say to herself,’” Wood said. “Flaubert and James open up the mind. What we don’t find in Austen is what Elizabeth had for breakfast or how much the green house is going to cost. You can’t separate form from content.”

The concepts of external and internal consciousness as diametrically opposed “camps” emerged soon after. When it comes to contemporary consciousness, Wood said, “There aren’t any rules and there don’t need to be any camps.” What a writer must do, however, is avoid implied interiority from becoming too flattened and articulated interiority from becoming too stabilized. Wood said, “In your own writing, try—try to work out why the alive stuff’s alive.”

This was Wood’s third time giving a SoA Creative Writing Lecture in the six years since the lecture series’ inception. In fact, Wood was the first guest lecturer. The third time was, indeed, a charm. “I’ve never spoken to a bigger overflow crowd,” he said.

arts@columbiaspectator.com

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