Frankenstein: Accessing the Text through Stitches and Stories

Daily we wear marks on our bodies that tell some piece of our story. How often do we take ownership of those stories and tell them in the way we want them to be known? Too often outsiders make assumptions, ask insensitive questions, pass judgement, or assign meaning to these memory markers. I wanted to encourage students to write their own versions of the stories behind their marks. Are these marks imperfections or embellishments? Marks of growing stronger or grappling to overcome loss? Full disclosure, I began thinking of scars because of the requirement for our 10th grade honors students to read Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Former students claimed to be as scarred by stumbling through the difficult novel as Victor’s Creature was by his creator’s greed. Scars and our marks became the link between the classic to our present.

For us to better relate to the struggle between Victor and his Creature, we began by cataloguing our marksㄧbirthmarks, scars, moles, burns, streaks, frecklesㄧthrough journaling. From there, the amazing Amelia Gramling, poet and resident artist with PAGES, guided us as we brainstormed our most meaningful marks and the physical regions where we feel our strength lies. Using concrete metaphors, we brought description and insights to parts of the body. We pre-wrote communally, passing the page from writer to writer. Each first line began with a metaphor, the middle two lines showed action, and the final line included another metaphor. A student example for the hand was: “The hand is a feather/ Moving delicately across the page/ Flying free through the air/A hummingbird.”

We moved from prewriting to reflecting and shaping the stories we wanted to tell about our individual scars. A red patch of skin on an ankle became a story about walking over a rocky shore into the ocean for the first time. An indention on the chin told a tale of walking the family dog down a little stretch of sidewalk before the dog bolted, taking the walker with him. Stretch marks on the back of legs acted as a reminder of outgrowing the title of smallest kid in the class.   

In Frankenstein, the Creature’s physical scars carry no bearing on his self worth until he attempted to interact with another living being. The Creature’s realization about how others saw him led to the story behind his origin. Chased off because of his disfigurement and intimidating size, the Creature spirals into loneliness prompted by misunderstanding, fear, judgment, and rejection. I feel that, through our writing and sharing, we empathized with the Creature’s struggles and conquered some of our own. We tapped into our insecurities by bringing to the light these imperfections we were taught or encouraged to cover up.

Our next step was to map our discoveries symbolically on the outline of a body. Bringing our stories together, we took on the roles of both Victor and the Creature as we created a single life-sized body where we individually sketched our chosen marks. Our stories were stitched together on this body just as Victor pieced together his creation. But where the Creature never found his voice or acceptance in what he was and where he came from, we  supported each other in sharing our vulnerability through storytelling. We declared what could be seen and what remained hidden within; we gave power to each other’s stories through acknowledgement and shared experience.  

The outcome was commiseration for the Creature and each other. We gained a better understanding of the novel and developed a stronger understanding of ourselves and our class community. We aren’t the only ones who experience observers putting their spin on our stories. We all know the line, “It’s alive!” and probably think of Frankenstein, except this quotable exclamation wasn’t penned by Mary Shelley in her novel. Hollywood added this line to the 1931 film version. Students know the line, but now they know the truth behind it all. With a bit of coaxing, writing, and mapping, we uncovered that the Frankenstein of their Halloween memories is far from Victor’s Creature. He’s actually much closer to us than originally thought if we take some time to comprehend his story and open up about those marks that record our own.

 

Making metaphor from scratch

Mary Reufle begins at the beginnings. She offers “Metaphor as time, the time it takes for an exchange of energy to occur … if metaphor is not idle comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it unites the world by its very premise.”

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When we make metaphors in literature, we do so to convert the abstract into the concrete, the sensory, and the tangible—how loneliness is sometimes a human-shaped crater (Haruki Murakami), and the classroom is sometimes a jail of other people’s interests (Ta-Nehisi Coates). And with matter as with language we only have so many elements at our disposal from which to incite an event, to make something happen. So many letters in the alphabet. So many noble gases on the periodic table.

But what about when, as it happened back in January, whatever committee decides these things votes to add four new elements to the table? How does language adapt, balloon to meet a world—or even a universe that becomes more knowable, and simultaneously, less familiar, or even viable, the longer people live in and of it—the more we name what these elements are and what they can be used to make, what they can be used to fuel, and who they can be used to burn?

Brian Harnetty is asking some of those same questions in Shawnee, Ohio.

What does fracking sound like?

When I was sixteen, fracking was not yet accounted for in my reservoir of words. By the time my grandfather was twenty, “atomic” and “bomb” became indelibly fused in his. Bomb for every generation thereafter as something it had never been before: building block, integral, elemental, necessary.

Atomic.

Material changes in the environment, technologies dividing that which was previously sutured, necessarily transform our metaphors. What students in an Ohio classroom have sensory or emotional context to add tangible meaning to fracking? To deforestation? Nuclear power plant? These concepts for many of us despite increased access to almost instant definitions remain cloaked in abstractions. We know, but do we know?

This week, I asked my roommates (who are assuredly NOT poets) to be guinea piimg_0012gs for an exercise in knowing/not knowing. I asked them to listen to four sounds I found online, a minute a piece. Each participant knew the origin for half of the sounds, but not the same half as the other participant. While they listened, they freely associated on notebook paper. I asked them to try to avoid writing “about” the sound, and instead, to write inside of it, using whatever they heard and what it evoked to fill in the gaps of sensory information. The four sounds I played were:

 

 

 

After the four minutes were up, we talked.

Everybody agreed that they felt their writing had “better direction” when they knew ahead of time to what they were listening. For instance, Lane, who was told that the latter sound was a recording of the atom splitting, wrote about a lesson he once sat through on Chernobyl.

Lizzie, who didn’t, wrote,

“Running rampant, earth can’t speak.”

Taking those words, voicing them aloud over the track of the detonation, sets hair on the back of my neck on edge.

A living metaphor.image1

Now, imagine having the chance to extend this lesson further, to take the knowing and the not knowing and fuse them together in the classroom.

What events could we co-conduct, I wonder?

Looking forward to your thoughts.