A Deeper Look At Outside In…Didacticism and Allegory

DidacticismThis is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel.

In writing Outside In, I wanted to create a modern myth of a person’s search for identity and responsibility using Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey of departure initiation, and return with the contemporary trials of alcohol, drugs, and sexual experimentation. Told in first-person present tense, Outside In was intended to enable readers to embark on Brad’s journey through his thoughts, perceptions, and encounters, thereby confronting readers with difficult questions that lie at the core of not only the individual, but society in general.

This type of literature is often referred to as didacticism and allegory. Didacticism emphasizes that the literature intends to offer something more to the readers other than pleasure and entertainment. This is a slippery slope. At its best, it gives readers a change to live vicariously through the characters and learn about aspects of life outside of their spheres of control and influence. Unfortunately, it too often reduces the literature to a boring, dull tool overloaded with information. The goal is to weave the information and instruction in and out of interesting characters and events to be entertaining as well as enlightening.

The morality plays of medieval Europe were examples of didactic literature. They were theatrical performances which used allegorical characters to teach the audience a moral lesson. Common themes included the seven deadly sins and repentance and redemption. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the litany of Dr. Seuss stories are more current examples of didacticism.

Allegory is similar and often confused with symbolism because an allegory can use symbols, but allegory is a complete narrative which involves characters and events representing abstract ideas and events. Symbolism can be used within any work for one object to represent another and give it a particular meaning. Animal Farm, in addition to being didactic is also an example of allegory. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is another example of a classic allegory. More modern examples include the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dune.

Following are examples of didacticism and allegory in Outside In:

  1. Allegorical Characters: As detailed in the deeper look on the characters in Outside In, each of the supporting characters surrounding Brad represent a conflicting emotion. They make up four points of a moral compass pulling him in a distinct direction through the course of the story. Astrid (hope), Haley (despair), Caldwell (Respect), and Cinch (irreverence). It is Brad’s connection to all of them — the good and the bad — that help him discover and accept the person he is.
  2. Excess and Instant Gratification: Outside In proposes identity can’t be found or fabricated but emerges from within when one has the courage to let go. This letting go for many of the characters in Outside In translates to a hedonistic pursuit involving alcohol, sex, and drugs, the vices so readily available to a person who wants to forget. These vices symbolize the modern trials people face in their journeys of becoming. What starts as recreational experimentation and the exploration of new experiences transform to obsession and complete loss of self. This descent into excess and instant gratification is meant to raise awareness of current societal issues with addiction and self-medication and pose the question.
  3. Identity As A Process: After the tragic death of a student and the loss of his teaching job, Brad loses his faith and sense of identity and has a quarter-life crisis. His reaction is to escape to the island community of Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie to rediscover who he is and what life has to offer. Along the way he learns identity cannot be found or fabricated, but emerges from within when a person has the courage to let go. This is the overall theme and moral of the novel that identity is not a fixed goal or an end but rather a process that continually unfolds and is defined by our connections and responsibility to the people, places and things around us.
  4. Island Characteristics: The unique attributes of isolation, finite resources, and the influence of water have always made islands an ideal setting for stories. They represent a mandala and symbol of the effort to unify self. Why I chose Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island for the setting of Outside In is for the Battle of Lake Erie History. Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous quote “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” from the historic battle is representative of the characters inner struggles to face and conquer their demons on their paths of self-discovery.
  5. Manifest Destiny Contrast: In the 1800’s Manifest Destiny captivated the imagination and drive of the American people by creating the belief that it was America’s mission to expand throughout the continent. By starting the journey of the protagonist in St. Louis, known as the Gateway to the West, but rather than forging west in search of a better life, he delves deeper into the middle of the country, it is a direct contrast to the concept of Manifest Destiny. With minimal external unexplored land and frontier remaining, the character’s path represents the need to look deeper in oneself to find the answers to problems and that dreams don’t lie on the horizon; they lie within.

Stay connected to this website or follow me on Facebook @ByCooper, on Twitter @ByCoop, or on Instagram @dougiecoop for more deeper looks at aspects of Outside In.

A Deeper Look At Outside In…Research

Research DetectiveThis is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel.

One of the frequent questions all writers get is, Where do your ideas come from? The more realistic and visceral the writing is, the more that question becomes, Is the story autobiographical? I mean, writers write about what they know, right? Well, sort of.

Since my novel Outside In is told in first person present tense about a teacher becoming lost in a haze of alcohol, drugs and sexual experimentation after a student dies of a drug overdose in the teacher’s classroom, I get the latter question… A LOT. While I’ll never admit what actually happened and what is pure fiction, I would like to discuss how I research a novel.

Regardless of type or genre, all writing can be placed on a continuum between actual experience and imagination. Whether it’s a reporter relaying facts, a non-fiction writer describing a historical event, or a fiction writer creating a dystopian future, there will be interpretation of experience and use of imagination in assembling the narrative to relay the desired message.

Following are the four main types of research I perform in crafting a novel with an example for each from Outside In:

1) Empirical: Derived from direct or sensory experience, this is the method writer who lives the experiences and writes about them. The best way to capture the smells, light, sounds, people, and energy of an experience is to actually live it. While this technique leads to the most authentic writing, it also carries the greatest risk, time and financial investment.

Example: To capture the settings for both Outside In and the novel I am currently working on, The Investment Club, I lived at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and in Las Vegas, respectively. Setting is like another character. It provides readers another way to identify and connect with the story and also serves as a natural platform from which to sell. While brief visits may provide insight to an environment, to get setting right one must walk the streets, breathe the air, and interact with the people over an extended time.

2) Repurposed: If direct experience is not a viable option, then perhaps a similar experience can be repurposed to put the mind in a similar space and capture the desired feelings. As a writer, I’m always recording. When I meet someone, travel to a place, or have any type of unique experience, regardless of context, I file it away to use later.

Example: Without revealing any spoilers, let me just say I didn’t experience all the sexual encounters first-hand. I might have had similar experiences there or elsewhere, and in reflecting on those experiences, I adapted and transferred the core feelings from one situation to the next to capture the details and emotion. In doing this, many of the repurposed sex scenes are actually more stimulating than those that I actually experienced because in writing the repurposed situations I was experiencing them for the first time rather than recalling from memory.

3) Academic: This is the traditional research in which the writer reads other works on the subject or interviews people who have experience on the desired topic to gain the required level of understanding to give the writing authenticity.

Example: For Outside In, to learn the history and impact of cocaine, I read Dominic Streatfeild’s Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography. His research provided a comprehensive history from the jungles in Bolivia and Columbia to its past medicinal uses and over-the-counter availability to interviews in prisons to the inside of crackhouses. Ultimately I didn’t use a lot of this info, but it definitely contributed to the style and allowed me to develop a feel for the excess cocaine represents.

4) Inventive: This is research produced directly from the mind of the writer usually starting with, What if? It is often triggered by another event or a combination of actions that take the writer into open creative space.

Example: While I was a teacher for a brief time, I never had a student die in my classroom and was never forced out of a job. To capture the feelings of this experience in Outside In, I imagined a person who had done everything he was supposed to and dedicated his life to the pursuit of a career and thought, What if he started to have doubts about his choices and it was all taken away? What would he do? Where would he go? What would he be feeling? Once I was seeing things from this perspective, the bitterness, anger, and wanting to escape came naturally.

To decide the best method to use, I balance my desire to produce the most authentic writing with the practicality of the least time and financial investment and risk exposure required.

Amusing

Any second now

Any second now, the sun will rise.
On the horizon
My muse will emerge.
Charging forward,
Awakening me,
Filling emptiness.

Any second now, Life can begin.
In a moment
The wait will end.
Bringing the light,
Inspiring me,
Igniting passions.

Any second now, the call will come.
With my answer
I’ll wage the war.
Entering Life,
Pursuing Truth,
Looking for Beauty.

Any second now, the sun will set.
Darkness will soothe
As I patiently wait.
Continuing to dream,
Searching for hope,
Knowing no end.