Actors, Frank Kermode, and Jelly Bean

This week a three-year old Collie Dog named Jelly Bean moved in with me and Natalie Portman won a Best Actress Academy Award. I admire Ms. Portman’s intelligence and accomplishments.  She once remarked the purpose for creating a work of art is opening a conversation. For me, this is a truly stunning statement; I wonder exactly what kind of conversation art, literature particularly, open? How is this conversation opened? For me it is a privilege to engage with these magnificent texts and all the talented people in the International Programme. Part of my challenge as a student, a reader and a writer is entering into these conversations. If you are wondering what this has to do with my Collie Dog, Jelly Bean, it is all about focus.

I am sure you can appreciate the intense level of energy, intelligence and emotional needs of a young, 30 kilo dog bred to herd Herefords in, well, Herefordshire. Suddenly integrating Jelly Bean’s needs into my daily routine requires a fresh focus on every other aspect of my day, including my study time. She and I run three times a day, so I am quite tired just now as well as very busy. Just as I began to wonder how I would adapt my study plan for the next few weeks Natalie Portman’s Oscar was announced reminding me of her insightful comment.  I wonder what conversation she intended to open with her role in ‘Black Swan’.  I like to think about how actors prepare for roles; what kind of insights did Ms. Portman have into her ‘Black Swan’ character?

Listening to actors discuss characters is very revealing. Fiona Shaw’s discussion of Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia changes my perception of that franchise completely. How actors perceive characters is quite interesting; they seem to be intensely focused on specifics.  It occurred to me, while resting between jogs with Jelly Bean, that my study time is best spent on specifics. I had another Eureka! moment when I realized this is what Frank Kermode meant by his remark, ‘commentaries are responses to specific extracts not discussions of whole texts.’ By Wednesday this week started to feel like to perfect intersection of necessity and opportunity.

My great need is closing the gap between reading whole texts and developing insightful, analytical, well constructed essays. Opportunity presents itself in the shape of Jelly Bean and other demands on my time; it also presents itself in my review of essays and reading notes.  I have produced more detailed work this year, especially compared with past exam essays. Dissatisfaction with past work is actually a wonderful, uncomfortable feeling because it makes me realize what I learned.

I have learned actors have great insights into texts. Many whose work I admire talk about details in their readings of texts upon which their work is based. James Franco left LA immediately after the Academy Award ceremony he hosted; he hurried back to Yale and his PhD work in English Literature. That sounds like remarkable focus. Depending on who is speaking one can find heaven or the devil in the details; being an optimist I elect the heavenly option. Frank Kermode, some talented actors and my darling Jelly Bean are helping me keep those details in sharp focus.

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