Today in Overthinking: Identity and the Jar in Tennessee

One of my favorite poems is Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately for several reasons, and it’s just occurred to me that it might be a great metaphor for teaching the impact of identity in characterization. It’s such a slippery concept, and I’ve never thought I was particularly good at getting it across, but then I recently went back to the poem for the reasons and thought, “Oh, it’s right there.” So let’s try this again (waving to McDaniel students).

The concept of identity in characterization is difficult to summarize, but basically, it’s the idea that we construct identities for ourselves made up of the millions of tiny impacts throughout our lives (but most strongly in childhood) and those self-concepts become the ruling truths of our lives. The problem, of course, is that there is no ruling truth in life: reality is many-sided and random, a chaotic backdrop to our struggles to survive, and our search for meaning is both crucial and ultimately a construct. We decide what’s real and what it means.

The key to this is that it’s a construct that informs everything we do. If we grow up believing that we’re worthless, then we’ll reject anything that seems to show that we have worth: that’s not our reality. If we grow up believing we should be loved, we’ll reject anybody who doesn’t show us the respect that we deserve as lovable people. It works at an unconscious level, and it’s much more complicated that the quick description I’ve just given, but it is absolutely key to understanding your characters at a deeper level.

Note: This is not a Wound, the event in the past that shaped a character’s life. I am anti-Wound: people are too complex to be defined by one event. But the way characters respond to that event is definitely a reflection of identity. Horrible rejection that wounds the person who thinks she deserves to be loved is just another day in the park to the person who thinks she’s unlovable.

I love the idea that the jar Stevens writes about is a canning jar, putting things under pressure to preserve them for the future, seen through clear, strong glass even if their ideas are toxic and deadly, producing, if you will, a canned response to every event.

So let’s look at this and overthink it. (There’s a t-shirt that says “Hold on. Let me overthink this.” I must get that t-shirt.)

“Anecdote of a Jar” is very short, three stanzas. It’s about looking at a wilderness, untamed and chaotic that then becomes organized and knowable when a manmade jar is placed in the middle of it. The most common interpretation is that it’s about what civilization does to nature, but this time I looked at it and saw that jar as identity in the middle of the chaos of reality. The wilderness has no meaning until that jar is put down, then the chaos is seen in relation to the jar and becomes ordered, it’s behind the jar or to the right of the jar, it’s curved like the jar, it contrasts in color to the jar. The jar becomes the organizing point of the wilderness and the wilderness is defined and ordered in relationship to it.

I think that characters (and people) fill their jars and then define reality around the construct they’ve created. The jars are man-made (human-made), not “real” like the world around us, but the world is so chaotic, so lacking in pattern and justice, that we need our own measuring stick to judge it by.

One of the hardest concepts I ever had to wrap my head around is that events have no meaning until we give it to them. A small child is run down on the street: a tragedy. He would have grown up to be Hitler: a blessing. The event is just that, something that happened, no intrinsic meaning. Its meaning is something we decide on, to fit our identities. If we decide on something as a group, it becomes a Universal Truth (killing is wrong, etc.), but as writers we have to reject the idea of Universal Truths because there are no universal truths, there are just ideas that a lot of people agree on. Look at the impeachment divide: Is the impeachment a witch hunt or a delivery of justice? Well, who are you? Your identity, the stuff you’ve packed in your jar, will govern your view of the whole mess.

And our characters are the same way. The ideas they’ve packed in their jars, consciously or (much more likely) unconsciously, will become the organizing principle for the way they view the events in your story, that is, the wilderness of the narrative is measured by the protagonist’s jar (the protagonist owns the story). The randomness and chaos of reality, the background of your story, falls into place in the context of your character’s identity.

Character arc, then, may mean that the the jar breaks–I just found out I’m a werewolf, gonna have to start over on my idea of who I am–or that parts of the contents change–this event made me see that I was wrong about this one aspect, going to have to shift my worldview to accommodate that–but it’s always going to mean that the jar changes. And I’m really starting to think that the best stories are the ones where the protagonist’s jar gets smashed and she or he has to start over again.

Which brings us to conflict, two characters who are fighting for their jars’ control of the wilderness. The protagonist puts her jar down in the randomness of reality and the antagonist puts his jar down and the two stare at each other across a gulf of chaos, struggling to be architect of reality, to make his or her jar the defining principle. That struggle is in itself an organizing principle, it makes the wilderness/random events about this fight and turns it into a plot that ends with one jar in control of the landscape.

Yeah, I’m overthinking this, but I like this approach to identity. Feel free to tell me I’m nuts in the comments.

Also, I love that damn poem. Thank you, Wallace Stevens.

20 thoughts on “Today in Overthinking: Identity and the Jar in Tennessee

  1. I learned to hate myself from other people telling me how awful I was. (I maintain that I don’t go down the self hate parade unless someone else has been telling me this–I don’t have giant hate on for myself while like, crocheting alone.) You do have others defining you and judging you and that is where a lot of the self comes from too. I learned that I can’t act or sing from people rejecting me from theater and singing, for example. Nowadays, that varies because some people think I stink and some people think I don’t (hence why I’ve done both this year) but how the heck do I know who’s right and who’s wrong? As a book I’m reading right now says, if nine people tell you you’re X, then you’re probably X.

    1. Yeah, but who are those nine people? If nine people at a Trump rally tell me I’m awful, I doubt that I’d agree with them. Two days ago I gave a spare copy of one of my all time favorite books to my internist, whom I’ve known (professionally) 25 years. When I told her I didn’t know if she would like the book, she said that she was sure that she would enjoy anything I liked that well.

      All I could think was, “How do you know?” We’ve discussed a lot of stuff over the years, but tastes in fiction was definitely not one of them. Just because our politics jive doesn’t mean the rest of our preferences will. And personal tastes are extremely subjective. A certain amount of acting and singing are technical skills, but style and interpretation are much more mutable.

    2. But you’re still the one filling the jar. That is, you’re willing to accept other people’s opinions as your own.
      It’s one thing when people point out something you could improve on. It’s another when people try to define you–“You can’t sing, you’re not an actor, you’re not good at this.” If you accept those evaluations because, hey, a lot of people think that’s right, then you’re giving them permission to fill your jar.

      Forty percent of the people in this country approve of Trump. That should give you enough reason to reject a definition of yourself even if a lot of people say something is true.

  2. Unless those nine people have their own jars and their own agendas, in which case number ten might be the right one. Growing up, I had a lot of people tell me I was weird (uh, yeah, probably, but the implication was that was a bad thing, and it turns out as an adult maybe not so much) and unworthy of love or respect (nope–bite me). I believed them for a long time. Thank you therapy. As an adult (well, older adult), I now believe that I mostly don’t give a crap what other people think, with the exception of not liking to have the people I care about be upset with me.

    I love this analogy, Jenny.

    Is your jar half full, or half empty?

    1. Please – do NOT start on the half-full/half-empty thing. I have a page of replies and I wrote a PSA about Gary’s Amazing Three Step Process based on that stuff. I would be forced to share.

    2. Oh, hell my jar is overflowing. It needs winnowing, particularly the stuff near the bottom.

      First, define “weird.” Then don’t decide whether it’s good or bad (value judgments = constructing reality), decide whether it’s something you want to be. Proceed accordingly.

          1. And in mine. When my beloved niece applied to college I worried that I had pressed her too hard to consider the college I had briefly attended. When I confessed my fears to her mother she said, “Carleton embraces weirdness and Annie’s as weird as they come.”
            I refer to her as The Queen of Tangential Thought and I appreciate the richness she adds to my life every day.

  3. I’ve spent quite a lot of time lately thinking about the power of the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve spent my whole life knowing I can’t draw. Not one bit. Beyond awful at it. Then this year, I actually, seriously tried. And discovered that story was garbage – i can draw, and I’m even pretty good at it. Now I’m drawing recognisable portraits of people and allowing myself to believe I can become a skilled artist with more practice.

    That story limited me for nearly 40 years. I’m still rather shocked by that.

    i like the anology of the jar. It makes it clear how limited the jar is. Outside the jar there’s a whole heap of other stuff I could pull out of the chaos and put into my jar. Must ponder that.

  4. Overthinking. I can do that.

    The woman I was married to til death did us part suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder. They don’t call it that anymore, but unless I meet someone else that has it, I don’t need to know the new name. So, how many jars did she have? One for each personality? A six-pack, as I recall. She didn’t just have conflicts from setting a jar near an antagonist’s jar – she had them when she set one of her own jars near another of her own jars. But maybe I’m overthinking that.

    I finished Welcome to Temptation. Enjoyed it, as always. I’ll be moving on to Faking It because Dempseys, gotta go there. Anyway, Goodnight women. Jars. Nadine’s mama and Eve… one jar, or two? Matilda Veronica Betty etc…. one jar or many? Maybe I’m overthinking that, too.

  5. From a story-telling perspective, I find this analogy interesting. I’ve been going through reading and writing a lot of fanfiction lately, and it’s fascinating the huge variety of interpretations that different authors can bring to the same events and characters. I’ve been thinking about it a lot partly because I’m getting emails telling me ‘You could have done this’ or ‘this other version of events could have happened’, and yes, I could have done that, and that other version is also a valid path – there are a million different ways things could go that still fit known canon – but I wrote what I wrote for my reasons and either I’ve managed to sell it or I haven’t.

    1. Yep. Story-telling, like life, is shaped by the choices we make. The choices we don’t make are irrelevant. This is the path we and the stories took.

  6. I think I like this better as a real life introspection tool than for characters. Because it does feel like it puts words to experience in the way that the best metaphors due. (I’ve got a line

    I think because what storytelling training I have mostly comes from student theater, I tend to think of stories as layers. I start with the simplest layer (Southern blonde woman in 20s, likes leopard print, lets people underestimate her, has a secret) and then build up from there as I see how she interacts with and changes the story.

    Breaking a story down into discrete elements (conflict, goals, characters, scenes, etc.) is super helpful for me. But for some reason focusing on discrete pieces of a character (say, the beliefs that form their jar) instead of the whole character kills the character for me.

    I could see this being really helpful during the editing process though.

    1. I’m definitely seeing it for editing. Like, here are my 65000 or 85000 words, and if I pick through them for Char.A have I created, in hir words/actions, an internal consistency, or is there some kim chi mixed in with the apple butter. My beta reader is really good at finding those things, actually. “He wouldn’t do that.” Yep, you’re right, dang it.

  7. I have never thought of myself as a visionary or a leader. Even though one boss told me that was what I did.
    Until this year. This year I have internalized it. However I really need a manager to work with me…

    Very interesting to realize this at 60.

  8. Over years – at times, here – I’ve used and Used and USED that jar. I love that poem. And Stevens is the reason I love the color orange, green parrot feathers, Sunday mornings and Key West.

    Must go reread. What a solstice gift of reminder you’ve given us!

  9. Brilliant post.

    How to respond?

    Impeachment: A lot more facets of viewpoints out there than witch hunt vs. justice. It can be tribal. Education related. Class related. Faith related. etc., etc., etc. So much goes into this topic although the corporate sphere seems to portray it in a sports team metaphor where there is a supposed end to the game and then we’ll know who the winners and the losers are.

    Which only puts a huge exclamation point on the character jar for me.

    I started thinking about characters. There was Spike and Cordelia from the Buffyverse. The writers broke those characters for the sake of where they wanted to go (or needs of real life vs. show) as opposed to creating a story to get them there. (leaving it here because Jenny has written essays about them).

    Then there’s Game of Thrones the HBO show. The books take black characters and make them varying shades of gray over time. The show basically threw multiple character’s “universal truths” away in the end for the sake their version of the ending.

    Battlestar Galatica reboot: Implicit promise at the beginning. Big play this angle up from the producers and IMO complete letdown in the end because characters made huge jumps that the viewers were supposed to go along with. And they never did get to the implicit promise. Could the viewer has gotten there with these characters? Absolutely, but the writing must seed the end result or the viewer feels like their chain has been yanked. Which if it had been a book / book series is an automatic wallbanger for me and could well be the end of my relationship with an author.

    Then there’s a story in a paranormal romance series (I call it romance simply because the focus to me has always been about the couple). Anyway, there’s a book in the series which deals with rape / attempted rape of the viewpoint character. It really is vividly done. The seeding of the manipulation and how we get from here to there is exquisitely painful to watch. From the point of view of a protected, well loved female with little to no experience with violence in her life it’s spot on. Most American females who don’t have violence as part of their daily lives can relate I suspect. It captures something very rare and wow.

    However, from the point of view of an outcast minority character who inhabits a violent hierarchy world which is very very male dominated with not that many females in the show. Nope, not so much. Especially if the character is who the author claims her to be. Could it still happen? Absolutely. But it has to go down very differently which changes the story I suspect the author needed to tell.

    So you have this outstanding story (which I have no interest in reading again – just too much for me) against breaking the created character to get the reader there. What’s more important staying true to character or telling a story the author needed to tell with a character who can’t be “blamed?”

    So so many more examples to pick from. The newest female Dr Who has plenty of gender examples which break established character too. One in particular really pissed me off in the Alan Cummings episode. This is a writers’ choice of showing the world as it is vs. showing the world as it could be. I would’ve rather seen the later with Dr. Who given “universal truths” of character.

    And of course readers break the characters all the time because readers play / finish the stories in their own mental screening rooms so what the author intended the reader just threw away because it didn’t work for them.

    As you can see I’m still in the midst of thoughts on the topic.

    Thank you for the highly excellent thought provoking post.

  10. I love when you overthink things. It’s so helpful to the rest of us. Hi, Jenny! Hope you’re well. Merry Christmas.

  11. I love it when you overthink! Please do so more…

    Identity as a jar makes the concept easier for me and so much more tangible. I never thought of it this way.

    Thank you!

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