Kafka in Letters: Critical Thought in the Creative Process

Juliana Amir

Competing with ceaseless stimuli offered by technology, teachers often find it can be a challenge to engage students and remove the temptation of distractions. Surprise, in its simplest state, has the capacity to lift us from the mundane, and even out of the moment, seizing our complete focus. Some days of instruction feel dependent on strategy, while others offer us a chance to revel in bright discussion. Within an entry-level writing class largely used for strengthening techniques on research and persuasion, I create moments to disrupt the expected study and analysis of logical fallacies, news, or the synthesis of information.

On one such occasion, I introduce students to a story of emotion. It is allegedly true, but remains as unverified lore. Franz Kafka can neither confirm, nor correct, any of the details. Whether or not this story is historically accurate, it resonates with a truth that we uncover in some form throughout our lifetime.

Guy Davenport presents one version of this story in his short story “Belinda’s World Tour” (New Directions, 1993):

On a stone pathway, in a beautiful park in Prague, a little girl had lost her doll—her friend. She searched around, teary and inconsolable. A kind man named Franz Kafka saw her. He stopped. When he learned of her troubles, he told her he too would search for her lost friend, and they would meet at that very spot the next day. He searched and searched, but never found her doll.

Instead, he traveled to his home, where he’d spend the better part of his evening crafting a credible letter for the next day. When the moment came, he waited on the park bench for the little girl and after she appeared, he told her, “Your doll has taken off on a magnificent journey. Here, she has left me her letter to give to you.”

On the page, he’d penned of her travels, of her great excursion by hot air balloon to a rainy city where folk thrived off tea and muffins. These letters continued to come from around the world, one every three weeks, and were always signed by her beloved doll.

Dr. May Benetar’s version adds these details:

Kafka knew he could not keep this up forever, for he was ill.

The last time he met with her, he gifted her a special doll. The doll had a different appearance from the one she lost years prior, but it carried a note: “My travels have changed me.”

Other sources offer variations of the story. It is included in Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafa, but in that version Dora Diamont, Kafka’s last love, is present. In Stach’s version, Kafka spun the white lie on the spot, telling the girl her lost doll was not at all gone, but on an adventure. He knew this because he received her letter, which was at home, and he would deliver it to her the next day. Stach said the doll’s reason was a desire for change, whereas Davenport wrote that the doll was enamored by a boy. Alternate endings, such as Davenport’s, say the doll was married, thus ending her adventures (and the letters). Rather than taking this woeful outlook on marriage, I conclude with my favorite ending. It is one retold by Dr. Benatar:

Many years later, the now-grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: “Everything that you love, you willeventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.” (2011)

This story has enchanted writers and scholars alike, so why not our students? I teach this foremost as a story of healing. It is my fear that through the years of rubrics, grammar lectures, and ACT/SAT vocabulary drills that students have forgotten that words have given us power to stitch up unseen wounds and make recognized the heartaches, minor or major, that afflict so many. When something or someone is forever gone, there is a tired phrase that comes. It says, Everything happens for a reason. Benatar’s version takes this phrase, but recasts it in terms of science, where energy is not gone at all, but rather cycling in other shapes and in other forms. In studying such rhetoric, we see a sentiment refreshing to the humanities, and a small surprise: that when we think the story is finished, one glowing insight remains.

With this activity, I do not show them examples from writers or previous students. The only sample I bestow is that of proper letter format, which is a style I want them to all understand before they begin applying to internships and jobs. This one-page single-spaced assignment with a narrative core is designed for them to generate or recollect details of a place. To give them an example would be serving them a springboard that may indeed make the task easier, but it would water down the experience of thinking as a true writer, and of capturing vicariously what Kafka may have felt sitting at his desk: that he had a sad soul he could offer comfort, if his words were jotted down just right.

A question I anticipate is how such a letter fulfills the ideology of my course, which is designed to encourage critical thinking and academic writing. If I wish my students to think critically, I believe they must first understand creativity. We could not see potential without imagination, nor can we easily persuade audiences we will never encounter face-to-face without the talent of linguistics. Pathos, I tell my students, is not about stirring guilt trips followed by calls to action. I’d far prefer my students to carve a moment onto the page where they bring details to life that not only provide authenticity, but reliability. The prompt offers practice with lower stakes than an essay. It is in rendered experiences that we can begin to appreciate a more empathic understanding of opposing views than logos often allows.

When they come to class with these letters, some students elect to share. I create a list on the board like the one that follows to highlight their skills and commendable techniques. I ask the other students to listen and evaluate any lines that dissuade or convince. Always a favorite are lines about cultural cuisines, which can be seen in the example exercises. Food offers familiarity, but it can also invite us to try something different or exotic. Little facets in life, like food, become engrained, but when we look with fresh eyes, nuances become transparent. I want my students to overlook nothing when they read. And so often, they search for the good in one another’s work, which strengthens my students not only as writers but also as a class.

 

Techniques:

  • Authority
  • Tone
  • Mindfulness over perspective
  • Audience consideration
  • Authentic details/fact-checking
  • Melodic pacing (varied sentence lengths)
  • Provision of context
  • Transitions
  • Carving moments onto the page
  • Visual writing through the five senses
  • Visualization through contrast
  • Insider information through diction
  • Stakes for tension
  • Breaking paragraphs on a thought-provoking or visual last line
  • Letter format’s goodwill close

Their letters echo the lesson that writing can have an empathetic effect. This assignment encourages student to think and to articulate. When it comes to writers who have been shattered by continuous negative remarks, this exercise elicits some of their strongest material.Though this exercise generates, in essence, a piece of persuasive writing, it is convincing the reader not to despair, versus altering her ideology.

This assignment is one I give early in the semester, and when grading, I focus on the positives, so they know what I want to see more of. Anxiety cages creativity. I want my students to think, and to write in a way not governed by fear of judgment, which is why I begin here.

I will note that I’ve had male students quietly object to being a doll, and instead wrote from the perspective of a teddy bear, but in their own way, almost all fully participate in its spirit. It results in some of their most dazzling writing.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Tell students the story of Kafka and the girl.
  1. Provide them a handout with proper letter format.
  2. Ask students to write a letter to the girl from the doll’s perspective. Students may select any place they wish, and their letter should contain enough convincing detail to assure the child that her doll truly is there. Suggest that they write for one hour.
  3. Have a conversation the day it is due that commends and emphasizes the writers’ strengths and highlights which details were convincing and persuasive, and why.
  4. Optional: Before step 4, to build courage before a group discussion, have students pair up to participate in a close reading. Objectives can be to pinpoint persuasive details and assess the commonalities elevating these details above others.

Example of the Exercise

These examples are drawn from both male and female writers. None of the work has been edited, with the exception of a few deleted signatures from students who signed their true, full name.

My dearest Emily,

How are you my friend? I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing you from my quaint little cabin on a steam locomotive to Florence, Italy. Yesterday, I felt my time in London was coming to an end, so I headed off to King’s Cross station and purchased a first class ticket to Florence, Italy. My friend Alistair recently moved there, so I felt it was appropriate to pay him a visit, on top of returning to one of my favorite cities!

My train departed King’s Cross in the afternoon, and I quickly settled in to the comforts of my private cabin. Shortly after we departed, the refreshment trolley was going round and I ordered our favorite snack: Earl Gray tea with lavender honey biscuits. Just thinking of the smell reminds me of our long afternoons together on the balcony. As I sipped my tea, I watched the sun set on the horizon through my cabin window. Dusk had set and I was thoroughly exhausted from a busy day. I slipped into bed under the plush down blanket, and I was pleasantly surprised of how comfortable the cabin bed was. It was a clear night, and the sky was overflowing with glimmering stars. Light from the crescent moon gently flowed into my cabin, and the subtle rhythm of the train trekking down the tracks swiftly put me to sleep.

The next morning I awoke in a delightful, peppy mood. After preparing for the day, I took a blue cornflower from the flower vase and placed it in my jacket lapel. It matched my outfit perfectly! Not wasting a moment, I zipped over to the dining car to secure a seat with a good view. After studying the menu, I settled on the daily special which was Oeufs En Cocotte Au Saumon Fumé (eggs baked with smoked salmon), blackberry-mint scones, and fresh mixed berries, along with a robust pot of English breakfast tea. The ensemble was delicious and spent little to no time on the table. After breakfast, I decided to walk around the train to get my legs moving. One must keep up their health!

I retired back to my cabin, where I write you this letter. If the train stays on schedule, we should be arriving in Florence later this evening. It has been many years since my last visit and I look forward to seeing the stone paved streets, flowing waters and the glimmering lights at dusk once again. I also plan to visit great Cathedral to witness its wondrous architecture and exquisite frescos once again. I can’t wait for the day when we’re able to travel together again, just like old times. I know how busy and diligent you remain with your studies at University, but you will soon be rewarded for your efforts. Just think, we all will soon address you as “Dr. Emily A. Thompson”! Until then, we shall write our letters and keep each other in mind. It won’t be long until we’re back together on our adventures!

Sincerely yours,

Dalton

Dear Innocent Child,

I am writing to inform you that I do not resent you. Had you not been distracted by a squirrel and dropped me in the dirt, I never would have seen the diverse culture of western Europe. In fact, I thank you for your carelessness and I hope that one day I have the pleasure of meeting you again, so that I might recount my travels to you in person.

After being dropped, I ran into a day trolley whilst searching for you. It flung me unbelievably high. I was caught by a day bus, which then took me to see the cathedral in Birmingham. The thin winding roads made me sick, but I regained my composure and managed to hop off in front of a staggeringly tall building. Massive white walls split by arched block windows lined the edge of the church. The doors were built for giants three times the size of a full grown person. Peering out from the top of St. Philip’s megafortress of worship was a tiny domed eggshell clock tower, as if people coming to siege the cathedral needed to know when to eat brunch. Those city blokes might not be the most practical in architecture, but they can sure leave an impression on a one-and-one-sixth-foot teddy bear. Some ingrate then swept me off the crooked sidewalk and reappropriated my efforts into the nearest canal. I was not amused, hopelessly flopping in the water, slowly being swept to sea.

Quite a while later, a sun bleached man in his twenties nabbed me in what I deemed to be Amsterdam. The buildings there almost floated on the water—rising out of the side of the broad olive green waterways like interweaved fence posts on a crowded field. This man took me to see an ovular glass house: the Van Gogh Museum. Even the most mundane of the paintings present in the museum were surreal. Furniture and landscapes alike warped and deformed on themselves. It seems the artist was incapable of painting a straight line. I was unimpressed. My new carrier finally decided he had seen enough squiggles and lifted me into his automobile.

I write to you now from the desk of my aforementioned caretaker’s daughter. Next to me is a black rock with an attached placard titled, “Ruhr Museum, Essen’s Geographical Heritage.” It is a tourist’s prize for walking through a dull and short burnt-orange midget of a factory-turned-museum for several hours while a balding tour guide talks about the many uses of fossil fuels. I fell asleep gazing upon rocks of all shapes: long rocks, short rocks, rocks covered in dirt, and dirt covered in rocks. Needless to say, I did not have the attention span to survive the endeavor and woke up here in the presence of calligraphy paper and a pen. I deemed that you must be even more confused and unraveled than I, so I decided to write you to calm your fears. Also, please take me from these mindless drones of human beings. I cannot bear to live another day with them.

Still your teddy bear,

Dearest Maura,

I have traveled to California in the United States of America. We came by airplane, soaring over the Atlantic Ocean. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a bird? It’s quite dizzying, but fascinating in its own way. Houses and cars and trees look like toys when you’re so high in the sky. At night, streetlights twinkle like stars. No one else seemed to like watching the clouds and the ground pass by as much as me. Maybe the sights get boring when you become a bird. I can’t fathom how something so extraordinary could become commonplace.

Everything about this place seems to be noisy and busy. There were so many people all crowded together and talking in the airport, and there were just as many in the city. The cacophony is so different from the quiet country and towns of Europe. Even still, no one is mean. They all smile these bright, happy, beautiful smiles that reach the corners of their eyes. I’ve never seen so many people in once place who were so content as to smile all the time. I asked someone why everyone here smiles so often, and they replied, “Why wouldn’t we? There’s always something to smile about.” I think I could be content settling here if I didn’t love traveling so much.

I think what makes this place most fascinating is how different everything still is, despite being so similar. Everyone smiles, and laughs, and talks a bit too loud, but they all have such disparate customs. I ate tacos in a small family shop, where half the customers spoke only in Spanish. I have never known a home besides yours, but that’s how I imagine these things tasted. Like home, with the bite of fresh cilantro and the homey flavors of slow-cooked pork. When I went to the pier, I ate pasta with fresh shrimp and lemon, paired with an Italian wine. So many different foods, cultures, and experiences. Even still, it is difficult for me to fathom how much there is beyond what I could see.

The ocean was the best part. I mentioned the pier, with its Italian food, where we walked for mile upon mile. It was lined with shops of every kind, selling baubles and trinkets emblazoned with “San Francisco” and “The Bay.” The stench of fish and a slight chill came from the sea breeze. It was worth braving both to look out to the Pacific. The waters are not much different than the Atlantic, but still, there is something different to it. For example, one of the docks at the pier housed a troupe of sea lions! They were loud and raucous, just like the people here, and they laid upon each other in these massive piles. I was admiring them when a group came whizzing by on roller skates, laughing and playing music and linking arms and hands with each other.

I suppose, Maura, that much is the same here in the United States. There is also much that is different. I suppose the wisdom to understand this paradox comes with many years of experience. Maybe when you get to be a bird, you’ll understand too.

Sincerely yours,

Doll

Biography

Juliana Amir is an assistant lecturer. Her fiction has been published in Enchanted Conversation and Fantasia Divinity. With a great amount of coffee, she attained an MA in composition and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Akron. Courses taught include those in critical writing, as well as one she designed on fairytales, folklore, and myth.

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