Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Words Matter: Felicitous Language

One characteristic that distinguishes literary fiction from other fiction is felicitous language. Many writers tell good stories. Many more weave together suspense and character, keeping us entertained while delivering low voltage shocks to the backs of our necks. Others inform us, writing clearly and convincingly.

A few tell good stories, weave together suspense, character, entertainment, and information with exquisitely formed phrases. These write the books we read and remember well; these write the books that win prizes.

What makes the words of literary fiction different from words in other genres and sub-genres is the beauty of the language. It sings, dances, and resonates. It feeds a need for us. As A. J. Fikry says to his adopted daughter Maya, “The words you can’t find, you borrow.” (The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin)

And what are those words? They are words that teach us, that trigger recognition, that help us understand.

  • “A devil’s sick of sin” (Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”) describes the horrific final moments of a soldier who fumbled his gas mask, breathed in toxic mustard gas, and died slowly, suffering. A slight five words that endure, that give me words for what I’ve seen in the eyes of those lost, words I could not find alone. 
  • “…The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. . . .Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. . . .” (Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See) describes the beauty found in acts of war, translating man’s darkest moments into poetry.
  • “For now, while he breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse’s ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one’s own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one’s own.” (We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas) These words capture the reasons we cling to life and the joys to be found in living. Such an epic task delivered succinctly.
We read to know. We read to belong. We read to understand.

Reading Challenge:

Read for felicitous language.

Writing Challenge:

Write felicitous language.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hell or High Water’s Details Delight

Delight is often found in details: a bird’s trill on a misty morning, a Monarch sipping nectar from a bright flower, or an infant’s tiny hand wrapped around a calloused finger. Hell or High Water is rich in details that tell so much story.

Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Signs are great details in Hell or High Water.

As the Howard brothers drive Texas roads, the camera lingers on road signs reading Foreclosed, For Sale, and Closed. Without setting the film in a particular year or referencing the 2008 economic collapse attributed to banks, Hell or High Water provides a rich socio-economic context.

A different sign tells of wide open, empty spaces on the Texas prairies. It's a road sign pockmarked with bullet holes, a country pastime for young fools and drunk drivers. It’s a show of disrespect and of misplaced marksmanship.

Vigilante justice is another great detail used in Hell or High Water.

In fact, Hell or High Water features plenty of firearms, not just those used by the bank robbers, but those carried every day. Tanner Howard, one of the bank-robbing brothers portrayed in the film by Ben Foster, says “conceal carry permits” sure complicate bank robbing. Every Texan is ready and most are armed to see justice done.

In that environment, the Howard brothers are pursued by a pick-up truck posse, and they fire at the bad guys while they run. They only turn back when Tanner Howard confronts them with a bigger, automatic weapon with a big magazine.

Nature is another terrific detail in Hell or High Water.

One of the finer scenes says even more about tough men surviving an unforgiving, vast land. A huge prairie fire stalls the progress of two Texas Marshalls. Thick black smoke boils above simmering flames marching across the plains toward the Brazos River. Riding parallel are cowboys herding cattle toward the same river.

One Marshall asks if he shouldn’t call in the fire and bring some help for those boys. The old marshall, played flawlessly by Jeff Bridges, says “no,” as there’s no one to call and even if there were, the fire is too large, too powerful for nearby brigades to beat it back. Only the Brazos River will decide. It will smother the fire or save the cattle in such big, empty country where resources are few. A man must rescue himself in such country. And that is an excellent metaphor for the law-breaking protagonists waging war against the banks that beat them.   

They live on hard ground exacting hard consequences, inspiring dire deeds. Just details that open whole stories for our consideration.

Reading Challenge:

Read the excellent Hell or High Water.

Writing Challenge:

Write details that unfold whole stories.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hell or High Water: The Power of Myth

Every nation has had its share of greedy, arrogant leaders. Some of them have given birth to folk heroes like Robin Hood. Whether in the guise of a mischievous Disney fox in forest-green clothes or rendered by Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, Robin Hood has the face of a friend and a spine of steel.

Chris Pine’s contemporary portrait of a Robin Hood figure is no different except, perhaps, in something behind the eyes. In other films, they are open and as blue as the heavens. In Hell or High Water, those eyes are sometimes slits, often averted, and always flinty. He is a Robin Hood called Toby Howard, born in lowly circumstances, a child of poverty, his family’s legacy, passed down generation after generation “like a disease,” he says.

Hell or High Water’s Robin Hood, like the folk hero, is smart, daring, and quick. He steals only from those who stole from him, a Texas bank that loaned his cancer-stricken mother just enough money on a reverse mortgage to die and leave debt to her son, Toby.

Out of work and divorced, Toby cannot make the payments or pay the taxes. The bank will foreclose and lay claim to land once used for farming and ranching until drought laid prior claim to those human activities. The bank will also acquire a house in need of repair and a good purging.

Pettis County Barn by Al Griffin

Both land and home are priceless to Toby. They are his inheritance. They are his sons’ future, especially after an oil company finds wealth below the dry, dusty surface. That oil could vaccinate Toby’s sons against the disease of poverty. Toby will, by any means possible, buy the vaccine.

Toby asks his brother, Tanner, to help him. Tanner is a felon, convicted of killing the brothers’ father, despised by the brothers’ mother, and paroled with little hope or desire for a job. He agrees to help Toby because Toby asked.

Together, the Howard brothers rob banks, careful to conceal their faces and reveal themselves to no one until Tanner’s rash decision to rob one while his brother finishes lunch in a café across the street from the bank. The locals connect the dots and realize they can identify the thieves, but they don’t; they won’t because Toby is a man broken by the banks. He’s down on his luck in unlucky times. He’s a man out of time to work his way out of debt, and he’s generous to a fault. He leaves a $200 tip for the café waitress because she’s kind. She sees his sorrow, and she wouldn’t add to it--as a bank did.

That waitress not only refuses to identify Toby when later shown his photo, she also refuses to surrender the $200 until forced to do so by a Texas Marshall. Another diner also refuses to identify Toby’s photo as the robber who broke bread in town. He offers that the true criminals are bankers with Texas Midlands.

In scenes when the brothers drive highways and dusty backroads, they pass signs announcing homes for sale, businesses closed, foreclosures. Times are bad. Jobs are scarce. The 99% is afflicted with empathy for each other and antipathy against the 1%.

Even a professional who helps Toby pay off the bank debt with the banks’ own money refuses to turn in the Howards. He knows how little the bank offered to a desperate woman with malice aforethought so he helps Toby claim his true inheritance, his boys, and the oil.

Hell or High Water packs a terrific political commentary on economic hard times. The movie is also a good heist story with plenty of action. Audiences root for the Howard brothers, even glossing Tanner’s brutal acts: dragging a bank teller by her long hair and shoving her down, striking an ugly blow across the nose of a bank manager, and killing bystanders in one bank. (Spoiler Alert!) Tanner pays for his brutality with his life.

Toby’s hands set it all in motion, and they are bloody as a consequence. The crusty old Texas Marshall who knows Toby is the puppetmaster, but can’t prove it, says Toby will be haunted all his days because of what he’s done.

Toby is just fine with being haunted. His cause was righteous. He set out to cure the disease of poverty for his boys. He fought the evil in his land--not the Sheriff of Nottingham as Robin Hood did--but the Texas Midlands Bank.

Reading Challenge:

Read Hell or High Water. Apply the five conflicts, but especially man against society as your read.

Writing Challenge:

Re-tell the Robin Hood tale using modern locations and circumstances.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Words Matter: Reading

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”
A. J. Fikry to Maya in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Lady Mary Montagu shared her advice with her daughter in letters, as was expected of her. She was a lady of title and some acclaim in the eighteenth century. She had brought back news of a smallpox vaccine after visiting Turkey and has been credited with advancing the defeat of that disease.

Montagu advocated teaching girls to read, a minority opinion in her time. She believed that knowledge is a solid foundation for a moral life. She also believed that girls without beauty needed reading skills so that they could occupy themselves quietly and meaningfully while they lived at the mercy of any relative who might given them shelter.

Unattractive girls were not expected to land a husband--unless, of course, she could bring great wealth to the marriage, and thus, she would have to depend upon the kindness of a relative for home and security. Montagu’s granddaughter had neither great wealth nor beauty so Lady Montagu advised her daughter to teach her child to read as a blanket protecting her from chilly loneliness, a balm against sorrow.

Gabrielle Zevin, through her titular character, A. J. Fikry, also believes in the benefits of reading. In The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, reading transforms several lives. A. J. Fikry is less alone because he reads. A book even prolongs his life. The Police Chief becomes a friend because of books and evolves into an avid reader because of that friendship. Love appears a second time in Fikry’s life because of books, and an orphaned toddler grows rich in thought and understanding because she lives surrounded by books and readers.

That little girl becomes a writer, affirming what Stephen King and a long parade of writers have said through the ages: writers read. From reading, they acquire knowledge. From reading, they acquire words. From reading, they acquire community while laboring alone with blank pages and ideas glimpsed. From reading, they acquire a life that, with a bit of luck, extends far beyond their own.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and/or Lady Mary Montagu’s advice to her daughter. Zevin’s book is also rich in references to other works, especially short stories. Make a list and read them all.

Writing Challenge:

Characters in Zevin’s book believe that asking people what they read or last read reveals something about their natures. It also helps people separate acquaintances from friends and a coffee date from a potential life partner.

What are your top three reads? Don’t agonize over the choices. List quickly what comes to mind first, second, and third.

For me--and I surprised myself because it’s so hard to choose--they are:
  • Anything by Kate Atkinson
  • J. D. Salinger’s short story, “For Esmé--With Love and Squalor”
  • George Orwell’s novel, Coming Up for Air
  • Carol Shields’ novel Unless

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Imagery, Stephen King, and Kate Atkinson

Images of Grace
Stained Glass by Ruth Hillers
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
“Imagery is for me of paramount importance in a text, not complex imagery that jumps up and down and demands to have its hand shaken but a more subtle web that weaves its way through, often enigmatically, and knits everything together.” (from “Author’s Note,” A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson)

For me, that is the purest pleasure in reading literary fiction: discovering imagery that “knits everything together.” Atkinson notes she too was pleased to discover references to man’s fall from grace throughout her novel and to “The ‘red thread’ of blood that binds the Todds. …” That thread “echoes the red ribbon of the long leg to Nuremberg that echoes the thin red cords of Teddy’s sheltered housing. …” The author hadn’t noticed that pattern “until the final read-through of the novel.” In other words, the imagery knitting everything together was intuitive or developed unconsciously.

Other authors agree about the paramount importance of imagery. On the subject, Stephen King has written:

“Novels are more than imagery--they are thought, plot, style, tone, characterization, and a score of other things--but it is the imagery that makes the book ‘stand out’ somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light. … story springs from image: that vividness of place and time and texture.” 

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins. Take note of images that knit the pieces of the novel together, but Atkinson asks that readers avoid asking “why there are so many geese” in the novel. She has no idea. (from “Author’s Note”)

Writing Challenge:

Recall your favorite novel. Identify and explain the images that knit everything together. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fiction and the Fall

According to the author, Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins (2015) is not a sequel. It is instead a companion piece to Life after Life (2013). Both novels take place during World War II, but Life after Life is Ursula’s story during the London blitz whereas A God in Ruins is Teddy’s, a man assigned to drop bombs on people of another nation.

In Author’s Note at the end of the A God in Ruins, Atkinson explains “…nothing … happens during the chapters set during the war in ‘A God in Ruins’ that isn’t in some way based on a real-life incident that I came across in the course of my research (even the most horrific, even the most outlandish), although nearly always modified in some way.” Nevertheless, she does not define the novel as historical fiction, but rather simply fiction “documenting … [not only] the prized virtue of stoicism but a heroism and determination (and modesty) that seem almost alien to us nowadays. … One cannot fail to be moved by the sacrifice of their lives and I suppose that was what first impelled … [her] to write this novel.”

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Atkinson adds “all novels are not only fiction but they are about fiction too. … Every time a writer throws themselves at the first line of a novel they are embarking on an experiment. An adventure.” In other words, Atkinson didn’t set out to write a factual, historical account of the war as fighter pilots experienced it. She set out to explore the character of the men who dropped bombs and survived.

Atkinson also explains what she believes fiction to be: “rich textural (and textual) interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme and image and all the other ingredients that get thrown in the pot….” On the subject of A God in Ruins, she says it is not only fiction but about fiction as well--“…how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From grace).” Indeed, she adds, “War is Man’s greatest fall from grace, of course, especially perhaps when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots. We can never doubt (ever) the courage of those men in the Halifaxes and Stirlings and Lancasters but the bombing war was undoubtedly a brutish affair, a crude method employing a blunt weapon, continually hampered by the weather and lack of technology (despite massive advances that war always precipitates). The large gap between what was claimed for the results of the bombing campaign and what was actually achieved was never fully understood at the time, and certainly not, I suspect, by those men flying the bombers.”

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins, keeping in mind Atkinson’s belief that the novel is not just about Teddy, but also about fiction and the Fall of man from grace. Note references to Utopia and Eden as well as allusions to Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress, just four references Atkinson lists in “Author’s Note.”

Writing Challenge:

Write your own analysis of what A God in Ruins is about.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Figurative Language: Using Words to Explain the Human Experience

Marching onward into infamy or enlightenment, from Phil Donahue to Terry Gross, is a school of journalism better known as on-air confessional. Here’s one:

“They made fun of my size so I feel ugly and awkward.”

“But you’re a perfect size 6,” says the show’s host, incredulously, eyes wide to underscore his incredulity.

With moments like the sample above, countless talk-show hosts have tried to unmask the human soul made raw by casual verbal slaughters in an effort to help us comprehend the life-long damage inflicted by bullies, malicious or stupid.

Image from
Kate Atkinson accomplishes the feat in 53 figurative words:

“A little jab to the heart. You had to be careful of the jabs--if you had enough of them they could weaken the fabric of the heart, open up fault lines, fissures and rifts, and before you knew where you were the whole brittle structure could shatter into a thousand tiny pieces.” (Atkinson, Kate. A God in Ruins. New York: Little, 2015. Kindle Ed. 4950)

Using an extended metaphor, Atkinson describes the damage inflicted by unkind words and deeds on the human heart, itself a metaphor for the psyche or soul. Too many and the soul is in danger of shattering.

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

Writing Challenge:

Invent a brief description for the good or bad delivered unto us by others. Try not to exceed 100 words.