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. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Personification Explains

Is there any word as abused as love? Teens toss it to each other in passing. Men and women profess it whether they understand it or not. Poets and playwrights have written of it millions of times without repeating each other; they’ve described aptly the experience of love found and lost and won.

Maya Angelou elected to personify love, giving it the power not just to move us, but move itself. She writes:

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Angelou seems to agree with a fine theme often made by writers, poets, and playwrights, and that is: love conquers all to restore us to a one of our finest states: the state of hope.

Images and animals are often personified. A personified caption for this image is:
Dawn calls us to renew our hopes.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Reading Challenge:

Read for personification, a trope by which writers give non-human objects human traits.

Writing Challenge:

Personify abstractions such as hate and courage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Analogy: Another Way Words Matter

An analogy is a comparison between two things to explain or clarify a concept, especially an intangible one. For example, success is a concept and a state desired by most people. But what does success mean, and how can I achieve it? An analogy answers both questions. Warren Buffett uses analogy to answer both questions from his point of view:

“Games are won by players who focus on the playing field--not by those whose eyes are glued to the overboard.” --Warren Buffett

Knockerball places soccer players inside plastic bubbles. They can more easily
see their own feet instead of scoreboards or the whole playing field. Still, they
would be wise to heed Warren Buffett's admonition to win. They must read
the field and go to goal.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Buffett’s analogy explains success as victory and the means to victory as “focus on the playing field,” not simply on the final score or a win-loss record. Winning is knowing the opponents, the rules, and physics affecting impact, angles, and lines.

In Buffett’s world wining is knowing investors, policies, and markets. Buffett is, after all, an investor with a great record of building assets. The context of his experience allows readers to conclude that winning is playing a long game, longer than a one-point advantage,

Reading Challenge:

Read for analogies--comparisons that clarify--as Buffett’s does.

Writing Challenge:

Create analogies, comparing prisons to public schools.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Sound and Rhythm of Words: “Dancers” by Donald Hall, Poet Laureate of the U. S. 2006-2007

Words matter, I repeat. The sounds of them. The pace of them in strings. “Dancers” by Donald Hall illustrates both the delightful sound and rhythms of language.


Bowing he asks her the favor;
Blushing she answers she will;
Waltzing they turn through the ballroom
Swift in their skill.

Blinder than buffers of autumn,
Deaf but to music’s delight,
They dance like the puppets of music
All through the night.

Out of the ball they come dancing
And into the marketing day,
Waltzing through ignorant traffic,
Bound to be gay.

They slacken and stoop, they are tired,
They walk in a weather of pain;
Now wrinkles dig into their faces,
Harsh as the rain.

They walk by identical houses
And enter the one that they know.
They are old, and their children like houses
Stand in a row.

Hall, Donald. White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Donald Hall Selected Poems 1946-2006. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 12-13.

Read the poem once--quickly, silently. Now read the poem once more, this time aloud. Pause. Reflect. Read it aloud again.

Notice how the words lift and soar at the beginning. Notice how brisk the pace.

Notice how gravity seems to draw the poem back to earth, beginning with the words, “They slacken and stoop, they are tired.” The pace slows then.

How does the poet achieve this change in the weight of words and their rhythm? By choosing the best, most appropriate words and by ordering them in the best, most appropriate ways. No other answer will serve for the poet keeps steady the syllable count throughout the poem. Each of the first three lines in each quatrain averages 8 syllables in an iambic pattern. The last line of each quatrain is spondaic.

So the tones of discovery and coming together in lines 1-12 must be attributable to the words themselves. They are alliterative, a rhetorical device by which words speak to words as do Bowing, Blushing, ballroom, Blinder, and buffers or Deaf, delight, dance, and dancing. The initial letter repeated emphasizes the words, giving them extra significance in our minds as we read them, through our voice as we speak them.

The alliterative words also bounce and tumble because they are short-stopped consonant sounds. Both B and D are abrupt whereas slacken and stoop from line 13 hisses and stretches. There is nothing brisk about them. They are words of burden, requiring us to read them and speak them with a slower pace. Adding slacken and stoop to the abundant th sounds in lines 13-20 echoes the heavy weight of tired steps taken by two who’ve exchanged the dance floor for the market and children.

The juxtaposition of words enhances the effect. The dancers were once swift (4), but they now walk in a weather of pain (14) or stand (20). Their faces were once pleading as he asks her the favor (1) and she, blushing (2), answers “yes.” Now their faces are wrinkled (15), harsh (16), old (20).

Words matter. Their placement matters. Their juxtaposition matters. Poetry is simply diction well placed.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Dancers” at least three times, once silently and twice aloud. Then read the post about “Dancers” by Donald Hall. Finally, read “Dancers” again, this time with a love for the words and their order.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a passage from your own writing that can be transformed into music by choosing other words and reordering the whole.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Allusions in BrainDead, a CBS Summer Treat

BrainDead is a summer entry for CBS. Part science fiction specializing in alien conquerors and part satire skewering the current divisive rhetoric heard from both sides of the aisle, BrainDead is a hoot. The series also snaps, crackles, and pops with allusions, those handy rhetorical devices that stitch a rich tapestry of background and detail in a single word or two.

Allusions are a short of shortcut to deeper meanings and references. For example, a liberal seeking help from the protagonist, Laurel Healy, approaches her with an ominous kitchen knife. When she’s frightened, he dismisses it as an instrument meant to harm by crying, “It’s from The Splendid Table,” a radio program about food and wine often heard on public stations--those media outlets with NPR programming often accessed by progressive and Democrats. The first layer of the joke is that the man is clueless about being threatening. The second layer of the joke is that a knife from The Splendid Table store wouldn’t figure in a crime. 

Those who’ve been infected by the alien ants speak other contemporary catch-phrases such as all lives matter, an allusion to groups opposed to consciousness-raising conversations resulting from the Black Lives Matter movement as if the two movements are somehow mutually exclusive. A minority asserts its right to live and live free of danger disproportionate to the majority while the majority feels threatened by the assertion and fights for its supremacy. This allusion represents the other side of the aisle known as conservatives who, in BrainDead, are busy shutting down the government, still one more allusion to the political divide affecting America this summer.

The joke is that balanced and/or nuanced arguments once voiced by some become unbalanced, either-or arguments once the ants have done their work on the human brain. Independents and liberals become evangelical conservatives overnight after the ants have done their work, suggesting the current political divide is the result of an insect apocalypse. And that’s pretty funny.

Reading Challenge:

Read BrainDead on CBS, Mondays at 9:00 p.m. CST.

Writing Challenge:

While watching BrainDead, make a list of allusions that characterize a character as left or right, two more words denoting liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, progressive or regressive.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Verisimilitude: Writing Truth is Hard Work

To most people, it would not seem like much of a job, hunched over a typewriter late at night, writing . . . . To me, it was a blessing . . . . In time, it dawned on me that I lingered over that old typewriter longer than was healthy for an eighteen-year-old boy, that I lingered over sentences, searching my mind for the images and details that could make those disjointed words from the faded typewriter ribbon take on color and life.--Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’. New York: Vintage, 1997. 122.

What a simple, perfect way to describe a characteristic of literature: verisimilitude. Whether fiction or nonfiction, we look to writers to render truth in words, to give us the color of experience, and hold up a mirror to life itself.

What lonely labor.

What challenging work.

Transforming the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures of a thing isn’t easy.

Search your minds for the images and details that make three dimensions from two.

Reading Challenge:

Read more about verisimilitude in Verisimilitude: Artistic Voyeurism.

Writing Challenge:

Observe closely a moment in time. Then render its truth in words. Rick Bragg began by writing about moments in sports. Choose a highlight from the game you know best and begin.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.