Friday, December 31, 2010

Old Men and Babies

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Good literature is like a set of nesting dolls. The large, outer doll is the story itself. It provides shape and boundaries. Inside that doll is a smaller one that seems to be identical except, of course, in size, and inside the second is a third and fourth, each one slightly smaller than the one before. Like characters and conflicts, the dolls complement each other, each component essential to the experience of discovery as we readers turn page after page.

Archetypal patterns, including character, quests, and symbols, are the designs on the dolls. Good writers challenge us with complex, intricate designs, using simple, archetypal tools. Clever readers observe the designs as they peel back the layers of each doll, enjoying the familiar patterns that have been woven to create a new whole, anticipating the overall meaning that awaits when the last doll is revealed.

On December 31, let us now consider the overall meanings associated with two more simple archetypal symbols: old men and babies, also known as Father Time and New Year. Revelers and readers are familiar with these iconic symbols for the old year giving way to the new, but great writers elaborate upon the simple symbols, using them to jar our imaginations and provide new perspectives for us to consider.

William Shakespeare weaves images of the old giving way into his Sonnet 73, and in so doing, he creates a portrait of love. He writes:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 4
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 8
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by. 12
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In the first quatrain, the speaker compares his life-stage to late Fall. He exists in a time when few leaves hang upon the boughs and the birds have flown south, their songs no longer heard among the trees.

In the second quatrain, the speaker associates his age with the end of a day. He dwells in twilight that will soon give way to black night, a natural mirror image for death itself for like death, night is the time for rest.

The third quatrain equates the speaker’s life to a fire that, in youth, blazed bright and warm. Now, however, only embers glow upon a deep bed of ash, the ashes that will soon suffocate the embers.

In the final couplet, the reader learns that the speaker’s beloved beholds (1) and sees (5, 9) Father Time’s grip. The beloved knows that the lovers’ time together is brief; thus, love grows stronger.

Charles Dickens, in Dombey and Son, opens his novel with images of Father Time and New Year:

DOMBEY sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new. Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time--remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go--while the countenance of Son was crossed and recrossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.

Dickens uses the iconic Time, scythe in hand, to suggest that Dombey, at 48, is already care-worn whereas Son is yet unaware of the knicks and scars ahead of him. Son’s tomorrow has yet to be written; his father’s book is already thick and will sooner come to its end.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Adah observes that, “The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep." This oblique reference to Father Time, to the “whips and scorns of time” (Shakespeare, Hamlet), and to the quid pro quo of sovereignty calls to mind the brutal truth that all living things give way. New Year and new life will also age and fade.

We hope for the best when new life or a new year begins. We imagine that dreams will come true, that promises will be kept, that love will thrive, and that tragedy will recede. Thus, when authors introduce babies and spring, they count on our emotional investment and often play against our expectations to surprise us or even shock us. Sharon Olds does this in a poem entitled “Rite of Passage:”

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

We readers expect children of six and seven to still have smooth foreheads. No care or worry has scarred them--except, these boys lack the innocence we expect. They care deeply about power and hierarchy. They exist in a world that prepares them for combat.

So, dear reader, when you read of an old man or babies, consider them as icons, as archetypal symbols, then evaluate the writer’s use of them. In each writer’s design is a theme, one that enriches our understanding of old and new, age and youth, past and present.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of the works listed in this blog. You may also wish to read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In it, you will find humor, insight, and tools to help you analyze archetypes of all kinds.

Writing Challenge:

Search your writing journals for a story about the old giving way to the new. Turn your journal entry into a “fabulous reality,” using the iconic symbols of old (idea, year, age) yielding to the new (idea, year or phase).

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Costello once asked Abbot who’s on first? The correct answer is Who--Who is on first [base], but Costello cannot make the leap from the interrogative who to the word used as a surname so he remains confused. The comic bit is classic, still very funny, and available online. Enjoy, and while you do, remember that two versions of who’s exist: who’s, the contraction, and whose, the possessive. Some of my former students seemed to have lost track of the distinctions between the two parts of speech and the correct way to spell each. Try to avoid their mistakes.

Who’s = who is or who was; e. g., Who’s invited to John’s party?

Whose = the possessive form of who; e. g., Whose party is this invitation for? John’s!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Water, Ablutions, and Rebirth

Water has talismanic power. Surely ancient men marveled at its benign effects on the earth. They observed the Spring rains wash away Winter’s debris and nourish the seedlings buried in the soil. They concluded that water cleanses and contributes to rebirth.

No wonder, then, that water symbolizes physical and spiritual renewal in most of the world’s major religions. Christian sects spritz, pour, or dunk when they christen and baptize novices into a new life within the church. Followers of the Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Zoroastrian, and Jewish faiths practice ritual cleansing before spiritual devotions, and several of these religions believe that flowing waters are holy places. Buddhists also celebrate the life cycle with water. At funerals, Buddhists often fill a vessel with water that overflows its rim to signify that all things flow from separate beings into one larger whole as rivers flow into the sea.

Secular texts, including books, poems, and plays, are full of symbolic references to water, and water signifies the same things it does in nature and religion: water cleanses and renews the physical world and the spirit. A few of my favorite literary works featuring water as a symbol appear below.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

By John Keats

In Keats’ sonnet, appearing above, the speaker longs to be constant, like a star that oversees the Earth, including the “moving waters” as they cleanse and purify. The speaker takes exception to being alone as a star is; he does not admire the star’s singular circumstance. Keats’ speaker wishes to be constant with his beloved. If he must be alone, he’d rather “swoon to death.”

Barbara Kingsolver plays against reader expectations for water as a purifying, sustaining, or renewing element in Kingsolver’s epic story, The Poisonwood Bible, a novel that recounts the story of the Price family in Africa in the late 1950s and 60s when Mrs. Price, Orleanna, washes “up … on the riptide of … [her] husband's confidence and the undertow of … [her] children's needs.” With these water references, Orleanna introduces ominous tones for her move to Africa. Riptides and undertows are dangerous; they carry people far from shore and may even overpower the swimmer. Water, for Orleanna, signifies a mighty foe just as it does for her guilt-ridden husband, Nathan, who hopes to be reborn by proselytizing to and saving the Kilangans. He preaches an urgent message to them, trying to persuade them that they are evil, born in and of sin, living in sin. He offers salvation and invites them to join him at the river’s edge so that they may be forgiven and reborn through baptism, but the Africans ignore his condemnation and his version of salvation. They know that the river is fraught with danger, foremost among them the alligator. The Kilangans refuse the rebirth that Nathan offers; they do not believe that they need to be washed down the gullet of a huge reptile in order to the washed clean. They simply continue their labor, accepting their fate and living meekly.

More often, water signifies a clean, fertile force in nature. W. H. Auden’s poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” opens and closes with a reference to a “brimming river” that continues even after humans have passed away. His use of the river suggests a life force that persists and continues well beyond the life span of men and women.

For both Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, water is dirty or polluted in the early chapters of the novels, when fear and doubt governs both characters. In the first book of Stephen’s story, school mates shove him into a dirty puddle of water, and he struggles to be free of the filth that seems to penetrate his spirit. Similarly, Raskolnikov exists in a filthy city, St. Petersburg, Russia, where the river’s stench invades his soul. By the closing chapters of both novels, the water runs clean and reflects the sun, mirroring the transformation in the characters from lost to found. Stephen accepts himself as an artist while standing on the shore, gazing upon a woman wading in the sea, a brilliant sky above. Raskolnikov relents his alienation and disease as he looks across a clean, fast-running stream where Sonya waits for him.

Water then, like archetypal characters, ripples with symbolic possibilities. A writer relies upon your understanding of water’s natural properties to purge old, dead growth and renew. Spiritual men have transferred the natural properties of water and endowed them with religious significance. Writers make use of both and may even contrast our expectations for water with new, challenging ideas in order to add irony or advance our understanding of a character’s growth.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of the work listed in this post. These include: John Keats’ “Bright Star,” Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem, tell a story, or create a “fabulous reality” that makes use of water, an archetypal symbol.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Pesky Apostrophes

I often receive mail incorrectly addressed because, somehow, apostrophes have wiggled their way into the plural form of family names. For example: A letter to everyone in the family might begin “Dear Smith’s” or the outside envelope might read “To All the Jones’s.”

Why? Plural forms do not need apostrophes! Only possessive forms of words need apostrophes. Allow me to illustrate.

• All dogs go to heaven.
• All dogs wear collars.
• Where are the dogs’ collars?
• A dog’s heaven is surely paved with rawhide.

We need no apostrophe to transform one dog into several. We simply add an “S.” On the other hand, when we wish to communicate that something belongs to or with a dog, we must add the apostrophe to signal a possessive form.

Proper surnames are not different. John Doe is one man in a family correctly written as “Does” (not to be confused with female deer or action verbs). Mary Smith is one woman in a family correctly written as “Smiths.” So when you address an invitation to all the “Does” or all the “Smiths,” tell the apostrophe to stay home alone.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, December 17, 2010

Here Comes the Sun: Another Literary Archetype

Here comes the sun . . . the smiles returning to the faces . . .
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes. . . . and I say it’s all right.
(George Harrison, The Beatles)

Recorded on the Abbey Road album, one of the best albums ever recorded, in my opinion, “Here Comes the Sun” suggests the powerful, archetypal symbolism of the sun and light. When it’s been a long cold lonely winter, the sun’s warmth renews us; we feel hopeful and smiles return to our faces as the ice slowly melts. Such is the power of the sun’s rays, and that is the sun’s archetypal meaning.

Light and the sun are also part of many creation stories. In ancient Greek mythology, before the Earth came into being, a dark void existed. With light comes form, and the form becomes complex, leading to relationships, especially love, and to civilizations that rise and fall.

In Genesis, the Lord cries “Let there be light,” and the vast darkness recedes. With the command for light come land and water, diverse plants, myriad animals, man and woman, human and spiritual bonds, and order. In other words, dark suggests nothingness whereas light suggests life that teems and stirs.

Another Greek myth featuring Prometheus enriches our understanding of light and dark. In it, humans exist in ignorance, barely able to survive until Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to mankind. With fire, humans can penetrate the darkness—literally. Fire, like the lighthouse on a rocky shore, allows men to find their way in the dark mists of the unknown. Men use fire to cook foods and make medicines; i. e., fire penetrates the unknowns of disease, allowing men to become self-sufficient. Thus, Prometheus’ gift to man was enlightenment, and both the sun and light represent knowledge and enlightenment.

Just as George Harrison suggests in “Here Comes the Sun,” the sun renews and stimulates, bringing smiles to our faces, and the dawn of a new day restores hope. We emerge from the lonely, disorienting night, warming with the sun’s rays, the light drawing us onward. We leave uncertainty and doubt to nightmare.

Reading Challenge:

Read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Writing Challenge:

Write an analytical essay that explains the symbolic significance of sun and light in Hosseini’s novel.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): The Forgotten Subjunctive

Once upon a time, the correct past tense subjunctive verb was “were” when expressing a wish or when expressing a conditional in phrases and clauses that use “if” or “as if.” In formal speaking and writing, the correct verb choice is still “were.” For example:

• I wish I were King of the World, not I wish I was King . . .
• If I were you, not if I was you . . .
• He acts as if he were King of the World, not he acts as if he was King of the World

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Simple Meal with Symbolic Significance

Surely, every parent hopes to teach his child good dietary habits and to be successful in school. After all, good dietary habits lead to life-long health and a successful school career opens the door to a lifetime of opportunity and self-sufficiency.

Dinner together is one ritual that parents can honor in order to instill good dietary habits and teach academic success. The simple act of breaking bread together can plant the seeds for a lifetime of bountiful harvests.

Movies and literature seem to have recognized the power of breaking bread long before the most recent round of parenting tips and talk-show blather. Indeed, the feast, whether an intimate dinner for two or an entire community, is iconic; i. e., it is a conventional archetypal symbol for:

• Sharing
• Celebrating
• Communicating

Sharing. When the lost and abused Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein (1974) stumbles into a blind man’s hut, the monster answers the old man’s prayer, asking for a visitor to forestall his great loneliness. In gratitude, the host offers soup as comfort against the cold and wine in honor of friendship. The blind man shares what little he has as a way of bringing strangers together and sustaining them on their long, separate journeys. Of course, as Gene Wilder intended, the scene plays against the wholesome, gratifying meanings, and in its incongruities, is very funny.

On the other hand, the recent holiday, Thanksgiving, usually honored in a spirit of sharing and caring, commemorates a legendary act of sharing when the Native Americans offered what they could to the hungry and grateful Pilgrims. In the nearly four hundred years since, families and friends gather to share what their labor has provided.

Breaking bread also has religious significance. From the Last Supper forward, believers accept the sacrament of communion in order to share in the mercy and sacrifice of the Redeemer. In addition, some religious orders teach acolytes to eschew money, permanent shelter, and regular provisions, relying upon the good nature and good deeds of others on their journey. Those who share with the seeker derive spiritual rewards.

. From the cake that honors birthday celebrants to a multi-course dinner served after a wedding, breaking bread signifies celebration. For the upcoming holidays, including Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or the Chinese New Year, families will labor to prepare traditional dishes. In Charles Dickens’ world, a great goose and Figgy Pudding bring joy. In many dairy aisles, the annual appearance of eggnog in a carton cries “Merry Christmas.”

In the Jewish tradition, foods such as potato latkes, cooked in oil, mirror the reason for the season: oil that miraculously burned much longer than it should have. For Kwanzaa, dishes that link to African roots and the foods that slaves had access to fill the tables. These include collard greens, gumbos that used a little bit of whatever plus okra, and corn or cornbread. The Asian tradition of ringing in the New Year invites good fortune so foods are prepared and served whole so as not to carve up one’s luck.

Communicating. Sometimes the food is the message. In Babette’s Feast, Babette uses her lottery loot and her consummate skill as a cook to prepare a lavish feast for people unaccustomed to fine cuisine. She does this purely--with no thought of reward. She simply wishes to thank the villagers for allowing her to live among them. Still, breaking such fine bread together makes the elderly guests at the table whole and restores everyone to a state of well-being. Such is the communicative and healing power of breaking bread.

Chocolate has similar powers in Chocolat. Estranged couples fall in love again and many find the strength to overcome adversity simply by allowing in the delectable scent and flavors of chocolate. It communicates life’s pleasures and heals wounds.

In Eat Drink Man Woman, viewers infer that among the necessities for a full life are eating, drinking, and love. Indeed, preparing food with care and attention to detail is the metaphor for building a fulfilling relationship. One must carefully plan and attend to every detail in order to nurture and foster love.

Film-makers and authors may also use the literary archetype of breaking bread as the opposite of sharing, celebrating, and communicating. American Beauty, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, plays against all these symbolic meanings. Kevin Spacey, the father who just quit his job, asks his wife or daughter to pass the asparagus repeatedly. He finally stands to retrieve it himself, only to throw the plate against the wall. All of this action occurs against the musical backdrop of Frank Sinatra bouncing out the tune “Call Me Irresponsible,” a trait that his wife truly believes him to possess.

The dinner also introduces irony. Most people would not celebrate quitting or losing a job; in doing so, the father does not live up to the fatherly duty of providing for the family, a fact that his shrill, snarky wife points out. The daughter even arrives late and tries to run from her parents’ bitter quarrel; she does not wish to partake of the food and does not eat a single bite. Certainly, no one celebrates anything except lowered expectations, disappointments, and love lost.

Finally, the food and dinner itself does not fulfill or heal. It is a perfunctory event wherein people pretend civility by saying “please” when asking for a dish to be passed, but all civility disappears when the father’s requests go unheard and he hurls the dish against the wall. The mother has set the table with candles and flowers, suggesting romance is on the menu, but the evening’s entree is vitriol, not love and respect. This family meal communicates each member’s isolation and pain.

As you read and write, be aware of the power of eating together. Writers do not simply create a dinner scene to fill space; they intend to invoke our understanding of food as a path to sharing, celebrating and communicating. They suggest themes as a result, including the ones mentioned in this post:

• Food brings people together.
• Food restores people to a state of well being.
• Food is a gift of generosity and creativity.

Reading Challenge:

Read any of the films mentioned in this post, or in honor of this time of year, read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Writing Challenge:

Make a list of films and books that include a dinner scene. Write a sentence (or two) in which you declare what the scene signifies.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Fewer and Less

Which of the following is correct?

• Magazines have fewer pages these days because publishing costs are high, subscription rates are low, and readers receive their news online.

• Print magazines have less readership these days because of the Internet.

• Print magazines have fewer readers these days because of the Internet.

• Fewer students qualify for student loans these days because there is less money available.

• In less than two years, many magazines have folded, and the size of individual magazines fell by a bit less than 20%.

Each of the sample sentences is correct. Can you determine the rules by observing closely the correct uses of the words?

• If the word modified has a plural form (page and pages), choose “fewer.”
• If the word has no plural form (as in “readership” or “money”), choose “less.”
• If the word modified refers to people (readers and students), choose “fewer.”
• Use “less” when modifying time (years) or numbers (percentage).

*In the interest of accuracy, the figure 20% is complete conjecture.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, December 3, 2010

Situational Archetype: The Little Engine's Quest

In blog posts from October 22 through November 26, I reviewed six of the most significant and basic conventional literary characters:

The Femme Fatale,
Father Figures, and
Mother Figures.

With this post, I shift from characters to situations in which these characters exist and in the next posts, I will take up archetypal symbols. In doing so, I will demonstrate that characters and situations and symbols weave together like strands in a multi-colored cloth, forming patterns that cohere in a single, unified whole. That whole is an overall meaning or theme.

First, is the quest, an archetypal situation. The protagonist begins at Point A in some emotional, physical, and/or spiritual state and arrives at Point Z, changed by his quest. Whether he has an assigned task or Fate simply forces him to move along, a protagonist grows and changes as a result of his journey. Some characters on a quest enjoy good fortune, leading to a good, satisfying outcome. Other characters have lousy luck, and they end tragically.

A classic children’s story, The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper is a paradigm for the archetypal quest situation in which a character must complete a task. The little engine’s task is to pull her load over a hill, but she cannot complete her task. She is too small. Fortunately, she perseveres and adds a second task to the first: she searches for another engine to help her. Big (male) engines refuse because they are tired or sidetracked by their own importance, but the little engine persists and finds another little engine that eagerly agrees. Together, the little engines pull the train of cars over the hill, chugging along to the rhythm of “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Once over the hill and on flat plains again, the first little engine continues alone, singing to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could.” She achieved her task and more. She proved the power of teamwork, and she learned that perseverance has its own reward: a lasting belief in oneself. In those lessons, dear Readers, are overall meanings drawn from a simple, short tale. These themes include
• attitude is everything, and
• as long as time and will exist, little engines can do great things.

The Star Wars stories echo those themes, but the hills that must be overcome are much larger and metaphorical. In addition, the characters are more complex, and the consequences of failure more tragic because the Star Wars’ series is actually a story about whether good or evil will reign supreme in the hearts of men and therefore, in the universe.

One of the little engines in the complex train is Hans Solo, a man with a self-appointed task: earn money and prove his flying skills by delivering Princess Leia to Tatooine. He declares, without shame or remorse, that he is loyal to no cause except his own, but as the journey to Tatooine continues and Hans bears witness to the evils of the Empire as well as the courage and daring of the rebel forces, his task becomes secondary. Ultimately, his quest delivers him as a selfless, courageous rebel, willing to risk his life for the greater good in the universe.

The Little Engine and Hans Solo stories illustrate the situational archetype known as the quest. Each begins a journey to accomplish a task, but the task is secondary to the outcome in quest tales. What characters learn about themselves as they try to accomplish tasks and how their journey changes them are the true heart of the story; therein lie the overall meanings:

• The Little Engine that Could learns that she can persevere and triumph even when the task seems impossible.
• Hans Solo proves that adversity introduces a man to himself so that later, when Hans looks in a mirror, he finds a good man looking back, a risk-taker pursuing intangibles such as justice rather than a fistful of money.
• Even though the task itself does not begin as High Noon for good and evil, as the journey continues, good and evil forces divide and women and men must choose between them.

Reading Challenge:

Read Homer’s The Odyssey, a quest paradigm and a great story. As you read, observe the characters and identify them as one of the six basic character archetypes. In addition or instead, read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, an extensive allusion to The Odyssey and an excellent tale of redemption set during the Civil War.

Writing Challenge:

Using The Little Engine that Could as a model, tell a quest story that your children would enjoy.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

During the first oil crisis, way back in the 1970s, I watched the numbers scroll by as I filled my car with gasoline, and I watched my paycheck strain and stretch to meet the new cost of transportation. These are now cyclical as our oil supplies wax and wane, as we become more or less concerned about our dependence upon oil, but oil reserves have even affected usage, the comma in particular.

Newspapers began their slide into extinction in the 1970s because transportation costs were like a stone cast into a pool of water: ever widening circles emanate from the first splash, in this case, OPEC and the cost of oil. Fuels required to make and deliver products grew more expensive, adding to the costs of the products themselves. These products included paper and ink so publishers and editors sought ways to cut costs; the comma became one item in a long list of cost-cutting measures. Unnecessary commas such as the Oxford (Harvard or serial comma) could be omitted, and writers could say as much while using a little less space on the page.

Here are examples of the Oxford comma choice:
• If a list of items is simple, you may omit the comma before the conjunction; e.g., Please stop at the grocery store to buy bread, orange juice and milk. A comma before the words and milk is unnecessary, but perfectly acceptable if you choose to use it.
• If a list of items is complicated, do not omit the comma before the conjunction; e.g., As you prepare for college, you must secure a PIN number from the federal government in order to complete the FAFSA before all the money are been distributed, submit applications with the correct application fee by the deadline specified by the college or university, request an application fee waiver prior to the application deadline if you cannot afford the cost of several application fees, and search for scholarships that match your personal criteria. A comma before the words and search is essential because this list is lengthy and each item in the list is lengthy.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Mother Figure: A Conventional Literary Archetype

At the end of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath a starving man suckles at the breast of a young mother. Such an image scandalizes some readers, but this moment in literature is a classic example of another conventional literary archetype, the mother figure.

Mother is the womb, the safe haven where needs, both biological and psychological, are met. She is the crucible in which a fetus changes to become male or female and develops unique features. Mother is the receptacle and the nest.

Mother is also the nurturer. Her body sustains the fetus and infant. Her responsibilities include growing and providing foods that help children thrive. She also nourishes the spirit, kissing boo-boos to make them better and healing wounds seen and unseen. A mother’s love restores us to a state of well-being. She makes us whole because the metaphorical umbilical cord connecting mother and child cannot be severed. Mothers sense when their children are in need. They are aware of subtle differences in their child’s cries, they guide their children in the direction of their true talents, and they differentiate their methods according to the needs of each child.

Mothers are selfless. A mother will take the lesser portion so that her child will not be hungry. She will wear tatters in order to send her child into the world well-dressed. She will push her child to the front and recede into the background unless her child faces foes and competitors. Then, Mother will stand like a shield between her child and oncoming arrows. She will also forgive and love eternally.

Mothers are teachers. By example, they teach love and empathy. They also teach civility and etiquette, and perhaps most important, they teach children to hold in their selfish impulses in favor of sharing and caring.

Mother Nature is perhaps the classic example of mother as womb and nurturer. Earth itself sustains her children, providing beauty to feed the heart and mind, food to feed the body. Her Greek identity is Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, of the sanctity of marriage, and of the cycle of life. She is the mother who mourned her daughter, Persephone, while she was in Hades with her husband. Her heart and the world became wintry awaiting the rebirth of joy and bounty in the Spring and Summer.

Ma Joad, another character from The Grapes of Wrath, also exemplifies roles of mother as safe haven. She is fierce in her ability to weather all hurts without withering. She knows that her family’s hope and strength begins in her; she will endure and persevere to sustain them.

Leah Price, one of the heroic women in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, is selfless. She surrenders her role as dependent in order to provide for her family, taking up the duties of hunter when Nathan shirks them. She sees beyond race and time to the beauty of her husband, Anatole, and all of the Congolese. She chooses to live in Africa, enduring all the hardships of the land. She dedicates her life to love: loving her husband, her biological children, and Africa. She sacrifices in order to improve the lives of others. So does Erin Brockovich, as portrayed by Julia Roberts, when she eats a can of tomatoes and uses her last dollars to buys her kids food.

Elbows off the table, cover your mouth when you cough, and don’t talk with your mouth full are all directives from Mom. She teaches children to apologize, do their best, and play nicely. Ms. Rain, the GED teacher at Precious’ alternative school, is an excellent example of the mother figure as teacher in the movie Precious. Ms. Rain prepares Precious to earn a diploma, she provides her with life skills, and she models love and kindness, two gifts that Precious has never known.

Authors use these expectations of mothers to guide the reader’s understanding of the character and to develop overall meanings. Sometimes, the mother figure does not fare well against the cultural expectations. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is one who fails to put her own desires aside and help her son overcome his grief. Ingrid, Astrid’s mother in the film version of White Oleander, rationalizes that placing her daughter into the foster care system is acceptable parenting. We, the viewers, recognize the mother’s utter selfishness, her failure to provide a safe haven, to nurture, and teach.

Through literary mothers who fulfill society’s expectations, readers witness the godlike qualities within human beings. From mothers who fail, we learn that innocent children pay for the sins of their elders, that their promise is often thwarted by adults who cannot live up to the demands of parenting.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The mother, Orleanna, is a complex character who must make difficult choices. She fails and triumphs as a mother.

Writing Challenge:

Write a fabulous reality in which a mother figure is the central character.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As promised, the meaning and use of e.g. is the subject this week. It means for example so writers use e.g. to introduce a paradigm, illustration, or example for a statement; e.g.,

Elmore Leonard often creates fabulous realities; e.g., gangsters discuss the meanings and uses of i.e. and e.g.

Here’s a trick to remember when and how to use these Latin abbreviations:

In other words and that is are translations for i.e. Both feature the letter I as does i.e.

For example is a translation for e.g. Both feature an E.

By thinking of I or E, you should be able to differentiate between i.e. and e.g.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, November 19, 2010

Father Figures: The Fifth Conventional Literary Archetype

In less than one week, in thousands of home across the land, the patriarch of the family will stand at the head of the table to carve the traditional turkey for the Thanksgiving gathering. His role as leader of the family is time-honored and symbolic. He is a literary archetype, one being reinterpreted by the new family constructions and gender considerations in the Western world, but one that will nevertheless endure for its roots are as deep as Greek mythology and Biblical precepts.

Father is the Creator. In religions across time and nation, he is the giver of life. Whether the creator is a spirit imbued in nature and man or a figure such as Yahweh, men, ancient and modern, tell each other stories about the spark that ignited the world and its inhabitants. Many of these stories portray that spark as a creature resembling man himself.

Father is also the protector
. Prometheus risked his personal well-being to steal fire from the gods in order to protect mankind. With Prometheus’ gift of fire, men were able to cook foods, warm themselves, and shed light upon complex mysteries such as disease. In other words, with fire, men became self-sufficient, and Prometheus is the mythological Father figure who made it possible.

Father is furthermore the leader. He guides his children through the maze of existence, endowing them with precepts and purpose. He directs units as small as the family and as large as an entire nation. He explores the wildernesses and frontiers, rendering them useful and ordered.

Many works of literature play into these paternal roles, and many play against them.
In Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Baba gave life to Amir and Hassan. When forced to choose between them, Baba chooses Amir, protecting him from the Russians and the Taliban, sheltering him in the United States, and insuring that Amir’s dreams come true. In Shakespeare, father figures often create chaos instead of a new Eden. Claudius transforms Prince Hamlet’s home into “an unweeded Garden,” suggesting that the Creator has indeed abandoned his creation.

Similarly, fathers may fail to protect. Baba fails Hassan because the father is ashamed of creating a Hazara son. Baba abandons Hassan to the care of a foster father, Ali, and departs Afghanistan, leaving both in a war-torn country. Nathan Price, husband to Orleanna and father of four girls, is a villain in The Poisonwood Bible because he ignores his fundamental paternal duty: to protect and provide for his family. Macbeth’s evil is apparent when he fails to protect the father of Scotland, Duncan, and fails to care about Scotland’s welfare once Macbeth realizes his ambitions to become king.

The examples of Baba, Nathan Price, and Macbeth also demonstrate authors playing against conventional literary archetypes. Baba teaches his son, Amir, that the most egregious sin is to tell a lie, yet he lives a lie by denying his son, Hassan. Nathan Price may have deep spiritual convictions that lead him to Africa, but he cannot lead villagers to salvation while he himself belies a fundamental truth about fathers: they are responsible for the health and welfare of their family. Macbeth commits the same crime except that his family consists of an entire nation whereas Nathan’s consists of a wife and daughters.

What writers do as they play into and against convention is facilitate our understanding of a character’s true nature and overall meanings. From the fathers who err and fail, readers learn that failing to uphold moral virtue leads to ruin. From literary father figures who try to protect and lead, whether they succeed or not, readers infer that good and great men place the needs of others above their own.

Reading Challenge:

Fathers and Sons” by Ernest Hemingway, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and King Lear by William Shakespeare are five diverse works of literature featuring father figures, some of whom aspire to fulfilling their roles as protector and leader and some who fail as archetypal fathers.

Writing Challenge

Write a fabulous reality in which a father figure is the central character.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Elmore Leonard has written many novels that I have enjoyed and many have inspired screenplays. One of the better known novels that became a successful movie is Get Shorty. I like to think Leonard’s keen ear for dialogue, his excellent use of irony, and his satirical tone are the reasons.

In that book and film, gangsters discuss the correct use of i.e. and e.g. Ray Bones, the thuggiest of the thugs, uses i.e. incorrectly. Chili Palmer, the most imaginative of the criminals, the one who aspires to wealth without the risk of prison, suggests that Bones should have used e.g. instead. Bones’ muscle, the bone-breaker and bodyguard, arbitrates, coming down in favor of Chili’s understanding of the Latin abbreviations.

The great joke is that gangsters care about the nuances of language and Bones, like so many of us, confuses the two. So for all you Bones out there:

The Latin abbreviation i.e. roughly translates to mean in other words or that is. For example:

Get Shorty mocks Hollywood by suggesting that loan sharking and making movie deals are similar; i.e., Leonard portrays Hollywood as a world wherein the borrower is servant to the lender.

Next week: The Latin abbreviation e.g.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Innocent: A Fourth Conventional Liteary Archetype

We envy babies for more than their dewy, rosy skin, so soft and warm. We envy their weltanschauung. For children, magic operates in the universe, and all things are possible. Such is their state of innocence.

I still recall when my daughter lost some of her innocence. She asked Santa for an impossible gift: an animated Santa that, like Salvation Army bell-ringers, jangles a bell, the sound signalling much joy to come. Perhaps someone, somewhere made such a toy, but if so, it was not made in the year she asked for it. Friends and near strangers in other states searched for me; family in other cities looked. No such Santa was for sale.

I bought a Rudolph instead. His nose shone red and when squeezed, his belly sang endless, childish Christmas tunes, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” while his head rocked from side to side. A friend at work wrote a note from Santa, explaining that he could not give up the Eve to ring a bell for her, but Rudolph, due to clear skies around the world, had volunteered to await her morning. The note replaced cookies in a plate that had been left for the big guy; my husband drank the milk.

Despite my clever ruse, my daughter was not fooled. She played along as she tried to sort out the probability of a world-wide conspiracy that told children of a Santa that could not, in fact, deliver the goods, but years later, she told me that she knew, on that childhood Christmas morning, that Santa Claus was but a myth. She had moved one step along the game board of Life from innocence to cynicism, and that is what happens to The Innocent, another conventional, archetypal literary character.

Some time later, in her fourth-grade year, my daughter asked for a haircut just like her teacher’s. I had no problem with her request because, after all, it is her hair, but I hated to see her beautiful long locks go and missed them when they did. She missed them immediately. She looked in the mirror and did not see what she had hoped to see. She grieved. She sobbed. She asked me how long before her long locks returned so I did what any self-respecting parent of virtue might do: I lied. I plucked a number from the mesosphere and said, “three months,” believing that in three months, my daughter would no longer feel the sting of loss and short hair. I was so wrong.

When the world had grown three months older--something I had not guessed that my daughter would keep track of--she asked me if something were wrong because her hair did not fall below her shoulders after three months. Like a beetle pinned to the science-project board, I was caught so I admitted that I had lied--a so-called innocent lie to make her feel better.

Her eyes widened. She stared, and her mouth gaped a bit before she said, “You lied” as one might say, “Did you say cancer? I have cancer?” Her tone was flat, the tone of someone who knows the language is English but cannot comprehend the words at all. In expression and words, she conveyed her disbelief in the possibility that I had lied.

For days, she wrestled with the truth and quizzed me about other possible lies. We had many frank conversations, and I apologized over and over. But no apology could alter the outcome: my daughter’s innocence had been stolen again. She had to face the truth that a parent may not be able to stitch bad patches together into one huge good. In fact, my daughter now realized, even parents may dissemble, wearing the face of someone trustworthy to mask the hideous lying face below.

This is the stuff of literature and literary archetypes. The innocent is a character, usually adolescent, who comes closer to the truth of adults. He learns that even the myth of Santa does not apply to the poorest among us. He watches sitcom families live in impossibly nice homes and apartments, realizing at last that his own family will never have the means or opportunity to live as they do.

The innocent knows at all too young an age that bullies exist. Worse, sometimes those bullies are his own parents who beat, scald, batter, and isolate him. He bumps into a schoolmate and learns, upon being shoved down, that sometimes people are cruel for no reason whatsoever. He watches his father or mother walk out the door, never to return. He confronts the finality, the irreversibility of death, and his entire weltanschauung inevitably shifts.

Sometimes, even when innocence dies abruptly, the characters live happily ever after. Cinderella is a fine example of that. She, we presume, once had a loving mother. After her mother’s death, her father remarries, only to leave her in the care of a step-mother who despises the child who did not come from her own womb. The wicked step-mother uses Cinderella as a servant, casting her into the ashes of existence where no remedy or kindness lays. Cinderella, however, at least in Disney’s famous version, has a fairy godmother who facilitates a good outcome. Cinderella finds a fella who takes her away from all her misery, into a palace, where he cherishes her all her days.

In Cinder-Edna and Ever After, a film starring Drew Barrymore, the happy ending results from Cinderella’s own grit. She knows what is right. She possesses a healthy, vital dose of empathy for others who suffer. She has little to call her own, but she is whole and content. Who then could not fall in love with such a woman?

More often, the ending is not a happy one. Usually, the adolescent grieves as Jem did after a jury of white men finds an innocent black man guilty of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem learns a lesson that we all must learn at some point, in some way: our neighbors may not have our best interests in mind when they act and decide.

Sometimes, the innocent becomes bitter and runs from others, as Chris McCandless did after he condemns his parents for their actions (from Jon Krakauer’s analysis of Chris in Into the Wild). At other times, the ending is tragic as it was for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Rescued from the streets, Heathcliff’s benefactor, Mr. Earnshaw, pampers the waif, making him equal and even superior to his own son, Hindley. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley takes his revenge upon Heathcliff, evicting him from the house, denying him an education, and forcing him to live among the filthy. With his innocence restored by Mr. Earnshaw, then stripped by Hindley, Heathcliff becomes a twisted, bitter man, bent upon revenge and dedicated to cruelty. He never enjoys peace or finds happiness.

Reading Challenge:

Read a Stephen King novel or novella, featuring adolescents. Christine or “Apt Pupil” and “The Body” in a collection entitled Different Seasons will serve. Note the role of The Innocent in these.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story about a day or time when you lost a measure of your own innocence. What new conclusions did you draw about the universe and people as a result?

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Since I confessed to telling a lie in this post, I think it’s as good a time as any to review the uses of lie and lay.

First, lie can be a noun or a verb. George Washington supposedly said, “I cannot tell a lie,” and I confessed to having told my daughter a lie about hair growth. Both of these are examples of lie as a noun.

Lie is also a verb
and is used as a verb in the following examples:

• I would like to live my life as a dog because then I would only be required to lie down all day while my food digested.
• Each afternoon, I lie on the couch to rest my body while exercising my mind with Jeopardy.
• We now know that lying in the sun to tan our hides is a very bad idea.

Lay can also be a noun or a verb although the use of lay as a noun is definitely not polite in all social circles. As a verb, lay means that a human places something or someone who is no longer alive somewhere. For example:

Lay your coats on the bed in the front bedroom please.
• Mr. Jones was laid to rest today in Green Lawn Cemetery.
• “The chicken laid 3 eggs today--very unusual.”

The most important point to keep in mind when you review the examples above: lie is for humans; lay is for non-human or dead humans. Easy? Well, you would think so, but lots of people cannot keep the two sorted out, especially when other verb tenses come into use.

Here are the primary tenses for lie and the correct word:

• Every day, I lie down for a nap between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m.
• Yesterday, I lay down for a thirty-minute nap at 3:30 p.m.
• Tomorrow, I will lie down for a nap in the afternoon.
• All my life, I have lain on my couch for an afternoon nap.
• I must have been asleep lying on the couch when you called.

See one problem? The past tense of lie is lay. With that one confusing exception, the differences between verbs and their tenses are distinct.

Here are the primary tenses for lay and the correct word:

• Each evening, I lay my clothes for the next morning across an ottoman in my bedroom.
• Yesterday, I laid my clothes for the next morning across an ottoman in my bedroom so that I could arrive at work earlier than the day before.
• Tomorrow, I will lay out the clothes that I must pack for my vacation.
• All my life, I have laid a wreath on the graves of veterans for Memorial Day.
• Your wallet is laying on your dresser.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Femme Fatale, Another Conventional, Literary Archetype

Speaking of heroes, as I was last week, we should consider a challenge oft faced by heroes: the femme fatale, another literary archetype. She is, as Margaret Atwood described her in a poem entitled “Siren Song,” a seductress who lures men, even heroic men, to their doom. The Siren herself says:

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

Yes, heroes and ordinary men sense the danger in associating with the femme fatale, but her pheromones or beauty or mystery reels them in anyway.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, creates a convoluted, prolonged test to prove that Arthur and his men are neither pure nor heroic. Gawain is the knight who accepts the challenge. He must deliver an axe blow to the Green Knight, who picks up his head and rides off to become whole again. In one year and a day, Gawain must follow the Green Knight to bare his own neck for an axe blow.

While searching for the Green Knight to fulfill his quest, Gawain stays at a castle for several days. There, the Lord’s wife tries to seduce him. She teases him, kisses him, bares her breast, and tries to bribe him with a jewel, but Gawain remains devout: honor to God and King first; women, especially married women, last. When the Lady finally realizes that Gawain will not succumb to her physical temptations, she offers him a simple green scarf that, she promises, could save his life. Gawain folds. Now his priorities are: his own life, honor to God, then honor to King.

The problem is that Gawain has agreed to give the Lord of the castle anything Gawain receives during the day, while the Lord is away, hunting. Gawain has been faithful to this contract until he receives the green scarf. He does not want to give up his chance to live so he compounds his sin by lying to the Lord who is, of course, actually the Green Knight, thanks to magic stirred up by Morgan le Fay. So the Lord, a.k.a. Knight, knows that Gawain has lied to him when they meet on the next day, the day that Gawain may die.

[If you have not read the tale, I encourage you to do so. You’ll find plenty of asides about the ways knights dressed for battle, about quests, and about how hunters field dressed deer and birds. You’ll also find a titillating tale of temptation.]

Spoiler Alert: Gawain lives, thanks to the green scarf, but he must endure the Green Knight’s mockery for having flinched and lied. In truth, however, the Green Knight chastises Gawain far less than Gawain chastises himself. All in all, the tale upholds the reputation of Arthur and his knights, proving them to be men of conscience, men who strive for excellence even if they stumble now and then.

This tale from the Middle Ages reveals what the femme fatale does. She is a temptress who tries to de-rail the hero, to distract him from his noble purpose. Such a woman is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the foil to Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Another such woman is Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction, a film whose title aptly describes the femme fatale. Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) falls for Alex’s come hither wiles, and he believes her when she says that it’s just sex. He learns that she lies, and he almost loses the prize at the end of his quest: a loving wife and happy family.

Some of my favorite femme fatales are found in film noir. Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyk in a funky wig) tempts the good, upright Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) in about the same time as it takes to say “baby, baby, baby”--which Walter says a lot in the film by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Phyllis’ lure seems to be an ankle bracelet that wraps itself around Walter’s conscience, choking to death every one of his principles and ethics. Her kisses convince him to murder her husband after Walter writes an insurance policy that promises Double Indemnity if a fella dies by falling from public transportation. Her kisses do not warn Walter that she will shoot him, but she’s such a lousy shot that Walter has time to drive back to his office, dictate the whole, sorry, sordid tale, and try to die before the coppers arrive. Alas, Walter does time for his fatal crime.

So you might conclude that a femme fatale may draw a man to his doom or merely waylay him on his way to something grand and noble. And. . .you’d be right.

Reading Challenge

Choose a Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, or Walter Mosley novel. You’re quite likely to find a femme fatale and a variety of heroic figures.

Writing Challenge:

Using specific, concrete language and detail, describe a femme fatale you’ve known and possibly loved. For the ladies among the readers, describe the gal who stole your man. Feel free to create a “fabulous reality” by embellishing.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Several years ago, one of my students shared the following with me: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar” (James D. Nicoll). We enjoyed laughing about the fact that English vocabulary has grown because we freely borrow words and phrases from other languages, phrases such as femme fatale, a phrase that I have italicized throughout this post. The reason is common courtesy: if at least one of the words is unfamiliar to English speakers, then italicize both words so the reader will not puzzle over them and will quickly recognize them as being from another language, in this case French.

Technically, I did not have to italicize the phrase more than once, the first time I used it. Thereafter, I could have used the normal font. I elected not to do this because the entire blog is about a conventional, literary character that I have chosen to call the femme fatale. Thus, italics helped me emphasize the term as I explained it, and emphasis is one of the chief uses of italics.

Many foreign words are well-known to English readers. Femme fatale and blasé are but two examples of words stolen in French alleys to bring into the bright, light of common English day. Neither one must be italicized today, but again, to emphasize a term being explained, italics are appropriate.

The German word, weltanschauung, on the other hand, is less familiar to English speakers and readers. An italicized font would be useful, but italics are not even required for weltanschauung because it has a place in the dictionary among other English words and phrases.

So if the word is uncommon and foreign, italicize it. If the word, though uncommon and foreign, is in the dictionary, you may omit the italicized font. If you wish to emphasize the word or phrase, foreign or not, italicize it.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, October 29, 2010

Conventional, Archetypal Literary Figures: The Hero

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Heroes are close, country cousins to villains. They are not perfect.

Consider Tony Stark, the fabulously wealthy, clever fellow who becomes Iron Man. He was self-absorbed, pursuing his own interests and pleasures until he becomes aware that his company kills people and he himself becomes a target of bad guys. Such a life-changing moment, we would hope, would elevate one’s purposes, and for Tony Stark, it does. Nevertheless, to survive and win, he needs a special nuclear ticker, a suit of impervious armor, and good fortune.

Most superheroes need a gimmick--just as Tony Stark does. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a special sense that allows her to detect vampires. She also possesses super strength and heals quickly. Superman isn’t even from earth, and Spidey needs venom to soar above buildings. Only poor Kick-Ass tries to go it alone; his bruises and fractures remind us that mere mortals may not win against mighty foes.

Consider Beowulf, the epic hero of the Anglo-Saxons. He loves to test his strength in swimming contests, against monsters, and in pursuit of gold. He even travels to Denmark in order to assist Hrothgar and enhance his standing in the world as a loyal man of courage, but Beowulf is not perfect. He can be deceitful, and he brags about his achievements.

In addition, in two of his most fierce battles, Beowulf, like most superheroes, cannot win without help. When he fights Grendel’s mother, he needs a sword bigger and stronger than his own. Fortune favors him when such a sword just happens to be within his reach, and as the biggest, strongest man anywhere in the world, he just happens to be able to lift it and use it to off her head. Much later in life, Beowulf faces an enraged dragon alone, and he cannot win. He’s old; his armor and shield are nothing against fire. Beowulf loses that last round, but his courage to stand before the creature becomes part of his legend.

Some mere mortals, upon whom Fortune refuses to smile, fight in spite of the odds against them. They lose, of course, but the fight itself defines them. Oedipus may be a man cursed by the gods. He is hot-headed, arrogant, impulsive, and tyrannical, but consider what Oedipus’ aims are: he wants to protect the people he believes to be his parents, he wants to save Thebes, and he wants to uncover the truth at all costs. Now those are aims we can cheer, and as a result, Oedipus rises to the level of hero, tragically cut down by his own hand and his own rotten destiny.

Hamlet is another guy who can’t catch a break. His uncle slaughters his own brother, Hamlet's father, to become King himself (by the way, Claudius is Scar; ghostly King Hamlet is Mufasa). Claudius steals Nala--I mean, Gertrude, and steals Prince Hamlet’s (Simba’s) right to the throne. The nasty uncle, now king, has allies galore and a standing army (or hyenas). What’s a prince to do? Rely upon a wart-hog and meerkat? Hardly.

But Hamlet is the hero even though he and everyone else dies in the end. Hamlet seeks the truth. He worries about his mother. He restrains his vengeful hand while considering how Denmark itself has been and will be affected. He ponders the true purposes for which man was placed on this earth. In other words, he strives for excellence in his pursuit of justice. He’s just not very nice about it all.

So that is why I assert that the heroic literary archetype is a close cousin to the villain. Both are imperfect humans, but the hero tries to rise above his own humanity and forego purely self-interested, opportunistic, petty motives in favor of divine purposes that include selflessness and courage and sacrifice. Like Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the hero risks life itself for a greater good.

Sure, heroes rescue damsels in distress, slay dragons, run into burning buildings, and solve crimes. They are often stronger and faster than the rest of us, but even the strongest and the fastest occasionally need a suit of iron, a monster sword, an AK-47, or a Taser.

Heroes rarely win without help. Sometimes they don’t win at all; sometimes they just run out of luck. Most of the time, they are no more perfect than a villain; they are just capable of empathy and able to restrain their petty impulses.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. Or read McCarthy’s award-winning novels, No Country for Old Men and The Road. In any one of these books, identify the hero and the villain(s), taking note of their traits.

Writing Challenge:

Write a story featuring a hero who is not perfect, but one whom readers can support.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Contractions

When I speak to family and friends, I use contractions often. I say I didn’t remember to pick up the milk instead of I did not remember to pick up milk. When I write e-mail messages to friends and family, I use contractions unless I need to be emphatic. For example, I did not start that rumor has more force than I didn’t do it.

In this blog post, I used contractions now and then because this post is written less formally than some others have been. This post has a conversational tone about it so contractions are appropriate.

In formal writing, though, contractions should be edited in favor of full words. Letters, contracts, messages to co-workers on company letterhead or computers, resumés, cover letters for resumés, and almost every assignment given in public school or college require that you proofread for and eliminate contractions, including all of those short-cut, shorthand text messages such as LOL.

[On April 11, 2010, the GUM lesson was also about contractions.]

Road 1ST Edition