Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Ideas in Well-Known Places

In this week’s post, dear Reader, we will apply the lessons of the previous posts for September 10 and 17, lessons about overall meanings, also known as literary themes, and to insure that we have common ground, we will consider Grimm’s fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel, not the somewhat pasteurized version, but the full Monty, retold below.

Once upon a time, a man and his second wife, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, faced an economic downturn with no bailouts on the horizon. Pop was so distraught about the prospect of starving that he tossed and turned through the night. Dear stepmom suggested that the children be left in the forest so that only two shall starve, not four. Pop’s conscience troubles him, and he refuses until Stepmom “leaves him no peace.”

Unable to withstand his wife’s nagging, Pop agrees to leave his children alone in the woods where wild beasts may dispatch them, and the plan might have worked if the children had not overheard the adults charged with their well-being. Those naughty little spies armed themselves with pockets full of pebbles that reflected the moon’s glow and led them back home.

The second attempt at ditching the kids was more successful in spite of the kids’ faith in a “good God” who will surely save them. This time, having used all the available pebbles, Hansel crumbles the small slice of bread he had been given for the trip into the woods. He dropped these along the trail, but birds ate them. Hansel and Gretel were utterly lost, doomed to starve or become a meal for something else that resides in forests.

As the children stumble deeper and deeper into the forest, they see “a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, . . . [it] sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.” The children begin to eat, rousing the wicked witch inside. She invites brother and sister inside, offers them milk, apples, nuts, and more sugar. She also gives them beds made with clean, white linens. Sweet, innocent Gretel thinks she may be in Heaven.

Alas, she is not. She has once again fallen into the clutches of a duplicitous, wicked woman, one who imprisons Hansel, fattening him for a meal while forcing Gretel to work and weep. On the day of Hansel’s death, the witch builds a fire in the oven and tells Gretel to climb inside to be sure the oven is hot enough for bread. Little, sly Gretel pretends not to understand and asks the witch to show her how. Once the foolish witch is inside, Gretel, no longer an innocent, slams the oven door shut, then runs to release Hansel.

With nothing to fear from the witch, the children help themselves to all the gems and treasure they can carry from the witches’ home. Thus endowed with a dowry of sorts, the children set forth to return to their father.

Their goal seems impossible when the children reach a large body of water, one they cannot cross, but Nature itself seems to pity the children for in their path, Nature places a snowy white duck that answers the children’s call and transports them one by one to the opposite shore. From there, the children know the way home and rush into their father’s arms.

Stepmom is dead. Dad, we are told, “had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest” and embraces them gratefully. The children then reveal the precious stones they have carried with them so “all anxiety was at an end, and they [all] lived together in perfect happiness.”

What conflicts does Grimm’s brief tale employ? All five, and by tracing the conflicts to their logical ends, we can infer big ideas.

1. Man v. Self. Hansel and Gretel are in conflict with their own fear of abandonment and death. The conflict’s resolution suggests that quick-thinking and perseverance will beat even the most evil folks in our path.
2. Man v. Man. Hansel and Gretel face wicked women, first their stepmother and then the witch. The conflict’s resolution suggests that evil cannot defeat good in the hearts of innocent children. After all, Hansel and Gretel forgive dear old Dad who has no redeeming value--in my opinion.
3. Man v. Society. Hansel and Gretel combat an oppressive adult world inhabited by weak men and wretched women. They overcome, suggesting that even small children can go toe to toe with evil and win--as long as they have plenty of pebbles and snowy white ducks on hand.
4. Man v. Nature. The forest is an ominous force representing a malignant world wherein unprepared children must find their way. In this world are monsters disguised as kindly residents of sweet candy houses. So far, in the tale, Grimm seems to suggest that children should never talk to strangers or accept an offer of candy. But Nature is also kind in this tale. After all, the children do find a way home, aided by that white duck, so readers might conclude that Nature is neither unkind nor kind; it’s neutral, taking away and giving evenly. Our survival depends upon our own will and resourcefulness.
5. Man v. Supernatural. Well, the kids must outwit a witch and white ducks respond to verbal pleas so some sort of magic exists in this story. Hansel and Gretel’s victory suggests that keeping our wits about us and making the most of opportunities are the best magic.

Who would have thought that so much meaning could be mined from so short a tale? Me actually, and I hope you as well.

I even think a great tune sung by Pablo Cruise may be applicable for overall meanings in “Hansel and Gretel.” From “Love Will Find a Way,

So now don't, don't be afraid of yourself
Just move on to something else
And let your love shine thru
Again yes 'cause it's all right
Once you get past the pain
You'll learn to find your love again
So keep your heart open
'Cause love will find a way

After all, those kids found a way home into the loving arms of their dad and, it appears, they forgave the deadbeat.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As I told Hansel and Gretel’s tale, I quoted from a version of Grimm’s story; twice, in the fourth and eighth paragraphs, I needed to add a word within the quoted passage to clarify or emphasize a point. Brackets wrap the insertion to distinguish the addition from the quotation. This is a legitimate use for brackets, and one that you may use to maintain point of view, verb tense, and logic.

Reading Challenge

Read “Rapunzel,” another one of many Grimm’s tales.

Writing Challenge:

Identify each of the five conflicts in “Rapunzel,” and write complete sentences representing big ideas (overall meanings) that can be inferred from the conflict resolutions.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Adversity and the Human Spirit: An Overall Meaning

Adversity introduces a man to himself (Anonymous). True that.

Most of us have never been and will never be tested by an oil spill that destroys our livelihood; an F-5 tornado that erases our homes in seconds; a finite, deadly diagnosis; or senseless, random acts of violence like those that occurred on April 19, 1995 or September 11, 2001. Most of us skate through life unscathed by horrific destruction so our real, deep-down true character is merely theoretical.

We might stand in place and scream like little girls, or we might find the courage to pack up and leave home to begin anew somewhere else. We might forget to dial 9-1-1, or we might run back into harm’s arms to protect loved ones and strangers. Unless fickle fortune turns awry, we will never know with any certainty if we are capable of putting our lives and safety on the line when circumstances conspire to place us in jeopardy. We may never learn the true measure of faith.

Life, for most of us, is relatively kind, but we must still endure our daily dose of frustration, the occasional setback, and the inevitability of growing old. How we handle these light loads reveals our character over time just as surely as the unimaginably heavy load reveals the truth about others. We can measure a man or woman’s courage, compassion, and character by the ways in which each faces and overcomes conflict, and this is true for literary characters as well.

Authors place characters in adverse circumstances, also known as conflicts, and they use one or more of the five basic types to spin their stories.

1. Man v. Self. Writers set the individual in conflict with himself. Bud Fox, Gordon Gekko’s protégé in Wall Street, was in conflict with his own raw ambition. So was Macbeth. Other characters, including Amir from The Kite Runner and Orleanna from The Poisonwood Bible, struggle against guilt or shame.

2. Man v. Man. Writers pit one man against another, sometimes using humans to represent the forces of good and evil. Luke Skywalker, the young virtuous boy, and Darth Vader, the older, corrupt man, are two such characters in conflict. So are Hamlet and Claudius or Amir and Assef.

3. Man v. Society (Group). Writers may also set one man against the many. Chief Brody is one sheriff alone against the town fathers who want to be sure that Amity makes its summer money in spite of huge, clever sharks in the water. After Macbeth’s army deserts him, he fights Macduff, all of Scotland, and the entire English army alone.

4. Man v. Nature. In Jaws, Chief Brody, Quint and Hooper set out to kill a Great White; two bickering storm chasers run from a massive tornado in Twister; and many of Jack London’s characters fight wild animals and the bitter cold weather to survive.

5. Man v. Supernatural. For conflicts featuring the supernatural, Job’s story is an excellent example, but the supernatural currently in vogue features vampires, zombies, and werewolves taking center stage, each proving that mere humans have few chances to overcome evil unless the protagonist has or acquires superhuman powers, possesses weapons such as baseball bats and pure silver, is clever as MacGyver on steroids, and has a very, very strong stomach. The Lord of the Rings trilogy also has some terrific supernatural antagonists.

So, adversity (such as being in opposition with one’s own desires, another person, a number of people, nature, or supernatural forces) introduces a man (or a character) to himself. In the clash, we witness the human experience and can infer overall meanings about it. This can be represented by a brief, quasi-mathematical formula for discerning overall meanings: conflict + character = theme, and by using this formula, you, the reader, can infer overall meanings by tracing the conflict affecting each character to its logical resolution.

For example, from Gordon Gekko, we learn that sometimes selfish interests are seductive, often tempting men and women to do harm. Gekko croons that greed is good. His own ambition, like Macbeth’s, calls him to his own destruction like the Sirens called to Odysseus and his men. Worse, having realized his ambitions, he uses any means possible to hang on to the power he has acquired. Like Machiavelli’s Prince and King Macbeth, Gekko persuades himself that others do not matter, that their losses are simply collateral damage in his personal pursuit of wealth and power.

Second, we may learn that few people escape the consequences of their actions. Bud Fox, Gekko’s equally ambitious protégé, faces a crisis in his soul. Will he collaborate in destroying the company for which his father works, in which his father takes pride? Will money and power ever be an even trade when family rests on the other side of the scales? The answers are, of course, yes and no. Bud Fox does ruin his father’s company, and the consequences for his actions place him in legal peril as well as moral bankruptcy.

From both Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox, we can infer that failing to uphold moral virtue leads to ruin. It certainly does for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as well. Even a couple of the three little pigs learn this lesson after they build their homes cheaply, with shoddy workmanship, taking no pride in the product, seeking only quick gratification. The evil wolf shows them the error of their ways.

In many contests between a man and large groups, we may infer that Goliaths often win. The system is too big for the little guy to win, but if he wins, he does so at great cost. Consider the three-part saga of Jason Bourne or the real-life Robert Kearns who fights Detroit’s auto-makers (before bail-outs, of course), sacrificing his marriage, a family, and financial stability for a principle: the intermittent windshield wiper. He wins in the end, but he pays an enormous price before he does.

For stories about man in conflict with supernatural beings, we may infer that 1) many, many innocent victims will die horrible deaths before the monster falls, 2) those who fail to uphold moral virtue will die first and most gruesomely, and 3) to every generation a Slayer is born; you just better hope you’re standing next to her.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

Which two of the sentences below are correct?

1. Melissa or Marvin has won the race.

2. Melissa or Marvin have won the race.

3. Melissa and Marvin have won the race.

4. Melissa and Marvin has won the race.

Pay attention to the conjunction. Or indicates that only one of the two won so a singular verb is correct. And indicates that both won so a plural verb form is correct.

Easy, right? Indeed--until intervening phrases appear. For example:

Melissa or Marvin, each of whom has run among the top three in the last twelve races, has won the race.

Marvin and Melissa, each of whom has run among the top three in the last twelve races, finish this race, their thirteenth, together as winners.

Keep your eye on the basic, simple sentence no matter how much more a writer adds.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Identify all the types of conflict (adversity) affecting the major characters in any book or film with which you are familiar. Consider how the character resolves the conflict or how the conflict affects the character. From this consideration, infer and write statements (complete sentences) to express the overall meanings attached to the character.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Overall Meanings: More about Truth

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Anyone who has ever loved or cared about a friend knows that breakin’ up is hard to do (Neil Sedaka). Anyone who has ever lied knows that we weave a tangled web for ourselves when we deceive others (Sir Walter Scott). And anyone who has failed or fallen or flopped knows that life improves if you pick yourself up, / Dust yourself off, [and] / Start all over again [Fields and Kern]. Above all, after break-ups, missteps, deceptions, and failures, don’t stop believin’ [Schon, Cain, and Perry] in yourself and in a better tomorrow because the sun’ll come out [from Annie by Strouse and Charnin].

Lyrics, whether set to music or not, are the essences of truth. Rhythm alone is not the appeal; lyrics call to us because they reveal the human experience. They speak of the “fabulous realities” that Macrorie invites us to discover. Lyrics convey truths found in longer works of fiction, comedy, tragedy, film, poetry, and autobiographies. They are timeless and universal. They only require that we listen closely and draw conclusions from facts.

For example, the play Hamlet proves several truths about being human. Can you identify at least one, expressing it as economically as a song lyric? Here’s one to start your engine of analysis: Failing to uphold moral duty leads to ruin, a truth that applies to Gertrude, Claudius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes.

What are some of the lessons of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo? Here’s one: Those to whom evil is done [from Auden’s “September 1, 1939”] fight back [Lisbeth], flee [Harriet], or compromise [Blomkvist]. List several other lessons--also known as themes or overall meanings--found in Larsson's novel.

Using the two examples above, write an extensive list of overall meanings--truths as told in literature--using works such as Hamlet, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, The Killer Angels, The Poisonwood Bible, or A Thousand Splendid Suns. Try to generate a list of at least twenty.

Now take your list and match each one to other works. For example, the truth, failing to uphold moral duty, matches many works of literature. Here is a partial list to illustrate.

1. All the President’s Men by Bernstein and Woodward [non-fiction portrait of many elected and appointed government officials who forgot about honesty, integrity, and The Constitution]
2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare [the title character ignores his duty to country, King, and kin in order to satisfy his own ambitions]
3. The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini [Baba deceives and thus sets in motion a painful chain of events; Amir fails to act or tell the truth and thereby compounds his own and Hassan’s suffering]

“Fabulous realities” are universal and timeless, existing in real events such as Watergate, classic Renaissance works, and modern multicultural ones. They are told and re-told, yet they are new and different in each telling.

Cultivate an awareness of overall meanings in order to become a better reader and writer.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Semi-colons and sentences.

Writers have options, and those include punctuation marks. Consider the three samples below.

I plan to shop for a dress. I plan to shop until I drop.

I plan to shop for a dress, and I plan to shop until I drop.

I plan to shop for a dress; I plan to shop until I drop.

Each pair of sentences above is punctuated correctly, but writers should not think of punctuation as “one mark” fits all meanings and conditions. Choose punctuation for clarity and effect.

For example, each of the complete sentences logically belongs together because each is about shopping, but the punctuation choice tells a different story. The first and third pairs of sentences achieve a more emphatic effect through parallel structure and punctuation. The middle pair is less effective because the coordinating conjunction and comma make the pair seem equal. The second sentence lacks the same punch as the other two punctuation choices.

So think about the effect, about logical links between sentences, and occasionally substitute a semi-colon for the period or the comma plus coordinating conjunction option.

Reading Challenge:

Read anything you wish, but read to discern the "fabulous realities" or overall meanings--truths--that the work reveals. Write them down. In addition, as you listen to your favorite music, copy into your writing journal the phrases that express the human condition beautifully. Match the musical truths to other works you’ve read.

Writing Challenge:

Follow the directions of the Reading Challenge above, then reflect upon some of your own writing. What truths have you expressed? List them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Telling the Truth in Fiction

My students surprised me year after year with the same question: is this [story, novel, essay, article] true? They wanted to know if the story unfolding sprang from fact. Somehow, they always seemed disappointed if the story were classified as fiction.

For me, the appeal of literature is its roots in fact, truth, or reality. This characteristic of literature, known as verisimilitude, derives from two Latin words: verum (truth) and similitude (resemblance, likeness). In other words, verisimilitude means that literature resembles the truth. As a self-portrait resembles the artist, literature resembles the human experience.

Thus, when I read, I expect to read truth--not the truth as it actually happened to someone in particular--but truth nevertheless. I expect the writer to hold up a mirror to the human race and capture its mannerisms, behaviors, feelings, and interactions. I expect to meet people and places that are true even if they do not exist.

Not to expect that from fiction is to misunderstand the role and significance of literature. So, as a teacher, I labored to let my students know about verisimilitude with pre-reading activities, side notes, comments, and historical documents.

For example, to introduce Beowulf, I shared snippets from Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, a work that Crichton did not pluck from the air. He used Fraus-Dolus’ translation of extant fragments from Ibn Fadlan’s journal, written while living among and traveling with Vikings. Initially the crude, brutish ways of the Northmen repulse the fastidious Arab, but over time, he celebrates their courage and brotherhood in a story that parallels the English epic, Beowulf.

Crichton blends fact and conjecture to create a novel about hardship, cultural shocks, social customs, brotherhood, and courage. Each is part of the human experience even if the time is not the Viking era and even if the place is not cold northern regions. Thus, Crichton’s novel is timeless or universal, and it has the quality of verisimilitude.

That is Macrorie’s intention when he insists that “fabulous realities” become “case histories” that reveal a truth (see previous post for August 27, 2010). Macrorie simply requires truth in writing. That is what readers expect and that is what writers must deliver, but . . . .

Sometimes the truth is not the stand-straight, swear-on-a-stack-of-Bibles truth. Sometimes the truth is a little bit fact, some mirror images, and a lot of pure conjecture. Verisimilitude is the goal because the truth cannot be found easily.

Consider a day in your life. If you were to recount the events of your day, filled with routine, chores, embarrassment, losses, and some insignificance, your story might be boring and lack a point (a truth). If, on the other hand, you edited the detritus, preserving only the moments and interactions that resonate with the notes from your past, then you might have a tale to tell, one that could hold the attention of your listener.

That is what a writer does. He and she eliminate unnecessary details while re-ordering the ways in which we grow to understand the human experience so that we readers can recognize the catalyst and conditions for growth. A writer does what living, experiencing and aging do for us, but a writer provides this wisdom to us in the form of stories, novels, essays, or plays long before our hair has begun to lose its lights and our joints ache from carrying the burden of gravity

So as you transform your own personal, reflective journals into “case histories,” you may find that you need to embellish or alter the actual sequence of events so that a reader can follow the thread to a truth. Many, many wonderful writers have transformed the actual truth into telling truths. I invite you to read those listed below. Their stories are not the facts, the sole facts, and nothing but the facts, but their stories are the truth.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Reviewing punctuation for compound sentences and reminding GUM enthusiasts (are there any?) about punctuation for complex sentences (lesson on August 20, 2010).

I will dance and sing tonight at my sister’s wedding.

At my sister’s wedding tonight, I will dance, and I will sing.

First, notice the absence of punctuation separating clauses or phrases in the sentence, I will dance and sing tonight at my sister’s wedding. The phrase “at my sister’s wedding” follows the independent clause so it should not begin with a comma after “tonight.” In addition, the first sentence is only a single sentence with compound (two) verbs, “dance” and “sing.”

The second sentence, however, opens with an introductory prepositional phrase of four words, “at my sister’s wedding.” When the dependent clause (or phrase) precedes the independent clause, separate the two with a comma--as shown above. In addition, the second sentence contains two complete sentences: “I will dance” and “I will sing.” When joining two independent clauses (complete sentences) with a coordinating conjunction such as “and,” place a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

All clear? I hope so. Go forth and punctuate well.

Reading Challenge:

1. For humor and a few belly laughs, read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (the short stories that became a favorite Christmas movie, A Christmas Story)
2. For historical fiction, read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, an account of the Battle at Gettysburg, July, 1863, based upon letters, news articles, biographies, and conjecture
3. Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, a tale of the Vikings and a hero called Buliwyf (the film version of this novel, The 13th Warrior, stars Antonio Banderas)
4. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of stories about young men serving in Vietnam
5. Any one of Shakespeare’s plays or a collection of his sonnets for insights into love, tyranny, errors in judgment, life’s purpose, and death

Writing Challenge:

Embellish upon one of your own journal entries or combine several. Change names to protect the guilty, season with conjecture, and write a mirror for the human experience.