Friday, January 28, 2011

Dark Towers and Lighthouses

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

One item on the Bucket List I’ve actually never written was to lease or buy a lighthouse. In my romance, I would fall asleep to the sounds of surf surging across rugged rocks while the lamp lifted the deep shadows of night, showing men the way home. For a summer week in Maine, 2009, romantic imaginings and reality merged. Our family leased the keeper’s quarters of the Pemaquid Lighthouse.

Whether in Maine or Wisconsin, in ancient lore or modern tales, lighthouses, as a particular type of tower, evoke feelings of safety and comfort. So it is in Beowulf, the English epic.

Long after Beowulf defeats Grendel and his dam, after fifty years as King of Geatland during a time of prosperity and peace, Beowulf faces his final foe, a dragon. Beowulf is too old and frail to fight the dragon alone, yet his followers have lost the fierce loyalty and courage that characterized Beowulf’s youth. They desert their king when his need is great. Only Wiglaf stands to fight, and for his sacrifice, he receives Beowulf’s last requests, including the directive to build a tower by the sea, one that will hold the dragon’s treasure, but more important, one that will provide light by which men may find their way.

Beowulf’s tower is a treasure trove and lighthouse. It represents the man himself, the warrior code, and a standard to which men should aspire. It, like lighthouses in literature and life, signifies a path to certainty and safety, primarily because lighthouses function to penetrate the fog and darkness.

We poor humans cannot see in the dark. We lack the gifts of other animals. We rely upon the light to find our way. The lighthouse serves us. A fog-laden day or night is as disorienting as a night without moonlight. Again, the lighthouse favors us, laying down paths of light on which to walk.

A tower, devoid of the lamp, is a very different symbol. Consider the latest Disney film, Tangled, and the artist’s rendering of Rapunzel’s tower as an imposing structure in the heart of a lovely meadow. In spite of the lush setting, Rapunzel lives in a prison, constructed to deprive her of life so that the woman who kidnapped her can continue to use her. This false mother is the villain, an evil as dark as the tower itself.

Towers such as Rapunzel's are literary archetypes of evil. Lighthouses are archetypal havens, sheltering us from disorienting darkness and fog. Thus, avoid towers without the lamp.

Reading Challenge:

Stephen King has invented a complex maze at the end of which is a tower. Consider reading the seven-volume series The Dark Tower.

Search for The Dark Tower graphic novels

Writing Challenge:

Invent a story with a tower as the object of the quest. You will need to decide if the tower has a lamp or not.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Appositives

If a word or words, including appositives, stand between the subject and the verb, you should wrap the intervening word or words with commas. For example:

• Caitlyn, the Student Council president, earned a 4.0 GPA and the right to speak at Commencement. Why hasn’t she received scholarships to attend college?
• Comic Nicky Verjace incited venom and controversy as host of the Sparkly Orbs award show. Isn’t that what the show’s producers pay him to do?

In the first example above, four words stand between the subject, Caitlyn, and the verb, earned. To facilitate understanding, the words renaming (also known as an appositive) Caitlyn are wrapped in commas.

The second example does not need commas around the appositive, Nicky Verjace. Comic, in this context, functions like a title comparable to President Barack Obama or Dame Maggie Smith. In such contexts, the commas may be omitted.

Other intervening phrases and clauses may or may not need a pair of commas, one at the beginning and one at the end of the phrase or clause. For example:

• Caitlyn, whom you may remember as the Student Council President of our class, was just elected Mayor of San Somewhere, CA. Citizens there have as much faith in her as we did.
• The highway that we chose is narrow and winding. Use it if you have a strong stomach and a love of beauty.

The first sample sentence needs commas because the intervening clause, whom you may remember as the Student Council President of our class, is not essential or necessary to make the point. You could remove the entire clause and still communicate who was just elected mayor.

In the second sentence sample, the clause is necessary to pinpoint which highway the speaker means. Without the words that we chose, the speaker’s point would be more difficult to follow.

For a different, very brief review of punctuating complex sentences, return to the post for August 20, 2010.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fire: A Force of Nature and Literature

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

In the classic novel, Lord of the Flies, William Golding uses several symbols to enrich the story and develop overall meanings. One is the conch shell, at first a symbol for law and civility, but as the boys descend into lawlessness and disorder, the shell disintegrates. Another symbol is Jack’s face, painted in colors reminiscent of repressive regimes; those colors create a mask that facilitates Jack’s transformation from choirboy to killer. A third symbol, fire, is the topic for this post. Its archetypal meaning begins with the Promethean myth, and it is primarily a force for good. Fire represents knowledge and enlightenment, but fire is also a natural foe, one that can maim and destroy.

The dual nature of fire shows itself immediately in the novel and foreshadows the destruction of civility when the boys build their first fire. The twigs and branches most easily gathered are dry and highly combustible. They catch quickly, spreading the flames and apparently claiming the life of the child with a mulberry birthmark. This early incident proves that failing to respect Nature and failing to establish boundaries can unleash destruction.

The island is an Eden. It has fresh water, shelter from the sun, food to eat, and fuel for fires. But the boys fail to appreciate their bounty. They are unable to restrain their impulses. They give in to bloodlust, immediate gratification, and war-like contests. They fail to honor laws and authorities, and thus, their society cannot thrive or endure.

Jack, in particular, fails to respect any authority except his own. He refuses to be tamed or to work the work that Ralph, the leader, assigns him. Instead of tending to the fire that Ralph believes will save them all, Jack hunts meat, thinking of fire as only a tool to cook meat. Jack and his hunters neglect the fire and cost the boys an early rescue when there is no smoke to draw a passing ship. They are not upset, however. They enjoy the hunt too much; it is exhilarating, terrifying, and satisfying. For their neglect, Ralph chastises them. He continues to nag them about the fire and rules. He finally becomes an object of their disdain and ultimately, the boys’ prey.

Jack orders the boys to “smoke out” Ralph and in doing so, Jack destroys Eden. Not only will Jack, as Cain, take the life of his brother, Ralph, as Able, he will use fire to destroy the fruit which has fed them, he will foul the water with ash, and he will eliminate all shelter. Everyone will die because Jack, the destroyer, used fire to destroy.

Consider also what remains after a fire: ash. It too has symbolic significance. Whereas fire is alive, vital, and powerful, ash is dead, inert, powerless. Fire is youth, and Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73), ash is age. Fire thrives in oxygen; ash suffocates.

A mythical bird, the Phoenix, rises from the ash so rebirth is always an inherent possibility when fire is present as a symbol in literature. In fact, Golding’s fire signals the boys’ rebirth. The island-wide fire brings a British officer from his World War II battleship cruiser to investigate, and the boys’ consciences are reborn. They hide in shame. Only poor, disillusioned Ralph, his innocence stripped, steps forward to accept responsibility for a fire he did not set. He is not merely noble; he is honest. He was present and struck a blow when fear overtook the boys, leading them as a mob to sacrifice Simon. Ralph also denied the truth about man’s heart of darkness (Conrad) and blindly led Piggy to his slaughter. Ralph recognizes his own duality, one symbolized by fire itself. Men may be forces for good, or they may yield to bloodlust and become forces of evil. Ralph will never again expect man’s better natures. He will forever be wary of man’s frailty.

Reading Challenge:

Read Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Trace the uses of fire and how its archetypal meanings shape the novel’s themes.

Alternate titles wherein fire functions are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray, and The Odyssey by Homer.

Writing Challenge:

Write an analytical essay in which you contrast the archetypal and dual nature of fire.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

In the last paragraph of this post’s essay, I used the word conscience, a word that my students often confuse with conscious.

A conscience resides with Freud’s Superego, the domain that stores a parent and society’s rules for behavior and acceptance. A conscience develops to tell us what is right and what is wrong, how to treat others, and how to avoid pain both physical and emotional. A conscience is the “angel” on our shoulder, competing with the willful, self-absorbed Id or devil on the opposite shoulder.

Conscious is to be awake, alert, and aware. Our subconscious lies below our conscious state, existing and exerting itself primarily in dreams. Our unconscious is a realm of which we are not aware. It too may exert itself in dreams, and it may affect our behavior negatively until we drag it into the conscious light of day. Unconsciousness may also be induced by drugs or trauma.

Like science, conscience follows protocols and strict guidelines. This may help you remember how to spell conscience and separate it from conscious.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mazes and Crossroads: Two More Literary Archetypes

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Anyone who has ever deplaned and made the long walk from jetway to immigration checkpoint has experienced a maze. Airlines and governments need time in which to unload all luggage and let the dogs have a sniff before passengers arrive so escalators carry passengers up and down; few signs point the way and those are only one-way--toward Immigration. The hallways feature 90° turns left and right, back and forth. When I look back to review my progress, I find my line of sight stopped by a wall. I never really know how far I’ve come. Disoriented, I trudge onward until I arrive to collect my bags, stand in line, and cough up my passport.

Many of my fellow passengers reveal a slice of their real characters while traversing the airport maze. Some become annoyed by the time and energy required. They arrive at Immigration with an attitude, and the result is often embarrassing to see or overhear. Others become frightened. Already strangers in a strange land, they fret about their safety and futures, usually submitting to the rites of passage at Immigration like sheep to shearing. Again, the scene is angst-ridden. The remainder, usually experienced international travelers, march on, understanding that this trial is the price of admission. They arrive at the end point like soldiers, heads up, shoulders back, prepared to do their duty.

Writers put characters on maze-like quests for similar reasons. The journey is a labor that proves the merits or defects of the character. Is she humble enough to accept the vicissitudes of life and luck, or is he too proud, in need of a reckoning in order to become whole?

The mazes that writers use are often not literal mazes consisting of a single entry point to a series of twists and turns with only one exit. Writers take advantage of many settings and psychological states in order to plop characters onto confusing terrain.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (an oft referenced novel in this blog) transports the Price family from Bethlehem, Georgia to the Congo where, years later, the village of Kilanga seems utterly lost, subsumed by the vines and heat and mosquitoes. Its very existence becomes suspect after each member of the family chooses a path into and out of the village. Orleanna, still tied to Africa by the daughter she buried there, remains tangled in its dense growth even when she returns to the U. S. Leah and Rachel continue to live in Africa, loving it for very different reasons, thriving because of the personal strengths acquired in its maze. Adah, transformed by danger and love, each equally powerful in Africa, finds her way to a whole, productive, shared existence. Nathan never finds his exit from the maze. Trapped, he dies, a martyr to his own cause, one that no one else ever joined.

Inman, the protagonist of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, like Odysseus, climbs from battle-scarred grounds to the homeland. His only guides are the cardinal ones, north and west. Often deterred, blown off course, soaked by heavy rains, and threatened by enemies, he makes steady, if slow, progress to return to Ada whom he believes will make him whole again, a sinner redeemed, capable of love and charity once more.

Stephen King’s heroine in Big Driver, the second novella in his latest collection entitled Full Dark, No Stars, becomes Vengeance herself after being pushed onto uncertain ground that twists, turns, stunts, and empowers. Her maze is her quest to justice. Indeed, the mazes of literature are often the terrain that must be crossed on a quest, one that frequently includes a crossroads.

At a place where two roads intersect, forming the shape of a cross, a frame that bears the weight of sin and remorse or hope and mercy--depending upon the path chosen--characters decide. These decision points are crisis points, climactic moments, outcomes. Occasionally, the crossroads is literal as it is for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He kneels where two roads intersect just before he decides to make his first, true, heartfelt confession. More often, the crossroads is figurative.

Orleanna, the matriarch in The Poisonwood Bible, has several crosses to bear because she detoured away from her crossroads. She climbs into her bed to avoid choosing between the paths of children or husband. She leaves the care and safety of her children to her older daughters and to the Kilangans. Her sin is neglect and its consequence is regret. She cannot forgive herself.

When Orleanna finally rises and walks again, she does so only after losing her youngest daughter to the jungle’s venom. Along her exit path, she surrenders Rachael into the arms of Axelrod, an opportunist with no moral compass. Leah is left behind in the arms of Anatole, a man with a strong moral compass, the man who promises to care for Leah through the delirium of malaria and to love her for the rest of her life. Orleanna takes only Adah with her, deformed, needy Adah, and in doing so, Orleanna gives the gifts of hope and mercy for it is through the assurance of her mother’s love that Adah becomes whole and powerful. Kingsolver suggests that mothers must sometimes make awful choices and live with their awful consequences.

Inman, standing upon the road that will carry him to safety, chooses to preserve life at that crossroads. He does not fire upon the boy because he wishes to believe he has finally found peace on Cold Mountain. Having left war far below and washed away some of his sin in the arms of Ada, Inman spares the boy’s life, only to lose his own. Frazier seems to suggest that a soul as damaged as Inman’s cannot endure in a world divided by hate.

Tess, the vengeful heroine of Big Driver, has many crossroads: to succumb to the brutal attack or stumble through the dark maze and endure; to rely upon law enforcement or become an avenger; to confess or live with her choices. The narrator seems to sympathize with Tess and clears a path for her success.

Crossroads and mazes are archetypal, and they are simply another way of accessing the quest archetype. As you read, think about the twists, turns, and uncertainty on the journey. Consider the diverging paths and what the character proves about himself when he chooses one and not the other.

Reading Challenge

Read the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins, The Stand by Stephen King, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson, or Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Identify the mazes that the author creates and the crossroads the characters face.

Writing Challenge:

Modernize the Greek labyrinth myth featuring King Minos, the minotaur, Daedalus, and Icarus. Rename the characters and recreate a labyrinth with a metaphorical or literal nemesis confined.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM): Unusual singular and plural forms

In my haste to make a point, I sometimes abuse the language, sliding into the more commonly used plural form of the word instead of the correct singular. My students make similar mistakes; in particular, they often confuse the correct singular form for women and men so let’s review.

Criterion/Criteria. In Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s character seems uncomfortable while competing in the swimsuit category, one criterion of four criteria used to determine the pageant winner.
Phenomenon/Phenomena. Phenomenon, starring John Travolta, suggests that most men and women fear great intelligence and insight. Our fears are bizarre phenomena present in the human species.
Datum/Data. Scientists discovered that the temperature datum was compromised by a faulty thermometer and thus, all data were suspect.
Cow/Cows or Cattle. Manny’s cow earned a blue ribbon at the State Fair, enhancing the value of Manny’s entire herd of cattle (cows).
Crow/Crows/Murder of Crows. The scarecrow in the field had no effect upon a single crow. In fact, many crows seemed to mock the farmer by flying in and out of the corn rows. Soon the farmer saw a black cloud hover over his field as a murder (flock) of crows gathered to dine.
Woman/Women and Man/Men. Most cultures are patriarchal or paternalistic, giving every man an advantage in access, power, and prestige. Each man competes with other men. A woman, on the other hand, competes for access, power, and prestige with both men and other women.
Deer/Deer. This season, I brought home only one deer, but over the course of my hunting career, I have bagged many deer.
Index/Indices, Appendix/Appendices, Thesis/Thesis, and Crisis/Crises. See the pattern? The plural form for nouns ending in -x or -s becomes -es although users like indexes and appendixes as well. Similarly:
Witch/Witches, Bus/Buses, Box/Boxes, like those above ending in -x or -s, need an -es for the correct plural form.
Fungus/Fungi. Even though fungus ends in -s, its correct plural form does not end in -s. Like alumnus, fungus retains its Latinate ending -i after dropping the -us.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Numbers in Literature Add Up

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Sir Gawain of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has one year plus one day in which to show up and bare his neck for the Green Knight. The self-absorbed knight who takes the young girl’s maidenhood in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” has one year plus one day in which to discover what women want most before he must return to the Queen with his report. Surely, the allotted 366 days have some significance. Surely, two tales from the Middle Ages do not accidentally or arbitrarily use the same number of days in which to complete a quest. But what does the number of days mean?

Three hundred and sixty-six days for a completed quest allude to one of the important biblical numbers and represent the sacred number three and its multiples

The Middle Ages follow a time of pagan kings and warrior tribes known as Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Over the centuries, these kings converted to Christianity and began to add details from biblical stories to their own tales. The numbers three (3) and seven (7) became important to them because both were deemed perfect representations of completion. God, the Father and Holy Ghost are three, the Holy Trinity, and God completed creation in seven days; thus, these numbers become talismanic to the converts. They showed their belief and conversion by incorporating three, seven, and their multiples into their old heroic tales.

When William conquers the area that will become Britain, in 1066, he unites the country and its people with one ruler, one brand of government, and one religion, transforming a piece of ground and its people into a nation. Story-tellers and subsequent writers, including the monks who recorded much of the oral tradition, continue to fold together the pagan and the sacred with new resolve.

Are other numbers equally significant? Are there numbers in addition to three and seven that are archetypal?

Well, four (4) is certainly a contender. Consider the ancient riddle put to Oedipus by the Sphinx: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening? A man! He crawls as an infant, walks upright as a man, and needs the help of a cane as an old man. What time of day is not part of this riddle? The night when man needs no legs at all; he lies down for an eternal rest.

Not only does our life cycle mirror the times of day, it also matches the seasons. In our spring, we are babies, children. For our summer, we grow ripe, mature. We produce families of our own as we build for a future. In the autumn, our work becomes less important, and our vitality begins to fade. In winter, we are through. Our time comes to its end.

Other allusions* include numbers associated with dates such as May 1, April 19, December 7, and September 11. These historical dates take on iconic power, and an author’s use of them enriches the story told.

May 1, for example, signifies struggles for independence and equity, particularly related to workers’ rights, especially for a shorter work day. In Russia, May 1 was known as the International Workers’ Solidarity Day. Should you read a story wherein May 1 is prominent, search the story’s details for big ideas related to overwork, fights for recognition, and rewards equal to labor.

To complicate your analysis, you must consider the story’s context because May 1 also has to do with spring and beginnings. In my childhood, teachers taught us to create May baskets and recreate Maypole dances, traditions now faded and gone. The baskets, usually filled with Spring’s flowers, were given to family and neighbors on May 1 as gestures of kindness. The May Pole dance seems to be rooted in rites of Spring as well.

April 19, known as Patriots’ Day, is now infamous because of the violence committed by Americans against Americans outside Waco, Texas, in 1993, at the Branch Davidian compound; in Oklahoma City, 1995, at the Murrah Building; and at Columbine High School in Colorado, on April 20, 1999, one day after the killers’ intended massacre date of April 19. What has made April 19 so significant in the troubled minds of David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold is its Revolutionary origins. The cause for which men took a stand on April 19 at Lexington and Concord in 1775--independence from oppression at the hands of the British--has, in the late twentieth century, become more associated with stealth, fire power, and body counts.

September 11 is similar to April 19 with one major exception: the violence committed against America in 2001 was perpetrated by outsiders, but both dates are now easily associated with days on which innocence died. Not only were children damaged irreparably, but children and adults who have little to do with politics or policies, foreign or domestic, were slaughtered in an effort to strike at the resolve and will of a people. Now experienced and less innocent, the people proved their strength and they triumphed. They also showed their humanity because fear shook the foundations of their faith and democracy itself. Both April 19 and September 11 now suggest some very big ideas that authors develop into themes or overall meanings.

So when reading, consider the numbers and what they might suggest. Consider the dates and do a little research to see if the historical background in any way enriches or perfects your understanding of the overall story.

*Allusion. A reference to events, people, and art that has preceded the work in which the allusion appears. Most allusions refer to Greek and Roman mythology or the Bible. Allusions enable authors to add multiple layers of meaning to his or her work with a word or phrase or date.

Reading Challenge:

Read W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Consider the significance of the date and how it informs your understanding of the poem.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Writing Challenge:

Consider the significance of July 4 or July 14 or any of the dates mentioned in this post. Build a story that develops the archetypal meaning of the date selected.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): How to Write Numbers Correctly

Write in words any number that can be written in a couple of words. So:

Correct: I will be twenty-three in three months and six days.
Incorrect: I will be 9 in three months and 6 days. (Be consistent!)

Rules that have not changed over time.

o Never begin a sentence with the numeral; always write out the number if you must begin a sentence with it. (Two thousand people attended the rally or On the first of April, 2,000 people attended the rally.)
o Use common sense: if two numbers placed side by side would be confusing, then revise or spell one out. (On April 1, 2,000 people attended the rally or see the second example above.)
o Spell out simple percentages. (One-fourth of the eligible registered voters participated in the election or Only one-fourth of the eligible registered voters participated in the election.)
o Complex fractions and numbers that include a decimal point should be written using numerals. (Only 5.8% of the registered voters determined the winner or The recipe includes one cup of vegetable oil, but 1 ½ cups of the oil may be replaced by applesauce for a low-fat version.)
o You may write centuries or decades as numbers--unless, of course, the word is the first word of a sentence--or you may spell out the century or decade, but be consistent throughout the document. (During the sixties, many men grew their hair longer or During the ‘90s (or 1990s), only a few men still had long hair.)
o Dates may be written in several ways, including a) January 1, 2011, b) 1 January 2011, c) New Year’s Day, 2011, and d) the first day of January, 2011. Note that in formal writing, you should spell out the month, avoiding numerals, hyphens, and slashes; e.g. 1-1-11 and 1/1/11.