Friday, February 25, 2011

Foolish Words Inspire, Too

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

I feel my best when I’m happy (Winona Ryder). Taken out of context, these seven words are good for a laugh: “Really, you’re at your best when you are happy. Well, duh!”

In the original context, Ms. Ryder’s thoughts may not have been so humorous, but they do serve to provide a great writing prompt:

I feel (what) when I am (what). Just fill in the blanks and see where the sentences take you. For example,

• I feel powerful when I beat my own walking time for one-half mile.
• I feel duped when I fail to read the fine print on the signs in stores.
• I feel happy when I see photos of my child.

When one of these strikes your fancy, add more. For example:

Recently, I found a photo of my husband in a brown shirt that I gave him one Valentine’s Day. On his hip is our daughter, reaching toward me, the one unseen behind the camera. Father and daughter smile, and seeing them caught in that sunny moment makes me smile, too.

I framed the old snapshot, using a mat that accents the brown in my husband’s shirt, long gone, given to some charitable organization many years ago. The photo now sets on the antique teacher’s desk in the entry hall where I see it as I pass by on my way to my study or the master bedroom, and I pass these ways many, many times each day. I find that I am happier every day now. I smile at their Kodak faces, and they smile right back at me.

Using Ms. Ryder’s silly, out-of-context sentence, plucked from the pages of a wonderful book, Foolish Words: The Most Stupid Words Ever Spoken by Laura Ward, I simply tried to practice specific, concrete detail (Originally introduced in posts for April 18 and April 25, 2010) and capture a moment in time.

It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say of the exercise. So get busy. Join Ms. Ryder by telling the reader what you feel when you do or see or say something particular.

Reading Challenge:

Read anything by Annie Dillard. She communicates feelings through specific, concrete detail very well.

Writing Challenge:

This post is a writing challenge.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

I feel my best is a simple sentence consisting of a pronoun subject I, a state of being verb feel, and complement my best. It becomes a complex sentence after Ms. Ryder includes a dependent clause at the end--when I’m happy.

The complex sentence does not need commas to separate the simple sentence (independent clause) from the dependent one because the dependent clause follows the independent. (This is a punctuation rule first reviewed on August 20, 2010).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Anaya, A Writer Worth Imitating

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

An excellent way to become a better word craftsman is to imitate acclaimed professionals. Rudolfo Anaya is one worthy craftsman. His frequently contested and award-winning novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), opens with these words:

“When she [Ultima] came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood.”

Immediately, Anaya establishes the beauty and majesty of the natural world. He also suggests the powerful changes that his protagonist, Antonio, will undergo under the influence of Ultima. His words draw readers on to read more, in part because of the word choices and word order. By studying Anaya’s words and trying to create your own message according to Anaya’s model, you will become increasingly adept at writing and rewriting your messages because new patterns will become possibilities in your own repertoire.

The Exercise:

Imitate Anaya’s pattern by substituting your own words for the important ones in Anaya’s passage. For example, in the sample below, the words in bold font represent my substitutions for Anaya’s parts of speech whereas words not in bold font are the same as those Anaya chose. Note that the significant parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives) are the ones altered.

An Example:

When the moon rose the beauty of the night sky opened above me, and the glistening stars of the galaxy pulsed to the rhythm of my fleeting courage. The terrifying time of darkness came unbidden, and the shadows of the infected beast forced its will into my mutating form.

(Yes, I’m guilty--guilty of pandering to the popular interest in werewolves [Team Jacob] and vampires [Team Edward]).

Another example takes a very different direction:

When Mother baked the warmth of the hearth spread beyond my fingers, and the simmering water in the tea kettle sang of good flavors in the brewing leaves. The comforting time after school lives still, and the love of a generous woman ingnites my fading memory.

I am not satisfied with either sample. Anaya uses his own pattern to better effect, of course, but the challenge of choosing words and placing them in a certain order helps me string together my own lovely words now and then. So struggle to create your own message in the image of Anaya.

Here’s one more Anaya model: “The ways of men are strange, and hard to learn.”

Reading Challenge:

Read Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. It is a beautiful story about a young boy trying to fit in and find his way.

An alternate reading selection is Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte. This book provides countless patterns and models for writers to study and imitate.

Writing Challenge:

This post is a writing challenge. Keep trying to invent messages using Anaya’s word order.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As you imitate Anaya or any other author, you will struggle with grammar (although we certainly do not need to label parts of speech to succeed) and with English usage so let your struggle be the GUM lesson for this post.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Syntax: The Short, Simple Sentence

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

In this blog’s first year, major topics included:

o Why writing is a great habit to have
o How to begin a writing habit
o Word Choices
o Researched Writing
o Analytical Writing
o Analytical Reading

With this post, the first in the second year of My Writing and Editing Coach, I will begin with the sentence or more accurately, various types of sentences that you can use to good effect in your writing no matter what kind of writing you do. The first of these sentences (also known as syntactical structures) is the extremely brief, simple sentence.

Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, two of my favorite word craftsmen, use the short simple sentence often and very well. Here is an excerpt from a Didion essay about California’s Santa Ana winds in which she quotes Chandler.

"’On nights like that,’ Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, ‘every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.’ That was the kind of wind it [the Santa Ana] was. I did not know then that there was any basis for the effect it had on all of us, but it turns out to be another of those cases in which science bears out folk wisdom. . . . A few years ago an Israeli physicist discovered that not only during such winds, but for the ten or twelve hours which precede them, the air carries an unusually high ratio of positive to negative ions. No one seems to know exactly why that should be; some talk about friction and others suggest solar disturbances. In any case the positive ions are there, and what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy. One cannot get much more mechanistic than that.“

Didion’s use of Chandler demonstrates one excellent placement for the very short, simple sentence (in this case, a noun and verb phrase or subject/verb), Anything can happen. It follows details and longer sentences about drinking, fights, and murderous thought. It emphasizes or punches home a truth: people turn nasty when the Santa Ana blows.

Didion herself follows up Chandler’s quoted short, simple sentence with one of her own: That was the kind of wind it was. She reinforces or emphasizes Chandler’s point that the Santa Ana causes friction, that it’s fraught with danger. Then, at the conclusion of a long paragraph (not all of it quoted herein), Didion closes with her topic sentence and her estimate of the Santa Ana’s effects upon human beings: the wind is a fuel source for the human machine, and it energizes our hearts of darkness. Didion says it much better and more succinctly however.

Another of Didion’s works is less analytical and more personal. The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir about the sudden death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003. It is a moving account of her grief and her effort to let him go to memory. It is also representative of her style, including short sentences used for emphasis to drive home key points.

Here is a sample from that book:

“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. There was the journal C. S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed. There was the occasional passage in one or another novel, for example Thomas Mann’s description in The Magic Mountain of the effect on Hermann Castorp of his wife’s death . . . . There were in classical ballets, the moments when one or another abandoned lover tries to find and resurrect one or another loved one, the blued light, the white tutus, the pas de deux with the loved one that foreshadows the final return to the dead . . . . There were certain poems, in fact many poems. . . . There were the days when I relied on W. H. Auden, the “Funeral Blues” lines from The Ascent of F6:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come

The poems and the dances of the shades seemed the most exact to me.”

The two short, simple sentences above in bold font are each used to good effect. Each bluntly, economically declares a point, one that is key to understanding the author’s points very well.

Reading Challenge:

Read the Founding Fathers--Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. They were masters in parallel construction, notable in fine writing, including the second Didion sample above (Note the sentences beginning with There was or There were), and they knew how to make use of short, emphatic sentences.

You may read Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers.

Thomas Jefferson wrote and Benjamin Franklin edited The Declaration of Independence.

Patrick Henry is, of course, the author of the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech, delivered to the Continental Congress in 1785.

Writing Challenge:

Search your own journals, analytical essays, or researched essays for the short, emphatic sentence. Finding none, rewrite to make good use of it. My hunch is that you will find some examples in your own writing. Give yourself gold stars when you do.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Reading for and distinguishing short, emphatic sentences is great practice in usage. Writing short, simple sentences is even more practice so our GUM task is within the writing lesson of this post.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Babies, Another Archetype and An Anniversary

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Fifty-two entries. One calendar year. My blog-baby is due for a cake with a single candle in the middle: My Writing and Editing Coach is officially one year old today, and with this anniversary, let’s celebrate birth, beginnings, and the future.

An archetypal approach to literary analysis provides a useful framework for the interpretation of symbols and symbolic patterns . . . [and] partakes of the essential nature of the human learning process--to compare the unfamiliar with the familiar; the unknown with the known (Preminger and Brogan).

In other words, knowing archetypes helps readers recognize familiar ideas and characters in fresh new stories and contexts. Archetypes, then, are like the lines on a map; they are guidelines to help readers navigate new terrain.

One familiar pattern and archetype is birth, a beginning imbued with meaning and significance. In fact, we refer to birth as a miracle and revere life itself by honoring new life.

A new day provides us with a clean slate upon which to write our best selves. It is a brilliant spotlight in which to perform our daring deeds.

New life is need personified. Few creatures come to life self-sufficient. A small, delicate creature needs tenderness and guidance. We summon our finest nurturing skills and mutate into selfless beings in the presence of new life.

Like Mufasa, presenting little Simba to the all residents of Pridelands, we humans hold our babes high in hope. We strive to insure that our babies’ lives are better than our own, that the promise within grows to full blossom, that their tomorrow shall not fade. For these reasons, we judge harshly those parents who fall short. For these reasons, we grieve the loss of every child who does not live to maturity.

The seed of life signifies a future; thus, every new life insures that this mysterious, wonderful life continues in spite of the lives that fade and conclude

Reading Challenge:

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven celebrates the birth of understanding and profound humility, both of which flow from and through an understanding of loss and death. Read it for the beautiful language and for the comforting story.

Writing Challenge:

Try to capture in words the miracle of birth. If you are not a parent yet, consider the birth of an idea, the conception of an achievement, a new puppy or kitten, or the beginning of a new friendship.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

My students’ essays revealed that many students confuse allusion and illusion and delusion; they also confuse allude and elude. Let’s review these.

An allusion is a literary symbol. Writers refer to other works of literature, art, or historical events in order to convey ideas with only a few words. For example, 9/11 connotes national tragedy and the death of innocence. A writer can communicate the tragic tone and an atmosphere of death with just three numbers.

Illusion is mistaken notion; it is the result of being misled. For example, many in the government and broadcast media created an illusion by linking Iraq and WMDs to 9/11. Many people are still deluded, believing that Iraq struck down the World Trade towers.

Delusion is a false belief. As stated above, many people hold the false belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Other delusions include those loyal viewers who believe Ghost Hunters will ever prove the existence of ghosts. (Still, a lot of fun to watch occasionally.)

Allude, as you may have already guessed, is the verb form of allusion and means to refer to other works of literature, art or events. Writers allude to scripture or mythology in order to communicate volumes with only a few words.

Delude is the verb form of delusion. Some people maliciously and others unknowingly pass on incorrect information. Whether they intend to or not, the result is to deceive.

Elude means to escape those in pursuit. The fox, for example, often eludes the hounds. Those who maliciously delude the public also frequently elude capture.

To help you remember these, focus upon the first letter in each:

A begins allusion, an academic term for concepts referenced or alluded to.

D begins delude, the same letter that begins the words dull and dim, adjectives we might well use to describe those poor deluded folks, clinging to a delusion.

E begins elude, a word that means escape. One might even cry Eek when beginning to escape pursuers.

I begins illusion, the same letter that begins incredible, incredulous, and ill-advised, all words that aptly describe mistaken notions that, once exposed to critical thought and reason, melt like ice sculptures on a hot day.

Happy Anniversary to Me, the writer, editor, and producer of My Writing and Editing Coach!