Friday, December 28, 2012

Why I Write



Last week’s Reading Challenge was a recommendation to read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It included the brief quotation that follows:

“ . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Within Dillard’s wisdom and challenge is the reason that I write, why I am compelled to write. I fear losing what I have learned, and I do not clearly understand what I have learned unless I write it.

When I open my safe, I recover fragments, snippets, and threads, then stitch them together into a lovely quilt and wrap myself in its warmth. On another day, I pull out all the stitches and reinvent the pattern, looking at the whole anew. In these ways, I glean truth, but not necessarily the truth. It’s just my truth, but with it, I touch the infinite.

What is your truth? The one that lies beneath the stories you tell to others and the ones you tell to yourself?

Reading Challenge:

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers is about truth and lies, about the lies we tell ourselves and the truths that others see. It’s a 2012 National Book award winner for fiction. Don’t miss it.

Writing Challenge:

Write a universal truth that weaves together one age after another, one nation to another, as seen in literature. (Hint: Treachery breeds savagery.)

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Apostrophes to Indicate Possession

With 2013 just days away, now is a good time to review the correct use of the apostrophe when wishing one another a Happy New Year’s Eve. The evening prior to New Year’s Day belongs to the new year so an apostrophe plus S is appropriate. The first day of 2013 belongs to the new year so an apostrophe plus S is again appropriate.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Finding Passion



During an afternoon walk for the old dog and my old joints, I stood on the hillside waiting for the dog to sniff and track the myriad scents that only she can detect. Down the hill, a raucous bird cried and continued its call as it flew up the hillside, closing in on my location. When it crested a rocky rise where I stood, it paused to take stock of me from high above, and I saw it was a woodpecker with a bright bandana-red topknot and well-delineated body in black and white.

Seeing that I could do him no harm, he resumed his ascent, pausing to inspect several trees in a zig-zag sequence, darting to and fro, up and back. Not finding the insect he sought, he flew higher and farther from me until I lost him in the trees. I continued to follow his song as he circled back to my level once again before disappearing into silence.

Seeing him up close, so near, so lovely put me in mind of The Big Year, a little-seen film but one I enjoyed immensely because I love birds, their delicate features, so slight, yet masters of all they survey. I love their variety and their music as well. The film put me in mind of barn swallows that built three nests each season on the front porch of our last home. I wondered if the new owners will be hostile to their company. I hope not.

I then thought again of The Big Year and what moves people. The character portrayed by Owen Wilson was an obsessive. Nothing else mattered to him except seeing the greatest number of bird species in a season. He lost loving wives to his passion and celebrated holidays by inviting the wait staff to join him at table.

Steve Martin’s and Jack Black’s characters, on the other hand, enjoyed a wider circle of friends and loves that deepen because their passion for the birds is but one component of a meaningful life. They know that loving and being loved is the true passion in life. They take nothing for granted--not the birds, not family, not love.

Writers too may be obsessive. They may be recluses and hermits who write one great novel, then struggle to re-enter the world or find a path to another great novel. They may also be men and women of passion who marry, raise children, and praise their grandchildren. The Internet is full of such blogs, full of fine people who are grateful for a forum as they watch, listen, sniff out stories, taste exotic locales, and feel the presence of others near and far.

Which sort of writer are you? The introspective recluse, the obsessive, or the one who lives, learns and then writes.

Reading Challenge:

Read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. If you’re tempted not to read this one, consider these words from it:

“ . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Dillard seems to say that writing could be considered an altruistic act, one as necessary to a full life as is breathing.

Writing Challenge:

In as few words as reasonable for you, explain why you write.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Just a word about those apostrophes indicating possession. I used two correctly in the sentence above: Steve Martin’s and Jack Black’s characters, on the other hand, enjoy a wider circle of friends… .Each actor’s name needed an apostrophe plus S because the characters portrayed were two distinct characters.

On the other hand, if the item possessed is not distinct or unique to two or more people and things, then only one apostrophe plus S will suffice; e.g., Mother and Father’s after-dinner rules included age-appropriate clean-up chores for each of us.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Seeing through the Eyes of Others

Six months ago, we met our first grandchild, a beautiful girl. This week, I've been caring for her, learning to see the world through her eyes and help her on her way. These hours with her reminded me of the first days of her life and an essay I wrote for www.rememberingformother.blogspot.com, originally posted in May 2012. The essay appears below.
 
She loves to rest her head upon the chest of her family. Beating hearts comfort her; the steady movement of breathing reassures her.

She loves to pull her head up in order to see the face of the person who holds her. When she lies in our arms and Sleep looses its hold upon her, she studies the faces above her, evaluating them, perhaps memorizing them. She has not yet found a face that fails to fascinate.

She also studies the colors and shapes in her world, the light and shadow. She sees and learns: red stripes upon her nursery wall mesmerize; shades of orange against ocean blue around her play pad fascinate; her mommy’s original photographs captivate.

At her first photo session, when she was but eleven days old, she held her own head up so long that staff asked, “How old is she?” With this confirmation from outsiders, we believe she is as strong as we suspected and a step or two ahead of her peers.

She trusts the arms that reach for her and has not felt insecure or frightened yet. I only hope that she will always believe she is a good judge of character. More important, I hope she will always trust her instincts so that she may avoid people whose intentions are not good.

She protests new experiences as well she might, but having tested the newness, she reflects and relaxes. Her first shampoo was fraught with cries and complaints. Her second, in her mommy's, was tranquil. She enjoyed having her head gently massaged.

She dwells in love.

Her parents are nervous. They fret and hover.

Grandparents, having passed beyond the nervous state with their own children, simply enjoy this greatest wonder of this world, oft repeated, never dull, always personal, inspirational, and humbling.
 
As you imagine characters that rest in the arms of Trust and Love, reflect upon the infants you have known and loved. They will inform and inspire you.
Reading Challenge:

Read Watership Down by Richard Adams. Not only will you find a tale as grand as Tolkien's, you will find characters as diverse and appealing as all great novels provide.

Writing Challenge:

Capture the essentials of someone you love dearly. What sights, sounds, and scents call this person to mind for you? Be specific, but write freely, without regard for form or continuity. Revision always follows creation.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

In the second paragraph of the essay quoted above, the word sleep begins with a capital letter. There's no rule that requires me to use a capital letter there, but in that sentence, sleep is a metaphorical figure, one that tightens and loosens the bonds of sleep. In order to make that metaphor more apparent, I elected to capitalize the word as if Sleep were a god--as it seems to be on those nights when sleep eludes me.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Here and Now Is Beauty Sufficient


For those of you who read this blog, you know I’ve moved from plains to hills. I traded in my urban hat before picking up one more suited for rural regions, but not without considerable trepidation.

Each early morning in the city, I had little more than the distance between my bed and the back door to traverse in order to herd my dog out the door. I could then reverse my route and fall back into bed or greet the day with a cup of robust, bitter coffee while admiring the spunky roses that bloom at least nine months each year. I watched birds follow the geometry of rooflines to perch and call each other awake. In the distance, behind the birds, I often heard a train whistle sound the alarm as it passed through busy intersections. Somewhere a siren cried, motorcycles whined, and car tires on pavement grew closer, louder before fading farther and farther as their drivers rushed to jobs, schools, and gyms.

Inside, NPR informed me all day long, sometimes speaking to no one in particular because I could be found at the far end of the house, watching some recorded program or tuning in to Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, or Rachel Maddow. Like a sponge, I soaked up information, made connections, thought, and bathed in the noise.

Now my days are quiet. What brings me from my bed is the sound of my old dog rising and shaking her body into life. Her tags rattle against her collar, making a kind of metallica music. I know that song and hurry to dress in order to walk her one-half mile, round-trip, to her favorite place. The only sounds are her toenails upon asphalt and my footfalls; these are not loud enough to mask a rush of wind through pine needles, a sound so like a car motor in the distance that I turn to look, to be sure we don’t need to step off onto uneven ground, into what’s left of a bluff pushed back to make way for man to claim his spot along the shore.

This morning, as we approached the oak leaves, chat, and red cedar beds that the dog finds easy on her paws, I heard a soft rustle, then silence. I thought of something small, hoping a rabbit and not a skunk might appear from behind a row of thick bushes. Instead, from just beyond a rocky outcropping walked three large white-tailed deer. They moved like ballerinas, with grace, en pointe. Their weight on the rocks barely disturbed the morning’s hush. An owl let them know they had nothing to fear.

From my high vantage point, I could see a mist against the land. It stood like Hadrian’s wall between warmer ground and chilly waters. Stephen King might have imagined something sinister in that mist; instead I saw a downy blanket and felt the cold burrowing between the fibers of my gloves, sneaking between my collar and my skin, settling along my shoulders.

A large fish broke the surface far below. The soft sounds of splashing water followed after concentric circles had spread upon the surface. A duck broke from its nest and squawked upon the water; some other bird, a gull perhaps, rudely intruded upon the peaceful day. High in the hills, the clever crows awoke. Smoke twisted and rose from a distant chimney. I turned homeward to brew bitter coffee and feed the old dog.

Reading Challenge:

Read Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek won the Pulitzer for its masterful observations about nature and life.



Writing Challenge:

Wherever you dwell, take an early morning walk, concentrating on at least three senses: sight, sound, and texture. Then write about your walk. Revise and edit to recreate the sense.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Farther and Further

I’ve explained the difference between farther and further once before in this blog so you’d think I’d be confident, but I still jump over to Google and check my usage before posting. I haven’t written the wrong word in . . . well, I can’t remember choosing the wrong word, but I worry and doubt myself so I check.

Suffice it to say that I hope to walk farther each day with my old dog so that I may further my writing life. Walking farther is walking an actual physical distance beyond the distance I walked yesterday, but walking to further my writing life is abstract, figurative. Just how far I may extend my writing life by walking isn’t measurable so further is the right word.



Monday, December 3, 2012

D. Robert Pease's Latest Noah Zarc Release

Last year, on December 2 and 9, I used Noah Zarc by D. Robert Pease to explain coming-of-age stories and to report an interview with author Pease. I hope you'll turn back to those after taking a look at Pease's latest release, Noah Zarc: Cataclysm.

As you might guess from the titles, the second book again features Noah, an early teen, still very much a work in progress. He is occasionally willful, always daring, and definitely in the service of doing the right thing; he's just not always clear about what is right and what is wrong, or more accurately, he sometimes lets his notion of what is right overshadow the wrongs in his actions.

Like Luke Skywalker, Noah has some father issues. Noah's biological father is no saint; in fact, he's a trickster, manipulator, inventor, and genius who pursues his own interests ahead of his family's or the universe's. He also uses robotics and nano-technology to great advantage.

The book is a fine read for young adults and adults who remain young in spite of Time's toll. Don't miss the first or the second. They are both good reads.

Reading Challenge:

Buy and read Noah Zarc: Cataclysm.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Mists Upon the Water


For those readers who follow these weekly posts, you know that I have moved from the hot, dry plains of Oklahoma to the hills and valleys in the Ozarks. My husband and I long longed to live near water where we could heed its siren song and bear witness to its beauty.

The lake we see throughout the day in all seasons of the sun is dark and deep. It shivers in the wind, stirring up shirred fabric so delicate and light. Water birds teach us geometry as they make their way across the cove before breaking for the skies above the hills. So much life, so much movement, yet I would describe my new home as placid because a soft blanket comforts me as I walk along its shore or sit mesmerized as if a gifted hypnotist swung a medallion back and forth.

My favorite time is early, early morning, especially if the moon has yet to disappear behind the hills. This morning, the moon was fat and full, a soft yellow gold baton orchestrating the dawn. The stars had given way pianissimo as the mists upon the water rose toward warmer air, a crescendo of intense interplay between realms on high and those below.

Nothing more would I ask of the day that presented itself in such stealth and beauty.

Reading Challenge:

Enjoy William Wilfred Campbell’s poem about mist upon the water.

            A Day of Mists

The crags and the low shores kneel
Like ghosts, in the fogs that reel,
And glide, and shiver, and feel
For the shores with their shadowy hands.
Earth and heaven are grey;

The worlds of waters are grey,
And out in the fog-haunted day
A spectre—the lighthouse—stands.
And far from some caverned shore,
There cometh the distant roar

Of the lake-surf’s beat and din;
While wraith-like over the land,
From low white isles of sand
Of far off Michigan,
The fogs come drifting in.

I stand in the shrouded day,
But my heart is far away
With a grave in a lonely bay
Where the crags like eaglets cling;
And under the drive and drift

Of the vapors that sometime lift,
And loom, and lower, and shift,
The lake-birds scream and sing.

William Wilfred Campbell

Writing Challenge:

Recall the beginnings of a day that filled you with peace. Describe it.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

While discussing the opening paragraphs of two excellent novels, Into the Woods by Tana French (11.2.2012) and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (11.9.2012), I noted the power of alliteration to emphasize meanings and add rhythm to prose passages. Campbell’s poem makes liberal use of alliteration. Note, for example, the last lines and words that begin with “L:” lift, loom, lower, lake. By selecting such diction, Campbell has delivered a strong closing, one that reverberates, carrying us along with the movement he describes. Find other examples of alliteration used to good effect in Campbell’s poem.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Colors of Promise and Hope: Green and Blue

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Thanks to a dog that has trained herself to void by the clock, I am now often up before dawn, eager to bear witness to the changing colors above. Below are the docks where blue lights glow throughout the night. They’ve put me in mind of Gatsby’s green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, contemplates that green light and compares it to America itself. Men of daring sculpted this nation. They were discoverers and builders. On this continent, they saw promise, but by Nick’s day, the Buchanans and the Gatsbys had stunted that promise. East Coast wealth had become indolent and corrupt. They built nothing; instead, they orchestrated shattered hearts and dreams without apparent remorse.

Gatsby longed to dwell among the great, inherited wealth, but having come from humble origins, he invented a new path: one of law-breaking and squalor. He entertained criminals and show people in order to earn a ticket into the company of men and women who imagined themselves unspoiled by such common venality. They granted Gatsby admission, but only as a diversion, a temporary toy with which to explore emotion.

My dock lights are blue. Like tiny lighthouses, they guide the boatman home after dark. Like the sky after dawn, those blue lights offer hope. Blue is sure and steady, the color advertisers often use for recruiting employee candidates and to communicate trust in the brand. Educational web sites often feature the color blue, suggesting a safe and enlightened place to be. Blue calms us and beckons us to the azure and cerulean waters around the world. Blue also assures us of safe passage, at least according to several religions.

How lovely to dwell in blue. Today, as gray clouds lead winter in, winds overhead blow open a heavenly window to the blue beyond. And tonight, the blue dock lights will glow, telling me that fairy tales can and do come true.

Reading Challenge:

Prepare for the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, due in theaters in May 2013. Read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful portrait of a nation that troubled his spirit in the early 1920s and of romantic dreams crushed.

Writing Challenge:

Using the color green or blue, convey the meaning of the color through detail and diction. For example:

The sky above blesses me. I know that I cannot be defeated under such a dome. (i. e., The color blue symbolizes safe passage.)

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words Amoral and Immoral

Immoral describes Jay Gatsby. During Prohibition, he distributes liquor, ignoring the law of the land in order to grow wealthy.

Amoral describes Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The consequences of adultery and even vehicular manslaughter do not seem to trouble their sleep.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Departures



Phillip Larkin produced a lovely poem, “Poetry of Departures.” Listen to him read his own poem at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL4EuZPHJUU.

Scan the article cited at the end of the sentence, then scroll down, and listen again to another person, Deborah Garrison, reading the same poem at http://www.new yorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/04/philip-larkin-reading-cooperunion.html.

Delightful poem, isn’t it? Honest portrait of the itch that won’t be scratched without uprooting ourselves and discovering new terrain. The wise ones among us will count their blessings and stay put, but others among us will cry, “Full speed ahead!” and charge off for parts unknown.

I am in the process of doing just that. I’ve had an itch to live someplace other than Oklahoma with its gale-force winds blowing the hot, blistering heat against my face; its red cedar infestation stirring asthma and sinuses into full-flown attack mode; its redder than red voting populace; its churches that outnumber museums by the hundreds; its parochial, provincial, yet cowboy ways. My husband’s itch is more intense; he’s never lived elsewhere for even short bursts as I did during college and graduate school. He yearns for another life. No amount of anti-itch medicine has quelled that itch so we are off.

The house has declared war against me as I pull its guts from behind closet doors and try to fit them into bins, boxes, and bags. Forces heretofore unseen in the universe have besieged my troubled mind as the closing date for our new home grew from four weeks to six, then six to eight before landing upon a date 78 days from the day we made an offer. I hardly dare believe that it won’t be pushed back again. Like Stoppard’s version of Rosencrantz, I’ve begun to think of my new home as a “conspiracy of cartographers,” assigning a spot on the map to a place that never existed and never will.

I’ve also learned new cajoling skills as I plead and barter with movers, furniture stores, and insurance companies. I wonder if some doubt about my character and veracity creeps in upon them, but I am grateful to them for their kindness and considerations as they’ve changed dates and deadlines to match my needs. I’ve not found a Papa John or Robert Murray in charge anywhere.

Above all else, I grieve. As I wrap each decorating touch in bubble wrap and bury it in cardboard, I mourn the lost color, warmth, and welcome. With each print and painting, I weigh its value and usefulness as I am doing what many my age now do: downsizing. I will not have room for every one of the vases, prints, frames, pots, and what-nots that define my home as mine. These walls and rooms blush as I expose their bones for all to see. I dream of them as they once were.

I fear that the new 728 fewer square feet may never delight me as the greater, roomier home I’m leaving did. I fear the neighbors will not like me. I’m terrified that I am, indeed, leaving a life that is “reprehensibly perfect,” never to find that again. I lack the swagger required, but go, I will.

My husband and I will embark for a life we’ve not tested or tasted: a condo overlooking a lovely cove on a huge lake with lots of havens, harbors, and fingers. We’ll buy a boat and try not to sink. He plans to drop a fishing line into water, but it will lack bait and hook. He wants to contemplate and photograph beauty, both human and divine. He’ll make friends easily as he always does, and he’ll laugh as he tells his stories.

We’ll reinvent the people we’ve become, put on new clothes suitable for the place, and walk more than we do now. We’ll play board games because that’s what people on vacation do in inclement weather. We’ll sit on our deck and admire the changing light, the coming season and the one fading. We’ll live.

Yes, Mr. Larkin. We’ll make that “audacious, purifying, / Elemental move” and go to a place where no one knows our name.  We’ll shed this life, now “in perfect order” to sally forth and create another order. The notion sings its siren song to us, and we hasten to our end. We only hope ours is not a “step backwards,” but one very much forward.

Reading Challenge: “Poetry of Departures” by Phillip Larkin

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It's specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Writing Challenge:

Write a journal entry about an upcoming adventure or a move you’ve made.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

My husband is eager to make a new beginning. I am anxious to do so.

Both words, eager and anxious, describe emotions related to new beginnings. Eager has positive connotations while anxious has negative ones. A person who is eager looks forward to a change or something new; a person who is anxious merely hopes but does not expect the outcome to be pleasant.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: Powerful Beginnings in Fiction


Basic story ingredients, introduced in the first paragraphs and chapters, include the setting, characters, and conflict. Into those, an author tosses his own particular yeast--his style--to cook a book. Logically, then, the first words are crucial to a full understanding of the book about to unfold. Kevin Powers’ first novel, The Yellow Birds, a 2012 National Book Award finalist in fiction, illustrates the power in beginnings very well.

            The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
            Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.

Like Tana French, the writer featured last week, Powers makes use of alliteration, a figurative device easily identified. The initial letter that weaves throughout the opening paragraph is w, a letter that we speak by exhaling a wee sigh, a breath of air before pursing our lips to give that breath shape. Adding an h just behind the w embellishes the sigh. As a result, the letter w and letters wh effectively re-create or enhance the forlorn wind on those windswept paths. The wind is a natural phenomenon that seems to underscore loneliness and alienation within a human heart as the men move through the terrain of war. Powers deliberately crafts a paragraph that introduces the setting and its atmospheric tone by picking and choosing from many word options available to him.

Other repeated letters in the first paragraph make those words more emphatic, the setting more alive and vivid. In spring, with greening grass upon the hills, the men patrol, making paths like pioneers once did, and as they do, their fatigue presses upon them. The weight of their work contrasts with the energy and lighthearted renewal often associated with spring. Clipped, staccato sounds made with the letter p enhances the heavy effect of men at war.

Most apparent and most significant in the first two paragraphs is war personified as a character, the narrator’s antagonist, his villain, bred and spread by another natural force, fire. War opposes the narrator, its function to kill the patrol with an apparent biological imperative like animals with wide open eyes, white in the dark.

In the second paragraph, Powers explains more about the setting and about the character, war. It brings oppressive, blinding heat during the summer. Worse, it is the most frightening sort of antagonist, one without motives or logic. Neither cause nor effect, good or evil moves war. It takes randomly because it is merely an opportunist, taking those who have families and those who do not, some who have great character and others who have none. War is an equal opportunity killer; thus, anyone and everyone may die.

With only 245 words, Powers has declared war upon our hearts by revealing how ruthless war is. He invented a chilling character, one that is amoral and unsympathetic to the men on patrol. War lives to kill; killing is its function and purpose.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. You will not regret it.


Writing Challenge:

Using no more than 250 words, create peace as a character and setting.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Good practice--in other words, good usage--requires that we learn to make words speak to words. Alliteration is one method.

Review your 250-word passage from the challenge above. Revise to move words, change words, and effectively choose words that speak to other words as Powers did.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Powerful Opening Words: Tana French's 2007 Novel, In the Woods

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In the few book clubs I’ve been part of, I’ve often heard a fellow reader heap praise upon a book because of the opening words, the beginning sentences. You know the ones I mean: the ones that pull you in.

In this post, I’d like to share a few opening words, some that I have savored, some that made me smile, glad to begin a friendship with the author. I’d also like to share why I think the selected words are so masterful, testaments to the author’s excellent craft.

First, from Tana French’s award-winner, In the Woods:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. In tingles on your skin with BMX wind in the face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, ‘one! Two! Three!’ This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (Prelude, Into the Woods by Tana French)

If you haven’t already visited your favorite online book site to order this 2007 novel by Tana French, you must own it already. The flavor of this particular paragraph persuades me to read on. Here are a few reasons:

First, author Tana French makes use of alliteration to emphasize key words and enhance the rhythms of language. Consider the use of words beginning with an “s” (in bold font above): summer stolen some set small subtle seasons sized soft summer silkscreen summer sweat squirting skin skipping summer starts slow silhouetted.

The eye and ear note the presence of a repeated sound that now takes on greater significance. Our minds hit the sound like a hand upon the drum, and the rhythm underscores a mood, an atmosphere being created. We feel the presence of summer, a word repeated four times, five if you count the second half of an invented word, Everysummer. We feel the lazy ease of summer in words such as soft and slow. We feel summer is a comfortable sweater wrapped around us.

Second, French makes use of words beginning with “b” for a different effect:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. In tingles on your skin with BMX wind in the face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, ‘one! Two! Three!’ This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (Prelude, Into the Woods by Tana French)

Whereas the alliterative s-words flow throughout the paragraph, the alliterative b-words tend to dominate in the middle of the paragraph where French has packed diction and detail that appeal to the senses. First is the taste of summer: blades of . . . grass, clean sweat, biscuits with butter, and bottles of . . . lemonade. Second is the texture or feel of summer: BMX wind and ladybug feet tingle on . . . skin. Third is the scent of summer: mown grass and wash hanging on the line. Finally, French conveys the sounds of summer: birdcalls, bees, ball bounces and chants. These chime, and in an unusual use of fountain, most often used as a noun, French suggests that those sounds fountain or flow constantly up, adding to the energy implied in the word, summer. The paragraph closes with a touch of the ominous, with things that make the woods, at night, threatening: the sounds of bats speeding through black lace trees.

One reviewer, using the online name “switterbug,” describes French’s style as being “literary, layered, full of allusion, and linguistically lush.” I agree (and acknowledge that the reviewer has used a bit of alliteration him--or her--self).  Such lush language invited me in to the world invented by French and promised that I would enjoy the journey. I did.

Next Week, November 9, 2012, Opening Words by Kevin Peters in The Yellow Birds, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.

Reading Challenge:

Read Tana French’s In the Woods or another Tana French novel.

Writing Challenge:

Describe a season, using the same techniques that French employs. Write quickly, then begin to rewrite, changing words and phrases to achieve an alliterative effect and appeal to the senses.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Tried and true writing advice includes a prohibition against repetition, but repeating a word exactly or in a different form serves style very well when used mindfully and sparingly. Consider Tana French’s use of the word, summer. It appears five times in a short passage without seeming redundant or repetitive. One reason is that the uses are parallel; each follows a verb, most often the linking verb is. And parallel constructions are powerful. They emphasize ideas, and they focus our minds upon the message.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Invention Tip: So then . . . So What?


Design, décor, detail. These are my sedatives.

If I must endure a long wait without fascinating reading material close by, then I turn my mind to design, décor, and detail. If I am not immediately sleepy when my head finds its perfect nest on the pillow, then I turn my mind to design, décor, and detail. Quite often, I begin these mental delights with two words: So then . . . and add two more to set the scene:

So then, I cried. From there, I must invent. First, I define the type of crying. Am I sobbing? Is a single tear drifting down my cheek as a single drop of rain might make its way along the glass? Or are my eyes just now reddening and welling?

Next, I costume myself and invent a place. Am I in winter dress or something light and cool for summer? Are the clothes pressed and neat, or are they wrinkled and shabby?

Answering the two questions about dress usually gives me an idea about where I am in this invention so I place myself on the front porch of a well-lighted home, looking down the road at a pair of taillights. If it’s summer, I may lie upon a quilt beside a placid, dark lake. I hear the sound of a car engine fading in the distance.

Finally, I add the detail. What happened? What provoked the tears? How do the clothes and setting complement the tone, or do they clash? I explain how much have I lost and what I will do in the next moment and the next and the next.

This mental exercise serves me well in idle moments. When I'm actively working on a story, not sure what my next word will be, I settle my mind and ask So then. . . So what? I let my mind play with ideas, confident that one will draw me on more than others. I know I'll find a path when I ask So then . . .So what?

At other times, I’m just inventing from scratch. I can go anywhere and play with any emotion:

  • ·      So then, I laugh . . .
  • ·      So then, I shriek . . .
  • ·      So then, I walk . . .
  • ·      So then, I sit . . .
  • ·      So then, I . . . well, you have the idea, I’m sure.


So when your creative well runs dry, try So then . . . So what? When your mind wants to idle, try So then . . . So what? When troubles plague you and you wish to steady your mind, try So then . . . So what?

So then . . . So what? is as good as taking a walk, swimming laps, or meditating. So then . . . So what? allows your mind to explore and stretch. You’ll like what you discover, I promise.

Reading Challenge:

Read a quintessential novel about writer’s block. In this one, madness follows: Stephen King’s The Shining. Oh, and you’ll also find fiction suitable for Halloween, complex characters, paranormal intrigue, a brave little boy, and a mother who struggles to do what’s right and best for all.

Writing  Challenge:

Follow through with at least one So then . . . So what?  Write it.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to the Basics

Since we’re going back to the beginning with this and last week’s post, may I remind you about a text that grows sentences as well as sunlight grows flowers? Search for Virginia Tuffte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax and Style.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to the Beginning: Write Today, Tomorrow and Tomorrow



In nearly three years, 141 posts including today’s, I’ve offered insights into

·      resumés that float to the top among candidates,
·      persuasive cover letters for work and scholarship searches,
·      and other academic writing tasks, especially the dreaded and oft assigned researched analytical essay.

I’ve also reviewed many classic writing patterns that shape language into works of art; these patterns include

·      tropes such as metaphors and metonomy,
·      short, emphatic sentences, and
·      other syntactical choices made by professionals.

Many posts have been devoted to villains and heroes, two of many conventional characters. Archetypal themes and story lines from novels, short stories, and film have been examined for your enhanced understanding, all undertaken in keeping with the philosophy that the more you know, the more you understand, the more empowered you are as both a reader and a writer.

Using the Flipcard feature of Blogger (upper left, black bar, downward-pointing arrow will provide a list of formats), you can see the many titles and topics for My Writing and Editing Coach. You can also scroll using Timeslide. Either of these will help you navigate 141 posts; each will allow you to review the blog to see what it has to offer you.

For those of you with lots of time on your hands, you will find that the blog began as an online writing text--a workbook that you can use to begin and sustain a writing habit. Each post since the beginning has offered a Writing Challenge as well as one for reading and a GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics) review.

How many of you, I wonder, are writing? How many of you are parents who have made the students in your lives aware of this blog? It is a series of lessons by a teacher for students of all ages, and these lessons will smooth the rough edges of both high school and college English. They will also stand once formal education has been put aside in favor of lifelong learning. So, if you have not already done so . . .

Begin a writing habit today. Writing helps you remember and discover. It also clarifies your thinking as nothing else can or will. For example, last night, on the new CBS series, Elementary, Sherlock Holmes asked Watson to stop talking in favor of listening so that Sherlock could speak aloud his analyses. He said that talking helped him think and see more clearly. Writing does the same, but serves us better. A spoken story exists for the moment only; writing becomes a treasure trove that we can return to again and again.

Exercise your mind while making art. The act of writing begets more writing, and writing improves, especially if you spend some of your day reading and thereby internalizing the ways in which other people communicate most effectively to you. Writing, in other words, stimulates writing and so does reading.

Leave your legacy in deed and in words. Let those you care for know who you are, what moves you, what has challenged you. We may miss each other unless we take pains to reveal ourselves for ourselves and those who care about us.

So if have come late to this blog, remember its overarching purpose: to inspire you and guide you to write. Join me in writing. It is one of life’s greatest joys.

Reading Challenge:

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

Find other quotations about writing by writers at http://www.writersdigest.com/ editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/72-of-the-best-quotes-about-writing.

Writing Challenge:

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King, WD (WD = Writer’s Digest, a print and online publication referenced above)

Can you be ruthless? Ruthlessness is essential to the writing process.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
—Elmore Leonard

Of course, writers know and master grammar as well as correct usage and mechanics. They use their mastery when preparing synopses, corresponding with editors and publishers, and for academic writing. But as Elmore Leonard observes, being too proper may not serve the story so tell your story beautifully and truly.

  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Beowulf and Katniss: Two Heroes Only a Millenia Apart



As a teacher of students from ages fifteen to seventy, I enjoyed sharing old, stodgy works featuring heroes such as Beowulf because his biography in verse celebrates timeless human ideals including courage and sacrifice, ideals that continue to inspire readers of all ages. In fact, those are the ideals that make Katniss Everdeen a hero for the modern age.

Equally important, Beowulf and Katniss experience moments of doubt, fear, and sorrow, and when they do, story-tellers knock them off their high idealistic pedestal right down into the dust and ash where the rest of us reside. It is their humanity that inspires us to love them because in their humanity, we see ourselves: imperfect but striving for excellence in almost all we do.

In fact, that’s classic Aristotlean heroics. A great figure, suitable for the high art of tragedy, must pursue excellence, only to be brought low by his own hamartia: hoisted with his own petard (Hamlet), so to speak. Oedipus, for example, Aristotle's paradigm, tried to save his parents whom he knew to be Polybus and Merope. He ran as far from them as he could go after the Oracle at Delphi revealed the destiny that lay before him. Later, he worked as aggressively to save his city, Thebes, from the gods’ curses and issued a dire edict, ignorant of the truth about himself.

Oedipus’s good intentions cannot save him from the gods' wrath or man's judgment. Oedipus allows his ego to suffocate his better self and lead him into a series of mistakes following the first flight from Corinth. Worse, his failure to be humble forced a horrible lesson in humility upon him. He brought about his own suffering--as most of us do, and that makes his story achingly familiar.

Beowulf pursues excellence, too. He wishes to test and prove his own bravery by serving Hrothgar’s nation in its time of need, and like Oedipus, Beowulf’s actions will determine the fate of a people, the Danes, framing his story lives as an epic.

Beowulf also suffers a painful lesson in humility. As a young man, full of vigor and bravado, he kills two monsters, earning both acclaim and gold. In time, he becomes king in his homeland and oversees a long era of peace and prosperity during which his warriors grow so soft that they run away from a fight, even when the only man standing is their king, frail and alone, armed with helmet, shield and sword against a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf loses that last fight and dies with the knowledge that his high ideals no longer thrive in the hearts of younger men. The high ideals he held so dear have not endured under his leadership.

One thousand years later, Katniss also chooses to fight for others. She takes her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, knowing the contest may kill her, but if she succeeds, she will not only save her sister, but she will lift up her community, making their lives measurably better. Indeed, the fate of her home rests upon her shoulders, and as it turns out, the fate of her entire dystopian world depends upon her success.

Katniss is less eager to take life than is Beowulf, but Katniss faces mere mortals rather than the Spawn of Cain and a dragon. She must kill her own in order to triumph, and we admire her when murder, whether murder that is licensed and State-sanctioned, gives her pause. We know then that Katniss, in other circumstances, would pursue excellence in all things, never taking life except to hunt so that her family and her community might survive.

Still, Katniss falls to the lowly ash and dust as does Beowulf. She can be blind to her own flaws. She can be quick to judge others, doubting their integrity and motives. She also suffers from insufferable pride occasionally. She must learn to be humble and always generous before she returns to the pedestal of heroes.

Beowulf’s story, originating about a millennia ago, is a saga alive and well in this post-modern literary era. Katniss Everdeen is but one proof. Both appeal to readers because each one tells a timeless tale of men and women who strive to rise and dwell among the angels in spite of the very human frailties that drag them back to rest upon earth.

Reading Challenge:

Read or reread Beowulf (available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/ 16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm) or translated beautifully by Seamus Heaney. You may also wish to consider King Arthur and Sir Gawain as tarnished stars of the old world. Who from the modern canon would compare to those knights?

Writing Challenge:

Compare another modern or post-modern story to Beowulf’s. Some possibilities include one of Marvel’s heroes or Harry Potter’s epic journey.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics

As I post this, I am aware that many students are now enjoying Fall Break, or is it Fall break or even fall break?

According to the excellent resource available online from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/592/1), a GUM resource that everyone should know and use:

·      Do not capitalize the seasons; e. g., This spring I hope to visit the zoo unless
·      The seasons are part of a title; e. g., Fall Break or the 2013 Spring semester.