Friday, May 25, 2012

Family Ties That Bind, Another Literary Pattern

A favorite genre for me, especially now that I am a retired teacher, free to indulge my interests and avoid paths that once constrained me, is the mystery. I am particularly fond of Cozies set in small, quirky villages where a smart, observant detective, by vocation or avocation, must unravel secrets and lies in pursuit of a killer whom no one imagined capable of murder.

Quite often, the murderer is a relative of the victim. More often in fiction and in real crime stories, the murderer is someone who has said, “I love you” to the poor, soon-to-be lifeless corpse. Husbands, wives, lovers, and siblings are the usual suspects, and they are usually guilty. Just ask The Closer, Brenda Lee Johnson, fond of drawling, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

In fact, family ties frequently twist and distort folks into unrecognizable monsters bent upon self-preservation and power. And that, dear readers, is the ugly truth about familial love: sometimes it goes so far south that we cannot find the moon, stars, or sun upon the horizon.

But the good news--and it’s very good news indeed--is that familial love, the love existing between relatives by marriage or blood, can also lift us up to where the angels rest. Love for family can help us overcome our fears and lead us into burning buildings to carry out dear old Dad. It can plunge us into icy waters to pull a brother from below. And it can urge us to risk our own health and sacrifice our sick leave to lose one good kidney and gain more years with our brother, sister, or distant cousin.

Familial love often extends beyond close family members to include people we do not know. We love and admire them because they are human beings, our brothers and sisters on this earth. That directed Brad Pitt to rebuild New Orleans, Sean Penn to dedicate himself to Haiti, and George Clooney to go to jail for human rights in far away Sudan. People without claims to stars on Hollywood Boulevard are also devoted Scout leaders, foster parents, and blood donors, giving of themselves for people they may never know.

Writers are not immune to such calls upon our hearts. Stephen King, for example, spun a story, Dolores Claiborne, around both types of familial love, the one borne in blood and the other in suffering. His titular character risks everything, including her own life, to rescue her daughter from her drunk, abusive father. She also adopts her employer, Vera Donovan, as her family, caring for the sometimes vile, always troubled woman, even when Vera wants Dolores to help her our of this world and her misery. Never saintly, but hard-working and loyal, Dolores puts herself in jeopardy for others.

Nicholas Sparks has filled a library shelf with stories about the wonderful ties that bind us. A Walk to Remember, The Vow, and The Notebook are but three that celebrate true, selfless love. In each, a spouse devotes himself fearlessly to the happiness of another. Even if passion and intimacy expire, love endures to overcome obstacles.

So writers, when casting about for stories, old and new, to study and develop, consider the familial ties that wrap us in their warmth, transforming us into beings nearly angelic. Be fair, however, and consider the familial ties that break and reshape us into bitter, frightening things. Write cautionary tales about them.

Reading Challenge:

If you have not already read Dolores Claiborne, do so now, or if you have read it, re-read it.  You will also enjoy “reading” the film made from this book. Kathy Bates in the starring role registers all the human emotions that lie between love and hate, happiness and regret. She demonstrates that attention must be paid to such a woman.

If you are a fan of lighter, popular fiction, pick up a novel by Nicholas Sparks to witness the heartache and joy that love brings.

Writing Challenge:

Create a character twisted and distorted by love denied. Heathcliff from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is such a man. Mold your own modern-day Heathcliff, then create a character made strong and bold by love returned. Leah from Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is one.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words, Poll and Pole

Poll: the act of voting in an election, the place where an election is held, and the act of rendering our opinion on political matters.

Pole: a long, slender piece of wood.

In the twenty-first century, political campaigns in the United States seem to begin as soon as the votes have been tallied and results posted. We must be fond of bombast and pomposity, of reds and blues because we engage in polls to guesstimate how we will vote long before we go to the polls to cast our vote. In addition, we often affix a poster or placard to a pole and sally forth, hoping to persuade others to see it our way.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Some Figurative Language Needs a Reboot!

Cliché:     A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Translation:     We eat bird tonight!

Cliché:     Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Translation:     Be discerning as you glean the wheat from the chaff.

Cliché:     When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
Translation:     Make the best of awful situations.

Cliché:        We reap what we sow.
Translation:    You’ll get back what you give so give wisely.

Cliché:     When one door closes, another opens.
Translation:     Things may not work out  so look for another opportunity.

Cliché:        The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Translation:    You are just like your parents.

Cliché:        You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Translation:    Everyone makes mistakes on his way to making something good.

Cliché:        I got spanked.
Translation:    I lost, didn’t get my way, and may have learned a lesson.

Clichés begin life as figurative language, but due to overuse, they become meaningless, no longer sparking a vivid picture in the reader or listener’s mind.  Nevertheless, vivid analogies and comparisons are essential to clear communication so writers and speakers continue to invent them.

Inventing vivid analogies and comparisons is excellent practice for writers trying to develop or hone their style. For example:

Original:    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Invention:    Super-sized fast-food equals three sweaty hours pounding round the track.

Original:    Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Invention:    Don’t pluck the lowly milkweed for soon, Monarch butterflies will grace its tough stalk.

Original:    When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
Invention:    Step away from the mirror so blemishes become invisible to your critical eye.

Original:    We reap what we sow.
Invention:    If your seeds are lies, your harvest will be toxic.

Continue inventing new ways of saying old, but good ideas. Challenge yourself to write fresh expressions at least once daily. You will find that priming the pump of new, vivid expressions will produce an overflow of imaginative comparisons and analogies that come more easily and unbidden as you write.

Reading Challenge:

For hundreds more, visit where you will find the cliché and a translation. Choose at least ten clichés, then translate each, shifting from the figurative to the literal levels of understanding before you click on the cliché to see the online translation.

Writing Challenge:

For each cliché at the beginning of this post, invent a new, fresh and figurative way of communicating the same idea. Do the same for the ten additional clichés that you selected from

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

You may have missed the announcement in April, 2012 that Usage Gurus now believe it is acceptable to begin a sentence with the word “hopefully” in spite of what your English teacher may have told you. This may surprise those of you who have often used “hopefully” as the first word in a sentence. Allow me to explain.

For many years, “hopefully,” as good adverbs do, modified verbs. For example, “I tasted the new cupcake frosting hopefully.” This use of “hopefully” informs readers that the person tasted the frosting in a hopeful manner, that he hoped for a good outcome for this particular batch of frosting.

But adverbs can and often do modify whole sentences as it does in the sentence that follows: “Hopefully, the team will win.” A literal reading of this sentence reveals that the team is not yet winning or even playing in a hopeful manner so the word, “hopefully,” does not modify the verb. Nevertheless, we understand that someone has hope that the team he follows and favors will win a game; “hopefully” modifies the whole statement, not just the verb.

Whether “hopefully” should modify whole sentences was the source of contention until language users settled the contest. Users simply liked to modify whole sentences with the word “hopefully.” I know I did and still do.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Using Imagery to Create Tone

In addition to diction and detail, writers use images such as similes, metaphors, personification, and synecdoche to establish tone. For posts explaining various types of imagery, including those listed in the previous sentence, use the Timeline feature of this blog to travel back to March 11, June 10, and June 17 in 2011, or use the Search bar to enter the image or trope (a trope is word or expression used figuratively rather than literally) that you wish to review.

To illustrate the use of imagery and reinforce the use of diction and detail to establish tone, I have selected an early paragraph from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a masterful work being celebrated for delivering wisdom and pleasure for more than fifty years. This year, the film, starring Gregory Peck, is fifty years old. The words quoted below are also read by the narrator of the film.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

Such paragraphs are memorable because of the effective use of diction, including alliterative word choices, and the use of details and images. Unpack the tone by reading the paragraph closely, this time listing the significant, connotative words, the specific details, and the images employed to establish a tone.

Your lists may resemble the one below:

·      Old and tired old town (diction)
·      Rainy weather…red slop (diction and detail)
·      Grass … on sidewalks (detail)
·      Courthouse sagged (personification)
·      Hotter … black dog suffered …bony mules … flicked flies … sweltering shade (oxymoronic) … summer’s day (diction and detail)
·      Stiff collars wilted (detail)
·      Ladies … like soft teacakes (simile) … frostings of sweat … sweet talcum (diction and detail)

By adding up these words, details, and images, readers can infer a tone: oppressed. Maycomb’s age, its decaying, neglected infrastructure, and its weather oppress everyone and everything from dogs to men and women; each and all suffer there. And this tone matches the overall tone of the novel: as a segregated town during the depression, no one thrives, but the African-American population endures the heaviest burdens.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read the entire first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, evaluating each paragraph for tone devices and defining the overall tone of the chapter. Then push on, more mindful of style and tone as you read the entire novel once again. You will also enjoy “reading” the film from 1962. And if you still have not had enough of this wonderful novel, buy or borrow the unabridged audio book, read by Sissy Spacek.

Writing Challenge:

Pick a neighborhood in your community. List words, details, and images that could describe the neighborhood, then organize these into a paragraph that reveals the tone without using the tone word or its synonyms as one of your words in the paragraph.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): More Commonly Confused Words, Flaunt and Flout

Mrs. Dubose flaunts (displays ostentatiously) her racist supremacy, so much so that Jem flouts (disregards a rule) the civil standard to respect others’ property and destroys her camellias in a fit of rage.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Satire and Sarcasm: If You Miss These Tones, You Misunderstand

Writers labor, both consciously and unconsciously, to create tone, a word that describes a writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward the subject and/or readers and created by word choices and details. Allow me to elaborate upon that in this post and several to follow. Today I will demonstrate the distinction between a character or speaker's attitudes and the authors, using satiric tones to illustrate.

First, as noted in the definition above, the character or speaker’s attitude may not be the same as the writer’s because tone is a writer’s or speaker’s attitude.

Consider Adlai Stevenson’s veto of the “The Cat Bill,” more accurately known as “An [IL] Act to Provide Protection to Insectivorous Birds by Restraining Cats (1949)” wherein you will find an excellent example of the differences between the attitudes of the writer, who is the wizard behind the curtain in a literary Oz, and a speaker that the writer invents to carry his message to the world. An excerpt of this actual Illinois bill follows.

. . . I cannot agree that it should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighbor’s yard or crossing the highways is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming. Many live with their owners in apartments or other restricted premises, and I doubt if we want to make their every brief foray an opportunity for a small game hunt by zealous citizens—with traps or otherwise. I am afraid this Bill could only create discord, recrimination and enmity. Also consider the owner’s dilemma: To escort a cat abroad on a leash is against the nature of the cat, and to permit it to venture forth for exercise unattended into a night of new dangers is against the nature of the owner. Moreover, cats perform useful service, particularly in rural areas, in combating rodents—work they necessarily perform alone and without regard for property lines.

 We are all interested in protecting certain varieties of birds. That cats destroy some birds, I well know, but I believe this legislation would further but little the worthy cause to which its proponents give such unselfish effort. The problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to resolve it by legislation who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency
. (Adlai E. Stevenson, governor of Illinois, veto message, April 23, 1949.—The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson, ed. Walter Johnson, vol. 3, pp. 73–74 [1973])

Some legislators in the 1940 Illinois legislature, in response to their constituents, created a bill to protect birds from their predators, notably the cat. All parties, it appears, were earnest. After all, both chambers of the Illinois legislature passed the law and sent it for the Governor’s signature. Stevenson, however, declines to approve the bill because it is absurd to give citizens an excuse to exterminate cats and more absurd to use law enforcement to take care of small felines.

Still, Stevenson must be sensitive to the earnest folks who desired, crafted, and passed the bill, and he is, most obviously in his word choices. He elevates the seriousness of the bill with formal language, including “unescorted roaming,” “owner’s dilemma,” and “useful service.” But, the writer behind the respectful, lofty language is also having some fun by pushing the bill to its logical, absurd conclusion, noting especially how impractical the execution of the bill is.

The speaker (public government official) treats bird-eating cats, delicate songbirds, and the “unselfish proponents” who love them with respect while the writer mocks the bill and its impracticalities. Perhaps the best evidence of mockery comes in the final statement quoted: “... the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency.” The bill’s creators tried to lift the idea of a cat straying beyond its owner’s property lines to the level of delinquency, and the writer points that out, thereby stripping the idea behind the bill naked and exposing it to ridicule.

The speaker honors the resources and energy of Illinois to preserve the peace, but the writer, Stevenson himself, satirizes those who would use those resources and that energy in the pursuit of felines that are not, in anyone’s estimation, miscreants, law-breakers, or public nuisances that endanger the public peace. Cats only endanger songbirds, a problem that the speaker notes, is as “old as time,” allowing the writer to shine a light upon how unlikely it is that one little bill could rewrite Natural Law.

Consider also the tone of W. H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” published in 1939 and included in this post below.

(To JS/07 M 378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

After reading the poem, readers infer that the speaker believes that productivity and materialism are worthy cultural values. The poet behind the curtain does not approve, however. While the speaker cites one fact after another in support of the citizen’s happiness and his freedom, the poet wonders why so much data could reveal so little about the citizen’s real attitudes toward his homeland, its good, and its services. In other words, the complete absence of intellectual curiosity in the speaker suggests that he is shallow and exposes society’s requirement to fit in as hollow, allowing the writer to indict the society and its citizens.

Thus, when reading for tone, be sure to distinguish between the speaker or character and the writer by reading closely for word choices and details.

Reading Challenge:

Test yourself by reading or re-reading a classic example of bitter satire wherein the speaker appears earnest and objective while the writer seethes and condemns. Read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” available for online reading at http://www.

For additional reading, turn to YouTube to see a parody of Stevenson’s “Cat Bill” at The students who created the video seem to understand the literary term, hyperbole, very well.

You can also hear readings of “The Unknown Citizen” at com/watch?v=lhFFt_jboT4 and

Writing Challenge:

Analyze the tones of “A Modest Proposal” and the word choices and details used to create those tones.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

In the article above, I have begun to explain the meaning of the word, tone, as it applies to literature and literary analysis. You know the word, tone, in other contexts, including:

·      Music. In that context, “tone” refers to the quality and character of sound. Miles Davis’ jazz was avant-garde. Novices heard only dissonant tones while jazz aficionados heard rich, complex tones.
·      Speech. Anyone who has listened to Fran Drescher and Bea Arthur understands the differences in vocal tones. Drescher has a strong, nasal sound that manufactures a harsh, irritating (at least, to me) tone whereas Arthur sounded like an old smoker. Her tone had authority because of its bass notes, but the laugh that such a voice produced carried tones of disease.
·      Regional Speech. Anyone familiar with the Bible Belt knows that Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas pronounce the words, “all,” “oil,” and “owl” identically, rendering each one as “awl.” Further east, beginning in Louisiana and stretching to the Carolinas, natives have a distinctive Southern drawl.
·      Eras or Periods of Time. The Arab Spring characterizes an era in which the tones are revolutionary.
·      Literature, Photography, and Décor. Distinct style choices create an overall tone. Mellow yellow wall paint adjacent to apple-green shelves create a lively, spring-like tone. On the other hand, diction and details such as “heavy, dark clouds above shadowy streets where dirty rain water runs in the gutters” establishes an ominous tone.

Next Week: More about creating and analyzing tone.