Friday, March 29, 2013

Winter in Words: An Exercise in Showing, Not Telling

Smoky skies the color of mourning doves hover above calendar-quality vistas in all directions as far as I can see. Powdery snow like fairy dust swirls and dances across the lanes while cardinals, bright against the blanched ground, chase each other in and out the fencerows. Soft winds brush snow from low-hanging branches, dusting my dark wool coat. I am bound for the hearth of home.

What does the passage above suggest? What tone does it evoke?

It doesn’t declare the tone, does it? But there are plenty of clues for readers to draw reasonable conclusions.

Smoky and mourning, for example, call to mind somber, reflective moments. Dancing, swirling powdery snow like fairy dust, on the other hand, suggests magic and joy. Bright cardinals playing seem to match the magical, joyful details as do soft winds. So far, the predominant tone or mood of the passage is light-hearted, even enchanting.

But alas, how should we interpret the dark wool coat, dusted with snow? Is that another somber, reflective clue? No, it is not. The coat is merely practical and a sharp contrast to the bright white world surrounding, and it has been dusted with soft powdery snow, not dampened or spoiled or burdened--just dusted.

The final clue for tone is hearth of home, a timeless reference to warmth and comfort. Thus, key diction choices converge in a tone of admiration, pleasure, and comfort.

The author (me), through diction, showed us how to interpret the passage
and trusts her readers to draw the correct conclusion through close reading. Be aware, however, that two readers will likely select two different words to describe the tone of the passage. One may choose pleasure, another joy. And that’s just fine. Language is ambiguous--subject to more than one interpretation, but the difference between pleasure and joy is slight in this context.

Reading Challenge:

For an excellent example of polysyndeton and a delightful description of the writing process, savor this:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves - that's the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives - experiences so great and moving that it doesn't seem at the time anyone else has been so caught up and so pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.

Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories - each time in a new disguise - maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writing Challenge:

Tell one of your two or three stories on paper.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Eagles On High


The old dog no longer walks beside me. She fell behind, unable to breathe well enough to climb the hill at my slowed, patient pace. Then, thunder sleet and snow sluiced through limbs and branches, spreading like fondant frosting, slick and smooth and treacherous. She wanted no part of it and, I think, gave up. The world had turned arduous. Chat and rock below an alien, impassable field, an asphalt trail that climbed up and up until it gave way to dirt and leaves and tinder now hidden and frozen out of sight.

I began to bribe her with chicken broth, canned chicken, baby foods, cottage cheese, hard boiled eggs. At first, she ate eagerly, grateful for the treats and new flavors, but these pleasures faded as the joy of walking uphill had. She adopted the posture of Eyore. Her head hung low as she labored to please, her tail tucked, not wagging or alert, just defeated. I began to repeat like a mantra, “Come on, Emma; you can do it. Good girl! Fine dog!”

Now and then in the last days, she seemed to believe me. She picked her head up and let her ears engage with the sounds. Her pace quickened, but only for a few steps. On her last day, she staggered on the return. We’d only traveled a few short steps from our door, but even this was too much. She trotted, then stiffened, unsure on her feet, unsure even about which one to move in order to advance. When she tried to walk back through the door, she missed and butted her head softly into the frame.

Now I walk alone and mourn her as the eagles fly overhead. I hear their coming in that sharp high-pitched keen fading on the air, the sound Emma no longer heard, her sight and hearing gone before her body. I smile and wince in their presence, and I follow them as they lift, catch the current, dive, fishing and feeding. I continue to watch them as they lift again, effortlessly, to the hills and into the sky beyond.

I wish now that Emma could have soared away as effortlessly as they do. I see them above the trees, circling, held aloft by currents unknown to those of us held below, and I know I will miss them every day of my life.

Reading Challenge:

I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

The words above are the first in an essay by E. B. White titled “Death of a Pig,” published in The Atlantic in 1948 ( animals/white-full.html). He captures the confusion and angst of caring for an animal.

Writing Challenge:

 A song or an eagle or a certain slant of light can transport us to another place and time. Our memories overtake our present and define our mood. Tell about that song or the eagle or the play of light that sends you back in time.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Word Economy: Cutting to the Skeleton

Last week’s post about The Sea Bat, an old film from 1930, touched upon today’s topic: brevity. Each writer marketing or reviewing the film did so with few words, and there is great value is practicing brevity. It sharpens the mind, forcing us to select what is most important, absolutely essential. Brevity also requires that we play with language, choosing the very best word to serve.

One teacher, Maurice Sagoff, understood the fun and value in brevity, testing his students to write very short summaries of works they’d studied, usually in poetic form. His book, ShrinkLits (Workman Publishing, New York, 1980), explains what students must do and for what purposes.

I adapted ShrinkLits for my own classroom, requiring that students reduce complex works to the seventeen-syllable Haiku form. Doing so tested their understanding of the most significant characters, events, symbols, and ideas.

For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet inspires and challenges us. It's so rich and complex. How could anyone reduce it to seventeen syllables? Well . . .

·      Grief o’erwrought. Death sought. / Toxic deeds at Elsinore / Duty forsworn, Vows broke
·      Dad dies. Uncle crowned. / Mother a tart. Son so smart. / Treason. Duels. Death.
·      Ominous winds blow / Threats from near, far and within / Hamlet sacrificed

Each haiku shrinklit captures essential ingredients and overall outcomes. Each requires considering some words, dismissing them as unsuitable for their syllable count, and choosing better ones, words with the proper syllable count.

Such play is also work. It challenges writers never to accept one phrase as the only phrase. It inspires writers to think about topics from new perspectives. So when the spigot refuses to free new ideas for you or when casting about for something to write, practice the shrinklit to prime that pump and get ideas flowing once more.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Read another teacher’s use of Sagoff’s ShrinkLit at http://www.mitchellteachers. net/MrsMitchell/PDFFiles/2011-2012/ShrinklitPoem.pdf, then use the one-page worksheet to have some fun with Shrinklit.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Sea Bat (1930) and The Art of Summary

During Turner Classic Movie’s (TCM) 30 Days of Oscar programming, I scanned the movies available and recorded some old favorites as well as a few I’ve never seen. I’m still in the habit of checking to see what TCM will show each day. Today, one short summary caught my attention. It reads:

The Sea Bat (1930) The sister of a sponge driver killed by a stringray loves an escaped convict posing as a priest.

What writer among us would conceive such a plot? How would anyone put all those pieces together? Did the screenwriter, Bess Meredyth, reply to a classified ad placed by the story’s author, Dorothy Yost? If so, the ad must have looked something like the one below.

Wanted: One screenwriter with working knowledge of exotic locales, sponge diving, manta rays, law-abiders, criminals, and the vagaries of the human heart. Experience preferred. Send screen credit and publications list to P. O. Box 010110, Los Angeles, CA

A daunting list of job requirements, wouldn’t you agree? Yet somehow two women invented a tale using standard story ingredients: well-defined setting, characters experiencing love and loss, and conflict.

Two other plot summaries for this film can be found at Ron Kerrigan of saw the film’s essentials this way:

The West Indies island of Portuga exists mainly for sponge diving. But the best area of collection is frequented by a very large manta ray. Nina loses her lover to the creature and is comforted by a newly arrived minister, who seems very interested in an old poster offering a reward for a convict recently escaped from nearby Devil's Island. More deaths attributed to the sea bat follow before Nina resolves her feelings for her comforter.

Did you catch the difference between TCM’s Direct TV blurb and Ron Kerrigan’s? In the first, the central character dealing with loss and love is the sister of a sponge diver. In the second, she is the diver’s lover.

Les Adams of adds more detail and attends to the microcosmic quality of sponge diving:

Diving for sponges is risky at best and even more so when the best sponge-water is the home of a very large and hostile-to-divers manta ray. On the near-by island, men fight like beasts for the heart of Nina, the flower of the Pacific. The ruler of the island is a drunk who has lost control of the people, so this isn't exactly paradise. Juan and Carl are both in love with Nina, but Juan is meaner and disposes of Carl by cutting his life line while Carl is out sponge-diving and dodging the manta ray. Then, Sims, an escaped convict, who must have swam [sic] all the way around South America if he came from Devil's Island, shows up posing as a minister. Nina takes a great liking to this man-of-the-cloth. Juan has a great dislike for him.

Mr. Adams focuses upon conflicts and juxtapositions. Sponge diver versus manta ray, civilization versus anarchy, good versus evil, and man versus man for the hand and heart of Nina all play out against the backdrop of sea and land, Nature maleficent as seen in the manta ray, and Nature benign as seen in the “flower of the Pacific.”

Each writer reveals much about his own analytic priorities by the summary produced. One writer for DirectTV and/or TCM, like Twitter followers the world over, seems confined to a low number of words. By holding to his limit, the description piques viewer interest, if for no other reason than to satisfy our curiosity about how those seemingly far-fetched, disparate elements could coalesce into an enjoyable tale.

Mr. Kerrigan recounts what happens while Mr. Adams provides a literary analysis. It is this last one by Mr. Adams that challenges us as writers to produce work that has complexity. The elements of plot are factual. The elements of story are emotional and universal; they make use of figurative levels of meaning to discover and consider the human experience.  (A recent post from February 22, 2013 shares E. M Forester’s example for the difference between a report and a story.)

Reading Challenge:

“Read” a snippet from the film, available for viewing at watch?v=vx3w6b_AnV0. What more recent film pitting men in a boat against an oversized sea monster? What parallels do you notice? Song, a reluctant sailor, men in the water who need a bigger boat? I don’t know if the young Spielberg saw The Sea Bat, but the older and newer film seem to have common elements, including those listed and, in Peter Bench’s original book, men vying for the heart and hand of a woman as well as an island floating upon dangerous waters.

Also read a review posted to for The Sea Bat and provided by Ron Oliver of; his review emphasizes the elements of film rather than those applicable to both film and fiction:

The lives of sponge divers are disrupted by the arrival of a tough cleric and the deprivations of THE SEA BAT.

It is unfortunate that this splendid little film from MGM has become so obscure as it has much to offer in the way of ambiance and good acting from an interesting cast. The production values are high and the location shooting (on Mexico's Mazatlán coast) with its glimpses of pseudo West Indies island culture add to the film's atmosphere. Director Lionel Barrymore keeps the action moving right along, with just enough requisite romance, suspenseful encounters with the hideous sea bat and a dandy fist fight near the end to keep the viewers happy.

Mexican actress Raquel Torres plays the fiery island miss who wants to escape the tragedy which has attacked her family. Silent screen star Nils Asther is her gentle, loving brother, a sponge diver. His departure from the story early on is poignant & regrettable. Disheveled George F. Marion steals most of his scenes as their disreputable father. Sturdy Charles Bickford is the no-nonsense pastor with a secret who arrives on the Island of Portuga and is quickly confronted by danger. All four give excellent performances.

Other crew members of the sponge boat are played by lecherous John Miljan, who acted the villain in many early MGM talkies; blustering Gibson Gowland, who only five years earlier had starred in von Stroheim's masterpiece GREED; and, in a tiny role, pre-celeb Boris Karloff. Silent movie comic Mack Swain portrays the owner of the island grog shop.

Mr. Oliver’s version clarifies that the man lost was the brother to the female protagonist. It is a sister who grieves.

Writing Challenge:

From MGM’s pre-release publicity poster for The Sea Bat: THE MOST STIRRING ROMANCE ADVENTURE YOU'VE EVER GASPED AT! (all capital letters from the original)

Use nine words--no more and no less--to create a compelling tagline for the poster of your mind created to intrigue others and encourage them to read your favorite novel.

Send those taglines for all of us to enjoy.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fiction Is Reality Improved: Verisimilitude

I’m late to the Life of Pi film party. Just days before the Oscars, I saw Ang Lee’s vision for Yann Martel’s wonderful novel, one I read several years ago. Everyone in my Facebook community loved the book, but I was still nervous. How would that novel transfer to film? How faithfully would a screenwriter and director render Martel’s story?

Faithfully. Beautifully. Artfully. Lovingly. That’s how Lee treated Martel’s novel, and I was carried back to my first acquaintance with it and to the opening words:

“That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Martel's words provide a lesson for writers. Select. Edit. Delete. Omit. Embellish.

If I tell a story to you, omitting nothing, including everything in the order in which it all occurred, you'll grow tired in hearing it. After all, some of what happened isn’t even important or relevant; it just stumbled into a story line and became inextricably linked--except that its link means nothing to the listener, only to the narrator, the first-person star of the tale. Allow me to illustrate.

So I couldn’t sleep that night. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the wind outside. Maybe it’s because I drank a large tea just an hour before I lay down. I don’t think not being able to fall asleep had anything to do with what happened next, but I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I couldn’t sleep that night--as if I knew he’d call, as if I stayed awake waiting for that other shoe to drop, but I didn’t know. People say you always know, that there are clues you see after that shoe hits, but I didn’t know and I never saw the clues later either. So I wasn’t awake because of some prescience or fear or worry. I just couldn’t shut my brain off. I kept think about what I needed to finish at work before the end of the week and tried to figure out when I was going to clean the house before my parents’ visit. I was just turning stuff over and over in  my brain when the phone rang at 11:16 p.m. . . .

You were almost through, weren’t you? Ready to click off the post and onto something else because of the detritus of daily living clogging the story’s pipes. The narrator needs to selectively transform reality, to twist it in order to bring out its essence. For example:

I lay down at ten o’clock as I always do, but sleep failed me. My mind continued to spool, streaming the projects that had to be completed by the end of the week, the housework that had to be finished by Friday instead of on Saturday because my parents would visit through the weekend. I never thought about him. Not once. Even though he was already two hours late, I didn’t worry or conjure up terrible accidents. He would be home. He would snuggle against me and nuzzle my neck, and in the morning, he’d tell me what had delayed him. When the phone rang at 11:16, I thought I’d hear him say, “I’m turning the corner into the neighborhood. Sorry, Babe. Almost home.” But he didn’t say those words at all. He just said “Good-bye,” and I laughed--at first--at his clever joke--to start a conversation with the words that would end it. He didn’t laugh back or with me or at all. He just hung up.

Is that version better? Why? Because a bunch of unnecessary stuff was left out! And a bunch of other stuff was admitted into evidence! Stuff that suggests she had no clue that he wouldn’t be home again, stuff that suggests she trusted him, stuff that makes the reader want to know why, how, when, where, stuff that builds tension and fuels a story.

So fiction selectively transforms reality. Fiction twists what actually happened in order to bring out its essence. Reread what you’ve written. What is detritus? What should be cut? And what should be admitted?

Reading Challenge:

If you have not read Life of Pi, do. You won’t be sorry. Then watch Ang Lee’s beautiful film. It took home Oscars for visual editing and cinematography.

Writing Challenge:

Write a blow-by-blow, step-by-step chronological account of an hour in your life. Then spin it into fiction.