Friday, April 26, 2013

Writers Write!


Several LinkedIn forums provide an opportunity for writers at all levels of success and commitment to pose questions and participate in discussions. The questions often reveal the writer's status as inexperienced beginner, academic, journalist, critic, or published writer. A few seem earnest, genuinely baffled by the mysteries and complexities of writing. To these, I’ve answered, as has Stephen King and countless others: “Read!” They must dig and delve in the art form in order to make their own art.

Consider the infant who watches mouths make shapes and sounds. He sees actions and reactions based upon what someone says. He recognizes that sounds work together to make words and words in specific orders make messages. He acquires language, sound by sound, syllable by syllable, word by word, and sentence by sentence.

Of course, he’s not alone as he does this. People in his life help him. They enunciate words clearly and repeat themselves to nurture the link between sounds and meaning. Mom might say “blue block” and “red block” as Baby pours them out and picks them back up, placing them one by one in a bright, yellow container. She will follow her baby’s attention and teach vocabulary, saying “doggie” or “kitty” when Baby spies a four-legged, furry critter. With her help, Baby learns that objects have names: words that distinguish one object from another.

But don’t overestimate Mom’s help or underestimate Baby’s. A child’s brain is electric, in overdrive much of the time, as he compares, contrasts, sorts, sees, smells, tastes, touches, and hears his world. He masters language with no formal instruction. He doesn’t know a noun from a verb, and he doesn’t need to know words as parts of speech in order to use those words correctly and well. Immersed in his world, he makes sense of it just as Antonio Banderas’s character, Ibn Fadlan, did while living among the Vikings in 13th Warrior.

Writers, too, immersed in a world of words sorted and selected by others, compare, contrast, sort, categorize, and comprehend as they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the music that words placed side by side makes, as they revel in the senses invoked by another. So if you would become a writer, read!

Furthermore, if you wish to write, write! LinkedIn newbies sometimes ask how to develop the discipline to write, and when they do, I suspect the newbie is only a wannabe. Writers feel the need to write. Some have even suggested that their lives make no sense unless they write, and I sympathize.

I cannot converse with people as well as I can compose a letter because a letter, you see, requires that I take care to uncover what I know and think, that one idea follows logically from another. I must give my thoughts a form that can be understood when I am not present, unavailable to offer tone, inflection, facial expression, or gesture. The words must speak so loudly, so clearly that tone, inflection, facial expression, and gesture live in them and through them.

I often fail at that, by the way. I am often misunderstood, but every time my audience asks me to repeat myself and clarify, I learn how difficult clarity is to capture and release. I know that only by writing will I learn to be precise, clear, and effective. And so I write every day, sometimes short remarks, sometimes just words and phrases that beseech me to pay heed, and most days, at least 1,000 words.

Each writing session begins anew by reading the previous day’s 1,000. I proofread and revise as I read. Nothing major though. I just correct words that I omitted or set down incorrectly in my haste. I spot weak constructions and confusing passages because overnight, my words have taken hold outside of me. We, my words and I, now exist in a permanently separated state. Words live on the page in spite of me, and my work is to be sure they are the words with which I can live when we decide to move in together again.

But this daily read of my own words is quick, light. I am eager to uncover the next 1,000. Only when the story is at an end do I labor over the draft, reading it once, twice, and sometimes many more times in order to insure consistency of voice and that elusive clarity in character, plot, and motifs.

Joyce Carol Oates, in an interview about The Accursed, said that she conceived of the novel in 1984 and now and then, in the intervening years, returned to it, but not until 2012 did she uncover the voice. In 2012, she “discovered a way to present the material, and … felt a sudden deep sympathy for the narrator and primary characters” (Oates, Joyce Carol. "Books: Interview." Ed. Dawn Raffel. Reader's Digest Mar. 2013: 173-74. Print.). During those 28 years, Oates could not find the voice or the clarity required to pursue her idea, but in those 28 years, she read and wrote other works. She learned and practiced until she uncovered what she needed.

This, dear LinkedIn newbie and Readers of this blog, is what writers must do: read and write every day. Writers, Oates says, are “unusually diligent.”

Reading Challenge:

Read anything every day. Pick up a magazine and study the organization of content as well as the language. Reread a short story or essay that has stayed with you over time, but this time, read it to discover why it’s memorable and powerful. Look at the list of 2012 Fiction Award finalists and choose one to read. Contrast story-telling in 2013 with story-telling in 1913 or 1963. How might the new uses of multiple narrators inform your own stories?

Writing Challenge:

Write 1,000 words every day. If you’re stuck for ideas, return to the first year of this blog. You’ll find a specific writing challenge from first post to present post.


Friday, April 19, 2013

"42" Is a Classic Portrait of a Classic Hero


I like to think about classic literary forms and apply them to unusual, contemporary figures. In doing so, I refresh my understanding of old patterns while re-discovering the relevance of those old forms. The recent film, “42,” is an excellent exercise in analyzing heroes.

Jackie Robinson, at least in his onscreen incarnation, tries to step away from the label, hero. He says he’s just a baseball player, but events will not let such unassuming humility stand. Small boys dream about being as gifted as Robinson, and black children can dream of possibilities, new and unimaginable before, all because Robinson excelled as a ball player and man. His struggles transform him into a leader, charged with being excellent--nay, superhuman, meeting Aristotle’s criteria for a man of lofty status and good intentions. Robinson is indeed lofty; he’s a star on the field of dreams and a star in qualities such as reserve, determination, and dignity.

Another criterion foreseen by Aristotle is mortal feet of clay--a flaw that endangers the hero’s ability to fulfill his promise. For Oedipus, that flaw is Fate and his unfounded pride in being Thebes’ savior. He doesn’t know at first, then doesn’t heed the Oracle or Teiresias when each warns him that he’s born under a bad sign, that heinous deeds are in his DNA, and that his suffering is inevitable.

Robinson’s suffering is also inevitable; it too is in his DNA. As a consequence of the time in which he was born, his race is his burden, perceived as a flaw in his nature by a prejudiced majority. But something else is in his nature, and that something is also his burden to bear. Robinson has an clear sense of justice. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve subjugation, and his natural instinct is to fight back, to defy. But Mr. Branch Rickey, General Manager for the Dodgers, believes that fighting will never beat back prejudice, fear and ignorance. Rickey coaches Robinson to win the hearts and minds of a nation by summoning his innate capacity for dignity and reserve.

Still, like all heroes, Robinson is human. Some words and deeds bring him to an edge but retaliation, while momentarily satisfying, would only feed preconceived notions about black men. Retaliation would ruin Robinson’s chances for success. He would fall, never to rise and play again. On the other hand, with extraordinary reserve, he will preserve his dignity and slight by slight, blow by blow, he will earn pity and admiration, the very qualities that Aristotle demands from an audience. This is what Mr. Branch Rickey believes will happen; this is how Mr. Rickey imagines the world of baseball will change, but Robinson alone must live the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to (Hamlet). He must suffer and overcome against terrible odds.

Like the Aristotlean hero, Robinson inspires our dread. We fear being brought as low as he, lower than any court of law would demand. We wonder how we would fare if faced with the same opponents. Yet Robinson simultaneously inspires our awe. We stand in amazement because one man, brought low, rises from the depths. He is a hero, and we acknowledge that he represents a standard to which the rest of us might aspire.

In addition, like Homer’s epic hero, Robinson’s fate determines the fate of a nation. Thanks to him, we have become more whole. We stepped upon a national path that we must hope will one day deliver us to a place where our consciences are clear and our Constitution sacrosanct.

Reading Challenge:

Read the movie, “42.”

Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of a man or woman whose fate changes the fate of a nation for better.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Showing, Not Telling Redux Again: Amy Lowell

Midday and Afternoon by Amy Lowell

Swirl of crowded streets.
Shock and recoil of traffic.
The stock-still brick facade of an old church,
against which the waves of people lurch and withdraw.
Flare of sunshine down side-streets.
Eddies of light in the windows of chemists’ shops,
with their blue, gold, purple jars,
darting colours far into the crowd.
Loud bangs and tremors,
murmurings out of high windows,
whirring of machine belts,
blurring of horses and motors.
A quick spin and shudder of brakes on an electric car,
and the jar of a church-bell
knocking against the metal blue of the sky.

I am a piece of the town, a bit of blown dust, thrust along with the crowd.
Proud to feel the pavement under me, reeling with feet.
Feet tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly,
or springing up and advancing on firm elastic insteps.

A boy is selling papers, I smell them clean and new from the press
They are fresh like the air, and pungent as tulips and narcissus. 

The blue sky pales to lemon,
and great tongues of gold blind the shop-windows,
putting out their contents in a flood of flame.


Poet, author Amy Lowell, with words savory and sweet, mastered the art and craft of selecting language to show us, not tell us. The passage above, reformatted by me to emphasize Lowell’s syntactical choices, describes late evening in a city. The description, steeped in sensory language, sets the scene of an earlier era with details that an unknown narrator sees and hears. Then narrator reveals that she is one among the crowd, inconsequential as dust, caught up in the energy, the pulse of the city. Finally, the narrator reveals what she smells as the day ends in a brilliant burst of blinding light.

Reading Challenge:

Lowell’s ode exalts an evening in a busy city. (Ode: a lyric poem typically of elaborate or irregular metrical form and expressive of exalted or enthusiastic emotion.) Take your time as you read her ode again several times. Begin by reading quickly, scanning the lines for content, to just make sense of the passage. Next, read the poem aloud, paying close attention to clustered descriptors like the sequence of participles: tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly, or springing up and advancing. . . . Also, emphasize the action words as you read aloud, hitting whirring, blurring, spin, shudder, jar, and knocking a bit louder and firmer than surrounding words. Finally, read silently or aloud to savor the passage, conscious of how one words speaks to another, of the alliterative effects Lowell includes, of the accumulation of sensory detail.

Writing Challenge:

Observe or recall a city scene with which you are familiar. Follow Lowell’s excellent example line by line to create your own description, one that shows us the mood and tone of the place, the time of day, and the narrator’s exultation in the moment.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Showing, Not Telling Revisited

A reporter let us all know that Pope Francis I, a Jesuit from South America, collected rubber bands that held his daily newspaper together. At the end of each month, he returned those bands, recycling them.

What might we conclude from that behavior? That he is conscientious? Cares about the world’s resources? We might also conclude that he is meticulous, organized, self-sufficient. Any or all of these inferences would be quite legitimate, and the good writer will let facts and actions shape the character rather than announcing to readers that Pope Francis I is meticulous and adding illustrative evidence. Essay writers do that; they provide the generalization as a topic sentence, then build a paragraph with detailed evidence. Fiction writers select evidence that reveals, suggests, and illustrates without ever declaring the character trait (or topic) for his readers.

That same reporter also told us that the newest Pope canceled his subscription to the local newspaper now that he’s no longer local. This fact was dropped into an amusing anecdote about the newspaper’s circulation manager doubting the veracity of his caller’s identity. Pope Francis had to repeat his name as pope, his name before he became pope, and his present location in Rome before the manager canceled the subscription. This tale might inform us that the Pope is a tolerant man and that the circulation manager is not easily fooled, but the fiction writer will not state those inferences. He will let readers infer them.

So consider some other well-known people and what their actions suggest about their natures:

•    Ellen DeGeneres often tries to alleviate suffering, but shies from accolades. (Inference: Ellen DeGeneres is humble and empathizes with those in need.)
•    Since 1997, Representative Caroline McCarthy (D-NY) has introduced legislation to restrict the killing power of firearms in spite of threats to her personal safety. (Inference: Representative McCarthy is a tireless and courageous public servant.)
•    The night before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. told his audience that he may not get to the mountain top with them. (Inference: King was prescient, or King recognized how long the struggle would be.)
•    Chris Matthews talks loudly and often over the people he has just invited to answer a question. (Inference: Matthews is impatient and in need of Socialization 101.)

Reading Challenge:

Read Khaled Hosseini’s novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, each set wholly or for a major portion of the novel in Afghanistan.

Writing Challenge:

Draw a line down the length of a piece of paper. In the left column, list the inferences or conclusions you drew about Afghan mores, values, and customs. Match your inferences with specific evidence listed on the right. Note how the author shows you Afghanistan and its culture rather than telling you what it is like.