Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year 2016: In 2016, I resolve to…

Seek more felicitous language and enlightenment. In 2015, one of my favorite resources for both of these was a book titled We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. In it, I found these words:

“For now, while he breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse’s ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one’s own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one’s own.”

I furthermore resolve to write more words so that I may know, and above all else, I resolve to laugh often for giggles, chuckles, guffaws, and chortles is joy.

One of life's treasures in "the interval allotted to" me
and to you, one of many moments "to live for" and to
hope for in 2016. May you find them, see them, and
savor them. Happy New Year!
Photo by Al Griffin of Al Griffin Photography
Reading Challenge:

Read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. It will expand your understanding of human conduct and love.

Writing Challenge:

Choose a passage which moved you and explain why or how it did.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Laughter, One More of My Favorite Things

As another year closes, I’ve been listing just a few of my favorite things. Yes, these include raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. They also include felicitous language, mysteries to engage the little gray cells, and haiku. Equally important on my list of favorite things is humor--the unexpected word play or wry remark from a character.

Kate Atkinson’s second Jackson Brodie mystery, One Good Turn, has given me laugh out louds and several satisfied smiles. These arrive as good humor should--unexpectedly. They are surprises as characters stumble through their messy lives.

Jackson, for example, is often in the wrong place at the right time--unless, of course, that time needs a former police detective with time on his hands. He agrees to help Martin, a reclusive and reserved writer of popular mysteries, when Martin plays Good Samaritan in a rare moment of courage. When that moment leads to theft and murder, Martin asks Jackson to walk with him as a sort of bodyguard.

As it turns out, Martin owns a car but has never mastered shifting gears. Jackson’s tempted to coach Martin or take over the wheel, but remembers no one likes a back seat driver unless, of course, that back seat counselor is a woman. Then she who must be obeyed coaches and takes over. Jackson thinks, “Men had no purpose on earth whereas women were gods walking unrecognized among them.”

A car any man--or woman--would be proud to drive.
Photo provided by Al Griffin.
Jackson’s wry observation earned a satisfied smile from me because in this novel, Jackson’s world is overwrought with troublesome women. He tries to recover a girl’s body from the sea in order to give her the care any creature deserves, but she confounds his swimming skills and sinks. He tries to enjoy the world of drama in which his lover moves, but he just can’t appreciate the touch of narcissism he finds rooted in actors. Consequently, she’s withdrawing little by little.

Jackson meets a female detective who’s sharp and as jaded as Jackson himself. He just can’t seem to prove any of his observations, and she holds him in check because of it. Jackson also intervenes when a burly man tries to kill a young Russian who, it turns out, is more than capable of saving herself. She even helps Jackson escape harm later.

In fact, Jackson just can’t seem to work any sort of magic--be it physical attraction, logical prowess, or brute strength on any woman he encounters, making his observation about women as gods and men as puny subservient things funny. But that’s just one moment and not even the best moment in a Kate Atkinson novel.

She has a wry sense of humor and a jaded eye for mother and daughters, mothers and sons, lovers, writers, and detectives--just about anyone and everyone, in fact. She also embraces humanity in all its rich promise and hope. She is an author to read--book after book after book.

Reading Challenge:

Read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and each of the Jackson Brodie novels. I’ve only begun the Jackson Brodie series, and I can’t wait to read more.

Writing Challenge:

Write about the last book that made you laugh.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Haiku, Another of My Favorite Things

'Tis the season to celebrate, to adopt that attitude of gratitude, and remember the many good thinks in our lives. Among these things is language used wisely and well to recreate a moment of sublime beauty. Few writers do this as well as those who practice the high arts of haiku.

Good haiku writers will appeal to as many of the five senses as is practical. Their goal is to make a moment live again for the poet and reader.

Consider these exquisite samples from a beautifully illustrated book by Stephen Addiss with Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto, A Haiku Menagerie: Living Creatures in Poems and Prints.

In the summer mountains
On the leafy treetops
The cuckoo sings--
And echoing back from afar
Comes his distant voice
--Otomo no Yakamochi

Summer’s heat invokes the sense of touch--sweat upon one’s brow or the feel of warm skin. “Leafy treetops on mountains” introduces the sense of sight, helping us recall verdant greens and cool shade. Tucked among those leaves is the cuckoo, an invitation to our sense of hearing, to summoning birdsong that reverberates in the hills. Yakamochi creates a sensual delight in just 33 syllables. (Note: The poem is a translation for a classic Japanese five-line waka consisting of 31 syllables; translations often exceed or fall short of the prescribed syllable count.)

Here’s another:

Fleeing up the wall,
The legs of a spider

Kichõ’s haiku represents an attempt to convey immediacy--a sudden sight that, like lightning, appears and is forever gone. It is also an image comparing lightning to a spider's legs, angular and geometric. In that brief image, flashed like lightning, readers experience a jolt in understanding.

One final example:

The does
Are licking each other
This frosty morning

A frosty morning. Surely deer are in the copse beyond
Photo by Al Griffin 

Deer send up misty breath in the frosty air as they open their mouths and expose their warm tongues to the cool air; such details link to our sense of sight and texture. We summon memories of deer, of rough tongues, of coats wetted by deer saliva. The deer's action also appeals to the reader’s auditory senses for the deer surely make a noise as our cats do while bathing themselves.

How many of the senses can you include in 17 syllables? That’s your Writing Challenge.

You will certainly enjoy reading haiku by buying the book referenced for this post or by visiting “Haiku for People” online, your Reading Challenge.

Connye Griffin
My Writing and Editing Coach
Informs and Delights

(She hopes) 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Mysteries Engage the "Little Gray Cells"

Tis the season to wish for a few of my favorite things. It’s also the season to recall a few of those favorite things. Included in a list of my favorite things are mysteries, police procedurals, thrillers, and horror fiction.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot excelled at exercising the little gray cells. Known as a master detective who closed cases, he did so by paying close attention to details oft overlooked and by connecting them in ways ordinary minds bypass. The brilliant Sherlock Holmes in all his incarnations did the same. Holmes had a sharp memory and was able to retrieve information quickly, using only his mind. He had little need for a resource as amazing as the google.

Readers who love the subgenre known as mystery also exercise the little gray cells. They search the author’s narrative for clues. They try to recognize red herrings and resist being distracted by them. They notice smallest things: a child standing at a window, for example, a window overlooking a crime scene. Could that child be the best and only witness? Will that child identify the killer? When? And how? Mystery readers will read on eagerly to include that child in the puzzle’s solution or discard that clue as a bit of narrative fluff.

What clues exist beyond the glass?
Photo from the decommissioned MO State Penitentiary
provided by Al Griffin.
In other words, and this is the reason I love to read mysteries: authors engage me in the search and exercise my little gray cells.

Reading Challenge:

Before 2015 closes, begin a mystery. Here is a partial list of mysteries that will exercise your own gray cells:

These are but a few authors who deliver a good mystery to enjoy by fireside, a glass of wine on the table nearby.

Writing Challenge:

Write a journal entry in which you describe the puzzle that challenged you more than any other. Your puzzle could be a romantic entanglement, a good book, or a labyrinth into your own psyche.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Diction: Words, Words, Words Make Art and Music

Tis the season to wish for a few of my favorite things. It’s also the season to recall a few of those favorite things. Foremost among them, for me, is language used well.

1. There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.

I heard these words used to decline a second date with Jesse Stone, Robert B. Parker’s character in a series of police procedural mystery novels. In the film adaptations, Tom Selleck stars as Stone, a hard man to love because he finds it nearly impossible to love himself.

The expression, however, is attributed to a U. S. Senator from the 1960s. Senator Ernest F. Hollings represented South Carolina and seems to have been echoing pithy Southern sayings when he repeated the advice about mules.

Hollings and screenplay writers Tom Selleck and Michael Brandman applied good old country wisdom to new settings: a love interest and politics played at the national level. In both cases, the application delights because it’s a fresh way of saying: Second chance? Not a chance.

Photo of a mule by Al Griffin

2. Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return. --W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939

What goes around comes around.

We reap what we sow.

Overland Park Arboretum, Summer 2015
Photo by Al Griffin
Actions have consequences.

These are true statements, each a warning that could rein in our thoughtless deeds. Auden, however, adds more power to the warning. He reminds us that we are the arbiters of peace, justice, and good. We choose, and when we choose evil, we cannot expect good outcomes.

3. from The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros writes a chapter titled “A House of My Own” and describes it as “Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after. Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

Cisneros doesn’t follow rules. She writes fragments. A series of fragments. Shifting from what a house of my own is not to what a house of my own is without transitions. Making fine use of alliteration with five words beginning with “p.” Invoking the mind with books and stories, intimacy with shoes beside a bed, peace and quiet without a need to shake sticks, ease and comfort without garbage in need. Rhyming snow and go for emphasis. Opening infinite possibility with a blank sheet of paper destined for poetry. Packing so many senses in so few words. Moving from specific and concrete to abstract. Creating a memorable passage.

Photo by Al Griffin.
Cockrell Mercantile Fiesta House 2015
4. All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days nor in the life of this administration nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

Master rhetoricians match phrases. They make good use of parallel phrasing to articulate their messages beautifully.

Reading Challenge:

Identify a passage wherein language has been used well.

Writing Challenge:

Rewrite a passage to use language well.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Heroes Among Us, Historical, Fictional and Always Inspirational

Two Fall film releases remind us that we humans are capable of greatness. Each movie shows ordinary men daring to become extraordinary by simply meeting one challenge after another. Neither man considers giving up or giving in, and both risk life itself in order to endure. Perhaps most important, each man shows others what courage and reason and passion can accomplish.

Bridges carry us from shore to shore as literature carries us from our limited
experiences to a community of insight and understand.
Photo provided by Al Griffin.
Photo of a railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, Louisiana, MO

James Donovan is a man whom history has lifted on high. Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies, and Tom Hanks’ performance place Donovan on our collective shoulders. We know that two men came home from the Cold War because of him. The film also credits him with more than 9,000 lives reclaimed when Fidel Castro took over in Cuba.

The second hero rises from Andy Weir’s fictional and learned novel, The Martian, and the film adaptation of that book, also titled The Martian and directed by Ridley Scott. The film’s star is Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney.

The story shows a man against odds so great others might have surrendered to them. Watney does not. He uses his “mad botany” brain to grow, invent, innovate, and discover. He later teaches candidates for the space program to never, ever quit. Such frontier spirit and daring-do are traits often found in explorers who break barriers and open gates for the rest of us to pass through.

Literature and film are rich in examples of men and women who prove we humans aspire to greatness and often achieve it. On Thanksgiving Day, remember to be grateful for the promise within is. Vow to fulfill that promise within yourself and to do your part in insuring others can fulfill their own promise as well.

Reading Challenge:

Read the films Bridge of Spies and The Martian. Read also Andy Weir’s excellent novel, The Martian.

Writing Challenge:

Choose your own literary or historical hero and celebrate him or her tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

During a recent book club meeting, one member asked if an author has an obligation to tie up all loose threads and uphold the natural laws within the universe he or she has created. I say “yes”--emphatically.

The book under discussion was Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time. It is the tale of Jenna, a thirteen-year-old child in search of her mother. Adults advise her to stop looking for her mother. They ask her if she could bear the knowledge that her mother left her behind and has never been moved to return or worse, that her mother is dead.

Jenna doesn’t heed the advice of psychic Serenity, private investigator Virgil, or her own grandmother. The truth is what Jenna seeks.

Mother and daughter were separated when Jenna was three years old. Jenna has searched online records to learn some of what happened ten years earlier. One woman, Nevvie, lay dead. Another woman, Jenna’s mother Alice, lay injured.

Virgil tried to solve the mystery of Nevvie’s death, but never followed up when Alice checked herself out of the hospital, never to be seen again. Jenna’s father, Thomas, may have been the killer. An unstable man, he’s been confined to a mental hospital ever since.

Thirteen-year-old Jenna appeals to Serenity and Virgil to help her find out more. Serenity, by the way, was once an accurate psychic who predicted incorrectly for a prominent and powerful man. She lost her credibility and worse, her belief in herself. She’s honest about both, and reluctantly, agrees to help Jenna.

Loose threads and odd quirks in Picoult’s universe show up early in the novel, however. Jenna, for example, often complains of feeling invisible, especially when the person she needs to help her is a young adult. Small children acknowledge her now and then, but usually, an older adult, past retirement age, emerges from a back room to assist her.

Jenna also bumps against anachronisms. Gideon, for example, a man who cared for Alice deeply, is the only one to wear a uniform from the workplace where Nevvie died while seemingly employed in another state years later. Odder still is the fact that Jenna learns Virgil died, but she tracks him down anyway, working in another city from a cluttered office where the landlady wears clothing from an era long gone.

Are those the spirits of those who cannot move on caught on camera?
Photo provided by Al Griffin. Photo taken at Missouri Town 1855.

These loose threads are, of course, the truth. (Spoiler Alert: I will reveal the plot twist now.) Jenna did not survive the night ten years earlier. Virgil is also dead as are Gideon, Nevvie, and Jenna’s grandmother. Serenity has recovered her lost gifts except she’s unaware that she’s seeing dead people.

Serenity buys Virgil a plane ticket. She buys Jenna and Virgil big meals and converses with them as the three eat, shocking those nearby. She finds Nevvie’s home, but flees it after a close encounter of the poltergeist kind. 

These are but a few of the loose threads in a universe with quirks. Why does three-year-old Jenna age ten years in the spirit world while others remain tied to their age and dress at the time of death? How did Jenna grow so jaded about some aspects of human existence while remaining naïve about others? Why does Virgil need the assistance of a deceased ticket attendant to board a plane? In fact, why do any of the ghosts need transportation used by the living? Why doesn’t anyone call protective or medical services when they see Serenity talking to air? Who eats all that food? And why do ghosts need to eat? These are questions Picoult leaves unanswered while successfully laboring to explain that the dead don’t always know they’re dead.

Having consumed a steady diet of science fiction for a decade from college and beyond, I can assure you that science fiction readers demand that the universe created hold up to scrutiny. It may not mirror Earth’s natural laws, but the laws of that universe must be consistent and logical once established.

Picoult leaves loose threads, and she invents an anachronistic universe that proves inconsistent and illogical. Furthermore, the quirks betrayed the plot twist long before the word count arrives at that twist so as I read, often impatiently, I read to learn who killed Nevvie, how Gideon died, whether Alice survived after leaving the hospital, and why poor little Jenna couldn’t move on. Picoult answered these questions, fulfilling her obligations as a writer of mysteries, but those other loose threads left me feeling used. However much I enjoyed the parallels between elephants and humans, the passages underscoring the bond between mother and child, and the explorations on grief, I felt used by the heavy demands upon my willing suspension of disbelief.

Reading Challenge:

Read Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult to answer the book club member’s question for yourself? Should readers hold it as a fault if an author fails to tie up all loose threads?

Writing Challenge:

What are the limits of a willing suspension of disbelief?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Exclamation Points in Danger of Extinction

Once upon a time was once fresh as a cue to introduce a tale set in an earlier era, usually one wherein fairy godmothers helped orphans triumph in a cruel, cold world.

All’s fair in love and war was once conventional wisdom without regard for consequences that occasionally left bodies for the coroner to tear asunder. Ugly custody battles and PTSD have helped us rethink this cliché, and it's fallen out of use.

Iconic Image of War
Battlefield Cross
Photo provided by Al Griffin
Indeed experience and overuse dulled the power of these phrases. Something similar is happening to the exclamation point.

Thanks to keyboards smaller than human fingers and character limits across social media platforms, senders use shortcuts. The exclamation point is one.

Why struggle to find the right words to convey shock or snark and surprise when a single or triple exclamation points will suffice. Consider the examples below. The first is language without specificity so the writer tries to give the message some oomph with exclamation points.

Message: Really? Seriously? Really! Seriously!! Don't text me ever again!!!

The second message is one of Shakespeare's brilliant insults, this one from the wounded King Lear to his ungrateful daughter.

Lear: May your womb dry up.

The first lacks specific diction. It doesn't tell the recipient (listener) just how much the speaker despises him or her.

The second needs no help from punctuation. Its declarative form is more chilling because it is both firm and final. The sender doesn’t exclaim and has no need to exclaim. Lear delivers his judgment, and that is all.

Reading Challenge:

As you read memes and other social media messages, look for the exclamation point. Is it being overused? Is its effectiveness endangered? I think you'll find it is.

Writing Challenge:

Review your own messages and write without the exclamation point.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, Guildenstern says, “What a fine persecution--to be kept intrigued without ever being quite enlightened.” This is his observation about waking in the middle of things. It is also applicable to a first novel by Christopher J. Yates, Black Chalk.

Yates shows his promise as a writer well equipped to hold the reader in a state of unsettled suspense. His plot seems to nod in the direction of a Fight Club surprise or Stephen King’s The Dark Half. Surely the narrator isn’t trustworthy; surely he’s duplicitous--perhaps by design, even one unknown to him.

But that’s just the first twist that delights readers. The design is indeed an unknown. The narrator stumbles upon the truth; he just can’t be sure he’s found it because he’s so damaged by guilt and an obsessive personality that plagued him before he met and cultivated five friends at Oxford.

Yates succeeds in recreating the exhilarating, liberating discovery of self in that first year at college, finding friends and building community. The four men and two women create a tiny universe unto themselves. Classmates understand the invisible ties that bind the six, especially after the game begins.

Photo provided by Al Griffin. More of his work can be
viewed by Fine Art America and SmugMug.
One of the six conceives of a game resembling truth or dare, but in this case, refusing the consequence--the dare--is forfeiture of $1,000 pounds and the option of playing on. The truth then is the moral, social, or ethical lines we will not cross--the lines that youth often cannot, do not see until much too late.

Reputations lost and scarred have little power to dissuade the young, and indeed, today, such losses are too easily forgiven, ignored, and restored. Public humiliation suffices, but for these six, personal humiliations are unendurable. One player leaves early on because her consequence would betray her father, but the deep, abiding wound is because the others let her go. Their bond is so light, their desire to win so strong that she is tossed aside like a lover whose delights no longer please.

Why would anyone invent such a game? Why would anyone continue to play? Why would anyone listen to his friends’ stories and confessions with only an eye to disabuse them of their dignity and reputation when those stories and confessions can be transformed into consequences doled out in the game?

In answer to those questions, Yates is reticent. He seems to suggest the answer lies in the dark half of the human heart. We hurt each other and use others to gain advantage simply because we can. So Yates’ story is as old as Conrad’s or Golding’s, set in the ever so seemingly civilized Oxford. And those consequences break more than one friend.

Reading Challenge:

Read Christopher J. Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk.

Writing Challenge:

“The true gambler plays for the thrill, the sheer ecstasy of taking part. And the purest thrill comes not from the idea of winning but from the fear of defeat, from there being something real and valuable on the line. If there’s nothing to lose, then where’s the thrill?” (from Yates, Christoper J. Black Chalk. New York: Picador, 2013. Kindle Ed.)

Let the words about winning and losing, about playing life’s games, inspire you.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Power of Alliteration and Parallel Construction

Behold the symbol of wedlock. The perfect circle of love, the unbroken union of these souls united here today. May you both remain faithful to this symbol of true love. . . .

I take as my wedded partner to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.

For as much as [we] have consented together in wedlock and have witnessed the same before this company of friends and family and have given and pledged their promises to each other and have declared the same by giving and receiving a ring and by joining hands....

The exchange of rings during a traditional wedding ceremony often includes the vows above. They are, of course, powerful because of the commitment two people make as they enter into great unknowns: their future in love.

These words are made more powerful by the use of alliteration, noted in the passage by underlined words. The repetition of an initial sound facilitates both rhythm and emphasis.

Power also derives from parallel construction. In the second paragraph, infinitive phrases and a series of prepositional phrases using antonyms focuses the message and the mind upon the solemnity of the vow being spoken. In the third paragraph, a series of verb phrases, each beginning with have, achieves the same effects.

Reading Challenge:

Read previous posts about alliteration and parallel construction.

Writing Challenge:

Transform your own writing by rewriting a passage to use alliteration and parallel construction.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Antonym Power to Shape Our Common Vow

Some couples write their own vows, and some use beautiful words written by others. Most of us speak some or all of the traditional vows including the words below:

To have and to hold from this day forward for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . .

Signifying 30 years together
These words have power because so many of us have spoken them and heard them throughout our lives, but some of their power derives from the word choices. They convey the light and shadow, the ease and challenge according to our wealth and health. These juxtaposed conditions made sharp by antonyms return to us and remind us of our responsibilities no matter what Fate throws our way.

Reading Challenge:

Read for antonyms in everything you read this week. Note that when they have been used deftly, the passage is more memorable and pleasing.

Writing Challenge:

Revise a passage from your own writing to make use of antonym power.

Signifying 60 years together

Connye Griffin creates My Writing and Editing Coach.

She also writes Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Antonym Power

Life is a game of balances. Work, play, Walk, sleep. Stimulant, narcotic.
My snug skin, my cosy mind, the gentle hum of me.
(Yates, Christopher J. Black Chalk. New York: Picador, 2013. Kindle Ed.)

Christopher Yates uses antonyms powerfully in the passage above from his 2013 novel, Black Chalk. He juxtaposes work against its opposite, play. Walk parries sleep, and stimulant contrasts with narcotic.

Six words--six antonyms--sum up the human experience. Work, walk, and stimulant are the energy of each day whereas play, sleep, and narcotic are its lethargy.

Six more words sum up a human, snug inside the largest organ of the body, cosy within the confines of its most powerful organ, each working in tandem to keep the machine of me humming. The external organ, skin, and internal organ, mind [brain], function as antonyms, too. On the other hand, their modifiers--snug and cosy--are synonyms conveying warmth and comfort, conditions in which a human may thrive or, as Yates writes, gently hum like a well-oiled, carefully and cautiously maintained machine.

Yates’ deliberate word choices render this passage as poetry and elevate it to one of the most memorable in his novel, Black Chalk.

Light and shadow are the antonyms of Nature.
They compel us, they draw us onward, they arrest our thoughts.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin whose work can be viewed on
Fine Art America, SmugMug, and Al Griffin Photography.

Reading Challenge:

 Read Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates.

Writing Challenge:

Transform a passage from your journals or first drafts into a more memorable passage by choosing antonyms to emphasize ideas and hammer words home.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Pathetic Fallacies: Hollywood Loves 'Em; Stephen King Spins 'Em

Kenneth Branagh’s film, Much Ado about Nothing, is a delightful romp. I enjoyed sharing the play, then Branagh’s film with students. I also use the film to teach film tropes, including pathetic fallacy.

Branagh employs pathetic fallacy each time Don John, the Duke’s bastard brother and all-round bad guy, enters a scene. Thunder rolls and lightning cracks, suggesting Nature itself recognizes the storm the follows in the wake of Don John.

A tried and sometimes clichéd trope used in horror fiction is an atmosphere of doom and gloom, especially in the genre’s eighteenth and nineteenth century incarnations, Gothic literature.

Powerful, ominous clouds overhead portend doom, illustrating a
pathetic fallacy in literature. Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has many gloomy, oppressive settings. While experimenting and studying, Frankenstein works in an isolated and isolating lab, often described as dark to match his own partnership with dark scientific deeds. When the creature awakes, he moves about in the dark and cold. When he is cast out, he suffers storms and cold while struggling to find shelter, food, and most important, affection. When Frankenstein pursues his creature, he does so through the frozen north where Nature is unforgiving and men are poorly equipped to survive.

Stephen King, on the other hand, often turns this trope found in horror fiction on its head. In Finder’s Keeper’s, terrible people commit terrible acts while the light shines and passersby simply go about the business of their routines without any fear or dread. Some people are mortally wounded without altering Nature or alarming witnesses.

Such an unremarkable atmosphere, absent the doom and gloom trope, underscores the horror. Monsters may have the faces of our neighbors, and horrific deeds occur even as the sun shines bright and warm.

Reading Challenge:

Read any of the three works cited for this post: Branagh’s film Much Ado about Nothing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers.  Take note of the atmosphere or mood developed in each.

Writing Challenge:

Invent an atmosphere of doom and gloom for a moment when humans are afraid, hurt, or sad.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unexpected Incidents, Another Feature of Horror Fiction

Finder’s Keeper’s may belong to the mystery or thriller genre, but it is still the work of Stephen King, a king of the horror genre. So Finder's Keepers naturally shares some of the characteristics of horror fiction. One of those is the use of unexpected incidents.

Two characters take a bullet, one early in the novel and one much later. Both inspired a sense of dread, a feeling that their lives could end at any moment and painfully, but both were still, for me at least, unexpected, shocking me into remembering that evil resides in the human heart. Sometimes that evil surfaces and claims the person standing in an evil-doer’s line of sight.

John Rothstein’s death is the first unexpected event. He is an acclaimed author who has retired from public view after bringing a beloved character to a vainglorious end, at least in the opinion of one of Rothstein’s biggest fans, Morris Bellamy. And that character note for Bellamy should remind us of Annie Wilkes, another devoted fan who didn’t like the way novelist Paul Sheldon ended a beloved character in King’s Misery.

But Sheldon survives. Hobbled and suffering PTSD, Sheldon lives so I suspected Rothstein would as well. He didn’t. Defiant while facing armed, masked intruders who’ve interrupted his sleep and peaceful isolation, he dares Morris Bellamy to shoot him or shut up and get out. Bellamy shoots without hesitation.

The second unexpected incident is another shooting. Young Pete knows his family could be in danger, and he warns them to lock up--not admit any strangers. Pete’s mother doesn’t heed the warning. She continues playing Solitaire on the computer and lets her daughter continue to swing on the swing set in the family’s backyard. Bellamy simply walks right in the door, determines where Pete’s sister, Tina, is, and shoots Pete’s mother in the head.

Even more unexpected is the mother’s survival. Bellamy is a poor shot; the bullet never enters the woman’s brain so King deftly moves us from dread to horror to relief--the proverbial emotional roller coaster so satisfying in mystery, thriller, and horror fiction.

Poem by Connye Griffin. Photo by Al Griffin.
Will you heed the advice found in Finder's Keepers?
Will you be the secretary for your characters and not their creator?

Reading Challenge:

Read Finder’s Keeper’s. As you do, make note of unexpected incidents that illustrate the genres of both mystery and horror fiction.

Writing Challenge:

In Finder’s Keeper’s, you will read these words:

A good novelist does not lead his characters, he follows them. A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.

Can you accept King’s challenge? Will you accept your role as a secretary rather than a creator?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Shakespeare and Stephen King in Finder’s Keepers

Shakespeare’s study in the seductive, corrupting influence of ambition is Macbeth, a fine warrior gone rogue when he believes he’s destined to become King and refuses to wait for Fate to deliver the crown. He seizes the moment, slaughters his trusting king and kin, and cuts a savage swath through Scotland to secure his tenuous hold upon power. His victims include peers, his wife, and a boy brutally tossed from minion to minion until he’s skewered on a sword.

Before he draws first blood during peacetime, Macbeth hesitates. He knows that dread deeds succeed at great cost. He knows that the deed itself will not be the end of his dance in the shadowy world of evil. He recognizes that those who perpetrate evil must accept that evil returns to plague (9-10) the perpetrator:

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other
. (1. 7. 1-28)

Morris Bellamy, the villain of Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers, remembers the opening lines of Macbeth’s soliloquy provided above. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to remember the rest of Macbeth’s thoughts about murder. Bellamy simply tells himself it’s best to commit savage deeds quickly, better not to hesitate or second-guess his plans. Bellamy doesn’t recognize what Macbeth did: bloody instructions… return / to plague the inventor (9-10). 

So King’s allusion suggests Bellamy’s fate well before the final pages of the novel: Bellamy’s ambition to possess Rothstein’s work and his savage deeds to obtain them cannot--will not--end well for him.

An allusion opens windows and doors beyond the first; it
enriches understanding and adds layers of meaning.
Photo courtesy of Megan McClendon

Reading Challenge:

Read Macbeth to enrich your appreciation of Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers.

Writing Challenge:

King also alludes to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a poem entered into the novel by way of a teacher, Mr. Ricker. He explains that some of his students--perhaps most of them--will not fully appreciate Owen’s poem when read and studied, but some of them will be unable to forget it. He says,

Time will pass! ‘Tempus’ will ‘fugit!’ Owen’s poem may fall away from your mind, …. But for some of you it will recur. And recur. And recur. Each time it does, the steady march of your maturity will deepen its resonance. Each time that poem steals back into your mind, it will seem a little less stupid and a little more vital. A little more important. Until it ‘shines,’ …. Until it ‘shines.’  (King, Stephen. Finder’s Keeper’s. New York: Scribner, 2015. 101)

That is the power of allusion, isn’t it? An allusion is the wheat gleaned from the chaff, and its power grows and grows with time. It becomes a gem radiating meaning.

Pluck another gem from Finder’s Keeper’s and explain how it radiates to enrich the reader’s understanding.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

D. H. Lawrence in Finder’s Keepers by Stephen King

The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence is a horror story. A young boy named Paul dies because he has assumed the role of the adult in the home. He tries to provide enough money to meet his mother’s insatiable appetite for upper-class living; he compensates for his father’s impotence as provider. He accomplishes these feats by riding a child’s toy: a rocking horse in a frenzied run to sort statistics about horses and trainers in search of a winner.

Paul has access to the stats because Bassett, the family’s groundskeeper, and Paul’s uncle are betting men. Paul can listen to the races while visiting Bassett and read tout sheets, too. As a clever boy, Paul puts this information together well, but being driven to earn his mother’s love and admiration are more important than being clever. Paul wants to prove that he is lucky, a trait most admired by his mother who, we’re told, has a stone at the center of her heart. Paul also wants to hush the voices in his home, the ones whispering “There must be more money.”

Writers are readers, and readers recognize allusions that
enrich their understanding and shape meaning.
Photo from the Coe College Memorial Library, Cedar Rapids, IA.
Stephen King also seems to find Paul’s story horrifying. He alludes to Paul to help explain Pete, the boy at the center of Finder’s Keepers (2015). Pete doesn’t ride a rocking-horse to find money; he finds buried treasure instead, but like Paul,  he also finds there is never enough money to silence the desperate voices in his home.

Unlike Paul’s mother, Pete’s parents are not greedy. They are merely trying to survive after a national economic catastrophe and the one perpetrated by Mr. Mercedes. To help them, Pete tries to leverage the rest of the buried treasure consisting of collectible notebooks for more money.

Like Paul, Pete is clever, but both boys are ill-equipped to navigate the adult world, and both boys are ill-equipped to face off against Greed.  Pete's greedy opponents are not merely psychological foes; they are dangerous criminals. These men not only threaten Pete’s life, they threaten the lives of the family Pete hopes to improve, then save.

Paul cannot survive the psychological stressors. He dies from the strain of being an adult. So does Pete even though he lives. Pete loses his youth--his innocence about the ends to which men and women come. King's allusion to D. H. Lawrence’s Paul serves to inform readers about the unnatural pressures put upon children when they are forced to provide for adults and interact with adults who never have and never will care about the needs and dreams of children.

Reading Challenge:

Read D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” before reading Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers in order to enrich your understanding of King’s allusion.

Writing Challenge:

Explain your reaction to Paul’s uncle’s words of consolation to his sister after Paul dies.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Horror Fiction: Extraordinary Situations. Ordinary People.

Alfred Hitchcock often told stories about ordinary people caught in intricate, seemingly inescapable webs. How they comport themselves is the measure of the man or woman. It is also how we measure ourselves. We too are ordinary people entangled in day-to-day routines. We cannot imagine turning a corner to find a web that arrests us and forces us to summon skills we aren’t even sure we possess so we look at Hitchcock’s characters with a certain degree of horror, afraid to be in similar circumstances and in awe of the character’s resourcefulness.

That contrast between ordinary and extraordinary is at the heart of our sense of dread. It is also a key ingredient for horror fiction.

Ordinary Steel forged into powerful links secures ordinary wood weathered
and dry, both suggesting something extraordinary, even ominous, behind the two.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography.
The Man Who Knew Too Muchstarring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, pits two ordinary Americans against international intrigue, kidnappers, and killers because one man whispers a cryptic message into the protagonist’s ear. He is thus thrust into extraordinary circumstances that will test his intellect and require raw courage in order to save his son and protect his wife. He proves equal to the challenge.

Accidental encounters are the heart of many Hitchcock films, and some fall more naturally into the horror category. The Birds and Psycho are two that feature other elements of horror stories, including the malevolent streak in human nature, a sense of foreboding from frame to frame, extreme events, and violence.

Another making use of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is author Stephen King whom some call the King of Horror.  

Carrie, the title character in Carrie, is an ordinary school girl, naïve and sheltered, the daughter of a woman so subsumed in her religious fervor that she weaves an extraordinary web exacerbating Carrie’s high school torment and igniting Carrie’s peculiar talent as she saves herself from extreme bullying and shaming.

Ben Mears, the protagonist in ‘Salem’s Lot, encounters the ancient horror: the undead who feed upon the living. He moved to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book, but he’s forced to fight for the lives of others and his own life against monsters. His journey carries him through the horror manufactured by malevolent creatures.

King’s latest novel, Finder’s Keepers, published in 2015, is the second installment in a trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes, a novel recommended last year and used to review an editing principle. You will not need to read Mr. Mercedes to enjoy Finder’s Keepers, but you will enjoy each a bit more if you read both in order. And you will find ordinary characters caught in extraordinary circumstances.

The protagonist of Finder’s Keepers is Pete, a boy who stumbles across buried treasure. Inside a stream bank is a trunk containing cash and notebooks, the last words of Rothstein, a writer who wrote and retired, hoarding both cash and his words from the world. But a malevolent force named Morris Bellamy finds Rothstein and his stash; Morris kills Rothstein just to read those words, to find out what Rothstein did for a character Morris loved.

Morris hides the treasure he stole behind his home, then goes to prison for a different crime and a very long time without ever having read the notebooks he craved. Years later, his childhood home becomes home to the Saubers family when they must downsize after Mr. Mercedes cripples Pete’s dad at a time when the U. S. economy crushed job opportunities and incomes for America’s middle class.

Pete’s family is on the edge of a black hole, being inexorably pulled into oblivion when Pete finds Rothstein’s cash and notebooks. He begins sending that money to his parents anonymously, and it saves them. The terrible stress of being broke and broken, accusations about good and bad spending choices, and the wrenching sorrow of never being able to see a way out come to an end. Family members find each other and begin to heal.

Young, ordinary Pete has rescued his family from horrors inflicted by Mr. Mercedes and unbreakable glass ceilings--until the money runs out. Then Pete creates a new set of extraordinary circumstances when he tries to sell the notebooks to raise more money. Pete unleashes greed in a bookseller, fear in his sister who guesses the source of the money, and the trio who stopped Mr. Mercedes. Worse, Morris Bellamy finally earns parole and grows vengeful when he finds the buried trunk empty.

Pete faces his own desire to keep the notebooks for himself and their potential to bring more money to his family. He faces people who will help him and spurns them--at first. He faces off against malevolence in the body of Morris Bellamy. He witnesses the violence Morris inflicts upon others. Pete also learns the weight of violence when he must be violent to save himself. More important, he understands the consequences of spurning help and hoarding when his actions endanger the lives of his family. He has put them in jeopardy while crafting a web of his own.

Pete breaks through the intricate web he helped to build and the one Morris built. He proves to have both sufficient intellect and courage. He shows that ordinary people can overcome horrific circumstances even if those circumstances do not include Carrie’s telekinesis or taking up residence in a town of vampires. In showing the triumph of ordinary people, Pete and King reassure readers and remove much of their dread about a web that might be just around the corner.

Reading Challenge:

Read Finder’s Keepers, taking note of King’s use of extraordinary situations.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate a story of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Matters in the End: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Poetry dwells in the concrete world and from it, elevates our understanding to matters abstract and epic. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is poetic. It too resides in the graphic and real details of Ed Leary’s life disintegrating as an Alzheimer’s mind destroys the body and reshapes the lives of Ed’s wife Eileen and son Connell. Bearing witness to the Learys' story informs us about what truly matters: reaching the highest career point possible or being loved by those we choose to admit into our inner circles? Thomas answers that questions with these words:

For now, while he [Connell] breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse’s ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one’s own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one’s own.

These fleeting moments are both immediate and timeless, personal and universal, concrete and abstract. They are the sensual delights to which we are all invited. They are the bone and breath of a life. They are poetry in prose.

Sunlight and shadow, clouds on high and grass below--these are things that matter.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin.

Reading Challenge:

Read Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves.

Writing Challenge:

Write a list of what matters in the end to you.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Allusion in We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Matthew Thomas’ fine novel We Are Not Ourselves about three generations of disappointment and hope alludes to Shakespeare’s King Lear who says, “We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind / To suffer with the body” (2. 4. 100-102).

In light of Ed Leary’s death after years of suffering from the brain’s deterioration through early onset Alzheimer’s, the title, We Are Not Ourselves, certainly refers to Ed. Other characters endure emotional and intellectual suffering as well, however. Their suffering affects their physical well-being, too, as does Lear's whose torment seems self-inflicted.

Lear is a king who decides to transfer all care and woe to his children so that the head that once wore the crown may rest easy (Henry IV, Part ii. 2. 3). Unfortunately, Lear is a terrible judge of character and narcissistic. His older daughters, Goneril and Regan, make flowery speeches in order to gain his wealth and power while his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to declare her own father reigns supreme in her heart. She grants that a husband and perhaps her own children one day will claim the greatest share of her heart.

Wounded, his hubris inflamed, Lear disowns Cordelia and throws himself on the mercy of Goneril and Regan. They in turn cast him out. Betrayal and Nature’s harsh power infect Lear. He goes mad, finding solace in the company of Gloucester’s son, Edgar, himself betrayed by a bastard half-brother and a father incapable of discerning true character. The son, also cast out into a savage world, feigns madness to protect the old man, once king.

Matthew Thomas’ Ed is Ed Leary, a character name that invokes both Edgar and Lear. Ed is a promising scientist, capable of exacting research. He’s a teacher and guide for students less able to compete at university. He grows mad after tangled plaques disturb the synapses and connections in his once fine mind. His madness oppresses the mind and slowly destroys the body. Ed, like Lear, is at the mercy of Nature, and Nature defeats both men.

Disease and adversity alter the course of our lives as heavy rains
and droughts change the course of a stream.
Photo by Al Griffin 2015
Toronto Springs, Missouri
Ed’s wife, Eileen, and son, Connell, are also at the mercy of Nature. Ed’s slow deterioration costs the family a secure financial future, easy choices, and brilliant careers. Connell, in particular, suffers because like all children, he blames himself for some of his father’s suffering.

Without doubt, Connell deserves blame. He is impatient and neglects his duties, but he is also young, given to self-indulgence like old Lear and prone to giving up in spite of his father’s desperate attempts to make Connell believe in his own prowess, in a future in which Connell triumphs.

Readers must wonder whether Connell would have embraced love and life sooner, would have found his career more easily, if his father had not been lost to disease even as his heart beat on, insisting upon life in a body broken. Thomas seems to suggest that Ed’s suffering stalls Connell’s future, especially because Connell’s mother is distracted, at times overwhelmed by her role as caregiver.

We are not ourselves, in the end, refers to those life-changing, shape-shifting challenges that define a life in spite of all ambition, hard work, and right living. These forces inexorably change the course of our life rivers, and Eileen Leary realizes this. While reflecting upon the fine home she wanted so badly, Eileen thinks the home represents the ghost of her “former future life. . . . The ghost of the life I almost had” (Thomas, Matthew. We Are Not Ourselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. Kindle File)

Reading Challenge:

Read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate the story of a life force that shaped and changed you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: The Ways in Which We Make Our Peace

Among the many motifs and archetypes authors weigh are the ways in which we humans make our peace with terrible times. Matthew Thomas reveals the way in which protagonist Eileen Leary of We Are Not Ourselves makes her peace with the force of nature that was her father, her mother’s diseases, and her husband Ed's slow descent into Alzheimer’s horrors.

Eileen wrestles with her own conscience and the impossibly high expectations she sets for herself after her husband’s death. Ed had been her bridge to a better, economically secure, upper middle class life, but he obstinately refuses to cross that bridge.

Eileen cajoled, manipulated, and waited patiently for fate to persuade Ed to move to a better neighborhood, a finer home, and the future she imagined. When fate did intervene, that future still failed to emerge from dreams intact. Only when she learned the diagnosis--early onset Alzheimer’s--did Eileen surrender her future. It was now consigned to caregiver as it had been in her parent’s home and through her nursing career.

She would never enjoy the social life she imagined. She would never laugh as others without heavy cares did. She would never have the financial comfort others seemed to enjoy.

Eileen kept Ed at home as long as possible. She asked her son, Connell, to help, but the young have little experience with consequences. They don’t imagine unfavorable outcomes so they take safety for granted. Ed fell on hard tile. He broke a tooth that Connell carried--as a token of penance perhaps.

Indeed, Ed’s limbs began to seize, refusing to follow the brain’s advice. He couldn’t feed himself reliably, and he had little control over his bodily functions. Eileen admitted him to nursing care, at first telling herself he would return home, but Ed never came home to live again. Eileen visited every day after work. She befriended him. She was his advocate. She was his beloved.

Photography of a storm overhead that parallels the storms that steal
our sleep. Provided by Al Griffin.
After Ed finally dies, a gift to Ed, Eileen can’t sleep well. She tortures herself with guilt about admitting Ed to a nursing home until she tells herself that her entire life had been rehearsals for Ed’s care: slipping money into her father’s wallet so that he’d be able to pay for the drink he drank in neighborhood bars, facilitating her mother’s rehabilitation with the help of AA, nursing her mother as cancer claimed her, a career in nursing--all of this had prepared her for her greatest life’s work. 

Eileen realizes that the other careers of which she’d dreamed, the other lives she longed to don, and the ease in which she once needed to live were not her purpose or even her choice. She was born to care for others and tells herself caring for Ed “was his final gift to her: to silence her regrets about the paths she hadn’t taken” (Thomas, Matthew. We Are Not Ourselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. Kindle File.)

In such ways do we all rationalize our life’s outcomes. In such ways do we all abide. 

 Reading Challenge:

Read “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas.

Writing Challenge:

Explain what you were born to do.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fine Moments in Go Set a Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel loved by millions. Its language and its characters delight readers. Go Set a Watchman provides some good passages--unevenly, to be sure, but Harper Lee’s talent is still evident and worth experiencing.

Jean Louise Finch’s love for Alabama and Maycomb in particular are evident in Lee’s ability to describe her hometown, fictionalized in both novels attributed to her. As Jean Louise’s love interest, Hank, drives the two of them to Finch’s Landing, the heat and humidity settle on the reader’s skin. When those characters tease and dare each other into a late-night swim in the river, we enjoy their abandon.

Aunt Alexandra berates Jean Louise for having become a topic of gossip, for scandalizing the Finch family yet again by taking that late-night swim. In that chapter, Lee gives Zandra language that rings true. We also see the Scout we know from To Kill a Mockingbird resent being bossed by someone like her aunt. Young and twenty-six year old Scout still prefer slacks and blouses to dresses and heels, short bobbed hair rather than styled, long hair. Jean Louise doesn’t hold her tongue, but speaks her mind, a mind that Aunt Alexandra doesn’t agree with or fancy most of the time.

The finest moments in Go Set a Watchman feature characters with values different from Jean Louise’s. They chose to stay in Maycomb, marry Maycomb boys, and raise Maycomb’s future. They care about homes, appliances, recipes, appearances, and Maycomb’s residents. They echo their husbands’ opinions and find Jean Louise exotic or strange. Jean Louise doesn’t care about any of the same things they care about and objects to the opinions voiced about race relations.

Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Birthplace
Photo by Al Griffin. Taken in 2010.

In Chapter 13 about Aunt Alexandra’s coffee in honor of Jean Louise’s homecoming, Harper Lee shows her wit and talent for using dialogue, non-sequiter, and plays on words. While Jean Louise passes sandwiches among the women invited to attend--Magpies, according to Jean Louise--their conversations are mash-ups. One woman’s words are broken by another woman’s as Jean Louise moves from one to the other. We read:

“When he was christened, he grabbed Mr. Stone by the hair and Mr. Stone . . .”

“…wets the bed now. I broke her of that the same time I broke her of sucking her finger with…”

“…the cutest--absolutely the cutest sweatshirt you’ve ever seen. It’s got a little red elephant…

“…and it cost $5 to get it yanked out….” (Go Set a Watchman, Chapter 13, Audible edition)

Lee reveals the focus of these women’s lives to be domestic and personal. They are indeed birds positioned in a line, each one singing a piece of the whole song, a snippet of life’s detritus. Jean Louise fancies herself a woman of ideas, not domesticity. She has little in common with her guests, little in common with Maycomb, we realize.

Reading Challenge:

Read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Writing Challenge:

Write snipped dialogue, beginning with one speaker, then switching abruptly to another. Consider using contronyms as Tom Stoppard does in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.