Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Despair in the Words of a Poet and a Non Fiction Author

Wilfred Owen’s poetry is powerful. He honors the sacrifice of soldiers--nay, boys--with every line. Those boys pulled themselves through mud, up and out of trenches making themselves a target more easily found and hit. They died in that mud, their blood commingling, lending itself to an uneasy peace that still waits upon us. 

In Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen reveals utter despair in one brief simile:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. 

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen does not spare us. He does not shield us from the truth. He reveals the fatigue that endangers them, the exhaustion that makes it impossible for one to put on his helmet before breathing in the gas.

Owen shows us this soldier’s agony and the searing memory his death implants in those who must march and wait for his end. They will remember the boy’s despair-- despair made bright and knowable by comparing the living boy’s face to a devil’s sick of sin.

Homeless in Oklahoma City: Art
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
I read other words as powerful in an entirely different genre: Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction account of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics where, in Chapter One, Brown characterizes the late 1920s and early 1930s. One descriptive bit of evidence is a cartoon from “October 8, 1933, [in] the American Weekly, a Sunday supplement in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and dozens of other American newspapers” (Brown, Daniel J. "Chapter One." Boys in the Boat. New York: Penguin, 2013. Kindle File.) The central figure in the cartoon is a salesman sitting on the sidewalk, his family close by. Brown describes the cartoonist’s rendering of the salesman’s face as “Haunted, haggard, somewhere beyond hopeless.”

As Owen did with a simile, Brown does with alliteration. He makes despair bright and knowable.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

Writing Challenge:

Make despair bright and knowable with one or more rhetorical devices.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Narrative Voices in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

One way of telling a story from multiple points of view is to allow multiple narrators to speak. Robert Browning does this with his novel in verse, The Ring and the Book, the story of a crime with witnesses telling what happened from their unique points of view. Gillian Flynn uses this narrative technique for Gone Girl. Barbara Kingsolver also uses this technique for The Poisonwood Bible

Each of these authors allows the character to tell the tale in first person, but surely, we’ve learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, that first-person narrators may not be worthy of our trust. They may not know the truth themselves, or they may have good reason to lie.

Paula Hawkins’ narrators for The Girl on the Train are guilty of both. They don’t always know the truth, and they certainly have reasons to lie.

My lament is that Hawkins’ narrators are otherwise indistinct. One narrative voice sounds so much like another unlike Kingsolver’s narrators, each distinct in vocabulary, syntax, and tone.

Lake of the Ozarks State Park
Osage Beach, Missouri
January 1, 2015
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
It’s possible, of course, that Hawkins’ narrators are similar by design. After all, as I suggested last week, each woman bears the scars of misogyny, some more permanently imbedded than others, some absolutely irreversible. These women long for love and wonder why they are restless and unfulfilled in the degree of love they’ve found. They resent the men who seem to inspire their ennui.

Still each woman is distinct. Each has been damaged by different forces and in different ways. They are not cloned or mirror images of the others except in gender so I judge it a fault that the narrators do not have voices and patterns of thought that make them as unique as their damages.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Girl on the Train and The Poisonwood Bible

Writing Challenge:

Tell the same story using two different narrators. Distinguish each narrator by more than name and circumstance. Distinguish the narrators by diction, syntax, and tone.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Secrets and Lies in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

On a humid, hot summer day at church camp, I overheard some older girls whispering about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and began to shiver. The words blood, daggers, corpses, and shower haunted my dreams long before I’d ever seen the movie. Once I did--years later--my budding fears blossomed.

What I found terrifying then was the madman’s face, unrecognizable as evil, his the face of a boy, smooth and untroubled. I still find that truth terrifying. Our neighbors may be monsters wearing the masks of men and women we might meet and even marry.

Mardi Gras Mask in Stained Glass
by Ruth Hillers, Stover, MO
Light and Grace and All Things Creative
The wife of Dennis Rader, the Kansas BTK killer, married such a monster. So did the wife of Ted Bundy, and all those women who vowed to love, honor and obey, but one day, disappeared.

Rachel, Megan, and Anna, characters and narrators in Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train, are damaged women drawn to monstrous men.

Each woman has secrets that she tries not to tell herself, leading to alcohol addiction, insomnia, or complicity in dark deeds. Two women reveal their secrets to a therapist who functions in the novel as a voice of understanding and compassion. He gives both women permission not to carry the burden of guilt or shame, but anyone who carries that weight knows that permission is not enough to liberate. We must forgive ourselves.

All characters in Hawkins’ novel are liars on some level. Most lies told are lies of omission. Others are lies of convenience because the liar needs to be trusted, to be viewed as credible. The worst lies are layered, architectural structures as complex and labyrinthine as M. C. Escher’s prints, and from these springs misogyny, a deep, well-disguised contempt for women, perhaps because the architect of these lies finds women so vulnerable, so easily manipulated, so culpable in their own destruction.

The novel explores the enigma that is marriage, the mystery that is attraction, the veil that falls between the face we present to our neighbors and the one we reveal to our spouses and lovers. Hawkins’ story is about the raw need to be loved and cherished. It is also about the raw, open wounds of betrayal and neglect.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate a tale exposing the jarring realization that comes when we know that all we thought we knew about ourselves is a lie.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Word Play Unleashes Ideas

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Acrostic poetry is a grand way to spend your time inventing and playing with language.

An acrostic simply builds from the letters in a word. Here is one created using the ReadWriteThink lesson linked above.


Sun parts the gloom, softens the air
Pushes frigid winds north, away from us
Reins in Winter’s bite, sparking buds
Inspires us to venture outdoors, breathe
Nature uncovers her palette for our delight
Grants us another dawn, another chance.

Floral Series: Al Griffin Photography

Writing Challenge:

Choose any word.
Write each letter of the word so that the word stacks vertically.
Choose a word that begins with the letter written on each line.
Elaborate upon that word as you see fit.
Write again, choosing different words.


Season alive, 
Pulsing with new life,
Racing to mature, reproduce
Inflaming the passions of men
Nurturing the hopes of men
Giving us reasons to rise again

Revise and edit, insuring that verbs are parallel, punctuation helps instead of hinders, and diction is vivid.