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.