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.