Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned by Alan Alda, Another Lesson in Style

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

One of the last chapters in Alda’s autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned, is an account of surviving a life-threatening bowel blockage that first made itself known atop Cerro Tololo while filming for Scientific American Frontiers. The film crew carried Alda, in critical condition, to the nearest city hoping for a diagnosis by a capable physician and facilities equipped to treat Alda. Good fortune was on Alda's side. He survived to fly home and regain his strength. With bowel uppermost in mind, especially because his carry-on included the diseased section of bowel for further testing at home in the U. S., Alan Alda observes the mythic Amazon and writes:

At first it looked like a fat, brown, curving snake glinting in the sun. But then it became obvious what it really was. How could anyone miss it? The Amazon is a giant ileum. It carries nutrients and waste downriver through loops and folds and, pulled by gravity, it experiences a kind of curvature of space (Alda, Alan. "Down in Chile." Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned. New York: Random House, 2005. 3417. Print.)

The river that makes Lake of the Ozarks
Seen from a Missouri fire tower
Al Griffin Photography
Alda opens with a simile: the Amazon looks “like a fat, brown, curving snake,” but later defines the Amazon with a metaphor: it “is a giant ileum.” As the small intestine--the ileum--carries nutrients and waste out of our bodies, aided by gravity’s pull, the Amazon performs the same function for Chile.

Such simple, original comparisons enlighten readers. Appropriate comparisons based upon context are even more vivid. We readers understand a comparison to a snake, and we appreciate the comparison to the bowel for Alda has just experienced the loss of some.

Such simplicity is also mindfulness. It is an author letting thoughts speak in words and words speak to words.

Reading Challenge:

Read nonfiction, searching for the rhetorical tricks and devices making all writing delightful.

Writing Challenge:

Create a new metaphor to replace a standard one. For example, comparing rivers to snakes is standard. Alda refreshes that comparison by using the small intestine.

What are some standard comparisons?

Foxes are sly.
Rocks are dumb.
Safe places are havens and harbors.
Knowledge is a bright light.
Fear is a caged animal.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? By Alan Weisman: A Lesson in Styles

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Consider this paragraph from journalist Alan Weisman’s 2013 nonfiction book, Countdown, about overpopulation and its impact upon the Earth and its residents:

The first to speak, Dr. John Guillebaud, is professor emeritus of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Guillebaud, his dark suit punctuated by an orange daisy in his lapel, notes that every year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt. He invites people to try to imagine where to fit another of either on the planet. He talks about the human gluttony behind the recent BP--née British Petroleum--outrage in the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of a bit more of the world’s remaining known oil (Weisman, Alan. Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for A Future on Earth? New York: Back Bay, 2013. Print. 112).

Now consider this paragraph in the hands of a news editor. It might be returned to the author, Weisman, with the following marks:

The first to speak, Dr. John Guillebaud, is professor emeritus of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Guillebaud, his dark suit punctuated by an orange daisy in his lapel, notes that every year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt annually. He invites people to try to imagine where to fit another of either on the planet. He talks about the human gluttony behind the recent BP--née British Petroleum--outrage in the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of a bit more of the world’s remaining known oil.

The imaginary news editor has eliminated unnecessary words. He would tell the author that a daisy in the lapel is purple prose, a phrase so flowery (forgive the word play, please) as to draw attention to itself and away from other content. He would argue the daisy is unnecessary. He would view the new topic, BP's gluttony, as material for a new paragraph.

I would argue the daisy does not detract by distracting the reader. The daisy brings a bit of life to an otherwise dense work of nonfiction on a rather dire, if dry, topic.

What would you argue?

Now consider the paragraph once more, this time with the help of an English teacher’s red ink:

The first to speak, Dr. John Guillebaud, is professor emeritus of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Guillebaud, his dark suit punctuated by an orange daisy in his lapel, notes that every year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt. He invites people to try to imagine where to fit another of either on the planet. He talks about the human gluttony behind the recent British Petroleum’s BP--née British Petroleum--outrage in the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of a bit more of the world’s remaining known oil.

The English teacher, like the imaginary news editor, chooses to use capital letters for Guillebaud’s credentials, eliminate unnecessary uses of that, and unnecessary words in favor of a cleaner, leaner paragraph. Each of the recommendations has merit, but each could be argued as simply a matter of taste.

I would argue the author’s original wording stands on its own merits without the English teacher’s editing suggestions.

Reading Challenge:

So much may depend upon a touch of orange.
Al Griffin Photography
Read Weisman’s work of nonfiction, Countdown. Consider how often he seems to detour into description but arrives at the appointed place with enhanced understanding as a result of those detours. Consider also how much a reader may enjoy the occasional bursts of description juxtaposed against the weight of fact.

Writing Challenge:

Rewrite a paragraph according to the standards preferred by 1) a news editor, 2) an English teacher, and 3) a writer of fiction.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Inanimate Objects: Into the Woods, A Lesson in Fantastical Literary Elements

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

An inciting incident for a journey Into the Woods is the Baker’s need for four objects to reverse a spell cast many years before as punishment for his father’s peccadilloes. To his neighbor, the Witch, his misdeeds warrant a barren future; she takes his theft of her rampion as a serious affront. The truth is, however, that the four objects will return the Witch to her former youth and beauty but she cannot touch them herself so she uses the Baker to acquire them for her.

Objects of all kinds figure prominently in fantasy literature. Harry needs his wand; Beowulf his sword, Hrunting; Hermione her bottomless purse, and Buffy her stake. Sometimes these objects have the power to speak, too. Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat thinks, reads a person’s true nature, and declares in which house the youngest class members will dwell and compete. Aladdin’s Lamp, once activated, belches a fully-grown genie to grant wishes and create mischief.

A mask designed to protect those living there.
Seen and photographed in a casa, Sayulita, Mexico
2010, by Al Griffin

Reading Challenge:

If you have not yet read The Hunger Games series or the seven adventures of Harry Potter, now is a good time to invest in them. As you read, make a list of the objects that come to life or are essential to a character’s journey.

Writing Challenge:

Choose one important object in fantasy literature and explain its power.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mythical Beasts: Into the Woods, A Lesson in Fantastical Literature

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

One of the more disturbing threads of the Red Riding Hood tale is a wolf’s hunger for human flesh. He devours Granny and Red with only a swollen belly to tell the tale--at least in Disney’s version of events unfolding in Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods. The baker, not the local woodcutter as in the fairy tale of old, rescues both and earns the blood-red cloak he needs.

In the genre of fantasy literature, Red’s wolf is one of many creatures, large and small. It’s a mythical beast dwelling in an imaginary world rooted in a reality we recognize. The wolves we encounter may not be able to converse or swallow whole one grown and one nearly grown female, but we’ve met duplicitous types who do not have our welfare in their hearts or minds.

A papier mache dragon basks upon a homemade ceremonial
rain stick.
Beowulf’s Grendel and his mortal enemy, the dragon, are figures belonging to the fantasy genre. Charlotte’s philosophical web writing are characteristic of sentient beings living in the imagined realms of fairy tales and E. B. White. Sometimes these critters can speak the human language; sometimes they can only speak and understand various animal languages.

Tiny humans endowed with magical powers go by names such as fairies and elves; they too dwell in the imaginary worlds of fantasy. Witches, ogres, and trolls of every shape and size are also present.

Occasionally these mythical beasts terrify us; sometimes their plight is so poignant that we weep. Quite often, we celebrate them for they are the instruments of heroic deeds, if not heroes themselves.

Reading Challenge:

Read about fantasy literature at this online site.

Writing Challenge:

Write a short tale featuring your favorite mythical beast.

Children soon learn to love this mythical beast: Rudolph, the
Red-nosed Reindeer. On one foggy night, he saves Christmas.