Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Farewell And Thank You.

When I first began this blog in 2010, I couldn’t imagine meeting a weekly demand. Surely I didn’t know enough to write so much, but web and social media advisors told me I must blog and at least weekly.

To my surprise, I have found something to say once weekly for almost a full six years. I’ve posted 360 essays, and with this one--the last one--361.

I’ve written about style, film, archetypes, literary merit, poetry, prose, and drama. Now and then, I’ve shared my own work.

For most of these posts, I’ve stolen time away from other creative pursuits, but I can no longer do so as time is too precious, the horizon too near. I must reserve what creative energies I have for other projects.

To those of you who read these essays, thank you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I became a fan of J. K. Rowling by way of Harry Potter, a series I read as a duty to my students. A teacher needs to be as well versed in Pop Culture as in methodology and content. Analogies and illustrations spring to life when a teacher links Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Easy A and Shakespeare's Hamlet to The Lion King.

Of course, after the first Harry Potter book, I was as eager as any adolescent for the next book and the next. When films debuted, I was among the first to see how directors and actors rendered Rowling’s characters on screen, and I was present for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it appeared in our part of the world.

You must see it. I recommend it without reservation.

Do you remember the first book that carried you into realms unimagined? A realm made real and tangible by an author’s imagination? Harry Potter's story may have been that book.

Rowling’s series about Harry Potter’s initiation into maturity and magic transformed Harry’s perception of reality as much as it did his reading friends’ at home. Rowling invented a world that exists fully in our peripheral vision. Hardscapes are pliable, and chimneys are flight paths.

Rowling created an alternate reality in three dimensions. She populated it with people endearing and annoying, heroic and misguided. She made the truth we know fantastic and large. She issued an invitation welcoming us all.

With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling succeeds once more. We travel back to the 1920s, a time we’ve seen in history books and period films, a post-Gilded Age on the brink of untold sorrows with headlines reading Stock Market Collapses, Dust Storm Rolls Across the Midwest, and The Great Depression. Fantastic Beasts takes place ahead of these, but New York City in 1926 is already strife-ridden. A divide exists between people without magical gifts and those who have them. This strife stems from an Obscurati, an invisible force arising from a child suppressing its magical nature, and as with most things denied and dodged, the force grows malignant, especially when a power-mad wizard uses that force.

Trying hard to exist without being noticed, Newt Scamander arrives in search of fantastic beasts, including the rare Obscurati. Expelled from Hogwarts, Newt is the only wizard devoted to the much misunderstood and maligned work of finding and rescuing fantastic beasts. He travels alone, befriending beasts he pities.

In Newt's worn suitcase are beasts he's found around the world. Like Hermione’s little purse, the case is a portal into wide, deep spaces--a zoo for those beasts and the source for much confusion and humor.  

Newt’s story is an everyman tale--one man against himself, another, and an entire society. Newt is in conflict with his own best interests because he cannot follow the path others take. If he could, life would be simpler and relationships easier. Newt’s also in conflict with others who either misinterpret his quest or oppose both his methods and ends. His pursuits place him in the middle of the social conflicts between magic and non-magic and between powerful forces within each realm. He must hold steady and do as little harm as possible.

Such a character appeals to us. He’s both heroic and modest, kind and stern when necessary. He rarely looks others in the eye unless, of course, the other is a fantastic beast sorely in need of empathy and care. They have Newt for that, and that allows a disgraced investigator for the world of magic to fall for him, rendering Fantastic Beasts a romance story. But as I’ve often written, a romance is truly a quest folded into an initiation story, full of ideals and good causes more than love.

The second reason to see Fantastic Beasts is because it’s visually stunning. The 3D and CGI effects are among the best to date--better than other, recent SciFi movies. The film dazzles and delights. Don’t miss it. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" Inspire "Fear and Loathing"

Some stories stick with you. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is one that has stuck with me. Critics admire it for its word economy and for Hemingway's dialogue. The critics are right. The story compels, evokes, and inspires realms beyond the page.

I tested my own skill with word economy and dialogue that says more than the words themselves. I recommend the exercise. Honoring a master is sincere flattery and genuinely instructive.

Fear and Loathing

The waiter showed them to a table overlooking the beach and sea beyond. Rain, heavier than ever in recorded history, carved deep ravines into the sand, now gray and heavy. Water still cut paths down the hills, through the city’s old sewage pipes, and across washed out streets, accumulating grit, stink, and grime with every inch of its descent to the sea.

Fraught with the coming night’s rains, the air clung to them. His knit shirt sported a dark oval extending from his shoulders and disappearing into his pants at the waist. Her blouse, white to bounce back any bright rays that might peep between the ominous clouds overhead, was damp at the scoop neckline. Above, her neck and face burned red as if she had been in the sun too long. They shone, wet with sweat that poured through her hair and dripped from the short pieces at her neck. She mopped them with the cloth napkin that the waiter draped across her lap with fanfare and flourish. He returned to place a large, commercial fan just a few feet from their table. Its rush of air blew directly into her face. She smiled, embarrassed and pathetically grateful at the same time.

The waiter nodded a quick acknowledgement and moved away to collect large, plastic bottles of filtered water. These he opened with all the sweep and grandeur of the finest champagne. She gulped the glass dry, then waited as her husband ordered their drinks. He usually ordered for her, a gesture that she often enjoyed, some throwback to a much earlier time when her father ordered for each member of the family, before her consciousness had been raised and women spoke for themselves.

Across the ugly gray mounds of sand lay the sea against a setting sun. It appeared to be the color of pewter, broken only by powerful waves that pulsed into a crescendo and crashed across the water. At water’s edge, a boy threw a large piece of driftwood for a chocolate Lab. She watched the dog swim hard, farther and farther each throw; she watched his chest heave as he tried to calm his breathing before launching again. The boy never gave him enough time, but the dog splashed and swam without delay. He seemed to love the work, the sheer abandon, and she longed to feel as he did.

Further out, a man swam to his skiff, climbed aboard, and began pulling the outboard engine’s cord once, twice, again and again. He would join the other fishermen in criss-crossing the bay, following in the wake of fish flocking to fend off predators below, unaware that predators approached from above as well. The man and his skiff were silhouettes against the sun so bright that everything seemed to be a negative of itself. She had to turn away. Even here, within the shelter of the palapas, she could feel the sun’s heat, blistering her mind and searing her heart.

“Do you want a beer?”

“I do—make it a Michelado. Make sure the waiter knows to be generous with the Worcestershire, lime, and salt.”

“I know what to say.”

“Of course.” She turned to check the man in his boat, wondering if he had managed to pull the engine to life. He must have. He was gone, the skiff growing smaller and smaller as it raced out to sea.  Gone too were the boy and his dog, now just ghosts far and away down the beach where a worker washing dirt and sand from within his restaurant caught her eye. She watched his slow, easy movement, back and forth, nudging the filth across the floor and out onto the sand below the deck. The restaurant where she now sat was on higher ground. It had escaped the mountainous erosion that the rains pushed through this little fishing village. It had not escaped the stench. Everywhere, except their casa, perched on high, was the stink of fetid water. She was even more grateful to the waiter and his gift of a fan.

“No, gracias,” he said, this time to the vendor who had first appeared when they took their seats. Men and women, dressed humbly, in clean but tattered clothes, moved from deck to deck, offering beads strung into necklaces and bracelets, hand-carved monkey wood, and tropical-themed fabrics made into shawls. She wondered if all tourists looked the same to them. The vendors never seemed to tire of asking the same people to buy the same merchandise until those people moved on and were replaced by others who heard the same endless appeals. She tried not to turn brittle, but their constant mewling pleas threatened to spoil her moment out of the sun, a cool steady fan drying all the soggy places on her.

The waiter returned with their drinks—for him tequila, for her a perfect Michelado. It slaked her desperate thirst for something salty. Its spice purged her mouth of its sour film.

She began to read the menu, a pathetic imitation of North American fare, described with all the flair of a cook aspiring to trade up from two to four stars. The grilled artichoke caught her eye. That, at least, seemed to have some kinship with this place. Shrimp ceviche promised to satisfy as well. She told him what to order for her and turned again to the sea, now on fire with the sun disappearing at the horizon.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, especially so far away—where its heat can’t reach me. It’s so hot here. I can hardly breathe unless I’m in the pool, at the shady end, or asleep, the air conditioner laboring to turn humidity into icicles.”

“I know, but it isn’t always like this.”

“Does it matter? Even one rainy month each year is an intolerable notion: to live nine or ten months dreading the insidious rains.”

“This year is the worst since Mexico began making records. The most rainfall. The most water damage,” he said and repeated, more emphatically, “It isn’t always like this.” 

“Everyone says the 100-year flood cycle is 99 years away. They count on it until the water rises. Then they remember that they never knew when to start counting 100 years as they passed. This rainy season may not be the worst. It may only be the first in a long cycle of rainier and wetter seasons. It may be the first of many floods that wash away thriving businesses and open-air markets that everyone counted on. More record-setting seasons could very well be on their way.”

He said nothing and knocked back a shot of tequila, then signaled the waiter for more. He knew that his characteristic optimism had no power over her misery. Usually he just managed to piss her off.

The fan carried the aromas of lighter fluid, charcoal, and sizzling meat to their table. She found she was actually hungry in spite of the occasional cramping down below and the sweltering heat.

Of course, he ordered hamburguesa, just as he did in every restaurant. She wondered why. Back home, they never grilled burgers and rarely ordered one when they went out. He preferred taquerías whenever he could talk her into one, Tex-Mex his back-up plan, yet he didn’t choose Mexican cuisine while in Mexico. She planned to lobby for Asian once they were out of this jungle.

“Let’s drive to the next village after dinner and walk along the beach. It’s more accessible than this one. Cleaner, too. Maybe the market will still be open and we’ll pick up some supplies for the house. We’re low on beer and avocado.”

“Sure, sounds good,” she said without any attempt to fake enthusiasm. The thought of sinking into hot sand, getting sand between her toes, of later walking aisles in the Mega, or searching for shops in the market, stumbling over cobble-stone streets, sweating even after sunset made her nausea flash again. She swallowed it back with cold, bottled water with a spiced beer chaser.

Their food arrived, and she willed herself not to wonder if the artichoke had been washed and if so, in what kind of water. She decided to enjoy its tender parts and the sweet, salty butter, Letting it drip down her fingers. This was worth the wait in spite of the way in which her body warmed to exceed the food’s temperature, nudged along by the alcohol and hot sauces. She began to sprout sweat beads under her eyes.

“Soft teacakes, my ass,” she snarled, wiping mascara and sweat from her face with the damp napkin.


“Harper Lee described ladies in the South as being ‘soft teacakes.’ This far south, the cakes are mush—disgusting. I feel as if mold will start crawling from my nether regions, up my spine and sprout in my hair.”

He laughed. What else could he do? She wasn’t being funny. She was just this side of sweeping everything off the table and screaming. Not that she ever had, but he knew her—better than she herself knew what her capacity for rage was.

In the next village, they drove round and round, up and down, through restaurant row, and along the beach, parking spaces rare and usually reserved for long lines of taxi cabs, all waiting a turn to transport the fat American unaccustomed to walking.

“This place will do. It’s close to the market side streets and the beach.”

“But what if it’s illegal to park here?”

“It’s not.”

“But how do you know?”

“I know,” and she agreed to believe him although he was, without a doubt, manufacturing knowledge and certainty that did not exist. Resigned, she stepped into the damp heat again and allowed him to take her hand, to lead her onward. He wanted so badly to see her smile, but she would not. She simply searched the ground for hidden stones and feces, afraid that she would stumble and fall into something vile and noxious.

“How can they stand it?”

“Stand what?”

“The dogs. That one is gaunt—beyond starved. He’s accepted his death. Look at his eyes. He has no hope that anyone will toss him a morsel. Look!”

He did.

“The smell of meat on the air doesn't even entice that dog, and the people look through him. He understands that he is worthless. How can parents bear teaching their children to accept suffering, that there is nothing anyone should do to prevent it.”

He pulled her away, down a side street, hoping to see something that would delight her, but it was the same stuff they had passed over in all the other places. Endless, cluttered displays for ceramic suns and moons, pure vanilla in plastic bottles, and colorful garments. None of it had seduced her into letting go of a peso or two. She was worried that they had not brought enough currency. He was sure he could make more appear. He was always sure he could make the impossible possible.

When the market closed and the beach emptied of parents with children, leaving only twenty-somethings to inspire fear in her, they drove back to the casa. She led the way up the steep, ceramic tiled steps, her left hand tracing the rough walls surrounding the grounds and fortifying the house against intruders. She feared that her fingers would brush against a lizard or spider, but she could not let go. She had vertigo here—in this dense, ancient jungle. The dark clouds above, filling, ever filling with the night’s rains, blocked even the faintest starlight, and the heavy air made the steps slick. She walked tenderly as if she had been injured. He touched her back now and then, and she wondered if he was urging her on or trying to comfort her.

Upon finding the aged wood gate and rusty lock at the garden entrance, she relaxed, knowing that only twelve more steps rose between this entry and the flat Mexican tiles surrounding the house’s open-air kitchen, pool, and separate bedroom building beyond. She was almost on solid ground. She had almost navigated the treachery of this place without injury once more.

Locked inside the bedroom, she turned the air conditioner on to its highest setting and let the light flood the room. High upon the wall, she found El Diablo, as she called him, just outside the grotesque horned mask that was supposed to ward off evil. Instead it was the obvious home of the most evil-looking spider she had ever seen. Enormous, at least as large as the palm of her hand. She hoped that it enjoyed a steady diet of mosquitoes and would grow fat before she left. Perhaps then, they would leave her blood alone. Perhaps then, she would avoid dengue, the fever flourishing in these parts.

Before falling asleep, they made love again. This place made him randy, and he was such a wonderful lover. He never left her wanting so she never wanted him to want. Still, making love was not something she sought. She just wanted to lie still, cool air translating her sweat into chills, forcing her under the thin coverlet, her rump against him, his heat warming her and making all of Mexico go away as she slept.

That night, the storms were ferocious. Thunder rumbled softly in the distance while water sheeted outside the sliding glass doors. She watched it penetrate the surface of the pool and wondered again why the pool did not run over. So much rain, falling so fast. Surely those drains dumping onto the mountain side could not handle the floods, but they did. Every night, they did.

When the air conditioner stopped droning and emitted three, high-pitched beeps, she knew the electricity was out again. She lay still, listening to him breathe, then reached for the flashlight 23and switched it on to find her shoes, check them for creatures, and shuffle to the windows. After so many nights, she had no trouble working the latches and opening the glass to let screens filter the creatures hovering under the thatched roof. Something up there kicked out dirt and rotted thatch every day, mid-morning. Perhaps one of those huge red-eyed crabs that lived behind the kitchen door or some stealthy lizard, exponentially larger than the geckos that surprised her as she reached for a towel or bent to wash her face.

She opened the glass doors and slammed the screens into place, locking them down with the sliders into the floor. She had no illusions that these sliders were any match for machetes, but she hoped no one was interested enough in Gringos to brave the rain and steep slippery steps, the slick tiles.

He still slept soundly, beginning to snore lightly. She pushed his shoulder so that he would roll over onto his side, then she backed up to him even though his body heat would fuel her own. She needed him close. For all his faults, and they were legion, he loved her, but more important than love right now, he carried the scent of home, of language she did not have to translate or even respond to if she didn’t feel like it. He was at home here, but he was her home there, and there is where she longed to be.

At some point, she drifted into sleep, her fists relaxing into a supplicant’s hands until she heard the mountain give way with an enormous crack like the mightiest bat against a ball.
“Wake up!” She pummeled him.  “Mud! Avalanche! We’ll be buried alive!”

He woke, startled and alert. She grabbed the flashlight, her purse, slid into shoes, and began tugging at those sliders.

From behind her, still in the bed, he said, “It’s lightning. Thunder. You heard the storm.”

She whirled to fight for their lives, but he was right, of course. An avalanche wouldn't crack just one time. An avalanche would rumble, roar, and gloat.

So she began to cry. The sob that had ridden in her throat all night, threatening to choke her, crawled forth. She bent with it, yielded to its will and cried until dawn. He couldn't console her, and she hated him because he could not. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Concentric Circles by Connye Griffin

Concentric Circles

Three surface in tandem,
Their backs barely visible below
Their rise and dive just enough to draw
Concentric Circles, a perfect Venn diagram
Illustrating … Well, that’s my mystery,
The day’s question every dawn and dusk.

I know their brothers by sound: Slap-Plop!
Depth and volume suggest size.
“A big one--that one,” says he. I agree.
How full of purpose they seem.
How elusive they are.
How random each glimpse.

Pondering waters dressed in shirred silk
The color of emeralds and spring
I glimpse its ambition to soar
But gone too soon, known to me only 
By the sound that follows and
Circles within circles expanding
Fading, returning to their source.

As do we all.
One day we soar.
The next we fall.

Reading Challenge:

Read the original poem posted above.

Writing Challenge:

Analyze the poem beginning with its overall meaning and selecting details from the poem to support the meaning inferred.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Arrival is a Love Story Wrapped in Science Fiction

Would you make a start if you knew with absolute certainty that you will fail?

Would you make a start if you knew with absolute certainty that love will break your heart?

Would you make a start if you knew with absolute certainty that nothing gold can stay?

Those are the questions asked in Arrival, a science fiction film delivering an exquisitely beautiful visual poem. Those are also the questions raised by authors and poets.

We humans know the answer to the third question. We are gold--or at least we have the promise of being burnished to gold, and we cannot stay. Yet, day after day, year after year, era after era, we make a start.

Literature, film, and poetry advise us about the first two questions. We readers learn that life rarely passes unblemished. Life unfolds in fits and starts; its joys ebb and flow. We stand and fall. We falter and fail. We love and lose. Yet, day after day, year after year, era after era, we make a start.

Arrival doesn’t provide different answers to those questions, but it wraps us in mythology, nightmare, and exquisite beauty as it leads us to the same truths.

I recommend the experience. 

Reading Challenge:

See Arrival. Read its archetypal patterns.

Writing Challenge:

Write answers to the three questions posed at the beginning of this post.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Concrete Poetry in Prose

Concrete poetry is fun to write and read. Consisting of words placed on a page in order to create an image that illuminates the meaning of words, a concrete poem is like an illustrated text.

Classic examples of concrete poetry are difficult to recreate (at least for me), but there is one available for viewing at this link. There is also a fine book that makes use of the principle behind concrete poetry, and that book is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Billy Lynn is in the company of Bravo Squad, temporarily reassigned to the U. S. for a heroes’ tour after their bravery was a feature on the nightly news. Impressed, the nation filters their actions through the lens of John Wayne and Audie Murphy and honors their sacrifice.

As Bravo marches into and out of fine dining rooms, on the stage for halftime shows at a football game, and ballrooms where rich and powerful people gather, they hear the same words floating above them, surrounding them, growing louder and fading. These words include courage, written as curraj; 9-11, overheard s nina leven; terror rendered as terrRr; service elongated as sssserrrRRRrvvviccce; and democracy as dih-mock-cruh-see. These words are usually placed on the page in the smallest of small fonts with blank space above, below, left, and right, suggesting they are part of the air, the atmosphere, and jargon of the day. More important, they represent the inexperience of men and women who’ve never crouched or dared bullets to find their hearts.

For Billy Lynn and the other men in Bravo Squad, their motives include the School of No Other Choice. Billy dodged jail by enlisting. He who has actually ducked and dodged bullets knows sacrifice and noble causes have little to do with coming home after his tour of duty ends. Coming home or being carried out in a body bag is random; it’s fickle fortune at work. Billy knows courage has even less to do with his deeds, heroic or cowardly. Necessity pushes and pulls men; duty requires them to act and do. Courage isn’t pulling any strings.

So the words for motives and actions are small and fragmented to Billy. They are parsed until they carry no weight. They mean nothing to the men who must endure handshakes and banquets given by men who only imagine it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country (Wilfred Owen).

Reading Challenge:

Read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

Writing Challenge:

Write a concrete poem that illuminates Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She is a free lance writer and writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Collected Works of . . .

“We are not quite novels. … We are not quite short stories. … In the end, we are collected works.”--A. J. Fikry to Maya in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Facebook and Buzzfeed often ask us about our favorite characters, comic book heroes, songs, lyrics, novels, and films. Those surveys are fun. They are also ways to hone marketing pitches for us.

All that data. All that information. Sifted. Sorted. Chaff set aside for another campaign; wheat ground into a tasty bread for our social media feed.

Still much truth lies in both baskets of wheat and chaff. In the end, we are collected works, an accumulation of not only our DNA, but our experience, in books and outside of them. Who then are you? Who am I?

I am rhyme, oft repeated from cradle and beyond: 

There was a little girl
With a curl in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good,
She was very very good,
But when she was bad,
She was horrid. (Longfellow)

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream. (Waring Pennsylvanians, 1925)

Scoops Banana Split, Camdenton, MO

Starlight, star bright,
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have this wish I wish tonight. (Anonymous)

* * * * *

The sounds and music intriguing enough to inspire a desire for more and more complexity, more solemnity, more exquisite beauty. I found all I desired in Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, and Shakespeare.

* * * * *

I am also drama, oft read, less often performed:

The Spider and the Fly, one of the poems Mother performed for elocution contests. She loved the sly nature of the spider, the fun of building suspense, and the metaphor leading to a moral.

Hamlet, another of Mother’s favorites. There is method in my madness found its way into our common, everyday language at home, and when I discovered the origin of the phrase many years later, I began a life-long journey to read, re-read, and understand the poor afflicted fellow. Such complexity in a single character helped me appreciate ambiguity, nuance, conflict, and sorrow.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, experienced first as a member of a New York audience, then later as a reader, and again later on film. The wit, the scholarship, the fresh retelling of Hamlet’s plight, the existential angst--all these struck harmonious chords and spoke of truths.

Jesus Christ Superstar. Irreverent. Permission to be gobsmacked and irreverent simultaneously. Plus rock and roll.

The Serpent with The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as the score. Story without words. Words in the service of story.

* * * * *

I am short stories--never my first, go-to reading choice, but always a pleasure:

In no particular order: J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, William Faulkner, William Styron, Jhumpa Lahiri, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Penn Warren, James Joyce, Saki--those authors are just the first to come to mind.

* * * * *

 I am novels--too many to list--so many from each decade of my life:

Wuthering Heights. Who knew the class divide could be so cruel, love so controlling and bitter? I didn’t until this book imprinted on my psyche.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. I read this one on the advice of a colleague. I read it reluctantly. I was wrong to hesitate. Wolff delivers compelling characters and felicitous prose.

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and so many more move toward endings ripe in ambiguity and wisdom. They are as complex as Hamlet and as lyrical as fine poetry. With the exception of Orwell, these are but the more memorable titles from the last few years in the life of a reader.

Reading Challenge:

Read the titles included in this post.

Writing Challenge:

Explore who you are and what you know by listing the poetry, plays, short stories, and novels you love.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Gretel: A Poem by Connye Griffin

I don't consider myself poetic although I'd like to think I render words poetically now and then. The poem below is one example.

The fable Hansel and Gretel inspired me to think about why Hansel earns top billing in the title. In the full, raw tale, unlike the ones Disney softens, Hansel saves no one, not even himself. It's little Gretel who has the big ideas. She's the one called upon to be bold, brave, and even cruel. She finds the steel in her spine without crushing all hope for a safer, happier life. She summons forgiveness and rescues both Hansel and the father who abandoned her. 

Here is a modern tribute to Gretel, to Girl Power in a fairy tale retold poetically.


Gretel, stop.
Breathe again.

You are powerless against her.
She is Penury.
She is Envy.
Your tears won’t plump her shriveled heart.

Just breathe, honey.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.

Your breath’s the rhythm of this world,
Senseless to you now.
But trust its power.
Forget Hansel’s crumbs and pebbles.
Breathe deeply. Relax.

Trust your wit.
Be brave.
Be resolved.

Ahead there be Sugared Monsters,
Temptations, False Hope.
Trust the you of you.
You’ve been tasked with the hero’s role.
You look good in Spandex.

Breathe steady, Gretel.
Bury fear. Quash doubt.
You can. You must.

Behind you stands cold betrayal.
Ahead lies deceit.
In this life you live
They will wrap you in chains, oppress you, end you—
If you let them. Don’t.

Manifest guile. Don’t hesitate.
Look the witch in the eye.
Push her in the oven.
Rescue Hansel; no crumbs required.
Fear nothing.

You now know:
You are golden,
Love abundant.

Go home. Forgive all or hold fast.
The choice is yours.
You’ll find your way.
You’ve pocketed your fortune.
It’s you. Now breathe.

Reading Challenge:

Read Grimm's tale, Hansel and Gretel.

Writing Challenge:

Identify the literary devices used in this original poem, including personification, allusion, syllable count or rhythm, and spondee

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Narrative Choices: Untrustworthy Narrators

An untrustworthy narrator is a strong foundation for suspense in mysteries and thrillers. The Girl on a Train starring Emily Blunt is an excellent adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel with the same title.

In both, Rachel, Megan, and Anna narrate their intersecting stories. Rachel is the least reliable of the three. The man she believes to have been the love of her life leaves her for Anna. Rachel thinks it’s because she descended into alcohol after she couldn’t conceive. The truth is something else, we learn.

Megan, first seen through Rachel’s eyes, seems to live a charmed life in which her husband adores her. The truth is something else. In flashbacks and dialogue, especially with her therapist, we learn Megan is more chimera, an illusion invented from Rachel’s needs.

Anna should be seen as completely untrustworthy immediately. She was John and Rachel’s realtor; she is now the wife of Tom, Rachel’s ex-husband; she has given Tom a daughter, something Rachel longed to do. An adulterer is traditionally and classically suspect as adultery requires a level of dishonesty. Worse, Anna is complicit in malice perpetrated by Tom.

Unraveling the stories to find the truth is the delight in Hawkins’ thriller.

Reading Challenge:

Read Paula Hawkins’ novel and the film adaptation.

Writing Challenge:

Make a list of character traits that prove who is trustworthy and who is not.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Literary Inference and Negan’s Victim in The Walking Dead

by Guest Blogger, Megan McClendon

I'll start by assuring readers there will be no spoilers from either the comic series or from the upcoming Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead (TWD), but (Warning!) for those not yet caught up on previously aired episodes from Season 6 and before, you may not want to read on.

For avid fans of the TWD television series, the frustrations that accompany each mid-season and season finale may be anticipated, expected even, but that doesn’t mean they grow any less frustrating, accustomed as I may be to the inevitable cliffhanger. Who lives? Who dies? Who goes to a darker place than viewers ever imagined possible? Remember, “Look at the flowers, Lizzie…”

The desire (or the desperate need, in my case) to predict what’s to come leaves viewers meticulously sorting through the evidence presented through the season’s storyline and binge watching previous seasons in hopes of identifying patterns that may allow us to infer even the smallest detail or predict the next tragic outcome.

Inference as a literary device is about drawing conclusions from evidence in the text. Likewise, the same method should be  employed to draw conclusions in TV and film. As far as TWD is concerned, fans of the show know that in the spring, showrunners left us hanging from the highest cliff yet with the new Big Bad in town, Negan, promising to “Beat the holy hell…” out of a member of our dearly beloved band of survivors.

The finale episode left watchers inches from their televisions, agog, only to watch the screen go black in front of our very eyes with a six-month wait ahead of us until the show’s return. Now, here we are. With only days to go until the Season 7 premiere, let’s take a closer look at my prediction as to who Negan’s ill-fated victim will be based on literary inference.

While showrunners have promised a departure from the storyline in the comics, they’ve also been known to toy with our emotions in the past. Despite the sound bites, the clear inference is that our hearts will break right along with Maggie as Glenn falls victim to Lucille, Negan’s souped up baseball bat and weapon of choice in the Zombie Apocalypse. Here’s the evidence to support it.

In the second half of Season 6, we saw Glenn grappling with the morality of slaying another group of survivors in their beds. [Side note: The fact that this played as an internal morality war should be a fairly good indicator of how far our protagonists have fallen.]

Glenn’s internal struggle between adhering to the loyalty he feels for his comrades and for Rick and his fears about raising a child in a world where such actions are acceptable regrettably allows us to infer that Glenn can no longer survive in this post-apocalyptic world and must hereafter exist only in our hearts and memories as the most recent moral martyr.

Indeed the source material predicts Glenn’s death, but stepping outside the universe of the comic books, the show has provided patterns and evidence for us, foreshadowing Glenn’s death as well. Essentially it comes down to one major problem with the character: Glenn is the last remaining moral compass from the original members of our group of survivors.

Photo Credit:

1) Time and again, TWD has shown us that being good equates to being dead. Such deaths are more often than not conveniently timed to pull the other characters back, if only slightly, before they lose the last shred of their humanity. We saw this with Dale in Season 1, Andrea in Season 2, Hershel in Season 4 and Reg in Season 6. As soon as a character begins to question aloud what it means to be human and what it means to be ‘walking dead,’ it’s essentially time for them to be among the latter.

2) The show is exploring the question of whether Rick and team are the good guys or the bad guys, and Glenn was just too clearly good. Taking the Grimes squad down the rabbit hole to a point where even the most loyal viewer questions whether our protagonists are inherently good or bad at this point in their journey lays the groundwork for a fabulous juxtaposition between Negan’s clan (with the addition of Rick’s group) and The Kingdom (the group that rescued Morgan and Carol).

3) New sources for morality have been introduced. Last season we saw the reintroduction of Morgan and the introduction of Jesus. Both characters, while they can see the underlying good in the people and the ends espoused by Rick and his team, question the means the Grimes’ group uses to find the safety they seek. The end of last season also portrayed a desperate Carol who would rather meet her end than go on living and killing as she had. Developing these three characters as moral compasses and a part of the seemingly still moral Kingdom community sets up Season 7 nicely for a storied battle of good vs. evil and may leave us all wondering where our beloved antiheroes will ultimately end up.

The challenge with inferences from evidence in both literature and film is you just never know whether you, as a reader or viewer, have plucked out the right tidbits, especially if the end is not yet in sight--as it surely will be on October 23rd.  As a fan of Glenn myself, I can only hope I’m inferring all the wrong things from all the wrong evidence and that the most beloved of our band of flawed protagonists lives to see yet another day. Literature, including film and television, is, after all, ambiguous, subject to multiple interpretations, but reasonable conclusions can be drawn from evidence within text, and I’ve just provided some. Let’s see what Season 7 brings, shall we?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Allusions in “For Mama Who Loved Words”

For Mama Who Loved Words

Long before your shrill panting breath ceased
Words whispered and stuttered, then died.

Frost’s ice storm should have pelted windows,
Coated trees, bent them as low as my wounded heart.
You should have ridden that tree into Spring,
Rising quick--heavenward, into Infinite Love.

Instead, on the night of your passing,
Folks kept to their calendars, their Friday night lights.
It was Dickinson’s ordinary night--except, of course,
The dying, undertaken alone--the rest of us free to come, to go
With soft footfall, stepping to the rhythms of machine and pulse

Your sights, dear Mama, an undiscovered country,
Your thoughts undisclosed, gripped first by aphasia, now death so near.
In solitude, we travel to an unknown, our place of origin,
Tennyson’s depths, beyond the bar, beyond breath, beyond touch.

May my words by Wordsworthy, drawing comfort
From this Prelude to my own passing and another beginning
Where others shall not grieve--as I do not.

My solace is in what remains, in memories
Of a woman, tiny, as I, eager to go, let myself be held
In her arms, in her silence, where she spoke of 
Love. Of gratitude. Of raw need.

In that embrace, I feel them all. I feel them still, here, now.
And in them I remember her sharp intakes of breath, the
Sound of recognition in a poet’s truth laid bare on the page.

This is her legacy, her last will and testament:
Lightning flashes upon a dark landscape
Where she is no more.

By Connye, A Daughter, October 7, 2016

Reading Challenge:

Read the hyperlinked poems to understand the allusions to works that have gone before, honed and perfected by four of poetry’s masters.

Writing Challenge:

Explain how one of the four poems alluded to in “For Mama Who Loved Words” functions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sully, Starring Tom Hanks, Of Course

The nation fell in love with Captain Chesley Sullenberger at first sight. Something in his eyes conveys the soul of the man, and that soul seemed then--and now--genuine, honest, responsible, and compassionate.

Sully’s voice also soothed the nation as he recounted the events on the day a U. S. Airways jet struck a large flock of Canada geese, knocking out the jet’s engines and rendering it impossible to return to airport runways. Sully judged his best option was to land the jet on the Hudson River, and he did.

The rest of us had no idea what Sully was going through behind the scenes. We didn’t know how much he cared whether all his passengers survived. We didn’t know the pressures pilots experience as investigators try to determine what happened and who’s liable. Clint Eastwood’s film titled Sully reveals what happened, including what happened in the mind of Sully.

Such an accessible and easily shared film allows for a quick lesson in tropes providing glimpses into the minds of characters. They could, for example, as Shakespeare’s protagonists do, step center-stage and speak their thoughts in a soliloquy. That’s rare, especially in the modern era when realism is in vogue. Thus, we might see characters speak their minds to a mirror, rehearsing what they might say in another setting. They might also read aloud from a diary or write notes and letters revealing their thoughts.

In Sully, Eastwood chooses flashbacks. As Sully runs, so do his thoughts, and they run to the seconds from take-off to landing in the water. As he tries to sleep, his thoughts intrude and steal his peace; the director shows us those intrusive thoughts.

The flashback is an effective tool for film. It’s used often and well in literature of all types.


Reading Challenge:

Read Sully starring Tom Hanks. You’ll like it, not only as a review of flashbacks, but also as a study in heroics without flash, crash, or dash.

Writing Challenge:

For further review, read more about the flashback here and more about soliloquies here. Choose one or both writing tasks from those earlier blog posts to complete.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Words Matter: Felicitous Language

One characteristic that distinguishes literary fiction from other fiction is felicitous language. Many writers tell good stories. Many more weave together suspense and character, keeping us entertained while delivering low voltage shocks to the backs of our necks. Others inform us, writing clearly and convincingly.

A few tell good stories, weave together suspense, character, entertainment, and information with exquisitely formed phrases. These write the books we read and remember well; these write the books that win prizes.

What makes the words of literary fiction different from words in other genres and sub-genres is the beauty of the language. It sings, dances, and resonates. It feeds a need for us. As A. J. Fikry says to his adopted daughter Maya, “The words you can’t find, you borrow.” (The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin)

And what are those words? They are words that teach us, that trigger recognition, that help us understand.

  • “A devil’s sick of sin” (Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”) describes the horrific final moments of a soldier who fumbled his gas mask, breathed in toxic mustard gas, and died slowly, suffering. A slight five words that endure, that give me words for what I’ve seen in the eyes of those lost, words I could not find alone. 
  • “…The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. . . .Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. . . .” (Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See) describes the beauty found in acts of war, translating man’s darkest moments into poetry.
  • “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.” (We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas) These words capture the reasons we cling to life and the joys to be found in living. Such an epic task delivered succinctly.
We read to know. We read to belong. We read to understand.

Reading Challenge:

Read for felicitous language.

Writing Challenge:

Write felicitous language.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hell or High Water’s Details Delight

Delight is often found in details: a bird’s trill on a misty morning, a Monarch sipping nectar from a bright flower, or an infant’s tiny hand wrapped around a calloused finger. Hell or High Water is rich in details that tell so much story.

Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Signs are great details in Hell or High Water.

As the Howard brothers drive Texas roads, the camera lingers on road signs reading Foreclosed, For Sale, and Closed. Without setting the film in a particular year or referencing the 2008 economic collapse attributed to banks, Hell or High Water provides a rich socio-economic context.

A different sign tells of wide open, empty spaces on the Texas prairies. It's a road sign pockmarked with bullet holes, a country pastime for young fools and drunk drivers. It’s a show of disrespect and of misplaced marksmanship.

Vigilante justice is another great detail used in Hell or High Water.

In fact, Hell or High Water features plenty of firearms, not just those used by the bank robbers, but those carried every day. Tanner Howard, one of the bank-robbing brothers portrayed in the film by Ben Foster, says “conceal carry permits” sure complicate bank robbing. Every Texan is ready and most are armed to see justice done.

In that environment, the Howard brothers are pursued by a pick-up truck posse, and they fire at the bad guys while they run. They only turn back when Tanner Howard confronts them with a bigger, automatic weapon with a big magazine.

Nature is another terrific detail in Hell or High Water.

One of the finer scenes says even more about tough men surviving an unforgiving, vast land. A huge prairie fire stalls the progress of two Texas Marshalls. Thick black smoke boils above simmering flames marching across the plains toward the Brazos River. Riding parallel are cowboys herding cattle toward the same river.

One Marshall asks if he shouldn’t call in the fire and bring some help for those boys. The old marshall, played flawlessly by Jeff Bridges, says “no,” as there’s no one to call and even if there were, the fire is too large, too powerful for nearby brigades to beat it back. Only the Brazos River will decide. It will smother the fire or save the cattle in such big, empty country where resources are few. A man must rescue himself in such country. And that is an excellent metaphor for the law-breaking protagonists waging war against the banks that beat them.   

They live on hard ground exacting hard consequences, inspiring dire deeds. Just details that open whole stories for our consideration.

Reading Challenge:

Read the excellent Hell or High Water.

Writing Challenge:

Write details that unfold whole stories.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hell or High Water: The Power of Myth

Every nation has had its share of greedy, arrogant leaders. Some of them have given birth to folk heroes like Robin Hood. Whether in the guise of a mischievous Disney fox in forest-green clothes or rendered by Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, Robin Hood has the face of a friend and a spine of steel.

Chris Pine’s contemporary portrait of a Robin Hood figure is no different except, perhaps, in something behind the eyes. In other films, they are open and as blue as the heavens. In Hell or High Water, those eyes are sometimes slits, often averted, and always flinty. He is a Robin Hood called Toby Howard, born in lowly circumstances, a child of poverty, his family’s legacy, passed down generation after generation “like a disease,” he says.

Hell or High Water’s Robin Hood, like the folk hero, is smart, daring, and quick. He steals only from those who stole from him, a Texas bank that loaned his cancer-stricken mother just enough money on a reverse mortgage to die and leave debt to her son, Toby.

Out of work and divorced, Toby cannot make the payments or pay the taxes. The bank will foreclose and lay claim to land once used for farming and ranching until drought laid prior claim to those human activities. The bank will also acquire a house in need of repair and a good purging.

Pettis County Barn by Al Griffin

Both land and home are priceless to Toby. They are his inheritance. They are his sons’ future, especially after an oil company finds wealth below the dry, dusty surface. That oil could vaccinate Toby’s sons against the disease of poverty. Toby will, by any means possible, buy the vaccine.

Toby asks his brother, Tanner, to help him. Tanner is a felon, convicted of killing the brothers’ father, despised by the brothers’ mother, and paroled with little hope or desire for a job. He agrees to help Toby because Toby asked.

Together, the Howard brothers rob banks, careful to conceal their faces and reveal themselves to no one until Tanner’s rash decision to rob one while his brother finishes lunch in a café across the street from the bank. The locals connect the dots and realize they can identify the thieves, but they don’t; they won’t because Toby is a man broken by the banks. He’s down on his luck in unlucky times. He’s a man out of time to work his way out of debt, and he’s generous to a fault. He leaves a $200 tip for the café waitress because she’s kind. She sees his sorrow, and she wouldn’t add to it--as a bank did.

That waitress not only refuses to identify Toby when later shown his photo, she also refuses to surrender the $200 until forced to do so by a Texas Marshall. Another diner also refuses to identify Toby’s photo as the robber who broke bread in town. He offers that the true criminals are bankers with Texas Midlands.

In scenes when the brothers drive highways and dusty backroads, they pass signs announcing homes for sale, businesses closed, foreclosures. Times are bad. Jobs are scarce. The 99% is afflicted with empathy for each other and antipathy against the 1%.

Even a professional who helps Toby pay off the bank debt with the banks’ own money refuses to turn in the Howards. He knows how little the bank offered to a desperate woman with malice aforethought so he helps Toby claim his true inheritance, his boys, and the oil.

Hell or High Water packs a terrific political commentary on economic hard times. The movie is also a good heist story with plenty of action. Audiences root for the Howard brothers, even glossing Tanner’s brutal acts: dragging a bank teller by her long hair and shoving her down, striking an ugly blow across the nose of a bank manager, and killing bystanders in one bank. (Spoiler Alert!) Tanner pays for his brutality with his life.

Toby’s hands set it all in motion, and they are bloody as a consequence. The crusty old Texas Marshall who knows Toby is the puppetmaster, but can’t prove it, says Toby will be haunted all his days because of what he’s done.

Toby is just fine with being haunted. His cause was righteous. He set out to cure the disease of poverty for his boys. He fought the evil in his land--not the Sheriff of Nottingham as Robin Hood did--but the Texas Midlands Bank.

Reading Challenge:

Read Hell or High Water. Apply the five conflicts, but especially man against society as your read.

Writing Challenge:

Re-tell the Robin Hood tale using modern locations and circumstances.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Words Matter: Reading

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”
A. J. Fikry to Maya in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Lady Mary Montagu shared her advice with her daughter in letters, as was expected of her. She was a lady of title and some acclaim in the eighteenth century. She had brought back news of a smallpox vaccine after visiting Turkey and has been credited with advancing the defeat of that disease.

Montagu advocated teaching girls to read, a minority opinion in her time. She believed that knowledge is a solid foundation for a moral life. She also believed that girls without beauty needed reading skills so that they could occupy themselves quietly and meaningfully while they lived at the mercy of any relative who might given them shelter.

Unattractive girls were not expected to land a husband--unless, of course, she could bring great wealth to the marriage, and thus, she would have to depend upon the kindness of a relative for home and security. Montagu’s granddaughter had neither great wealth nor beauty so Lady Montagu advised her daughter to teach her child to read as a blanket protecting her from chilly loneliness, a balm against sorrow.

Gabrielle Zevin, through her titular character, A. J. Fikry, also believes in the benefits of reading. In The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, reading transforms several lives. A. J. Fikry is less alone because he reads. A book even prolongs his life. The Police Chief becomes a friend because of books and evolves into an avid reader because of that friendship. Love appears a second time in Fikry’s life because of books, and an orphaned toddler grows rich in thought and understanding because she lives surrounded by books and readers.

That little girl becomes a writer, affirming what Stephen King and a long parade of writers have said through the ages: writers read. From reading, they acquire knowledge. From reading, they acquire words. From reading, they acquire community while laboring alone with blank pages and ideas glimpsed. From reading, they acquire a life that, with a bit of luck, extends far beyond their own.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and/or Lady Mary Montagu’s advice to her daughter. Zevin’s book is also rich in references to other works, especially short stories. Make a list and read them all.

Writing Challenge:

Characters in Zevin’s book believe that asking people what they read or last read reveals something about their natures. It also helps people separate acquaintances from friends and a coffee date from a potential life partner.

What are your top three reads? Don’t agonize over the choices. List quickly what comes to mind first, second, and third.

For me--and I surprised myself because it’s so hard to choose--they are:
  • Anything by Kate Atkinson
  • J. D. Salinger’s short story, “For Esmé--With Love and Squalor”
  • George Orwell’s novel, Coming Up for Air
  • Carol Shields’ novel Unless

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Imagery, Stephen King, and Kate Atkinson

Images of Grace
Stained Glass by Ruth Hillers
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
“Imagery is for me of paramount importance in a text, not complex imagery that jumps up and down and demands to have its hand shaken but a more subtle web that weaves its way through, often enigmatically, and knits everything together.” (from “Author’s Note,” A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson)

For me, that is the purest pleasure in reading literary fiction: discovering imagery that “knits everything together.” Atkinson notes she too was pleased to discover references to man’s fall from grace throughout her novel and to “The ‘red thread’ of blood that binds the Todds. …” That thread “echoes the red ribbon of the long leg to Nuremberg that echoes the thin red cords of Teddy’s sheltered housing. …” The author hadn’t noticed that pattern “until the final read-through of the novel.” In other words, the imagery knitting everything together was intuitive or developed unconsciously.

Other authors agree about the paramount importance of imagery. On the subject, Stephen King has written:

“Novels are more than imagery--they are thought, plot, style, tone, characterization, and a score of other things--but it is the imagery that makes the book ‘stand out’ somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light. … story springs from image: that vividness of place and time and texture.” 

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins. Take note of images that knit the pieces of the novel together, but Atkinson asks that readers avoid asking “why there are so many geese” in the novel. She has no idea. (from “Author’s Note”)

Writing Challenge:

Recall your favorite novel. Identify and explain the images that knit everything together.