Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Words Matter, The Power of Redundancy and Understatement

Alabama Cotton, the State where Bragg grew to
manhood and the crop his mother picked to help
him on his way. This photo is from a blog:

This is not an important book. It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeasten Alabama, …. Anyone could tell it, anyone with a daddy who let his finer nature slip away from him during an icebound war in Korea,…. Anyone could tell it, anyone who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, …. Anyone could tell it, and that’s the shame of it. --Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’. New York: Vintage, 1997. xi-xii.

This masterful passage has been excerpted, and I’m sorry about that. Every word of the passage matters, and every word is art. Still, for the sake of the techniques reviewed herein, I have abbreviated the paragraphs.

What should be apparent immediately is the use of understatement to open the passage. The book is, without doubt, an important book as is any honest, true memoir that refuses to gloss the past, but consider what the book is about: a strong woman who sacrificed for her three sons hemmed in by circumstance and a tortured man who lost his finer nature during war. With those brief descriptions, Bragg evokes the epic struggles of heroes and villains, knowns and unknowns, of people who confront the dark hearts of men and engage in epic battles between love and loss, envy and charity, good and evil.

Bragg also employs redundant phrasing, repeating Anyone could tell it, anyone . . . , but if we are as honest as the author, we must admit we couldn’t tell it. Many of us rose from privileged circumstances; many more of us simply can’t recount a story so persuasively and effectively.

Redundancy is not a fault, but one more powerful rhetorical device known as parallelism, used for emphasis. In Bragg’s case, parallelism serves to underscore or facilitate understatement, suggesting Bragg’s story is both universal and exceptional as well as important.

Reading Challenge:

Read more about understatement and parallelism by using the links for each word. You may also review earlier posts to My Writing and Editing Coach from February 28, 2010, April 1, 2011, and March 30, 2016.

Writing Challenge:

Use understatement and parallelism in a passage about your family’s history.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Words Matter, Even the Humble, Hard-Working Word “And”

This is no sob story. While you will read words laced with bitterness and killing anger and vicious envy, words of violence and sadness and, hopefully, dark humor, you will not read much whining. Not on her part, certainly, because she does not know how.
--from Bragg, Rick, All Over But the Shoutin’. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. xiii.

In this compelling, short paragraph, Bragg used the humble, oft-unnoticed, hard-working word “and” four times to separate descriptors for the noun “words.” He says readers will read words “laced with bitterness and killing anger and vicious envy, words of violence and sadness and, … dark humor.” A comma could easily replace the first and third uses of “and” so why does Bragg use them? What do those two “ands” add in this context?

The humble conjunction taking the place of a comma between items in a list adds distinction and emphasis to each descriptor. Each descriptive word has more weight as an item unto itself, and that is by design.

That is also a fine writing technique known as polysyndeton:

Polysyndeton (paulee-SIN-dih-tawn): Figure of addition and emphasis which intentionally employs a series of conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, so, yet) not normally found in successive words, phrases, or clauses; the deliberate and excessive use of conjunctions in successive words or clauses. --from an online resource: American Rhetoric: Rhetorical Figures in Sound

Click on the link above to go directly to the site. There you will see other excellent examples of polysyndeton from the Bible, Katherine Hepburn, FDR, and Vince Lombardi.

Reading Challenge:

Read All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg’s poignant tribute to a mother’s love and devotion.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a passage from your own writing journal that could profit from polysyndeton.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Diction: Words Matter

Your Daily Poem delivers words that matter to your email inbox every morning. The creators choose poems in keeping with the seasons. They present, in their own words, “poetry that is touching, funny, provocative, inspiring, and surprising. It may punch you in the gut, it may bring tears to your eyes, it may make you laugh out loud, but it most assuredly will not bore you. Poetry on YDP [Your Daily Poem]--by poets living and long dead, famous to completely unknown--is specially selected for accessibility and appeal.”

I agree. The poems are accessible. They appeal to my senses and sensibilities. Consider the title of a collection from which one poem was selected: We Are Traveling Through Dark at Tremendous Speed by Sarah Sadie.

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
What an apt description for life? Every future second is an unknown. We see through glasses darkly. No matter how well prepared we are, how extensive our experience and understanding, we take one step, two steps, three steps … into a future that isn’t available for preview.

Furthermore, we hurtle toward that future. With every passing year, the 365 days seems to decrease. Twenty-four hours isn’t enough for all we want and need. We are indeed “traveling through dark at tremendous speed.”

And that is the power of words that matter. They conjure an entire universe, a philosophy, and a worldview. They carry us to heights and valleys, to exhilaration and exquisite sorrow.

And the poem that appeared for Your Daily Poem with Ms. Sadie’s permission was titled “Empathy Party.” It’s available in a downloadable ebook at no charge on Google.

Reading Challenge:

Read from Your Daily Poem every day. Subscribe.

Writing Challenge:

Write an 8-word sentence that conjures an entire universe.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Low Comedy

Last week, I mentioned low comedy--just one of several levels of comedy. Knowing them provides insight into why we laugh; knowing them also helps writers use them.

Low comedy tends to be physical comedy or comedy related to bodily functions. Our body’s often betray us and make us look clumsy, awkward or foolish. Passing gas from upper or lower orifices is just one example. Staggering for balance after stubbing our toe is another. The human form may be capable of grace and exquisite beauty, but it is just as likely to tumble and grow ugly in a moment.

Shakespeare was a master at blending low comedy and its loftier cousins. Twelfth Night is an excellent example. Poor, dim Sir Andrew Aguecheek misinterprets Sir Toby Belch’s affection. Andrew believes Toby is a friend who would never harm him. Toby has no such moral compass. He mocks everyone and uses Andrew for his own entertainment, especially when Andrew boasts that he’s quite a dancer. Toby then advises Andrew not to walk from place to place, but dance even when he approaches the urinal. Taken with the idea, Andrew dances off stage to, we presume, a urinal.

Such absurb, farcical notions are often a part of low comedies. Farce also includes characters who lack fashion sense. Men with beer bellies in spandex swim briefs or grandmothers in frou-frou dresses make most of us smile.

Body and dress combined have created comedy, too. The Marx brothers wore clothing that didn’t fit well and was rarely appropriate for the setting or occasion. More often, they wore old-world clothing for every occasion. They then added to the comic affect by adopting exaggerated strides, flailing their arms, or making faces. The Three Stooges and Monty Python provided comedy with similar devices and similar effects.

All three comedy troupes, the Marx brothers, Three Stooges, and Monty Python, made frequent, sometimes disgusting use of slapstick, a particularly rowdy form of physical comedy, one prominent in cartoons. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoons illustrate slapstick very well.

Reading Challenge:

Read any of the YouTube videos linked in this post. Twelfth Night is also available as a fine film. 

Writing Challenge:

Describe your favorite low comedy moment--the one that still makes you laugh.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Comedy: Laughing at the Clown

Last week’s post about Silicon Valley referenced social circles or norms as instruments of comedy. This week’s post continues to explain how those instruments serve comedy.

When a character defies, neglects, or ignores social norms, he makes himself a target for laughter, but the laughter tends to be gentle--more a chuckle really--because we recognize our own missteps. We remember when we have looked foolish and silly so we aren’t too harsh in our judgment. We will welcome the character back into our social circle once he recognizes his errors.

Donald Duck is a classic example of such a comic character. He’s quick-tempered and bull-headed. Either trait is bound to jeopardize his peace and harmony, but together those traits guarantee plenty of momentary misery. We laugh, shake our heads, and wonder when Donald will learn to calm down, be patient, and accept help, and once he does, we forgive all.

Donald Duck's kin--their waddle alone makes people smile.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Some characters will never be a Donald Duck. They never seem to learn. Jonah Ryan and Dan Egan, major characters on HBO’s Veep, are comic clowns so ambitious and so jealous of others that each is equally doomed to exist outside the boundaries of social circles.

Each character defies social norms. Dan recently ignored a date to meet Amy Brookheimer for a sexual romp in favor of Amy’s sister--just because she was handier. Jonah, in the same episode, cursed at potential voters because they insulted his appearance and later, offered him food that he disliked. His arrogance in both moments revealed the true nature of the candidate, and that nature is unelectable--or at least, was once unelectable--until the race for president in 2016, that is.

As a result of their natures and their bad behaviors, Jonah and Dan are forever condemned to dwell outside the circle of social norms. Even those among us who have stumbled on level pavement, stomped on the feelings of a dear heart, and thrown a tantrum over something truly inconsequential thrust Jonah and Dan outside the circle. They have yet to repent, yet to recognize their own hubris, and yet to ask forgiveness. In return, they have yet to be forgiven. They are the buffoons, the louts, and losers we are quite willing to laugh at--never with.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Veep to enjoy its snarky, rapid pace; its deadly aim at narcissism, especially the peculiar narcissism among politicians; its bombast and its lambaste. Watch the antics of two clowns forever outside social norms.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a moment of low comedy in this season’s episodes of Veep. Explain why the moment exemplifies low comedy.