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. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fiction and the Fall

According to the author, Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins (2015) is not a sequel. It is instead a companion piece to Life after Life (2013). Both novels take place during World War II, but Life after Life is Ursula’s story during the London blitz whereas A God in Ruins is Teddy’s, a man assigned to drop bombs on people of another nation.

In Author’s Note at the end of the A God in Ruins, Atkinson explains “…nothing … happens during the chapters set during the war in ‘A God in Ruins’ that isn’t in some way based on a real-life incident that I came across in the course of my research (even the most horrific, even the most outlandish), although nearly always modified in some way.” Nevertheless, she does not define the novel as historical fiction, but rather simply fiction “documenting … [not only] the prized virtue of stoicism but a heroism and determination (and modesty) that seem almost alien to us nowadays. … One cannot fail to be moved by the sacrifice of their lives and I suppose that was what first impelled … [her] to write this novel.”

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Atkinson adds “all novels are not only fiction but they are about fiction too. … Every time a writer throws themselves at the first line of a novel they are embarking on an experiment. An adventure.” In other words, Atkinson didn’t set out to write a factual, historical account of the war as fighter pilots experienced it. She set out to explore the character of the men who dropped bombs and survived.

Atkinson also explains what she believes fiction to be: “rich textural (and textual) interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme and image and all the other ingredients that get thrown in the pot….” On the subject of A God in Ruins, she says it is not only fiction but about fiction as well--“…how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From grace).” Indeed, she adds, “War is Man’s greatest fall from grace, of course, especially perhaps when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots. We can never doubt (ever) the courage of those men in the Halifaxes and Stirlings and Lancasters but the bombing war was undoubtedly a brutish affair, a crude method employing a blunt weapon, continually hampered by the weather and lack of technology (despite massive advances that war always precipitates). The large gap between what was claimed for the results of the bombing campaign and what was actually achieved was never fully understood at the time, and certainly not, I suspect, by those men flying the bombers.”

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins, keeping in mind Atkinson’s belief that the novel is not just about Teddy, but also about fiction and the Fall of man from grace. Note references to Utopia and Eden as well as allusions to Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress, just four references Atkinson lists in “Author’s Note.”

Writing Challenge:

Write your own analysis of what A God in Ruins is about.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Figurative Language: Using Words to Explain the Human Experience

Marching onward into infamy or enlightenment, from Phil Donahue to Terry Gross, is a school of journalism better known as on-air confessional. Here’s one:

“They made fun of my size so I feel ugly and awkward.”

“But you’re a perfect size 6,” says the show’s host, incredulously, eyes wide to underscore his incredulity.

With moments like the sample above, countless talk-show hosts have tried to unmask the human soul made raw by casual verbal slaughters in an effort to help us comprehend the life-long damage inflicted by bullies, malicious or stupid.

Image from
Kate Atkinson accomplishes the feat in 53 figurative words:

“A little jab to the heart. You had to be careful of the jabs--if you had enough of them they could weaken the fabric of the heart, open up fault lines, fissures and rifts, and before you knew where you were the whole brittle structure could shatter into a thousand tiny pieces.” (Atkinson, Kate. A God in Ruins. New York: Little, 2015. Kindle Ed. 4950)

Using an extended metaphor, Atkinson describes the damage inflicted by unkind words and deeds on the human heart, itself a metaphor for the psyche or soul. Too many and the soul is in danger of shattering.

Reading Challenge:

Read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

Writing Challenge:

Invent a brief description for the good or bad delivered unto us by others. Try not to exceed 100 words. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Personification Explains

Is there any word as abused as love? Teens toss it to each other in passing. Men and women profess it whether they understand it or not. Poets and playwrights have written of it millions of times without repeating each other; they’ve described aptly the experience of love found and lost and won.

Maya Angelou elected to personify love, giving it the power not just to move us, but move itself. She writes:

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Angelou seems to agree with a fine theme often made by writers, poets, and playwrights, and that is: love conquers all to restore us to a one of our finest states: the state of hope.

Images and animals are often personified. A personified caption for this image is:
Dawn calls us to renew our hopes.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Reading Challenge:

Read for personification, a trope by which writers give non-human objects human traits.

Writing Challenge:

Personify abstractions such as hate and courage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Analogy: Another Way Words Matter

An analogy is a comparison between two things to explain or clarify a concept, especially an intangible one. For example, success is a concept and a state desired by most people. But what does success mean, and how can I achieve it? An analogy answers both questions. Warren Buffett uses analogy to answer both questions from his point of view:

“Games are won by players who focus on the playing field--not by those whose eyes are glued to the overboard.” --Warren Buffett

Knockerball places soccer players inside plastic bubbles. They can more easily
see their own feet instead of scoreboards or the whole playing field. Still, they
would be wise to heed Warren Buffett's admonition to win. They must read
the field and go to goal.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Buffett’s analogy explains success as victory and the means to victory as “focus on the playing field,” not simply on the final score or a win-loss record. Winning is knowing the opponents, the rules, and physics affecting impact, angles, and lines.

In Buffett’s world wining is knowing investors, policies, and markets. Buffett is, after all, an investor with a great record of building assets. The context of his experience allows readers to conclude that winning is playing a long game, longer than a one-point advantage,

Reading Challenge:

Read for analogies--comparisons that clarify--as Buffett’s does.

Writing Challenge:

Create analogies, comparing prisons to public schools.