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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

I’ve been reading the essays of author Andre Dubus, considered a master of the short form. In his book, Meditations from a Movable Chair (New York: Vintage, 1999), Dubus writes an essay called “First Books” and offers this encouragement to writers:

An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and more dangerously despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed. (162-63)

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Writers, we must endure. We must keep working knowing that the words we write are worth it . . . it being the process, the “splendid” work, the worthy and demanding work.

No one said it would be easy. No one said it would be a sure path to fame and fortune. But as writers, we must be true to ourselves, to our giftedness and our calling. We must reach and try and write and rewrite and reach again because it matters.

If we’re true to our giftedness, then we will continue to write — no matter whether published or not, read or not. It is the “widow’s mite” that we offer up, and we are blessed.

 

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It’s odd to think of a time when words did not have standardized meanings, when such things as dictionaries did not exist.

profIn fact, of course, there was such a time. In his book The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), Simon Winchester reminds us that Shakespeare had no way to check spelling of words or variances of meaning since standardization did not exist. He could not “look something up.” The concept did not even exist.

While a few men in the early centuries tried to build what would be called early dictionaries (including Samuel Johnson in 1755), these trials would be eclipsed by the proposal in 1857 for a “big dictionary” that was to be an “inventory of the language.” This proposed dictionary would be “the history of the life span of each and every word” that appeared in the English language (104). This dictionary would chart the life of each word, recording its first mention in literature, then subsequent usages, “for every word, a passage quoted from literature that showed where each word was used first” (105). It would then show how the meanings of the word changed across the years — in some cases, across the centuries.

After some fits and starts and times when the very idea of this task seemed impossible (no computers!), Professor James A. H. Murray of the London Public School Mill Hill and member of the London Philological Society was chosen to take on the task of editor and find a way to complete the work. After getting Oxford Publishers on board, the project continued in earnest in 1879.

Murray’s first step was to recruit an army of English-speaking volunteers who would read books and gather words and quotations. The call for volunteers went out in flyers across Great Britain, the British colonies, and America. As people volunteered, Murray mailed them the following, which amounts to a style sheet of guidelines for these researchers:

The quotations, said the editor’s first page, were to be written on half sheets of writing paper. The target word — the “catchword,” as Murray liked to call it — was to be written at the top left. The crucial date of the quotation should be written just below it, then the name of the author and title of the cited book, the page number, and finally, the full text of the sentence being quoted. …

Murray’s rules were clear and unambiguous: Every word was a possible catchword. Volunteers should try to find a quotation for each and every word in a book. They should perhaps concentrate their efforts on words that struck them as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way, but they should also look assiduously for ordinary words as well, providing that the sentence that included it said something about the use or meaning of the word. (134-35)

The volunteers began working — sending their slips of paper by the thousands every day. A first editor read to see if the slip was legible and had all the required elements; a second editor sorted the slips into alphabetical order. A third editor then divided the words into parts of speech (the same word being used as a noun, verb, adjective, etc.). A fourth editor began to “subdivide the meanings into the various shades it had enjoyed over its life [and] . . . make a first stab at writing that most crucial feature of most dictionaries — the definition” (151). The plan was to have “at least one sentence from the literature of each century in which the word was used” (152). Murray did the final edits of the definition, chose the best quotations, and determined the word’s pronunciation.

These new dictionaries were published alphabetically in sets. Portions of A – B appeared in 1885; another portion of B in 1887; the book comprising the letter C appeared in 1897 and was dedicated to Queen Victoria in her jubilee year.

The Oxford English Dictionary was officially completed in 1928, taking 70 years, resulting in 12 volumes with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Sadly, Murray died in 1915 and did not live to see the completion of the work to which he gave so much of his life — practically living in the Scriptorium at Oxford University, placing slips of paper into over a thousand pigeonholes on banks of shelves specially built to sort words. A supplement was published in 1933, and four supplements came out between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, the computer aided in creating a second edition of the OED.

The OED website now boasts “over 600,000 words over a thousand years.” The “big dictionary” is now updated on a quarterly basis, revising existing entries and adding new words and senses of words.

Current principal editor of new words, David Martin, explains that 600 new words have been added in the latest update — new words and phrases such as crowd-surfer, Debbie Downer, facepalm, hashtag (as a verb), and TGIF.

And just who was the madman in the title of Winchester’s book? He was one of the most prolific of Murray’s word-seeking volunteers. You’ll want to read the book for all of those details!

In the meantime, grab the nearest dictionary — you probably don’t own an OED, but you probably have a dictionary of some sort. Revel in the plethora of information therein about every single word.

And be thankful for this great editor James Murray and the thousands of little slips of paper that got the whole thing started.

UPDATE March 27, 2019, see this official trailer for the film version of this book.

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I didn’t know what the word meant either.

I was first introduced to it in an MFA class with Dr. Root. And the minute we began to read examples and try it for ourselves, I was in love.

Wikipedia defines it this way: “Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.”

Basically, for me as a writer, it’s me using my words in as creative a way as possible to describe another form of art, such as a painting or a photograph (although it takes on many other forms).

For example, this painting titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” has inspired many pieces of ekphrasis.

In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus who created the labyrinth. Daedalus and Icarus tried to escape Crete with wings made of feathers and wax. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high and thus too close to the sun because the wax would melt. Icarus ignored his father, flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melted, and he fell into the sea. His pride destroyed him.

Now look at Brueghel’s painting:

Bruegel,_Pieter_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder, circa 1558 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ekphrastic writing about this painting draws us back to study it more closely, seeing what the writer saw in what the painter presented.

For example, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) wrote a poem titled the same as the painting: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Read it here, and then come back and study the painting. Williams studies what the painter has done, showing us a regular world of common people plowing or sailing while the mythic event unfolded. (See the little legs of Icarus as he splashes into the water on the bottom right of the painting?)

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) also wrote an ekphrastic poem from this painting titled “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Notice Auden’s take on how life goes on even as tragedy unfolds.

One more: Michael Hamburger (1924-2007) wrote a poem “Lines on Brueghel’s ‘Icarus.'” He focuses on those foreground details while Icarus is “left to drown.”

The point for me is the value of noticing, of looking closely, of then writing in such a way as to illuminate the picture or painting, to draw us in and make us look again and see what the writer sees.

I find this exercise helpful because looking at a picture and writing about it seems to turn on the creative spigot and help me dig deep into myself.

I’ve tried the exercise with my Freelancing class, asking them to bring in a photograph (or they can choose a painting or movie poster or something similar) that means something to them. They then are challenged to describe the picture, tell us a story, and draw us in.

To say I was impressed is an understatement. We put the photographs on screen in the classroom and the students read their ekphrastic pieces. From the student who had a photo of her mother’s gravestone, to the family portraits, to the four guys on a road trip, to “us-sies” with family members or significant others, to interesting places they traveled, their writing drew us in, helped us study the details of the photographs, and gave us insight into their lives.

Next post, I’ll share with you my own experiment with ekphrasis.

Have you ever tried this kind of writing? How did it work for you?

 

 

 

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My Goodreads account is making me feel guilty.

At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to read 52 books and, well, it is letting me know in its calm yet non-confrontational way that I am “21 books behind schedule.”

Yikes.

I could chalk it up to, I don’t know … writing my own book, finishing my thesis, reading the thesis submissions from my cohorts in the MFA program, and moving ourselves to a new house.

Or maybe I was just lazy.

That’s sad news for someone who regularly lists her favorite hobby as “reading.”

So now I’m attempting to make amends, although since we’re a third of the way through September, I’m not sure I’ll reach my 2017 goal. And it certainly isn’t for lack of books to read. In fact, as I mentioned, we moved ourselves to a house in a new town. That of course meant packing up our many shelves of books. As we packed, I attempted to organize the books into boxes so that unpacking and placing them on new bookshelves would be an easier categorizing process.

We purchased 5 new bookshelves. A few of them are here on our sunny landing where I also have my work office and an old library table that doubles as my desk.

sunny landing

Then we bought a couple more shelves for our entryway:

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And we have shelves in our bedroom. I have one shelf that is now dedicated to my “to reads.” In other words, as I shelved the books from the boxes, I set aside all the books that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time — books that were purchased and then made their way to various nooks and crannies and promptly were forgotten.

Now, this way, I always have my “to reads” right in front of me. Here’s a picture of my shelf.

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It’s an eclectic mix of fiction and fantasy and memoir and nonfiction. There are 40 books on the shelf; reading half this shelf will get me to my reading goal.

But more than just meeting a goal, I’m excited to finally get through each of these books. They sit there in all their glory, promising so much.

Right now, I’m reading a book written by one of our Professional Writing graduates — a debut novel that won a prize from Simon & Schuster, was first an ebook, and then was released in paperback. I’m so proud of Chandler and what he has accomplished in his young life as a writer. It’s fantasy, so a new genre to me. I’m diving into The Facefaker’s Game.

After I finish that, then I’m on to another book on my shelf. No more looking around wondering what to read next. No more feeling at a loss. The shelf is there. When I finish one and move it upstairs to the other categorized shelves, I’ll have space to add another that I will inevitably purchase.

Because, no matter how far behind I get, I’ll just keep on reading.

What are you reading right now?

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I hyperventilate when I go into used bookstores. For thirty years my husband has dragged me to antique stores and the only saving grace to these excursions (where eventually every antique begins to look the same) is that sometimes the booths will have books. I zero in on these, turning my head sideways to read along the spines. I don’t feel the same way in my local Books-a-Million, although if I have to go shopping that’s where I want to go.

There’s just something about the smell of used bookstores and the possibility of treasures to be found. If I’m going to by one of the classics or a book on my list, I don’t want one of those repackaged recent releases or (God forbid) the ones that put on the cover not the person but the movie star playing that person (seriously, a book about Julia Child with Meryl Streep on the cover?). And I’m not all worried about getting first editions or signed copies. Instead, I just want to pick it up and know that I’m giving it new life. It was written (by hand, in the case of those classics), edited, typeset (when typesetting was really setting type), printed bound, and sent out into the world. Someone bought it and put it on a shelf. Sometimes that person’s name will appear handwritten inside the cover. Chances are, that person read it. I love it when evidence of that shows up with underlines or marginal comments.

I love the feel of those books. I will often buy it if it feels right in my hands. I look forward to reading it just so I can hold it and turn the pages. The last time the book felt that was when that person decades ago did the same as I am doing now. It’s a kinship. We read the same words, get engrossed in the same story, get pulled away into the world that writer created.

What is it that pulls us into books? Why do we read, anyway? In her book, Ruined by ruined by readingReading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz muses about why we are willing to spend hours of our lives with tales others have spun.

I have read for so many years but, like Schwartz, I wonder at why it is I cannot recall so much of what I’ve read. Thus I’m glad to know that others have been in the same boat. Schwartz writes, “I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. My lifelong capacity for forgetting distresses me. I glance at a book on the shelf that I once read with avid interest . . . and while I struggle for the details, all I recall is the excitement of the reading. . . . What do I have, then, after years of indulgence? A feel, a texture, an aura.”

Precisely for this reason of forgetting what I’ve read (and the accompanying distress), a few years ago I gathered up some of those lists of “must read” classic books. I began to work my way through it, hoping to recapture the wonder. As I began pursuing an advanced degree in English, I realized that I had to be able to actually discuss the classic works, not just pretend that I had read them or, even if I had, pretend that I remembered them. So the past few years I dove into Moby Dick and This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea and Portrait of a Lady among many others of the great classics. Some I enjoyed. Some I wanted to pull my eyes out (hello, Moby Dick. I’m sorry. I probably need to turn in my credentials to speak such blasphemy). But I felt accomplished reading them and saying I’ve read them and being able to, while perhaps not remembering all the details (a problem I wish I could overcome, but maybe no one remembers every detail), at least remember the basic story.

And that makes me feel something.

What is that feeling? And why do I feel it? When I finish a classic work, I join a club—a club of readers across months or years or decades or centuries who also have gently opened the cover, absorbed the words, turned the pages, finished and imbibed the story. No matter what I do, it’s there forever. Of course, not all the details (as I’ve already established) but the story. I am forever changed, I have a new view on the world, I learned something.

That tends to be my “divining rod” (as Schwartz calls it) helping me work my way through the morass of books stacked in teetering piles in used bookstores. I go straight to the reference section to find books about writing that I can use in my teaching. Then I’m over in the classics, then memoir, then the books of essays. I have never been a reader of romance or popular fiction. (On a visit, I once picked up a copy of a Danielle Steele at my mother-in-law’s house. By the fourth page I was so appalled by the terrible writing I laughed out loud.)

When I read, I want to learn something. And if a book isn’t pulling me along with its lyrical writing or keeping me turning pages or giving me info that helps me see the world in a new way, then I’m not interested and am not above putting it back on the shelf unfinished.

Life is too short to read a bad book.

But I feel like I came late to the reading game. I wasn’t precocious. In fact, I remember being mortified that many of my fellow fifth graders were reading from the advanced areas of the reading box when I was down in the “average.” I stunk at math and hated science, but reading? I loved reading. I felt like I should have tested right into those higher levels. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my fifties and felt the sting of both not having read the classics and not being “up” on even recent authors. So I made my list of the must-reads and began to work my way through it.

Now I read voraciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. Which I am. But, again, why? It gets back to that feeling of knowing¸ of learning. Is my life better for understanding the whaling culture explained to me (ad nauseum) in Moby Dick? Actually, yes, I think so. Do I have a better understanding of writing from studying The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby? I do indeed. Is my writing life inspired by the writing of Flannery O’Connor and  Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekov? Yes.

In short, I read because it inspires me. Sometimes it is the grace of the writing. Sometimes it is the very encouragement I get to live better and be better and write better.

So tell me, what is it about reading that enthralls you?

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The things we carry tell a lot about us.

In my Writer’s Craft class, we studied the value of details in our stories — you know, those little words or tiny descriptions that can make a whole story turn and give a complete description without having to say much at all.

To illustrate how this can work, we read part of the first story of Tim O’Brien’s work, The Things They Carried. This essay collection details some of O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Published in 1990, twenty years after O’Brien returned from the war, the story still resonates with its gritty realism. Such a story could only be written by someone who lived it.

The titular essay describes the various soldiers in the 23rd Infantry Division with vivid descriptions mostly of — you guessed it — what each soldier was carrying. From these lengthy paragraph descriptions, my students and I could detail on the board the job each soldier had within the unit, what he cared about, and even a bit about what he was like (the things carried could be something like “fear”). Here’s just a taste:

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The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

This first essay gives a brilliant picture of this group of men, together by necessity, bound to one another, trying to do the tasks assigned and stay alive.

So my students did a writing exercise. I asked them to dig into their backpacks or purses or pockets or wallets and list everything they were carrying. Then they did some free writing. My challenge to them was to write a couple of paragraphs describing what the things they were carrying revealed about them.

There’s the girl who was lugging around in her backpack papers that she didn’t even need (and she couldn’t remember what class they were from). There’s the girl with the detailed calendar. There’s the guy with the extra pens and the other who probably needs to bum writing implements. Almost all of them were carrying books (one read Shakespeare constantly!). The students carried pictures or other items that brought back memories.

I looked in my purse. First, it’s way too big, but I like a big purse when I need to carry extra — you know — stuff. I have a big make-up bag with extras of all the basics after one day a couple years ago when I arrived at school and had forgotten to put on any make-up! I vowed that would never ever happen again! I have a notebook like what I tell my students to carry so that they can write down brilliant ideas when they strike. It’s pretty much bereft of brilliant ideas, although I do use it to jot down names of books I want to read.

In other words, I’m carrying things I hope not to need (extra make-up) and things I hope to need (a place to write down brilliant ideas).

I have a wallet and three sets of business cards and too many pens. I like to be prepared. I have my datebook because I don’t have nor want a smart phone. I like to have lists and organization and for that I need my datebook.

My bag tells me a lot about myself. My students learned a lot about themselves by looking at what they carried. We talked about using such details for the characters in their fiction–how can what the character carries be part of the description of him or her?

So, what’s in your wallet? What do the things you carry say about who you are and what you care about?

 

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I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?

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