Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘language’

A Few Words More or Less

First word a child learns:

 

Mama.

Then dada.

Then no. Why. So big.

How come. Go now.

Pick me up. You do it.

I do it.

Play with me.

I love you.

 

Not a bad vocabulary for learning how to get along in the world.

Maybe the grownups should speak less.

Listen more. Share the cookies.

Love better.

Too many words, too much taking.

What have we got to lose?

 

Everything.

We’ve got everything to lose.

Especially our children,

And their future.

 

 

Just a thought 52.

 

Painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885, by John Singer Sargent, courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

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A New Eden

Words might inspire but

no value befalls without action, nor

nor do all the hovering words in

all the languages of the world

speak nearly as well as

digging the shovel into the ground

that seeds can be planted,

for inspiration lasts only as long as

one shower, water enhancing

the sensation imagined,

yet imagination lasts only as long as

one stands under the trickling drops,

wondering when to turn off the water,

exit the shower to recall the

thoughts made brilliant by heat,

echoes, and dampness,

then to tease out the single line

worthy of writing to begin

to plant story, that in time

the bounty can be harvested,

a table set for celebration, and

seeds poured left hand to right,

right hand to left, and back again,

water trickling down and down,

prodigal with promise of food, drink,

ideas to discuss, to plot, to invest,

and dreams to nurture,

vowing more words to rise

before the season of bounty ends,

then to consider from where

the seeds first had come,

who the first planter,

who the gardener, and who the one

who labored long to harvest,

and would seeds appear once more

or take flight forever,

or in a moment of serendipity

bequeath the legacy of

a passion for inventing,

a trove of readers,

a yield of love,

that you and I might one day

decide to grow our garden

and plant our seeds and pray

for rainfall, sunshine, fortune,

then welcome all to the feast

of words gathered from Eden,

hoping to leave the miraculous

breath of curiosity that might inspire

you and you and you and you

with words that tell a story

amen yes amen

 

Just a Thought 37

 

Wheat Field by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

H is for The History of Love

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The History of Love begins with an obituary and ends with the same – not a propitious beginning for a novel unless it is written by Nicole Krauss. Fortunately for readers, this book is. It contains a book within the book, one that is published under a thief’s name, and a view about love so enduring that no other person can take the place of the beloved. It is also about a search for a child, a child’s search for identity, and the true authorship of books.

This book won my heart as a reader but also as a writer. The first time I read it was pure pleasure as I became immersed in the story, eager to find out the ending but reveling in every phrase written, every image suggested, every new twist to a maze of a story. At the second reading, I paid attention to Krauss’ brilliant plot construction, character development, and psychological insight. She is a master writer, and for someone like me still learning to write, she is an entire writing class in a single volume.

The book is dense with imagery and poetic language, a gift for those who savor words and yearn to be kidnapped by story. It’s also complex and confusing, demanding sleuthing skills usually reserved for murder mysteries, and I found myself re-reading passages to reorient within the novel. The two main characters are each haunted people who brought me to tears and occasional laughter as I unraveled their stories. Leo Gursky, an old Polish Jew, now lives in New York. He is a Holocaust survivor without heirs or friends, afraid of dying alone and unrecognized. Once spying on the son he didn’t know about until, he is devastated to learn that he has died, a famous author who never knew his father. Leo has loved one woman in the world, and for her he wrote a book about love.

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, bereft from the loss of her father to cancer, is convinced she is named after an Alma from an old story about undying love, her parents’ favorite. She wants to find a man who can love her grieving, widowed mother and give her a reason to live. Her younger brother, Bird, is strangely obsessed, believing he is one of the thirty-six lamed vovnik, the righteous people chosen by God for whom the world is made. Like many impassioned teenagers, Alma feels the world’s weight pressing upon her shoulders and struggles to balance the responsibilities of saving herself, her brother, and her mother.

Tangled in the journeys of these two is the history of the book Leo wrote decades earlier and another book that Alma’s mother is translating. Both of course are Leo’s The History of Love. Then there is Zvi Litvinoff, who has claimed and secretly published Leo’s book as his own work; Bruno, Leo’s one friend until he dies; and Isaac, the son Leo never met. A less polished writer might have written a muddle of a book out of such disparate parts, but Krauss penned a taut and multi-dimensional story.

The end is somewhat ambivalent, readers debating exactly what has happened, a bit of magical realism claiming its part of the story. What is understood is that love is all consuming and eternal, that sometimes the obvious facts don’t add up until you find all the other facts, and that no matter who writes a book, love endures and makes all things possible. Krauss has conveyed intuition about writing, love, relationships, and identity in a story with an apt title.

My favorite line from the book is this: Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. Who of us does not want to be so consumed by love that it spins our world and lets us breathe?

It’s a book I’ve kept and one I’ll read again, not to discover more of the writer’s technique but for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story well told. And that is what a good book should be.

The History of Love won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for fiction.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for H:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

Hawaii by James Michener

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

He, She and It by Marge Piercy

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite H fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and W.W. Norton & Company

E is for Everything is Illuminated

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Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is not a realistic book though it has one big toe dipped in historical fiction and another dipped in magic realism. At least not the kind of realism that borders on incidents so close to history the reader can’t see the line of invention, and not the kind of fantasy one recognizes as a fairy tale. The plot is unlikely, the scenes improbable, and the characters resemble the broad strokes of sit-com personalities. Yet I loved this book because in all its silliness, absurdity, and exaggeration is a reflection of truth we usually find in satire. But this book isn’t a satire either.

Foer based his book on a journey he took to Ukraine shortly after graduation from college. Young and inquisitive, he went to Europe in search of the woman who allegedly saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. That he never found her didn’t stop him from writing about the doppelganger Jonathon Safran Foer who goes in search of family history. The alter Foer as writer creates the mythical story of the found shtetl in tandem to the story of the fictional journey to Europe in search of his roots.  Yes, a bit confusing, and I had to suspend my sense of reality and history to buy the whole premise. I did so willingly because Foer’s voice is so inventive and strong, he made me believe it was all possible even when I knew it wasn’t.

Guiding Foer on his quest is the young Russian translator, Alexander Perchov, whose mangled English provides sophomoric humor. Using an old dictionary, he chooses words that get close to what he means and yet are laughably far from making sense. For instance, Alexander explains his “many friend dub me Alex.” He calls his own blind grandfather retarded and while the old man displays odd prejudices and behavior, he is in fact retired, and also appears to be able to see quite well. Alex takes Foer, whom he calls “the hero,” along with his grandfather and a smelly dog, in search of the woman Augustine, who may know the location of the ruins of the shtetl Trachimbrod (an actual shtetl destroyed during World War II) and who may have saved Foer’s grandfather.

In between the meandering journey through Ukraine, both Alex and Foer are writing the history of the shtetl, with Foer correcting Alex’s version while he writes his own. Yet it is Alex’s mangled writing that gets closer to the heart of the story than Foer’s more accurate but blander version.

The parallel story of the shtetl Trachimbrod is presented as a fairy tale village with two shuls, people who live on opposite sides of a line that may or may not be imaginary, and that seems to be slipping precariously toward oblivion. A glass wall in one shul separates villagers who are connected to each other by strings, reminding us of how tenuous are all human connections.  An infant girl falls into a river and is saved from drowning, and this child may be the ancestor of Augustine whom Foer is seeking. As romantic as this version is, the real town did in fact suffer oblivion during the war. Thus the entire book drifts back and forth between two tales propelled by miscommunication and a sublime approximation of truth that can only be accomplished by events skewed as if seen in a fun house mirror.

A favorite quote is this one: We should remember. It is the act of remembering, the process of remembrance, the recognition of our past. Memories are small prayers to God, if we believed in that sort of thing.

Jonathan Safran Foer lured me into understanding our world with new insight. He kept me reading and re-reading the story, laughing, trembling, and knowing how important is our memory of who we are, so we know how far we’ve come, and how much further we must yet go. Everything is in fact illuminated but the glow may be only a reflection of something else.

Everything is Illuminated won the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lion’s Prize, among other recognition.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for E:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East is East by T. C. Boyle

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Eventide by Kent Haruf

Exodus by Leon Uris

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite E fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

Charades

Charades is the game of finding the correct words to translate a silent pantomime. It’s a time filler when the party runs up the alcohol level and winds down the intelligence quotient.

imagesWriting is about finding the correct words to describe what’s going on in your book. Good writing sets the standard for intelligent expression and evokes authentic experience. We learn as young writers not to write, he was in despair, she was terrified, they felt horror run through their veins. What does any of that say? Is it the same despair you felt when you weren’t invited to the prom? Probably not if it’s the despair of a boy taken from his village to be turned into a soldier to fight an adult war. Is it the terror you experienced when your grades arrived in the mail and your parents got the envelope before you did? Not likely in comparison to the terror of a little girl snatched from her mother’s arms and pulled into a stranger’s van. Is it the horror you bore as your kid stuffed her dirty underwear down your toilet and flushed? Not quite like the horror of the child that stands at his mother’s bedside and sees the rise of her final breath, then wonders who will care for him.

Yet all we writers have is words. How I’d love the throb of a deep drum pounding out the steps of the boy as he is marched into the army. A volcano to erupt when the little girl is taken from her mother. A torrential downpour as the child stands beside his dead mother and doesn’t know where he’ll sleep that night. Those words – despair, terror, horror – have so many labyrinths of suggestion, depending on context. Context is everything. Writers must explain what we mean, how it really is.

Yet explain what you mean in too many disjointed words and your reader closes your book. “It was a jungle so dark that the leaves overhead blocked all the light, the way that a canvas tarp blocks out the sky when you go camping, but this was much more terrifying because they weren’t camping, they’d forgotten their compass and they were lost.” Your reader didn’t get that far – yawning with disorientation, he quit reading a description of a jungle the writer had never experienced.

This is the jungle of the 1959 Belgian Congo in the hands of Barbara Kingsolver from The Poisonwood Bible:

 

Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

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Here is the Nigerian jungle from Little Bee by Chris Cleave when Little Bee walks into it with her big sister, Nkiruka:

 

When we reached the jungle it was silent and dark…We walked for a long time, and the path got narrower, and the leaves and the branches closed in on us tighter and tighter until we had to walk one behind the other. The branches began closing in on the path so that we had to crouch down. Soon we could not carry on at all…We carried on for a little way, weaving around the plants, but very soon we realized we had missed the path and we were lost.

 

In this excerpt, Ann Patchett describes Marina Singh’s first view of the Amazon jungle from State of Wonder:

 

At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm.

 

Three views of the jungle with very different depictions, each authenticated by distinctive detail. We didn’t have to read the books with the dictionary on our other arm; the words are basic. Master writers use language with precise nuance and we get the image. Novice writers must learn to apply that kind of expertise and insight to their stories.

The convergence of characters and divergent life paths becomes our story. How we describe those characters and divulge that action becomes our voice. There is no voice without adequate words but much opportunity with them. Our point of view suggests the cultural focus of character choices and reactions, and the multitude of words provides the means of expression.

How to choose, what to choose, what words will do the job best? It might be the smallest words, those that let us see details that reveal the truth because other words are rife with ambivalence or too many definitions. When describing the process of marquetry in The Inlaid Table, I couldn’t write, “A complex machine forms an intricate shape.” I want the reader to look through the pin holes pierced by a thin needle so they can see the precision of placement for tiny shards of wood to create a sunburst pattern. It’s the same information but one take is broad and general, the other, specific and detailed. The first example hints at the finished product. The second allows the reader to sense the breadth and skill of the task, achieved with perfectly chosen words.

A book is as much charade as the party game. The audience/reader tries to figure it out by watching/reading the clues. The master paints a vigorous picture – ah, I know exactly what you mean. That’s the level I aim for.

Come with me into the jungle.

 

 

Mime courtesy Google public domain images, clipartlord.com

Jungle courtesy Google public domain images, commons.wikimedia.org

Getting it All Wrong to Make It Write, or, Responding Graciously to Awful Critiques

images

I must apologize.

About 12 years ago I sat nervously on the hot seat of my first official writing critique session, having balanced on sword points for two weeks while my new-found group of reviewers read the first chapter of my book. Certainly they were about to skewer me because what else would they do to someone who dared enter the heady realm of Writer with no more credentials than a college degree in Creative Writing and years of doing everything but write? I deserved to be skewered, burned over hot coals, and served a la carte with freshly shaved horseradish.

I can’t even remember what those folks said about my first chapter. Can’t remember because though I tried to listen, I heard nothing. I sat through the crits and quaked, tried to smile but grimaced, to breathe evenly but choked. Should have listened better so I’d have something memorable to tell you, but I have nothing to show for that first critique except the edge of the chair imprinted on the backs of my thighs.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about critique groups, mostly by doing nearly everything wrong. I’ve been so arrogant that I actually thought I was qualified to tell someone else how to write. I mean, I’d read, lots. Didn’t that qualify me to tell other novice writers, many more veteran than myself, how to describe a character’s motives without a melodramatic voice, how to show and not tell? I’d read all those writers’ books and articles (now I read writers’ blogs,) dug up my old college notes (at least the ones that hadn’t molded so much they’d become unreadable,) sat back in my sofa and trawled through my memory to unearth the pearls of my college professors’ wisdom – even remembered a few pithy points. Talk about arrogant, cynical, smarmy, and self righteous. I have been way too insensitive to the feelings of others. (more…)

Will Walk for Words

My writing routine begins with a walk outdoors. Not a long walk or a fast one. Two miles up the street and back, early in the morning in summer before our California sun blisters the city, or before rain turns a winter walk into a slog. Most mornings it’s a walk on the shady side of the street, a familiar trek that doesn’t require me to think about where to turn or when to start ambling back home.

I’m lucky if I can get going without returning for one last thing, like replacing the house phone for my cell, realizing I’m not wearing my contacts, trading stiff shoes for a more comfortable pair, one more trip to bathroom, another smear of sunblock. Once I’m finally on my way, it’s a slight uphill hike and a reverse easy jaunt down.

A walk is a great opportunity to get a bit of exercise, because I will never wear those dorky rubber band outfits I’d have to don to go to a gym. I work out problems, even if I don’t work up much of a sweat, like the chronic situations that give me nightmares if I sleep in too late. I worry about personal problems, because as much as I’m fortunate to have loving family and friends, there is always someone to worry about.  I worry about the injustices of my employment, politically inspired office intrigue affecting even my paltry claim to the working world. The walk uphill gives me a chance to excise those devils, though they’ll return like persistent hiccups. I walk more and more determinedly, relinquishing the pain in my calves for concentration on those cerebral irritants. Most days I realize there is little I can do except let go my worry, anger, and frustration, so I do, resolution of sorts.

At the top of the rise my palm swings around the light post that signals my walk homeward, and I begin to write. I work in my head because I can’t walk with a laptop though I’ve considered it. Some of my effort will get lost on the way home, but I’ll retain the essence of my work.

I hunt when I walk. I am a bird of prey. I seek words and pluck them before they scurry to safety. I stash interesting words that say things other than boring things like thing, (could you be more specific?) or stuff, (could you please be more specific?) or place (oh come on now.) Words come inspired by the crack of brittle tree limb, a flash of sunlight tagging a flag on a house balcony, the blap of a horn as a car zips by. Sensory imprints cast words like paladin (I want one of them for my very own, with sword or without), bleat (the sound of losers whining or of animals trapped in tales about Cyclopic pigs with batwings), contrafactum (just hum along here). I cache words for late night writing snacks.

Then I’m on to phrases, collections of words strung in movable pieces like frig magnets, passages whizzing around pesky as gnats. Found this one after passing an odorous clump left by someone who owns a dog but “forgot” the blue plastic baggie: “a dapple of sunlight tapping shadows on the ground, the only beauty in this muck.” Technically the dog left it, but you know what I mean. This next phrase is a bit of a cheat as I discovered it after falling into the cul de sac trying to remove a stubbornly rooted weed, minutes after completing my walk: “I see myself as a force of nature but a submissive one.” Maybe this one is usable: “Why is it that when a thing drops, it always slides under a cabinet so massive and low-grounded that you can’t reach it without a backhoe?” Cheating again, a complete sentence but not a profound one. The idea came after the pretty stone I wanted to keep dropped and rolled under a tangle of weeds, lost forever. How many unidentifiable clumps did I want to turn over?

Finally it’s the serious stuff I’m gathering. Like the sight of the lady who used to push a baby stroller done up in hot pink tiger stripes with sequined bows on the sun awning. A close look revealed it wasn’t her child she was pushing. Well, not her human child, anyway. It was a shih-tzu-oodle-hua, one of those toy pooches bred not for walking or running like other wild critters, but a little fluff of squeaks to salve a lonely soul who doesn’t have a hope of having grandchildren. And then my pity rolls out, because as awful as I find the tawdry contraption in which the yapper rides, I also respond to the woman’s isolation, so removed from the world that she can best communicate with a mini dog that can’t talk. Or walk.

The sensations, images, and words I’ve collected on my walk will show up in my writing. I’ll bring them to the front when I need to feel an activity in my gut, when I want to describe something with authentic detail. I’ll twist, tweak, and change elements to suit, but they’ll end up in some story. The best walks deliver the opening to writing gridlock that’s kept me scribbling drivel for the last day or two. Engaged with story, I’ll delete crap, write passages, correct problems, or know how to get my main character rolling off the sofa to make a decisive move in my WIP.

Back home in an hour, I’ve worked off 27 calories, 32 if I’ve walked fast, a paltry effort at improving my health. But I’ve started to write and can hardly wait to get on the computer. That’s my routine, odd as it is. For me it works. Let me know what works for you.

This post was originally published on Today’s Author blog site on March 7, 2013