Monthly Archives: March 2015

We’re All About Style

baby with strange hairI was thinking about different styles of writing this week as what I was reading changed dramatically from one book to another. I switched from reading a little more of War and Peace to a book by Kate Atkinson (Case Histories), published in our own century. Of course a couple of short excerpts are not enough for a serious discussion, but fortunately I’ve tried to keep the standards on this blog as low as possible, so short excerpts should do just fine.

It was the older style, from Tolstoy, that actually struck me the most, as it feels so old-fashioned. Here’s a sentence I’ve pulled out to try to illustrate (this is my own translation from the Russian, but it will do for this discussion): “Her large eyes shone with a kind and gentle light. Such eyes lit up her sickly, thin face and made it beautiful.”

I find that Tolsoy, like some English novelists of the 19th century, focuses tremendously on the details of faces, and in doing so, he seems to imply that it’s possible to know things that couldn’t be known in reality. There is a feeling sometimes in 19th century literature that it was practically possible to read people’s minds just from looking at the shapes of their lips. In the sentence I quoted above, I see this in the exaggeration of eyes having a sort of moral quality, with that “kind and gentle light”.

In terms of symbolism, it also feels old-fashioned to attribute such power to eyes, however they might be described. Perhaps there was more tendency in 19th century writing to focus on the surface of the face. Writers in the 20th century moved from the surface of the face either farther away from a character, unable to know exactly what the person is thinking, or else moved inside the character, to show us in more detail the person’s thoughts exactly as they think them.

For a sharply different style from Tolstoy, here’s a sentence from Kate Atkinson’s novel: “Apart from her father’s whiskery bedtime benedictions, Victor was the first man Rosemary had ever been kissed by (albeit awkwardly, lunging at her like an elephant seal).”

This is much closer to the way I would choose to write. In this one sentence we find two examples of alliteration (“bedtime benedictions”, “albeit awkwardly”). From the use of the unusual word “benedictions” we can see that Atkinson is using this repetition of sound deliberately. She also uses irony, very much a modern practice, so that a first kiss—which ought to be a beautiful moment—is reduced to the clumsy flopping around of an enormous animal. Perhaps after the grim travail of the 20th century (and good riddance to it), we are much more likely to be cynical than people of the 19th century, so that irony feels normal to us.

In the novel I’m currently writing, there is irony certainly, and I use word play as Atkinson did, including alliteration. The style for my book also uses a modern technique of changing from first to third person in alternating chapters. I say “modern”, but the technique has been used for decades now. In every other chapter, I’m not playing with language in my own style, but rather trying to develop a distinctive voice in first person for a teenaged girl, as when she says, “One day after lunch I was sort of playing around with what was left. You probably think somebody my age shouldn’t be playing with their leftover food, but I bet you do, too, like making patterns in the sauce on the plate.”

The writing is very satisfying at the moment, though I seem to have so little time to do it. Other things take time: I walk for exercise, I practice my drum, I make dinner… Then, when it’s late, probably past other people’s bedtimes, I finally get into it. I warm up, begin to write, and feel contented and happy. And it’s bedtime and time to stop.

* * *

I’ll end this by mentioning that on April 8 I’m going to be one of two featured poets at the Callanwolde Arts Center. If you live in Atlanta, or if you’re within a three-hour drive, come on by. It starts at 8:00, and it only costs $5 to get in (money that is used to buy alcohol for the poets, so you know the money isn’t wasted).

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Speak It Into Life

DNA manHere in the grand city of Hotlanta, spring is come wildly upon us. While there is much yet to show (the azaleas and dogwoods are still planning the big party), the blooming has already reached an early level of intensity, and pink trees are all over city are trying to outshout one another.

I was sitting this week in my office looking out the window, or rather the entire outer wall is glass, so I was sitting looking through the wall. Very close to the building at that point are some low evergreen bushes. At the tips of the branches, which have been a severe dark green all winter, as if the bush were going to a funeral, there are now small points of pale greenery, looking like the branches have absorbed enough sunlight to begin to glow on the ends.

Of course me with my firmly scientific mind, I looked at those tiny green buds and thought about the fact that DNA was behind this process, and I thought “DNA wants to spread itself around”.

Now, strictly speaking, the way I might regard a human being or even a squirrel, I don’t believe DNA wants anything. It’s just an incredibly complicated molecule interacting with other molecules, making proteins, doing its job… No, wait, DNA doesn’t have a job. That’s the same as saying it wants something. What’s happening is that my language is expressing an underlying way of thinking, applying a metaphor of “will” or “desire” to an inanimate object. This metaphor assumes the object either wants or does not want something.

I find I do this constantly, that it seems to be an inherent aspect of how my mind sees the world. I also assume, without really knowing, that other people’s minds work the same. If a guy is working on his car and a bolt gets stuck, after a few frustrated attempts with the small wrench, he might say “You son of a bitch, I’ll get the other wrench and your ass is coming off.”

Just who is the “son of a bitch” that he’s talking to? The mechanic is applying the same metaphor to the bolt that I used for the DNA molecule, the idea that it’s alive and making decisions. Back before I acquired great wisdom, which happened a few years ago, if I went to hang up a shirt and the coat hanger fell on the floor, I’d grow angry at the hanger, as if it had deliberately decided to cause me trouble. Now I just pick it up without asking it “why? why?”

If my assumption about how people think is correct—and anyway, it is, so let’s go with that—then we see inanimate things as if they are not only animate, but somewhat conscious. Our language shows how often we’re using this kind of metaphor (pretty much any time we speak to things, as if they’re listening).

We do this with both objects and forces, and perhaps it’s starting from this deep metaphor that people began to invent other characteristics to go along with the idea that the thing was alive. So the ocean not only wants to sink a ship, or wants to let it sail safely, but the ocean also wants other things, and it has a name, and even has a personal history, and it’s name is Poseidon.

If this kind of metaphorical thinking helps explain why people thought of deities, it makes sense that in early cultures all over the world both objects and forces became associated with different gods—a god of corn, a goddess of childbirth, god of a river, spirit of a stream or tree. For thousands of years we have been seeing the inanimate world around us as “alive” in some ways.

Since our culture seems to have more and more people turning their backs on science, maybe some day we will sink back into medieval ignorance—and we have plenty of people working to make that happen (who needs vaccinations? what global warming? evolution?). If so, maybe new gods will arise, such as Isenhower, the god of ancient highways (this god might gradually lose power as the interstates crumble), or Jee-Im, the god of motors, whose wife, Eksan, gives him the power to live.

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I Am the Mouth of Power

Saudi ban on social mediaThis week I saw that the Foreign Minister of Saudia Arabia had objected to international pressure over the treatment of a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who had criticized his government. Because free ideas scare the living bejesus out of all dictatorships, the Saudi government naturally was not going to tolerate uncontrolled speech. It’s been a while since I wrote about dictator rhetoric, so let’s use some of the comments made in this case to look at a few rhetorical motifs currently popular among the savages in suits and ties around the world (actually, some of them wear military clothing).

  1. We Protect You—That’s Why You’re in Prison

When brutal, vile governments, such as the one in Saudia Arabia, for example, want to justify keeping their claws on power at all costs, they will generally hide their real motives by citing something that sounds noble or commendable, such as public safety. In the Saudi case, the blogger Badawi was charged with “insulting Islam”. The underlying idea behind this rhetorical motif is that social instability may result from criticizing various aspects of the power structure: (1) king/president/current killer in office, (2) the government in general, (3) the one political party that runs the country (we’re looking at you, China), or (4) whichever religion helps keep the government in office (we’re looking at you, Russia).

  1. We Didn’t Kill One of Yours

Continuing with the case of Raif Badawi, the rights organization Amnesty International has collected over a million signatures around the world asking Saudia Arabia to free him. This leads directly to the second common rhetorical motif we can expect from a dictatorship, one that I’ve talked about before. In speaking of this case, the Saudi Foreign Minister said the international criticism was—let’s all say it together—“interference in internal affairs”. This line of “argument” was perfected by the Soviet Union, to the gratitude of all dictatorships ever since. Restated, it goes “As long as we only brutalize people inside this line, no one outside the line can say anything.” Every dictatorship adores this line of reasoning.

  1. Extra Blind Justice

A new rhetorical motif seems to be under development, also illustrated by the Badawi case. Because Badawi was tried and convicted by Saudi courts, sentenced to ten years in prison along with 1,000 (yes, a thousand) lashes with a whip, to be given as 50 each week, the Saudi Foreign Minister went on to say that courts in Saudi Arabia are “absolutely independent” and allowed to impose fair sentences. Oh. Well. Independent. Just like courts in Russia and China and Zimbabwe. I want to personally thank the Foreign Minister for this information. As a corollary here, let’s note the typical cold-blooded cynicism of power, with an unashamed willingness to lie to the audience, regarding them as either stupid or helpless.

  1. Mommy, There’s an American Under My Bed

Is there an undercurrent of angry resentment in your country over corruption? Is your economy falling apart like a sand castle? Who caused these all problems? It’s obvious—America did! This rhetorical motif is not related to the Badawi case, but I throw it in because it’s quite popular, perhaps somewhat new, though it’s actually just a variation on the old (very, very old) idea that “outsiders” are causing the problems. I’m pretty sure even the ancient Romans used this one, though unlike lucky Russia, they had no America to blame for angry slaves. As another example, the incredible incompetent who currently runs Venezuela loves the fact that he can blame America for the chaos in Venezuela as they run toward the edge of the cliff.

Of course if it came down to it, every one of these governments has shown that it can drop the cover-up rhetoric and resort to the old-fashioned “Shut up or we’ll kill every one of you motherfuckers.” But it’s so much more civilized to speak nicely while wrapping your fingers around someone’s throat. This does raise an interesting question, though. Does the fact that dictators feel a need to try to hide their real actions with words mean that they realize what they are doing is evil? Why do they speak this way?

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Not All Wolves Are in the Forest

girl with wolves

Painting by Joey Remmers

You know this is true. The soul gets lonely down there inside the human body, and it’s looking for a kindred soul. Sometimes in the wild swirl of the world, the soul may feel a connection, but what if that kindred is in the wrong place? The novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, is about love and relationships, not in the usual romantic sense, but about being able to connect.

Although the true nature of the soul is not the body, the world—as we know too well—is utterly obsessed by physical bodies, and often it will say “these two bodies are not allowed to associate with one another”? In such a case the world rises up like a howling mountain of NO.

We’ve seen the damage that gets created. We’ve read and seen and sung other stories, from Romeo and Juliet to To Kill a Mockingbird, and we come back to these stories because they’re always in some ways our own story. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is told in first person by June Elbus, a 14-year-old girl. There are no car chases, shootouts, or vampires (though at times there is the sound of wolves in the distance), but as a story of human interaction, this is necessarily a story with mystery and drama.

Several motifs run through the novel, tying plot lines together and helping to create interactions between the characters. The most important of these motifs is a painting that June’s uncle Finn does of her and her sister together. The painting itself is mysteriously called “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”, giving its name to the novel.

June’s story involves three major relationships, with her uncle Finn, a famous artist dying of AIDS, with her sister Greta, two years older, and with a third person who enters June’s life as if out of thin air but with a profound effect. Each of these relationships is so complicated that at times June seems stifled by layers of emotional interactions. A very intimate feeling in the book also keeps the reader very close to June’s thoughts and emotions.

Like so many people, June is most alone in a crowd. Where can a girl who wanders by herself through the woods pretending she is in the Middle Ages find the person to appreciate who she is? One of the things she shares with her uncle Finn is this medieval interest, and when she visits him in New York City, they sometimes go to the Cloisters medieval museum. Finn is so important for June that the things she receives from him, physical or emotional, she hangs on to when she feels disconnected from other people.

A secondary plot runs through the book with the story of June’s sister Greta, who spends the entire novel rehearsing for and performing in the musical “South Pacific”. We only see Greta through the filter of June’s feelings, and though the two were extremely close when younger, there is now a tension between them, a game of loving and hating in which they never seem to be using the same rules at the same moment. Greta’s life looks to the reader like a cry of pain, but June is fourteen and struggling with her own needs, so that she doesn’t hear the cry.

The major plot of the novel involves June’s unexpected relationship with the stranger who appears at a funeral, a relationship that is literally a mystery to everyone she knows until the very end of the book. It is also the most unlikely of all her relationships, connecting her with both her uncle Finn and her sister Greta. In the end, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is about the soul looking for connections through the noise, confusion, and pain of the world.

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