Archive for September, 2009

Ubiquitous

September 26, 2009

One of my two favorite professors in my college days was a wiry little old Texan named Professor Charles Froehlich. With him I studied three years of Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), a year of Latin, a history course called “The Classical World,” and Greek & Roman mythology. His influence on me would be difficult to overestimate. I’ve never known a more diligent, dedicated, skillful, and knowledgeable teacher. He remains one of the most awesome human beings I’ve ever brushed shoulders with, and yet he is certainly one of the most humble. Let me tell you some quick Froehlich stories. University teachers are, in a way, public figures, so I feel I have the right.

At graduation ceremonies, professors typically deck themselves out in the fine robes and splendid colors that they’ve earned through rigorous study. Different academic disciplines are represented by different colors, and professors can add ribbons and medals on top of that to reflect their august distinctions. Those ceremonies were always something to see, and I don’t fault the profs who dressed in their hard-earned finery. I learned somewhere along the line that Froehlich had a whole armload of master’s degrees, but I never learned that from him. At graduations, Froehlich would wear a simple, drab, brownish-black robe without ornamentation. In it, among all the peacocks, he looked like a crow. But I couldn’t help thinking of martial arts masters. The ones who are true masters never wear anything flashy, do they? That’s the sort of man he is. (He’s long retired, but still in very good health by recent accounts.)

In yearbook faculty pictures, in which the theology department would be sitting in a group, Froehlich would typically be way in the back, just inside the door, looking windblown, as if he’d ducked in for the photo and in another five seconds would be out the door again, off to more important things.

He would pass you like a speeding train on campus. Usually his necktie would be over his shoulder, blown back by the speed of his gait. But he’d raise a hand as he zoomed past you and call out a cheery “HEL-lo!” But lest you get the wrong impression from that: he was the most available prof on campus. He lived alone in a tiny college-owned house across the street from the campus. But nearly any given evening you could call his extension or knock on his office door, and he’d be there, and he’d always be glad to see you. In his book-filled office, he kept a little folding cot. I suspect there were many nights he didn’t make it back to his house at all. It was always comforting to me to be able to walk across campus at night and see the light glowing in his office window — the one lighted window in the building.

And if any prof should have kept plenty of office hours, it was he: Greek wasn’t easy. Many were the times we pre-seminary students would find ourselves baffled at some late hour, and not to have our homework done for the next day was unthinkable. So we were always popping in on him, and he’d guide us through the tangles with a quick, efficient explanation.

I remember one evening when it took him all of about ten seconds to clear up the mystery I’d been struggling over. With his half-smile, he said, “Fred, if you’d just picked up the phone, you could have saved yourself the walk over here.” But the point was, I never wanted to save myself that walk. When you’re holed up in your room studying declension charts for hours on end, you need to get out. You need the night air, the walk, and the sight of a welcoming light burning ahead of you.

When he was angry at us for being too lazy or slack, I’ve seen him break chalk against the ceiling; but far worse was simply his Look. To know you had displeased and disappointed him was in itself the worst punishment. You just couldn’t be lazy or unprepared in his presence: it wasn’t allowed. I still shudder to recall the guy who showed up on one of the first days of class wearing a hat, chewing gum, and who put his feet up onto the chair in front of him. [Shivery moment of silence.]

Professor Froehlich had a unique way of passing back papers. First, he’d staple the stack together to carry it to and from his office. When he’d hand them back, he’d pry out the staple with a little tool carried, and he’d fling the staple in the direction of the distant wastebasket. Then he’d call out our last names one by one and throw each paper sort-of-toward its owner. We’d be diving and scrambling to retrieve the gliding sheets. It’s probably hard for you to understand this if you weren’t there. Oddly, the way he did it never seemed rude. It was simply Froehlich handing back papers.

He was a great recycler. Koine Greek doesn’t change from year to year, so once he developed good quizzes and tests, he could use them perennially. We’d receive photocopied tests with things like this written at the top (in his handwriting): October 5, 1982  October 3, 1983  October 6, 1984  October 5, 1985  October 4, 1986  October 3, 1987.

And he encouraged us to re-use papers until every bit of both sides was filled up.

It amazed us how he knew exactly where everything was in the Bible and exactly where everything was in our textbook. In answer to someone’s question, he’d say (off the top of his head): “I think if you’ll look at page 142, in the lower left-hand corner of the page, you’ll find the answer to that.” (And he’d also explain the answer.) He always said “I think,” but we all knew perfectly well he knew precisely what he was talking about. Moreover, he had every lesson for the entire course firmly fixed in his head. He’d very frequently say things like, “I know we are glossing over the details of that right now, but if you’ll be patient, on November the twenty-first, in about the last fifteen minutes of class, we’ll be taking that up again in a little more detail, when I’ll tell you about. . . .”

One of my favorite quotes from him is, “One of the best things about getting old is that you can blame your ineptitude on your age.” Heh, heh! As if he ever had an ounce of ineptitude in him! But it’s a comforting quote for the rest of us.

In print, it’s hard to capture the Texas-ness of his speech. We tend to stereotype Texans as cowboys, airline pilots, or oil tycoons. Imagine a Texas voice talking about Hadrian’s Wall or Pontius Pilate or deponent future (“dep fut”) verbs. Who can forget his rant about how the Huns weren’t Germans? It went something like: “Everybody thinks the Huns were Germans. They weren’t Germans! The Huns were not Germans. They weren’t Germans. The Huns were NOT GERMANS.” (That’s just the beginning, but you get the idea.)

Harper Lee tells us it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Watching Froehlich, we learned that it’s a sin to waste even a second of our God-given time. He treated seconds as precious things. If he kept us forty seconds past the end of class one day, he’d make it up four days later, when he had gotten through enough material to let us go forty seconds early.

When we had a three-day weekend, he’d say, “That should allow you to have several parties between now and Tuesday. When you come back well-rested, we will talk about. . . .”

I still remember one late night before exams, when my friend John D. and I were burning the midnight oil in the snack bar area of the community center, studying our Greek. Like clockwork, Froehlich would dash through there at a certain time of an evening, his tie streaming back over his shoulder, to buy a cup of coffee. As he passed us and we called our greetings, he grinned back at us and said, “Don’t worry; just work.”

I hope you’re getting the picture that he was a truly inspirational mentor. He insisted that you do your very best, and as you strove for that, you realized your best was far better than you’d thought it could be.

Here’s the countdown of the three highest praises I remember getting from him (the kind that you remember and treasure forever after):

#3: “Durbin’s not a genius. He gets these high scores because he pays attention to the textbook.” (Egad, for sure, I’m no more a genius than the Huns were Germans!)

#2: One time I set an “all-time high score” on one of his Latin tests — and he would know, because he archived everything and loved statistics.

#1: The best ever was his compliment on my “Herculean Labor” (what he called our Class Projects) in Greek & Roman mythology. He said something like, “In Greek, there’s a degree of adjectives beyond the superlative. Your classmates feel your Labor should be described with such. I concur.” Flow moment! Soli Deo gloria!

Anyway, to the business at hand! At the beginning of every single class day during the mythology course, he would make us say the following all together:

“Mythology is alive. Mythology is ubiquitous.”

The point was that names and characters and events from the classical myths are all around us in our daily lives, even all these thousands of years later. They run through our literature, our movies, our popular culture. Today I set out to prove that this is true, even in Niigata, Japan in the fall of 2009. I expanded my quest just slightly to include ancient Japanese folklore as well — but the myths of the Greeks and Romans are well represented. And mind you, this was all done on a bicycle ride that took me about half an hour. If I’d searched intensely all day, I think I could have added considerably to this list. But anyway, take a look:

I agree, this one is tenuous, because the spelling is different. (I'm just warming up here.) Dido was the sister of Pygmalion; she founded Carthage and was its queen, and fell in love with Aeneas. She cursed the Trojans.

I agree, this one is tenuous, because the spelling is different. (I'm just warming up here.) Dido was the sister of Pygmalion; she founded Carthage and was its queen, and fell in love with Aeneas. She cursed the Trojans.

In Chinese/Japanese mythology, a Kirin is a fantastic creature somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a dragon. If you can find a can of imported Kirin beer, you can see a good picture of one. (A D&D Monster Manual will work, too!) Interestingly, the Japanese word for "giraffe" is kirin. Is this an acknowledgement that anything looking like a giraffe must have at least two hooves squarely in the world of myth?

In Chinese/Japanese mythology, a Kirin is a fantastic creature somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a dragon. If you can find a can of imported Kirin beer, you can see a good picture of one. (A D&D Monster Manual will work, too!) Interestingly, the Japanese word for "giraffe" is kirin. Is this an acknowledgement that anything looking like a giraffe must have at least two hooves squarely in the world of myth?

This is Kinshaitei, the second-closest ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant to my apartment. Is that a picture of a Kirin I see? There seems to be a connection between this particular style of noodes (Kyushu ramen) and that image. . . .

This is Kinshaitei, the second-closest ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant to my apartment. Is that a picture of a Kirin I see? There seems to be a connection between this particular style of noodes (Kyushu ramen) and that image. . . .

Remember these? They are Kappas, or river-goblins, still a very popular motif in figurines, dolls, toys, and advertising. These are saying "Keep our river clean!"

Remember these? They are Kappas, or river-goblins, still a very popular motif in figurines, dolls, toys, and advertising. These are saying "Keep our river clean!"

This restaurant is called "Tengu." Japanese Tengu are god-like beings that live on mountaintops. They are humanoid in form but can fly; they have bright red faces and very long noses. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a Tengu face behind the lower set of characters.

This restaurant is called "Tengu." Japanese Tengu are god-like beings that live on mountaintops. They are humanoid in form but can fly; they have bright red faces and very long noses. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a Tengu face behind the lower set of characters.

Going back West, look at this! This Isuzu truck is called an "Elf"! Don't ask me in what capacity a truck can be an Elf!

Going back West, look at this! This Isuzu truck is called an "Elf"! Don't ask me in what capacity a truck can be an Elf!

Look at the top, the first word under the wiper! Clio was one of the nine Muses. She was the Muse of history.

Look at the top, the first word under the wiper! Clio was one of the nine Muses. She was the Muse of history.

Cupid is the supermarket where I shop nearly every day. Son of Mercury and Venus, the Roman god of love. Notice the big heart!

Cupid is the supermarket where I shop nearly every day. Son of Mercury and Venus, the Roman god of love. Notice the big heart!

Aaaand here's the prize of today's hunt. Athena is a home furnishings store. This one is indisputable. Look at the logo: she's got the helmet, the spear, and the owl on her shoulder. This is the Greek goddess Athena, the warrior, the skillful, the wise one. You'd better believe mythology is alive and ubiquitous!

Aaaand here's the prize of today's hunt. Athena is a home furnishings store. This one is indisputable. Look at the logo: she's got the helmet, the spear, and the owl on her shoulder. This is the Greek goddess Athena, the warrior, the skillful, the wise one. You'd better believe mythology is alive and ubiquitous!

So here’s your assignment for this week: notice the references to mythology and folklore around you as you go through each day. When you open your eyes, you’ll see they’re everywhere. I won’t limit you to Greek and Roman myth. You can find elves and unicorns, too — any name, any creature from the myths or folklore of any culture is fair game. Places are good, too, such as if you pass through Troy, Illinois. The deadline? Let’s say midnight on October 1st, U.S. time. If anyone cares to keep a list and submit it by the end of next Thursday, you’re in the contest. The rule is that these have to be references you actually see — you have to spot them on signs, on TV, in newspapers, etc. — or hear them. The person who puts together the longest list is the winner.

The prize. . . . Hmm. The prize is that (aside from the prestigious honor) you get to assign the topic of the next blog post. Be as creative as you know how! [I reserve the right to refuse or modify your idea; but I will do my absolute best to accommodate your request.] Sound like a deal?

Okay. One more thing: today I discovered what might be of interest to some readers. We’ve been searching for the way a reader can become a “follower” of this blog — a way that an ordinary citizen can receive an e-mail message when the blog is updated. Here’s one way. There’s a free service called “Feed My Inbox.” http://www.feedmyinbox.com This is extremely easy to use: you enter the address of my blog <fredericsdurbin.wordpress.com> and your e-mail address. Supposedly, the service will send you notices of any updates (though I’m not clear on just what constitutes an “update” — it may or may not include comments, but I’m pretty positive it would include new posts). It only sends an update once a day (IF there’s anything new that day), so as not to fill up your inbox with bunches of announcements. If you use the service, you can enter any number of sites/blogs/addresses that you want updates on. If it actually works [I discovered it on the World Fantasy Convention’s site — they were endorsing it, so it should be legitimate], it seems like the solution for us Internetally-challenged people who are overwhelmed by the whole deal about RSS feeds. This is just a simple message that comes to your e-mail’s in-box.

All right, I’ll stop there. Look around yourself! Mythology is alive!

Places in the Heart

September 16, 2009

Today I collaborated on a poem with my mom. How is that possible, you ask, since she died several years ago? No, I didn’t hold a seance. As I was putting together the content for this posting, I came across a manuscript of hers she’d written in 1998, a poem she’d intended to submit to Cricket. It was in a rough, unfinished state, and somehow I just felt like working on it. I used most of her poem, revising many of the lines, and built a new poem around it. It tripled in length, but I maintained the spirit of what she was doing — now it sounds like both of us. I’m sure she’d approve; we did this sort of thing all the time while she was alive, so why stop now, huh? I believe I will try submitting it to Cricket. I’ve never had any luck selling a poem to them, but if they’d accept this one, it would mean Mom would have a by-line in Cricket at last.

Since I’m submitting it, I can’t publish it here — but I will if they reject it. (Don’t be disappointed — something of Mom’s is coming up here as soon as I’m done with my rambling report!)

As far as I can tell, the RSS feeds I tried to set up are working. One more time, to be sure you know what I’m talking about: when you first arrive for the day at this page, there’s a calendar and a lot of stuff in blue letters over at the right, right? Scroll down, and under all those Tag words in various sizes, there are two big buttons that say “RSS-Posts” and “RSS-Comments.” I tried clicking on the one for posts, and it took me right to a way to set up an RSS feed for this blog. (I didn’t go to the final step, because I don’t want notification when I post a new post: I’d rather not know. . . .) So I believe anyone who wants to be automatically notified when a new post is up can be.

Next: Nicholas Ozment, who appeared in an interview here a few weeks ago, has expanded on part of what he said about flash fiction, and you can read more from him on the topic at http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/killing-darlings.

Okay, here’s a true story: The following caption appeared under a photo in my hometown’s newspaper recently:

“Part of a tree was broken off on the courthouse lawn by the Abe Lincoln statue.”

[Shudder!] I knew there was something sinister about that statue! Apparently it comes alive in the dead of night and breaks municipal trees. There’s no horror like small-town horror.

The Christian County Courthouse in Taylorville, Illinois

The Christian County Courthouse in Taylorville, Illinois

There it is, the courthouse lawn, where the sinister statue lurks. (Ooh, didn’t Vachel Lindsay have a poem called “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”? [!!!] Strangely prophetic!) This was taken from the opposite corner to where the statue is. What you don’t see is usually scarier (in movies) than what you do see. . . .

Sure, we still have plenty of trees, but I’m certain you’d agree this can’t go on. I hope the Taylorville police are being issued bronze-piercing bullets.

All right, getting serious now (grroink!):

I want to be absolutely sure no one missed the last few comments on the post before this one. Please go back there and read them. You all who read the blog — thank you so much for being here. Just reading it is fine — you’re very welcome to do that. But when you take the time to comment, everyone benefits. What we have here is a fully-interactive salon for those who love stories, for those who love friends, and for those who love life. And like a college dormitory or a World Fantasy Convention, it goes on 24/7. We live in different time zones, different hemispheres, so you never know when something will pop up, when someone will have pulled a chair up to the fire and be ready for some merry company.

Anyway, in those last couple comments, Shieldmaiden and Marquee Movies were talking about the end of The Hobbit, how it’s one of the best endings in any book out there. And they were discussing those wonderful places we gather, the places we spend time doing things we love, perhaps with the people we love. (I won’t repeat them here, but I mean it — go back and read those comments!)

What places in stories would you add to the list? Places of comfort and peace, good cheer, replenishment, and comradery. . . . I think that’s where we want to go in our communal reminiscing this week. Tell us the places you love in books, stories, and/or movies where the characters gather — those best, unforgettable, infinitely inviting places that you wish you could go and live in.

And — you’re also encouraged to tell us about actual places that you love to spend time — either now, or at some previous stage of your life.

Who can forget Doc Graham in Field of Dreams, sitting Ray Kinsella down in his office on that magical night and saying, “This is my special place. When you find your own special place, the wind never blows so cold again”? And in the same film, Ray answering Shoeless Joe’s question “Is this Heaven?” with “No; it’s Iowa.” And then later glancing from the miraculous baseball field he’s carved out of a cornfield — gazing up to where his wife and daughter are sitting on the porch swing, and realizing that it really is a part of Heaven, after all — the place where dreams come true.

By the way, I’ve actually been to the Field of Dreams, the one where the movie was filmed. The baseball field, the farmhouse, and the cornfield are still maintained, just as they appear in the movie, in Dyersville, Iowa. You can still see, carved into one seat on the bleachers, “Ray Loves Annie” inside a heart. Marquee Movies and I went there together and spent an afternoon I will never forget, playing catch with a baseball, lounging on the bleachers, and venturing into the cornfield, where you can almost hear the whispers of Shoeless Joe and his teammates. Also, I ran the bases. And Marquee Movies walloped a ball way out into center field. You can go there, too, if you’re ever in Iowa. I totally recommend it.

The serendipitousness of this topic is that it segues perfectly into what I was already planning for this post’s main event. I’m going to take you back to 1991, to a pair of essays written by my mom and dad about their special places.

Here we go, then. Ladies first: these are the words of my mother, Mary Anne Durbin.

Mary Anne Durbin as a senior in high school

Mary Anne Durbin as a senior in high school

When Joe and I first married, our kitchen table was small because the kitchen was small.

After our son Fred was born, we added first a bassinet, then a low “play table” and finally a high-chair off to the side, so our son could learn what to do about food and books.

Then we doubled the size of the kitchen, so that meant a larger table.

We went shopping, which consisted of attending auctions until we found a wooden table to our liking. Somehow chrome and Formica can’t make a proper kitchen table. This one was perfect — a long harvester’s table that can sit four on each side and two on each end.

As I sit at the kitchen table, the stove and refrigerator are behind me. When a meal is ready, I tell Joe and Fred (if he’s home), and they come with books in hand to enjoy a good repast.

Something from the garden is at almost every meal throughout the year. In season, and especially in the springtime, flowers from the yard also have a place on the table.

I fill the plates from the stove, and pass them to Joe and Fred, along with the proper utensils for the meal.

In the center of the table is my German grandmother’s “spoon jar,” in case they need a teaspoon.

I have never mastered the art of reading and eating at the same time, but it is fun to hear the comments and views of what is current with Joe and Fred, or to hear an occasional passage read aloud.

When a meal is not in progress, the table is mine!

Upon arising, the little Bible and daily devotions at the table set a proper direction for the day.

At my left elbow is the “slush pile” of incoming mail. We subscribe to a few good magazines and contribute to a few good charities, so there is plenty of mail each day.

The Smithsonian goes directly into the bathroom for serious reading; others go onto the slush pile to be read as time permits. When I have finished with something, I pass it across the table where Joe has a similar pile at his right elbow.

Also on my slush pile are blank backs of junk mail for creative composition. The telephone is at my right elbow. In front of it are letters to answer and small pieces of blank-backed paper for taking notes.

A chair to my right holds my purse — the filing case for letters to mail, coupons to use, papers to take to town, and bills to pay.

Beyond the phone, on the far corner of the table, are the phonebook, writing tablets, papers to file in other locations throughout the house, and papers to recycle.

My dining room table is reserved for more exacting work — treasurer’s reports, income tax preparation, and newsletter mailings.

A final professional polish is put on all our creative work at the word processor on my desk in my office.

But it is the kitchen table, with all its mess of creativity, that is my favorite spot. Life is a prayer to be lived, and at my table are nourishment for the body, mind, and soul. Here is the stuff of true freedom — to worship God, to serve a husband, to nurture a child, to welcome friends, and to truly fulfill oneself.

There you have it. All my deepest conversations with Mom took place, usually late at night, at that table. That’s where we’d sit when relatives came to visit: Dad’s side of the family are living-room sitters; Mom’s side are kitchen-table sitters. And I always had better luck writing at the kitchen table than at any desk I ever set up.  There’s something homey and approachable and forgiving about a kitchen table. You’re under no pressure there.

Moving along, then, here’s Dad. The following essay is by Joseph Durbin, summer 1991:

Joseph Durbin at about age 20

Joseph Durbin at about age 20

My little pond, located on the southeast corner of our 10-acre plot, is the place dearest to my heart at my home.

My wife, Mary Anne, and I had the pond dug when our son Fred was 11 years old. That was in June 1977. He and his friends spent many happy hours there growing from children into young men and women.

In addition to being the site of much swimming, fishing, boating, and camping, it also was the premier locale for my son’s many home movies, and later, video films.

He had a passion for writing his own scripts and then enlisting his friends to act them out for the camera. Many times I was drafted to perform at the video camera when the script called for my son to appear in the production.

I was part of the gang, accepted by the group. I can remember the day when the boys had me film them as they rode their bicycles, one by one, down the hill and into the pond, reciting poetry all the way. It was hilarious! The short, bumpy ride, the brief airborne phase, and later, the huge splash!

The pond is an enchanted place because in most people’s eyes it would appear to be no more than a mere mud hole. That is because they see only with their visual senses. If they could see with their hearts, they would view an ever-changing panorama of life. The pond itself changes in size and content of life depending on rainfall or the lack thereof.

In the drought of 1988, Fred and I grasped the opportunity of low water to build a concrete retaining wall across the base of the earthen dam. Fred had never worked with concrete, but as a child had seen me pour sidewalks around our home. After I explained the process to him of the proper proportion of sand, gravel, cement, and water, he was great.

I was able to work on building the forms and putting them into place. And he kept the concrete coming to me. It seemed as if we could read each other’s thoughts.

Later Fred journeyed to Japan to teach English as a second language. In addition to his classes of school children, he also had a group of about a dozen housewives as students. Fred must have told them many wondrous tales about the “enchanted pond,” because one of his students, Michiko, and her two small sons, came to the United States in August 1990 for a visit with us. They just had to see all the places that Furedo-san had talked about in his classes. Needless to say, they also became enchanted with our pond.

As to the future of the pond? If I were younger, I would build a “yellow brick road” around the perimeter. At various places along the path, I would have figures of fairy-tale characters hidden in the grass or beneath the trees. I would have a footbridge across the shallow end, and also several little waterfalls to slow the water down as it entered the pond from the fields.

On the pond itself, I would float replicas of Viking dragon ships for the boys to ride on, and for the girls, perhaps swan boats.

But, alas, I’m getting too old, and the task is beyond me. But I can dream, and that is what the “enchanted pond” is all about.

And that’s Dad. You can see why I love that little piece of land so much. I have the best memories of summer twilights, the fireflies winking all around, sometimes a startled deer fleeing before us from the water’s edge as we approached. Dad would sit beside the water, smoking a cigarette, basking in the serenity. The purple woods marched away to the south and east. I would sit and read Stephen R. Donaldson, or Stephen King, or Clark Ashton Smith, or Lord Dunsany (those are some specific “pond books” I remember). Down there, I’ve encountered a wild fox red as fire. And once, I was stalked by a bobcat while camping with the reader of this blog whose icon is a brown snowflake! Wonderful place. Wonderful time.

Wonderful parents!

So, tell us your stories! Places? From your own experience, from stories . . . places in the heart.

Oh, yes — I stole that title from a beautiful movie starring Sally Field, Danny Glover, and John Malkovich. You should definitely see it!

Okay, we’ll close with a few pictures from the actual movie-location Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.

Fred on the bleachers at the Field of Dreams

Fred on the bleachers at the Field of Dreams

The place where dreams come true.

The place where dreams come true.

"If you build it, he will come." (I'm in this picture -- see me?)

"If you build it, he will come." (I'm in this picture -- see me?)

Fred on the pitcher's mound at the Field of Dreams (I'm in this one, too! See me?)

Fred on the pitcher's mound at the Field of Dreams (I'm in this one, too! See me?)

GYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

GYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Sentencecraft

September 9, 2009

Poe’s Law of the Short Story is this:

“Every word in a piece of fiction pays its way.”

Have you ever read Mark Twain’s enthusiastic description of the wonderful new invention called the “typewriter”? If you read it today, you’d swear he was talking about the computer: a machine that allows you to get your thoughts down just as fast as they pop into your head. Since the moment I got my first word processor, a Smith Corona, back in the summer of 1988, I’ve never wanted to go back to writing by hand (and my penmanship has greatly suffered from my reliance on the keyboard). I remember a cautionary comment from Garrison Keillor, though, about this speed which technology allows us: he argued that computers make writing a little too quick and easy. In the old days, setting the mind’s ejaculations into fixed marks on the page took a little bit more time and effort. Consequently — ever the efficiency-seekers that we are by nature — we writers did a degree of revising between initial impulse and the moving of the hand, the flowing of the ink. What made it onto the paper when the quill began to scratch may not have been a full-blown second draft, but it was something more than a first.

Many writing teachers have said, “Books aren’t written; they’re re-written.” And it was the poet Horace who called revision “the long labor of the file.” Every year I use this quote in my classes, from Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.”

So I thought it might be worthwhile this time around to think hard about the sentences we write. Sentences, after all, are the boards we use to build our scenes, and our scenes one by one make up the shanty town that is the story or book. (I know that’s weird, but I had to think of something made out of boards to finish the metaphor.)

I’ve put together a little quiz. I use parts of this with my writing students every year. I’ve tried it with junior-high and high-school students in the U.S., too; and I can honestly say that it’s no easier for the Americans than it is for the Japanese. Sometimes the reasoning behind the choices made is different, but native and non-native English speakers alike tend to reach the same decisions . . . which (until they start seeing the patterns) are quite often not the best ones.

In the fifteen instances that follow, there are two choices: a) and b). Both options are grammatical enough; both are in standard English. But one choice is a better, stronger sentence for most writing purposes.

You can make your decisions, and the answers follow. I’m not out to make anyone feel bad. Ultimately, I’m just one idiosyncratic voice, and a “perfect score” simply means that we think alike. If you get a perfect 15, you probably shouldn’t gloat — we may be inept together. (And we still have to do all the stuff with character, plot, setting, theme, etc.) If you get a low score, don’t feel bad — unconventional thought patterns may stem from genius.

Have fun with it! Remember, you’re not looking for right vs. wrong. You’re looking for the sentence that does a better job. Hire one, fire the other. Here’s the quiz:

1. a) “I think so, too.” He laughed.

     b) “I think so, too,” he laughed.

 

2. a) My brother was talking about his boss, and he said that he didn’t like him.

     b) My brother said that his boss didn’t like him.

 

3. a) “Why not?” she queried.

     b) “Why not?” she asked.

 

4. a) I pounded on the weathered door, which was faded and scarred with the passage of countless seasons.

     b) I pounded on the weathered door.

 

5. a) Sheets, towels, and shirts hung from the green clothesline, rippling in the breeze.

     b) Sheets, towels, and shirts crouched on the green clothesline, wandering in the breeze.

 

6. a) Tony inspected a glass for water spots. “You’d better hit the road before Leon shows up.”

      b) “You’d better hit the road before Leon shows up,” Tony warned.

 

7. a) Kirsten landed the job after weeks of preparation — research, updating her resume, and gathering letters of recommendation.

     b) After weeks of preparation — research, updating her resume, and gathering letters of recommendation — Kirsten landed the job.

 

8. a) The first problem really seemed slightly strange, but Eli was not very eager to ask a question in front of the other boys.

     b) The first problem seemed strange, but Eli didn’t want to ask a question in front of the other boys.

 

9. a) Seized by rage, Paul kicked a chair across the room.

     b) Paul kicked a chair across the room.

 

10. a) Dim light filtered through grimy windows. Dirty socks sprouted under chairs and in corners like growths of fungus.

        b) The sun was as dim as a distant fire through the grimy windows. A crop of dirty socks flooded the carpet in dark towers.

 

11. a) We want the same things: a big library, to have space to write, abundant nature, and living in a small town.

       b) We want the same things: a big library, space to write, abundant nature, and life in a small town.

 

12. a) Carter spotted an open drawer. Had it been that way when he’d left? A pen on the desk had been clicked, its point extended. Meggie must have been here.

       b) Carter spotted an open drawer. He wondered to himself if it had been that way when he’d left. He noticed that a pen on the desk had been clicked, its point extended. Meggie must have been here, he thought.

 

13. a) Olivia wandered into the lobby. There was a huge potted plant beside the main entrance. The black marble counter was spotless and polished. A crystal chandelier hung over the broad staircase. People stood around in suits and ties and spoke foreign languages. It was formal and strange.

      b) Olivia wandered into the lobby. Beside the main entrance, a potted plant loomed over her like a jungle tree brought indoors. Gleaming counter of black marble, chandelier, sweeping staircase, suits and ties, murmurs of foreign language — everything whispered of formality and strangeness.

 

14. a) “Get out of my house and don’t come back,” he said softly, and kissed her.

        b) “Get out of my house and don’t come back!” he said coldly.

15. a) Our boots squeaked on the snow, which covered ice a half-meter down. We trudged to the lake’s center.

       b) Our shoes sank into the snow, piled a half-meter deep on the ice. We hiked to the lake’s center.

 

And the answers:

1. a) is the better choice. A Cricket editor set me straight on this one. You can’t laugh most words, and you can’t smile words. Try it. I always try it, to prove my point, in front of my students. So keep the action separate from the quoted words. Put a period and move on, as Judge Judy says. Of course the following is perfectly okay: “I think so, too,” he said.

2. b) is better. In a), we don’t know who doesn’t like whom. Be very careful about pronouns. Is it clear who every “she” and “he” is?

3. Go with b). It’s the simpler, less intrusive word. And you don’t want to intrude here: you want the reader’s focus to be on the speech itself. I remember back in junior high, a teacher very proudly gave us a handout that was titled something like “100 Ways to Say ‘Said.'” Yes, there are probably a hundred ways or more. It’s good to know about them, to know our language is so rich and diverse. There may be, in the grand flow of our writing lives, opportunities to use some or many of them. (Why, just today, I worked in a form of “ejaculate,” didn’t I? And it was entirely appropriate.) I’m sure whoever put together that handout was a sincere educator who loved young writers and wanted the very best for them. But trust me, when you’re reading along and you come to characters who “observe” or “interject” words, you will be jarred out of the story. That’s not to say that you can’t sometimes write “answered” or “asked” or “suggested” or “insisted” — in general, variety is good, yes. You have to find the comfortable, natural middle ground. It’s okay to use non-jarring alternatives for “said,” when they’re appropriate. But the point is, “said” is just about the closest thing to an invisible word that there is. When you’re reading a gripping scene, you hardly even see “he said.” Your brain simply uses it to attribute the speech to the right character, but you don’t think about it at all. On the other hand, if it’s “she assessed” or “John ventured,” you do notice it. See what I mean? There’s a classic, often-anthologized story called “Long Walk to Forever,” and it’s a dialogue between a man and a woman, and pretty much every line is “he said,” “she said,” “he said,” “she said” — and you don’t notice that at all. All you care about is what they’re saying — and whether he’ll be able to change her mind.

4. Here, we’d best go with b). My students quickly become conditioned that they should always pick the shorter sentence to make me happy — just as, in Sunday school, you’re always safe if you answer “Jesus.” But seriously: the a) option is repetitious — the door is weathered, faded, and scarred. “Weathered” pretty much encompasses “faded and scarred,” so b) is a more efficient sentence. [I also tell my students to be highly suspicious of “which.” It often points the way to flab.]

5. Here, we should choose a). Many young writers, feeling their oats, grab up an armload of vivid verbs and jam them into sentences willy-nilly. But we have to be sensitive to what the verbs mean. We have to use the right vivid verbs. Laundry in reality hangs down from a line; it doesn’t crouch on it — that would be eerie. The clothes are pinned in place, so they can’t really “wander.” Vivid is only good when it’s also appropriate.

6. a) is better. The speech is clearly a warning. There’s no need to tell the reader that. a) gives us a nice additional visual detail, too: Tony going about his business, inspecting a glass as he speaks. We know it’s Tony speaking, because the quoted speech is in the same paragraph as Tony’s action.

7. b) is the stronger choice. It illustrates the use of the “power position,” which is the end of the sentence. The end delivers those last words that ring in the reader’s ear. Don’t waste the power position on something that doesn’t deserve power. What we really want to know in this sentence is whether or not Kirsten got the job. That should come at the end. The outcome goes at the end of a story, if you want people to keep listening. Once we know she got the job, we don’t really care how she prepared for the interview. But if we hear the details of her preparations before we know the outcome, they build suspense.

8. b) is better. a) is loaded up with qualifiers: “really,” “slightly,” “not very.”

9. Again, b) is more effective. There simply are not many emotions other than rage which would prompt a person to kick a chair across the room — particularly if we have a context for this action from the unfolding story. It’s not necessary to name the rage: the action shows it perfectly well.

10. Let’s go with a). For one thing, the analogy it draws is consistent. Fungus sprouts. In b), there’s a “crop” that “floods” in “towers.” Square pegs, round holes. The words we use need to function together as a team. I also have a problem with “The sun was as dim as a distant fire,” because the sun on its brightest days is “a distant fire.” It’s a magnificent fire, 93 million miles away. So go with a). We’ll all sleep better.

11. b) is better. It illustrates the principle of parallelism. b) lines up a nice set of nouns: library, space, nature, and life. a), on the other hand, gives us a noun, an infinitive, another noun, and a gerund. Yes, those things can all function as nouns. But when you have a world of nouns at your disposal, and you’re building a nice, even row, why not use all nouns?

12. a) is the stronger choice. We can tell that Carter is seeing and thinking and noticing these things. Take heed of this one! I habitually put in far too many “She noticed that”s and “He realized that”s. a) is tighter, leaner, more efficient. It was Plato who said: “The most beautiful motion is that which accomplishes the greatest results with the least amount of effort.” You know — he was right! If you don’t believe me, just watch the Olympics. [And please — let’s not say “wondered to himself.”]

13. b) is our choice. When possible, it’s best to avoid forms of “to be,” which have a diluting, weakening effect. In a), there are three uses of “was.” Also, a) takes up space telling us very conventional things: the chandelier “hung,” people “stood around and spoke.” b) gives us crystal-clear images, like snapshots, with no unnecessary baggage.

14. a) is the selection. It gives us a surprise, a mystery, something to wonder about. What is going on?! Any takers? Who wants to write a story explaining what’s going on in a)? — but you could, right? It invites the asking of questions, which is the combustion in the engine of story. b) states the obvious.

15. I’m messing with you. I lied: not all my pairs of sentences have a greater and a lesser. In this case, I think either choice is equally valid. They’re both lean, expressive, and vivid. The words are pulling their weight, paying their way. The difference I can see is that the two examples make use of sounds in different ways: a) uses harder, sharper consonant sounds to conjure the impression of a frozen world. b) utilizes softer, more sibilant and liquid sounds to create the impression of a softer winter world. Both kinds of winter exist, so whether you chose a) or b), you’re right! A  wise friend of mine says, “There are always at least three ways to do anything.” So if you chose c), I guess you’re right about that, too!

And shouldn’t that be our ultimate point? Find your c). Construct the sentence your way. Tell the story only you can tell.

Let’s give the last word to a virtuoso crafter of sentences:

“Shut up,” he explained. — Ring Lardner

Reading and the Full Corn Moon

September 1, 2009

There’s an enormous yellow moon hanging outside my place tonight. The crickets are shrilling in the bushes, and the lone streetlamp in my dark little street is flickering insanely, about to give up the ghost. An inside source tells me the Farmers’ Almanac says our full moon this week is called the Full Corn Moon. (Did you know the full moons all have names?)

So anyway, in the wake of August, when I was working like mad on editing The Sacred Woods, I’m now allowing myself to “be on vacation” for a few days. There are other writing tasks immediately ahead, but I’ve been waiting all summer for the chance to immerse myself in other people’s words for awhile. It’s an indescribably good feeling to get out of the driver’s seat, down off the conductor’s podium, out of the control booth, off the ladder, out from behind the Dungeon Master’s screen — choose whichever analogy you like — and just read for a few days. I really should allow myself to do this more often, because I feel like a dry sponge that’s been squeezed hard, thrust into a bucket of water, and then unsqueezed. Or like, you know how when the ground gets bone dry sometimes in midsummer, and when you pour some water on it, the water just vanishes instantly? That’s what I feel like. It’s so nice to be reading. (Go ahead and laugh! I know pretty much anyone who’s reading this makes time for reading as a matter of course, like eating and brushing teeth. I never claimed to be normal! [And for the record, I do read all the time — just not nearly enough fiction.])

My mom used to have her office in the very center of our house, in what was once the dining room, until the house expanded, and the dining room migrated one room to the south. Mom had two desks and a file cabinet all pushed up together and covered with mountains of books, magazines, papers, and office supplies. The drawers were brimming over, and there was more of the same stuff in cardboard boxes on the floor under the desks. Mom did almost all her actual writing at the kitchen table, but her desk was where her typewriter — and in later years, her word processor — was, so that’s where she’d go to type final drafts, find envelopes, and look up addresses.

But the point I’m getting to is: one of my favorite things about Mom’s office was a very large, framed poster she had on the wall over and beside her desk, dominating the room. I suppose she got it through her work as a librarian and creative program director for the schools — perhaps at some conference. It was a picture of a princess, framed in the window of a high tower. A handsome knight/prince was standing on a ladder leaned up against the tower’s side, and you could tell from the surrounding scene that he’d journeyed through a dark forest and gotten past a dragon to rescue the princess. But she was turned away from him with her nose in a book, and there were books stacked all around her. The poster’s caption proclaimed: “‘I’d rather read,’ she said.”

Isn’t that excellent? I kept that poster, of course, though it’s brittle with the passage of years and locked away in my storeroom in that house. I hope someday to have it out again and on the wall.

So anyway, a few days ago, a good friend asked me if I’d ever read any of the host of stories by other writers that are based on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft — for example, my friend said, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” I hadn’t read that one; and hearing that it was in one of his collections, I thought, “I wonder if. . . .” So I went over to my bookcase, pulled down Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and lo and behold, “A Study in Emerald” is the first story in it!

To this point, I’d kind of wondered what all the fuss over Neil Gaiman was about. I liked Coraline okay — he was obviously a good writer, but I thought the book was a little uneven, that he’d gotten a bit careless toward the middle. (Several people have told me that the movie is better than the book — I haven’t seen it yet.) I don’t mean to run Coraline down. It is quite clever and nicely done overall, and I always mention it when I’m asked to compare Dragonfly to something. (I actually have very fond memories of reading Coraline. Some friends of mine in Japan had to be out of town for several days because of a death in the family. I was on a summer vacation at the time, and I house-sat for about a week — feeding their cats, watering their plants . . . and reading Coraline. It was an interesting time.)

But I did wonder why we hear Gaiman’s name everywhere, why he can do pretty much anything he wants to do, and why he keeps winning all those awards. Well, now I know! After that story, I decided I had to read the whole collection. I can’t speak for his novels: I haven’t read the ones he’s most famous for. He probably is a genius at longer forms, too, or he wouldn’t be the king of the genre today. But as a short story writer in the field of dark fantasy, I think he may very well be the greatest living practitioner. For the past decade, his stories have consistently won Locus, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards. The tales he crafts are simply elegant in their craftsmanship and brilliant in their content. They’re unfailingly clear and approachable. You don’t have to “wade through” anything. He has the ideas, the language skills to make things happen, and the reading experience that allows him to pay homage to almost anybody while still producing strikingly original stories.

This is a little early for the season, but anyone would do well to get Fragile Things ready for reading in October. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again as the long-shadow season draws nearer, but my all-time favorite Hallowe’en short story is Richard Laymon’s “Boo!” I think I now have a second-favorite. (Laymon’s is still the best — I don’t know how a story could be any more perfect than that one.) In the second position is Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” (which, incidentally, he dedicates to Ray Bradbury).

And I’m not saying that’s the best story in the collection. Every one of the stories I’ve read so far has been astonishing, and they’re not all the same. This is a collection of tales that have been award-winners in the years they were published, so you’re reading the best of the best. I emphatically recommend it.

But I’ve made one more reading discovery which, for me personally, is even greater. I’ve also found another book which goes onto my small, small shelf of the absolute best. I haven’t loved a book this much since Millhauser’s Enchanted Night. And the book is:

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. I’ll quote the back flyleaf: “The writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, which have been published in thirty-five languages. The Summer Book was one of ten novels that she wrote for adults. It is regarded as a modern classic throughout Scandinavia.”

It’s been translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, with a foreword by Esther Freud. Another good friend gave me this book as a Christmas present several years ago, and I’d been saving it. (Aren’t books just the most wonderful presents you can give or get? We used to put up a sign in our bookstore window every December: “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” Okay, don’t think too hard about the theology of that ad. But you know I’m right.)

Now let me quote from the front flyleaf: “An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims, and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges — one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs, and unpredictable seas.

“Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults.”

It was first copyrighted in 1972 and orginally published in Swedish as Sommerboken.

(Interesting aside: the best movie I saw this summer was also a Swedish film. That’s a whole other topic. If anyone wants to know the title, let’s take it up in the comments section. This has really been the Summer of Sweden!)

Anyway, The Summer Book, on just about every page, has me laughing out loud, crying (yes, literally), and shaking my head in wonder and awe. It’s about all the things I love most: the magic of childhood and the imagination, the beauty of nature, and the love between people. I deliberately held off starting this book until after I was done with The Sacred Woods, because it’s also about those very same things and features a grandparent and grandchild. If I’d tried to read this as I was writing, I think it would have influenced me in the wrong ways. (They’re very different stories.) I won’t start telling you about my favorite scenes — because the whole book is my favorite scene. This is one I’ll want to revisit again and again and again.

So. . . . Yes, I’m reading Gaiman and Jansson simultaneously. Believe it or not, this works wonderfully for me. The two books are completely different from each other, and I love the variety. I’ll read a Gaiman story, then go back to Jansson to see what Grandmother and Sophia will do next. Back and forth, back and forth: it’s a vacation, it’s an education, it’s an unforgettable summer experience.

Yes, SUMMER, I say! Fall does not begin until the 23rd of this month, so we have a full three weeks of summer left. For me in my Japanese university schedule, it’s right now midsummer: my holiday is August and September. So let’s not go thinking of fall yet: we’ll do that with a passion in October.

Finally, here’s an insight into line-editing which seems edifying and amusing. This is from The Sacred Woods. Here’s the unedited passage:

“[Character A]’s gaze was dark with worry. He seemed to sniff the air as he trotted toward me. With a tense expression, he waited for me to speak.”

Edited version:

“His gaze dark with worry, [Character A] trotted toward me.”

I eliminated a “was.” Forms of “to be” should always be highly suspect — not that we can’t use them, but they tend to get overused. In the context of this scene, sniffing the air didn’t contribute anything, and seeming to sniff the air is just dumb: you can tell if a person is sniffing the air or not. Since his gaze is already “dark with worry,” we don’t need that “tense expression.” And waiting for [me] to speak is unnecessary, because it becomes obvious when [Character B] is the first person to speak. We’re left with one lean, vivid sentence featuring an action verb.

That’s how I spent my August. And now I’m reading. Happy Full Corn Moon! (As for comments, this might be a good time to let us know what you’re reading in this last golden month of summer. I know Marquee Movies is off to rescue Bilbo and see him safely home. . . .)