This Modernist Life

Rainbow over the magic valleyThe work of the Modernists and Post-Modernists is not for everybody. Literature from this period can be dense, esoteric, and difficult for the casual reader to access. However, if you don’t mind playing the occasional mind game while you read a book, you might try a work from one of the greats like T.S. Elliot or Jennifer Egan. By reading these works and studying the scholarship around them, you can develop a new understanding of and appreciation for he use of the English language in art.

The representational nature of language in art is one of the big concerns of Modern and Post-Modern writers. In order to function, art must represent something – or must it? The act of representation has such a profoundly disruptive effect on a thing or concept that, in the eyes of many modernists, the thing represented is rendered completely pointless. Rather, it is the representational act that should stand at the center of the artistic work, and the artist should feel free to call the audience’s attention to the fact that representation is happening.

This emphasis on ‘the person behind the curtain’ is conveyed to the audience through a variety of techniques. Some writers use elaborate, inaccessible language to make the reader work for any meaning found in the text. Others use a kaleidoscopic timeline to force the audience to recreate the process of making a narrative out of real events. In almost all cases, the reader is challenged to find meaning rather than handed meaning on a silver platter.

Of course, if you want to be a commercial writer, you’re typically better off indulging your readers’ laziness than you are challenging them to a battle of wits. This doesn’t mean that the modernists don’t have some interesting philosophical ideas to offer the writer. We are, after all, in the business of representation, and learning a little about the ramifications of that act behooves us all.

Writing Exercise: Be Myth-Taken

Mist in the valley beyond the stub lightSince the dawn of time, people have been telling stories to explain the parts of life that don’t quite make sense. The most powerful of these stories became repeated and repeated and repeated until they became sacred to the people who told them. A myth is more than a story that engages your readers – it is one that connects to them on a primal or even spiritual level.

Myths can be divided into several categories. One of the most popular, the creation myth, deals with the mysteries of how humankind became humankind. Sometimes, our species is created by a divine being. Other times, we wander onto the stage from the same shadowy realm as the divine beings themselves.

When humanity is not being created in a myth, it is frequently being destroyed in one. The end of the world, just like its beginning, can happen in a variety of different ways. Angry gods, cosmic catastrophes, and even plagues of zombies might be foretold in a powerful end-of-the-world narrative.

Between its creation and destruction, humanity needs to do something – and that something frequently includes being rather afraid of some natural disaster or another. As someone who’s been known to chalk up everything from bad traffic to garden pests to an angry god, I have a special appreciation for myths that explain life’s little frustrations as part of a nice, neat cosmic scheme.

Another fun category of myth is the trickster tale. From Puck to Coyote, tricksters have been delighting audiences for millenia with their ability to weasel their way out of any predicament. I like to write this kind of myth when I’m in the mood for creating something humorous and clever.

Regardless of what kind of myth inspires you the most, writing one can really help you grow as a storyteller. From pacing a narrative to using archetypal characters, you can practice a variety of storycrafting techniques when you write your own myth.

Finding Your Feet

Brick wall 3Rhyme and meter are the building blocks of poetry, and metric feet are the building blocks of meter. It’s important to be able to identify what kind of ‘foot’ a word has – and not just in case you’d like to write a sonnet. Understanding the metric profile of your writing style can help you develop it, understand it, and refine it as you write. Whether you’re a poet or an aspiring prose master, this list of metric types can serve as a handy reference.

  • An iamb carries its emphasis on the second syllable. “To be,” “Rotund,” and “Astride are all examples of this poetic foot, which is frequently formed across two words.
  • trochee carries its emphasis on the first syllable. Unlike the iamb, it’s easy to find a trochee that is only one word: pizza, movie, lady, pirate, hamster, driver, and soda are just the beginning.
  • With the anapest, we move into three-syllable feet; the anapest carries its emphasis on its last syllable. Like an iamb, an anapest is likely to be composed of more than one word: from the lake, condescend, tearing up, and bedding down are some examples.
  • The dactyl, the anapest’s counterpart, carries its emphasis on the first syllable. These are more likely to be one-word feet than anapests, because plenty of words like galloping, contraband, terrorize, and even Instagram fit this pattern.
  • The spondee takes us back to two-syllable feet, but with a twist: the spondee is never used to carry a line. This is largely because it’s night impossible to arrange English words in such a manner that every syllable is accented. The spondee is usually used as a gap filler, or as a label for a word that doesn’t fit in with the rest of a poem’s meter. Examples are typically an odd arrangement of syllables, but sometimes you’ll encounter a single word like humdrum or lampshade that does the job.
  • If you suspect that the trochee might be a two-syllable foot with both words unstressed, then you’re correct! This is a more common gap filler than a spondee, and usually shows up in explanatory phrases like “son of” and “comes from.”

It’s certainly possible to imagine poetic feet with more than three syllables, but it’s most efficient to think of them in terms of the two and three syllable feet. Armed with this knowledge, you can approach formal poetry with a handy tool for understanding and interpreting it.

The Revolution Will Not Be Proofread

Lizard on the barbecue grillIf you’ve ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays, or Jane Austen’s novels, you’ve probably figured out that the rules of the English language are not set in stone. Grammar rules are changeable. This isn’t to say, of course, that you can declare today to be a “comma splices are correct” kind of day; in fact, most grammar rules should be carefully followed because they help your audience understand your writing. However, there are some changes to the English language that are happening right now as we write. You get to choose whether you want to stick with tradition or hop on board with the linguistic revolution.

New words are one of the most prominent changes you’ll notice in this language. We’re acquiring them all the time – from other languages, from technical fields, and even from popular slang. Frequently, new words are formally welcomed into the English language by being included in one of our famous dictionaries. This typically means that they’re used frequently enough and consistently enough to be worth defining for the masses.

While some words make their debut in the English language, other words are taking on new roles. Nouns are being used as verbs, verbs are being used as nouns, “literally” can be used to mean “pretty extremely and seriously, but not really literally-literally,” and “their” is fast gaining acceptance as the singular gender-neutral pronoun we’ve needed for centuries.

Of course, there remain those who will bristle and whine that you’re using it wrong when you use a word in a way that’s only recently become popularly accepted, or that that’s not a real word when you use something that’s only just been invented. It is true that on occasion, you need to stick to an older set of conventions – particularly in technical or legal writing. However, if it’s a less formal piece and if the perfect word choice is only technically incorrect, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t contribute to the English language’s continuous evolution.

5 Tiny Details that Impact the Meaning of a Sentence

Cricket on flax 2A large part of producing good writing is polishing your writing. Keeping a close eye on details will not only help ensure that your writing is elegant, but also help ensure that it means what you want it to mean. These three “little big things” will pop up in almost every piece you write – so keep an eye out for them, and make sure you’re using them in the best way possible.

  • Articles like “a” and “the” are likely the shortest words in your sentences, but they convey a lot of information about the nouns they govern. “An apple,” for example, is one of many ordinary fruit, but if you talk about “the apple,” your reader will assume that it stands out from the rest in some regard.
  • Parenthetical phrases can be one or two words long, but they can make make a big splash. “I had tea with my friend Deborah at the beach” refers to one of many friends, while “I had tea with my friend, Deborah, at the beach” identifies Deborah as being one of a kind. The difference is that the second “Deborah” is contained in a parenthetical phrase, which functions to describe a solitary object rather than to point out one object out of many.
  • Modifier placement is another huge tiny detail that you need to watch out for. If I write “I want this dinner to end badly,” for example, I’m expressing ill-will. However, if I move the modifier around so that it reads, “I badly want this dinner to end,” then we see that I’m probably just tired or suffering from a headache.

As you develop your writing style, you’ll find that you have a fairly large set of details that you tend to fuss over time and time again. This is not a bad thing – the more you find yourself correcting little details, the more attention you’re paying to your writing, and the happier your readers will be.

Writing an Antihero

Potter wasp 2We sometimes think of heroic characters as very “squeaky clean” types. They slay dragons, they hold the door for strangers, they give up their seats on the bus to needy folks, and they rescue baby animals from all kinds of predicaments. Except when they don’t.

The antihero does the hero’s job, narratively speaking:  he or she is integral to solving the story’s problem, he or she is in conflict with the villain, and if it’s a romance, he or she will probably be part of it. However, an antihero goes about these tasks with a very different moral attitude than a traditional hero. Antiheroes, by definition, have some characteristics that make them seem unsuitable for or undeserving of the hero’s part.

Greed, lust, a short temper, long-held grudges, and a tendency to party hard are just some of the features we can find in an antihero. They’re not just a hero with a flaw – they are deeply flawed or troubled characters who may even come across as villainous in the first part of the story. However, writers should be careful not to add too much grit when they’re creating an antihero. The contest to see who could create the darkest, edgiest, meanest antihero ended in the 1990s, and readers are more likely to be bored than entertained by characters who are defined entirely by their roughness.

A large part of the appeal of antiheroes comes from their potential for deep, complex development as people over the course of the narrative. They almost never lose the characteristics that made them ‘un-heroic,’ but they generally develop improved strategies for coping with their world and maintaining the relationships that are most important to them. While your antiheroes definitely need to have their share of faults and rough patches, they also need to have the capacity to learn and grow as people.

It’s Like a Metaphor, See?

Pair of pearsWriters are constantly drawing comparisons between apples and oranges. It’s an important part of our job – part of the delight of reading, for many readers, is seeing the similarities between two concepts that may appear to be completely unrelated. It’s clever. It’s interesting. It helps us maintain the illusion that there’s some order and purpose in the universe.

Many of us (myself included) think of “metaphor” as a catch-all term for comparisons made between unlike things. However, that’s not really true; we make a metaphor only when we make that comparison implicitly. “Your grandma’s a fox,” for example, is a proper metaphor. The reader knows from the context of common speech that the speaker really means “Your grandma is attractive and glamorous,” so no further clarification is needed.

That’s the thing about true metaphors: they lack explicit comparative signals, so you need some kind of interpretive context if you don’t want to lose the reader. If you don’t have the space for that context, then what you need is a simile. It does the same job, but it uses “like” or “as” to give you reader a clear signal that a comparison is being made. For example, “Your uncle is as mean as a snake” doesn’t leave the reader wondering how the uncle is like a snake; the comparison is drawn without excessive work on the reader’s part.

Whether you use a metaphor or a simile really does come down to how much effort you want the reader to put into understanding your comparison. This isn’t always an unpleasant effort – indeed, many of us enjoy reading poetry for the challenge of figuring out all the complex metaphors. However, if you don’t want the reader to be distracted by the comparison, or if you think the reader might be confused by it, then a simile is generally your best bet.

 

Small Town Settings: Cute Nostalgia or Dark Secrets?

Spello 2They’ve become a fixture of American literature because they’re a fixture of American geography: those dinky little towns of 500 to 2,000 souls, clinging desperately to the industry or the Interstate that keeps them from disappearing into the empty places of this country. Though few people like to live in these places, many of us like to read stories set in an American small town.

On one level, this setting is appealing because it offers a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when the whole town knew your name and you could count on any of them to help you out of a tight spot. To a degree, small towns in popular culture signify communal trust and the virtues of a small, close-knit family. That’s why, when you need a character who’s a bit naive, one of the go-to choices for backstory is to have them come from an itty-bitty town way out in the sticks.

However, as anyone who actually grew up in one of these towns can tell you, it’s very easy to lose that wide-eyed innocence without moving to the big city. The dark side of small towns in America is well-known: these places tend to be isolated, insular, and plagued by poverty and bad education. In fiction, that’s just the start of the trouble. Drugs in the water supply, doomsday cults, serial killers, and beautiful families of teenage vampires are just some of the dark secrets held by small towns in American literature.

So, why do we insist on keeping up this idea that we, that any of us, perceive a small town to be a cute little oasis of innocence in a mean ol’ urban world? You can argue that it’s political, and it probably is, but it’s also probably because of the prideful cynicism we have in this country. Yes, we want to be the one to debunk that inspirational quote on our friend’s Facebook. We want to be the first one to tell Aunt Hortense that her chain e-mail is an urban legend. If we admit that we already know that a small town is just as dark and dangerous as the Big Scary City, then we lose the chance to re-live that beautiful smug journey toward Being Right All Along.

So, when you decide to set a story in a small town, feel free to paint it as the cheery, innocent place where you’d just love to settle down and start a family. Your audience won’t mind – especially if you later give them a chance to “discover” the hidden dark side of your All-American setting.

Just Like Me, They Long to Read, Close to You…

Bindweed flowerA book is like a hyper-convenient version of Pandora’s box – it can spawn a plethora of different things, but it’s up to us which one will come out. We can read for work or for school. We can read to form an opinion on a controversial book, or to examine the politics at play in a popular series. We can read just for the simple pleasure of words on a page.

Just as there are different purposes for reading, there are different levels of reading. Most frequently, we read a work in its entirety, and we read it on a surface level. A detail here or there might slip past us, but we grasp the overall point and meaning of the book. Even the most serious scholars will approach a book in this way at first.

However, you don’t have to come up with an opinion and move on once you’ve given a book a read-through like this. In fact, you shouldn’t move on if you really want to learn from it. Instead, you should pick an interesting passage or two and subject them to a good, old-fashioned close reading.

In a formal academic setting, a ‘close reading’ is a short essay (of 500 to 1,000 words at my alma mater) written on a sentence or two in a novel. I want to be a nice creative person and say “but you can choose your own method,” but no – at first, you’ll need that goal of 500 words to get you really thinking about the short (no more than 55 words!) passage you’ve chosen. Do it right, and you’ll think you’ve gone crazy: you’ll be going to seemingly absurd lengths to find some additional meaning hidden in a little grammar quirk. You’ll be looking up words in dictionaries, you’ll be thinking about section structures, and you might even be looking up the current academic discourse of the book.

This madness is exactly the point of close reading. It forces you to grasp at straws, to look for different interpretations, and to think of strategies a writer may have been using to make a point. That process will help you understand literature, it will help you develop your own strategies for making points, and it will help you develop a new level of understanding for the books you read.

 

Writing Exercise: Your Own Cooking Show

Apricot jamA writer’s job is to show the reader how something happened – how the princess was saved from the dragon, how the handsome highlander married the wild lady of the moors, or how the hard-boiled detective solved the case and got his reward. These dramatic stories can be fun to write, but they can also be daunting. If you think you could use some practice crafting a narrative, you might try telling a fairly simple story that happens every day of your life: how you cooked your dinner.

This topic may seem simple and dull, but therein lies its effectiveness. You have nothing inherent in your plot that will make your story interesting – no mysterious billionaires, no intergalactic warfare – and so this story will be carried entirely on the weight of your storycratfting. Using nothing but your writing skill and the things you have in your kitchen, you need to develop character, create suspense, and craft and ending that satisfies the reader.

You’ll find that this challenging task will show you which tools you rely on most when you’re crafting your story. Maybe you use a lot of backstory, taking a few sentences to wonder about where your beef came from. Maybe you prefer to draw your reader in with vivid imagery and delicious descriptions of your ingredients. Maybe the restrictions of this exercise will even inspire you to use some new narrative device to spice up your supper story.

Cooking a meal is seldom as exciting as falling in love or solving a mystery, but it is nonetheless one of those things that sometimes happens, and which writers can therefore turn into a story. This writing exercise will help you understand the tools you use to build a narrative, and it will challenge you to built a story that is carried entirely by the strength of yuor story crafting.