Category Archives: Words

The Power of the Word

So it is Friday and time for us to continue to wander through my thoughts concerning The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers.

Sayers makes a very intriguing analogy about writing – as all analogies it has its faults and should not be taken literally; it is after all an analogy.  She postulates that we can look at writing from the perspective of trinity. (As a strong believer in the Trinity, I enjoy seeing trinitarian concepts done well – Sayers does it well).  To make my point or rather to explain my rumination, I must give some background.  And the best way to do that is in Sayers own words:

For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity (35).

Idea,  Energy / Activity,   Power

I could go on for days on this topic – Sayers wrote a whole book on it.  As analogies go it is one of best, for me as a writer, to understand the art of creation –  the Art of the Creation.  I know that it is an analogy and Sayers is clear to point out the known flaws in case anyone decides to get cheeky or too serious.  Analogies are a way of helping us understand the unknowable, the mysteries of life.  Bread & Wine – Body and Blood, Marriage – Christ & the Church, but I am not here to talk about these things today.  But these are examples of unknowable things that have very real analogies to make their mystery a little more knowable. (Is it bad that I used an analogy to explain an analogy?)

But back to my ruminations about the trinity of creativity – Idea is the thought, Energy is the writing or written word, and Power is the impact of reading.  Power of the word is what I have been mulling over in my mind. Sayers mentions a very bad habit that we have of dismissing words as “just words.”  We say this to comfort ourselves when words have wounded us or others.  “Sticks and stones may brake my bones but words will never hurt me,”  is a pithy saying full of lies.  Words do hurt.  Words can also, edify, strengthen and encourage. We use words to comfort because there is power and influence in words. And all our trite sayings only prove that point.

[O]nce the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there with ever-increasing Energy and ever-increasing Power. It may for some time incarnate itself only in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in action, and this is its day of judgement” (111).

All three are working together, the Idea, Energy, Power, of thought and creativity, thus effecting the reader for good or ill.   Sayers uses the term “day of judgement,” which if you are like me, will immediately give you negative connotations.  But I don’t think that this is what Sayers is actually getting at.  It is judgement  because the action is a reincarnation of the previous Idea/Energy/Power and through the incarnation the truth of the Idea/Energy/Power is revealed – a judgement.

Words have power.  Tell a little girl she is pretty long enough and she will undoubtedly become vain.  Tell a child he will fail at life, he will either prove your right or wrong based on his character and fortitude.

Last week I talked about the types and kinds of books and their effect on the their readers.  I suppose I finally got to the part in Sayers’s book that sort of proves the point I was trying to make. By reading we are experiencing the the final part of the creative process the Power of the Idea as it is revealed through the Energy.  This Power, as a concept of influence, in and of itself is not “bad” as we think of bad nor is it good.  It is simple an element that is part of creativity.  However, the content and the strength of the Idea is the important thing.  Reading the wrong sorts of books like hanging out with the wrong sorts of persons will effect the character of the reader.

I’ll leave you with a parting quote that I am still ruminating on that illustrates the point I’ve been trying to make:

 But Pentecost [revelation of the Power - Action based on the culmination of the Idea/Energy/Power] will happen, whether within or without official education. From some quarter of other, the Power will descend, to flame or smolder until it is ready to issue in a new revelation. We need not suppose that, because the mind of the reader is inert to Plato, it will therefore be inert to Nietzsche or Karl Marx.  Failing those, it may respond to Wilhelmina Stitch or to Hollywood (112).

*Sayers, Dorothy L. The Minder of the Maker. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1979.

NaNoWriMo – The end is only a beginning

So it is the last day of the month, the end of NaNoWriMo.

For some of you this is a sigh of relief – the pressure is off.  For others, it is despairing  knowing that you did not reach your goal.  Some of you may be experiencing the joys of a strong finish.  And still more of you are just glad to be done – finished never having to look at that story again.

I applaud you finishers!  I congratulate you writers of a novel in a month!

I, nevertheless, did not finish…strong or otherwise.

But I do not consider this a failing, just a lesson.

I set out to write and see were it took me.  I wanted to have a goal and strive towards it.  I wanted to discipline myself and win the battle against my fickle muse.  In many ways, I succeeded in that cause.  I discovered that if I did “just sit down and force words onto the page” I could bring about a story even if my muse thought otherwise.

I learned that life is full of more distractions that I truly realized.  There are family gatherings, friendly emergencies, daily duties, need for sustenance  and unexpected occurrences that take up time, energy and money.  These interruptions are not all bad.  Some are very good.  These distractions can and will hinder you from enjoying, completing or even actually writing. (This is true for any hobby or extra curricular activity that you do).   If  I am going to be a writer, I am going to need to be more disciplined.  Writing is work but if I wait for the inspiration or the time, I’ll never write.  I need to make the time.  I need to be consistent, purposeful  and resolved in my writing.

Instead of looking at my measly 30,000 word count and thinking that I have failed, I am looking at my 30,000 words as that much closer to finishing an actual story.  NaNoWriMo forced me to write and by writing I worked out many of the kinks in the plot.  I now have a story that is worth finishing.  I am not sure if I am only half way there with my story or not but I have a strong beginning and a hopeful ending.

Keep writing!

 

NaNoWriMo: Write More, Write Now

I have a confession.  Though I call myself a writer, I don’t write that much.

I blame my muse.

She is fickle and rather inconvenient. If I have time to write, she decides to take a vacation.  If I have other work, a paper, an assignment, a data spreadsheet, a road trip, or I am otherwise incapable of reaching my computer or a writing utensil, then she sparks innovation and creativity.  I have had words with her, I have bribed her, I have threatened her, but to no avail.  She remains as she is–fickle and feckless.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my muse.  She has given me hundreds of stories and a good many “friends” but I just wish she’d come and visit at more convenient and reliable times.

But blaming my muse for my lack of writing that is not the whole truth.  I can say “I write by inspiration,” which is by all rights well and true.  However, it is a contrived excuse to not write.

I like to write.  I enjoy watching the words form pictures and stories.  I love creating and shaping worlds, characters, and adventures.

I just don’t like work and forcing creativity out of my lazy self is, well, work.

So, I have decided to face my apathy and confront my muse. I am unofficially participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  I say unofficially  because I am not following all the rules.  Apparently you have to start on a fresh, new story and you’re suppose to register and all such other nonsense.  So I am looking at the rules as guidelines.  They are there to guide me down the path to writing.  I DONOT need to start on a new story.  (My muse begs to differ on this point, but I will be strong and defy her)  I have so many stories that are nearly completed, barely started, or stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere with no hope of going anywhere.  Naturally I picked a story that was somewhere in the beginning of nowhere, at the edge of nearly started. It’s a place to start that is comfortable and at this point optimistically possible of actually completing.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to actually write 50000 words in a month which is the lowest common denominator for a novel.  To complete this amazing task the participants have to write at least 1600 words a day.  As someone so nicely pointed out to me that is nearly 6.5 double spaced pages (depending on how much or little dialog you may have)!  But to be honest merely writing 1600 or so words a day for a month is not necessarily a recipe for anything truly great.  I have heard it said “just write, don’t think.”  Yes, that is true to write this much in a month is rather taxing.  And the point of NaNoWriMo is to write…write like mad.

I want to get my story from nowhere to a somewhere which is hopefully the beginning of the end.  Terrified though I may be at the thought of this feat, I will face the challenge.

Day one was a success.

The subsequent days…not so much. However, the point is to write, to overcome the muse’s fickleness and my own laziness; therefore, I will not let a weekend of forced family fun deter me from my ultimate goal: of getting a story out of nowhere and into somewhere nearing the end.  (Yes, forced family fun is an excellent excuse for not writing. I mean who can resist the joy of playing hide -and-seek with four-year-old niece? Or taking a two-year-old to the park?  So when the whole family descends upon you, you drop your pen and play Ticket To Ride or any other activity that is agreed upon).  Monday came with renewed promise.  So far so good as of Tuesday I was back on track…minus my three day weekend with my family (See this lovely chart?  It not only gives me inspiration, it tells my how bad I am doing.)

I will keep you all posted of my writing success or failings this month.  I’d like to hear about your adventures in writing as well. Mutual encouragement or consolations are always welcome and appreciated.

Happy Writing!

How NOT to Write: Problematic points of view

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

__________

“Point of view” (POV) is a powerful thing.  It obviously determines how we interact with the world around us, and how other people approach us.  It is a basic part of all knowledge and experience.  Even the great sage Obi-wan Kenobi observed to Luke Skywalker that much of what we believe about the world “depend[s] greatly on our own point of view.”  While I strong disagree with Old Ben about our POV determining truth, I agree that is too important to be overlooked.  It is ironic then that one of the most common problems I see in my courses deals with authorial POV.

POV would seem to be a simple thing in the academic context.  Generally, an author writes from his or her own perspective and that is that.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of formal, academic prose is to communicate ideas as clearly and accurately as possible.  So, the author speaks to his or her audience, coaxing them down an intellectual path to (hopefully) reach the intended conclusion.  Good academic writers can get most people from point A to point B.  The best can make them enjoy the trip.  So what problem could there be?

It comes when we forget to read from someone else’s perspective.  What makes perfect sense to us doesn’t always seem so clear to someone else.  Take the following examples*, if you will:

  • (On a World War II poster) Save soap and waste paper!–So how much paper should we throw away, on average?
  • People across the country were shocked when Teddy Roosevelt had an African American for dinner.–I can see the book title now:  The Presidential Cannibal
  • The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge.  The lines of her bottom were admired by an applauding crowd.–I imagine that would provoke her husband and our 30th president, “Silent Cal” into a few choice words.
Right.  What all these examples have in common is the fact that whoever wrote them forgot to look at what he/she had written from the perspective of the reader as well as from that of the author.  After all, I’m sure that the author knew that the “her” in that last example referred to the ship and not Mrs. Coolidge.  Can’t everyone else see that?!

No, they can’t.  They can only see what we put on the page, and they will read into it the most obvious interpretation they can (and even a few that they can’t).

The only way we can hope to prevent this is to read our work from as many different angles as possible.  Leave time between drafts to relax and pursue other interests.  This lets your brain “reset” itself, and you’ll be better able to see what you actually put on the page…as opposed to what you wanted to put there and so now expect to see.

In fiction, POV is incredibly useful.  If you keep the distinction between author and reader in mind, you can have all sorts of fun manipulating your audience and make them like it.  I myself am only just now beginning to play around with it on my current project–a  series of first person novellas telling how a diverse group of people all arrive at the same place.    Whatever you might think of his later movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a brilliant POV thriller where they audience does not even realize it has been tricked until the very end.  Winton’s POV in 1984 is another brilliant example.

When not mining them for ideas, we can apply the same advice on POVs to our fiction that I make my students apply to their formal prose.  It is never enough to stop with just the author’s POV.  The first step is to go beyond and anticipate the reader’s.  The next (and perhaps the most fruitful) is to get to know your reader so well that you can control their POV.  When you can do both at once, the possibilities are endless.

Next Week…a fresh perspective from July’s featured author on Fridays!  I’ll be around in my Sunday feature, “Meditations with C. S. Lewis,” and I’ll be back on Fridays in August.  Here’s hoping I can think of something new by then….

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*These aren’t original to me.  I believe I first read them in David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, though I’m sure they weren’t original to him either.

More in the How NOT to Write series:

How NOT to Write: Use of the First Person–“Look Ma! No Brains!”

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

__________

 First person–you either love it or you hate it.  That seems to be true no matter where you find it.  It can be incredibly effective, laughably narcissistic, or some strange combination of the two.  It is a literary sin (in formal prose) that I have been encountering more and more of late in my classes.  While there are certainly places in fiction for the first person, it really serves no particular purpose in academic writing.*  Even in fiction, its use is fraught with more danger than you might think.  Nothing says “Look at me!” to worse effect than using it.

The problem with first person (“I think…”, “In my opinion…”) in general is that it adds nothing to what we are saying.  The only reason that we use it is to assume ownership of something–an idea, a statement, a bit of research, etc.  It serves no purpose in my formal prose (or yours) for a simple reason:  my name is on the front of the freaking paperOf course the ideas belong to me, and everyone will already know that unless I tell them differently through the use of another author’s name, quotation marks, and references.  So, by using the first person to doubly mention that this really  is my idea/wording/etc. I’m not telling any reasonable reader something that he or she doesn’t already know.  In fact, in a very real way, I’m treating him or her like an infant.

I say the use of first person is fraught with peril because what it often does communicate isn’t particularly positive.  Constantly referencing ourselves in an academic paper makes it appear as if we think the things we put down are important simply because we thought them!  It takes the focus off the argument and puts it on the author.  That kind of self-centered vibe rubs many people the wrong way, myself included.  Also, there are still a number of the old school editors and professors out there who react very negatively to its use.

Then there is a conceptual issue to think of:  In good academic writing, nothing is “proved” simply because a particular person says it.  Its truth is demonstrated by the evidence we have assembled.  It would be no more (or less) true if someone else said it first.  In that sense, I, as the author, am completely superfluous to the basic veracity of the point.  If that is so, why insert myself into the situation at all?

So, nothing to gain, plenty to lose.  I can think of no good reason for using it in formal, academic writing.  Use of the first person in formal writing is generally a mark of weaker writing styles and/or bigger egos.

How best to avoid it?  I tell my students that part is simple–just argue your case and let your evidence do the work.  Most of us, when we’re talking to a friend, a teacher, a professor, making a speech, etc. don’t feel the need to constantly remind our audience that it really is us talking.  We just state things as we see them, and move on.

Obviously, much of that doesn’t apply in fiction.  There is very much a niche for first person there–even if it is still a subject that evokes strong emotions.  Note though that most often the first person is not used to point to the author.  It usually refers to a character.  The first person allows the author–and therefore the readers–to see the story directly through a characters eyes and to therefore develop their personalites to a deeper degree.  The Hunger Games or The Desden Files are popular examples of this approach.

I think the underlying principle is the same in both cases:  The author needs to get out of the way and let the story/evidence speak for itself.  Very few of us read an author because of who that author is–for their personal tastes, political beliefs, etc.  We read particular authors because we are looking to hear more of the same stories and characters they create.  The same is true of music and musicians.  I don’t listen to Bruce Hornsby or Loreena McKinnett because I know and love them as individuals.  I don’t know either one of them at all and I probably never will.  I love their music and I can appreciate it quite apart from who they are.

The elephant in the room I have so far ignored is when the author becomes a character in the book itself.  (Even here, though, it often isn’t the real author, but a characterization of some kind or other.) Done well, that is an excellent way to insert yourself (or a semblance of yourself) into the book without getting in the way.  Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a prime example of this.

Consistency is what matters, I think, with the first person, in academia and in fiction.  Consistently avoid it in the former, and consistently apply it, if you want to use it, in the latter.  In either case, take care.

Next Week:  The most important point of view–the reader’s!

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*And before anyone decides to mention it, first person in narratives like this is just fine.  I’m blogging, and therefore my personality will show through.  It’s all about context and audience!  :)

More in the How NOT to Write series: