Monthly Archives: February 2011

XXII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

 

Any growing poet needs to be nurtured by the great poetry (and other literature, too) of the past, both for the sake of learning technique and of deepening his own soul.  I wasn’t the first to find the Psalter essential for both.  The Psalms are a catalog of the full gamut of religious emotion.  Not just exercises in pious ejaculations, they sometimes show impiety wrestled with and overcome.  David and his fellow psalmists were not afraid to question God; they were not afraid to ask the hard questions.  They were not afraid to reveal their own doubts and their own sufferings.  But they always win through to peace in the end.  Oh, yes, there are some good lessons there!

 

ON DAVID WRITING THE PSALMS

 

Such words were never uttered unless by

Some battered brain’s true trial- and tear-taught try

To cry the thing, heart’s clearly seen lament

Before insight intense is spent

Diffused, dispersed, immersed and rent

But hurried passing Time.

 

Holy Spirit stooping, molding,

Prodding, soothing, moving, goading,

Guiding, forming in this writing

Sword or torch of Truth abiding,

Made to smite complacence in its nest,

To bore into the soul, unbidden guest,

And wake the wound that slumbers in man’s breast:

A memory of the universe at rest.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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Hidden Gems: Lesser Known Works of Beloved Authors, Part II

Few things excite me as much as a “new” story by a classic author.  I just love it when I discover a work that I never knew existed.  And so, for the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing some excellent, albeit lesser known, works by some of the long-loved classic authors.

drawing of an open bookBack when I was a junior in college, I made the difficult and painful decision to transfer schools.  I had a wonderful group of friends at my first college, but the shortcomings of the school’s history program and their lack of accreditation made it necessary to transfer, if I ever wanted to make it to grad school.  And so, I went from a small, heavily cloistered college to the largest private university in Virginia.  The academics were vastly improved, but that first semester was one of the darkest periods in my adult life.  Never since middle school have I been so alone.  I had horrible roommates who made life a living hell (oh, the books I could write!), only one friend (whom I didn’t even meet until a few weeks in and barely saw until the next semester), and constant regrets about the decision to transfer.  I could go a week without a single person talking to me outside of class (nope, not an exaggeration).  I wore sunglasses everywhere to hide the fact that I tended to cry multiple times each day.  I ate every meal alone, without ever being invited to join anyone.  At night, I cried myself to sleep and prayed for a serious illness that would make it necessary to go home.  And in the midst of that solitary, bleak time, I found some wonderful books.

It was difficult to sit in that large dining hall, eating my meals alone.  The food often caught in my throat, and the loneliness was too overpowering.  It was sometimes impossible to hold back the ever-present flood of tears.  So, I started visiting the library each week and picking out enough of the classics to keep me company for all of that week’s meals.  The books helped, distracting me from depression, and I became acquainted with a number of authors I had long wished to read, but had somehow never found the time for.  I traveled around the world with Jules Verne, sailed up and down the Mississippi (and all the way to medieval Europe) with Mark Twain, and fought pirates with Robert Louis Stevenson.  I discovered that A.A. Milne wrote more than just Winnie the Pooh — he actually wrote some enjoyable stories for adults, too.  Best of all, I was introduced to a host of memorable characters with wonderful, tongue-twister names by that amiable tour guide to Victorian England, Charles Dickens.

Most people, when they think of Dickens, immediately jump to at least one or two of his best known novels (which most people, sadly, have heard of but never actually read).  Just for fun, let’s take a poll:

Charles Dickens with his family

The great Charles Dickens with his daughters.

All of those are wonderful books.  I love the beautiful message within A Christmas Carol, and I absolutely adored Oliver Twist, which was loads of fun to read.  But the Dickens novel that I enjoyed most of all was (drumroll please) . . . none of the above!  My favorite was actually one of his lesser known works, a sweet, but rather sad novel entitled The Old Curiosity Shop.

The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of a little orphan named Nell Trent, who lives with her grandfather and helps to run his curiosity shop (hence the title).  Her only friend is a spunky boy named Kit, who is probably one of the most likable boys created by Dickens.  Nell’s grandfather loves her more than anything, but is a morally weak man.  He gambles heavily, trying to provide for Nell through schemes rather than hard work, and winds up in tremendous debt to the evil Daniel Quilp (one of Dickens’ best villains).  There is another villain to contend with as well; Nell’s wicked brother Frederick, who mistakenly believes that Nell is secretly wealthy and wants to marry her off to his amiable but malleable friend Dick Swiveller.  When Nell’s grandfather loses the shop (and his wits) owing to his debts, he and she go on the run, trying to evade her brother and the wicked Quilp, who has joined forces with the other villain just for the fun of it.

Book cover of The Old Curiosity ShopThus pursued, Nell and her grandfather spend most of the novel trying to find a safe haven, with the grandfather constantly making mistakes and Nell growing weaker and weaker (her health was never very strong).  The brave Kit and his dear mother try to help them from afar, but have misfortunes of their own.  The pace of the novel moves well, keeping it interesting and absorbing, and the characters never lack for color.  Although little Nell is the heroine, my favorite character is Kit, whom the reader gets to observe growing up over the years covered in the story.  Quilp is one of those villains that you love to hate!  He’s horrible and abominable, but so fun to read about.

As I mentioned before, there is a great deal of sadness in this novel, so I recommend keeping a box of tissues handy.  Like other classics, this novel is further proof that a book doesn’t have to have sex, offensive language, massive violence, etc. to have a good story.  It’s clean fun, and still packs in a good moral (more than one, actually).  This would be a great book for the whole family to sit around and read together.

If I’ve managed to tempt you, you can read the entire novel HERE for free.  Or, if you have a Kindle, you can download it for free.

the real old curiosity shop

If you ever have the opportunity to visit London, there really is an Old Curiosity Shop, which many people recommend visiting.

Breaking All the Rules: Glass Fleet

Let's go take a walk on the top of the ship while flying through space at 20 gagillion mps.

I have recently been watching an Anime entitled Glass Fleet.  This is an excellent (and eccentric) example of a show that breaks all the rules and yet keeps me coming back for more.

First the Good:

1)      The plot of Glass Fleet is very loosely based on the French Revolution…except that the nobles over threw the royal family and now the last remaining descendant of the royal family is helping the people revolt against the nobles.  The show has very evident political motivations and themes supporting the common man in his struggle for liberation.  All in all its an intriguing plot with a good many twists and turns that keep the viewer interested.

2)      The characters in the show, especially the hero and heroine? are interesting and keep the viewer’s attention.  While some of the other characters are on the dumb side they are, at the very least, entertaining.  So far the only annoyance I have felt in the series is from Nowy’s frequent complaints about losing his glasses.

3)      The humor is admittedly Japanese in nature and theme.  This being said the show, while serious in nature, has a fair amount of comedy.  If you are a fan of Japanese humor then this show will entertain you.

So...that sword isn't red in the show...

Second the Bad:

1)       Glass Fleet is Japanese and so is geared to Japanese sensibilities.  While there is nothing deeply offensive (at least to me…though I am difficult to offend) in the show there is a minimal amount of fan-service (generally in the character of Eimer) and the normal gender ambiguities.  Although some of these are intentional instead of accidental.

2)      One character, Ralph, is of indeterminate gender and age (really…he could be five or twenty-five depending on the scene).  Also his relationship with the character of Vetti is indeterminate as well.  It could be filial, romantic, or obsessive.  Let me be clear that there is nothing graphic (at least not yet, I’m only half way through the series) just comments and conversations that are…confusing.  This could be intentional or due to poor translation.  My guess is that it is intentional.

Third the Strange:

1)       First of all, the series is set in space.  So, modified French revolution in space.  Space battleships filled with nobility and commoners who shoot arrows at each other and duel with swords.  The dueling I could understand as a ceremonial thing but…arrows?…Oh, also the space battleships carry what appear to carry 16 inch guns straight out of a modern navy.

2)      Apparently space is only a vacuum when it is convenient for the heroes.  This is perhaps the strangest thing in the series as it goes back and forth from bad guys being sucked out of a holed starship to people strolling around on the deck of their ship.  Maybe the heroes don’t need to breathe?…Except that fire apparently burns in space as well which would require oxygen…

3)      So far there is only one planet in the series.  Everybody else lives on flying asteroids which somehow maintain atmosphere without any reason for doing so…maybe only soldiers need to breathe?

4)      The flying asteroids are powered by factories which, apparently, produce energy by boiling water?  I’m not sure about this yet because only one factory has been shown in the series and it wasn’t explained.  The whole boiling water thing is really just my best guess from what I have seen.

See mom, I told you we didn't need air to have a swordfight.

Now, as I’m sure all of my fellow writers would agree, all of this should come together to make a pretty terrible show, but it doesn’t.  For some inexplicable (or at least inexplicable to me) reason none of the weird stuff really bothers me.  I have certainly had some ‘huh?’ moments in watching the show, but it continues to be entertaining and I want to finish it.  Furthermore Glass Fleet has a wide audience inside and outside of Japan.  It has also received generally positive reviews.  In fact the only completely negative reviews I could find were one from Mania magazine and one negative customer review on Amazon.

Why does the show work? I have no idea.  It shouldn’t work.  Everything about Glass Fleet should have me pulling out my hair and screaming to the heavens about realism in fiction.  Still, I’m really enjoying it.  So I guess what it all comes down to is, sometimes it works.  For all the rules we set down, for all the research we do, for all the thinking we put into our writing, sometimes what shouldn’t work winds up working.  In the words of The Princess Bride, “It’s inconceivable!”

Glass Fleet Boxed Set

Price: $26.99

Format: Animated

Number of Discs: 4

Number of Episodes: 26

English DVD Release Date: January 13, 2009

Original Air Date: April 4, 2006 – September 21, 2006

Run Time: 625 Minutes

Available: Here

Amazement of Good Literature

I recently had a conversation with a friend about one of my favorite books, Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis.  And if you hang around me enough or read enough of anything that I write you are probably going to hear me mention it. But my friend asked me why I liked it so much.  As I started into my rapture about how amazing the story was, I commenced using words like transport, ecstasy, sublime, and decentering.  My friend raised an eyebrow, not understanding my word choice.

Let me explain, you actually know what I am talking about you just haven’t used those words before.  You are reading a really good book and then the author reveals something…something that makes you stop, think, and reevaluate everything.  Your thoughts suddenly are elevated and you as a person feel different having read that book.  What you experienced is transport and decentering.  That is good literature.

“For the effect of elevated language is not to persuade the hearers, but to amaze them; and at all times, and in every way, what transports us with wonder is more telling than what merely persuades or gratifies us. The extent to which we can be persuaded is usually under our own control, both these sublime passages exert an irresistible force and mastery, and get the upper hand with every hearer”(Longinus 114).

This amazement does not happen often.  Of all the books I have read over the years there are only a handful of books that have left me feeling this way.  Amazement and decentering will happen to different people during different times through different books.  C. S. Lewis talks about this phenomenon in An Experiment in Criticism when he discusses myth and how it affects people differently.   But I have generally found that those books that decenter me will likely decenter most people, particularly those who have similar tastes in literature.

So you are probably now wandering what books out there qualify for such high praise as being sublime literature that will transport you and decenter you.  Like I said, for me there are only a handful of books that have done that to me and I have already named one, Till We Have Faces, but there is also the Iliad, The Silmarilion, The Idiot, and Antigone. Now, I don’t suppose that everyone will have the same experience that I did, but I would encourage you to read these books and  any others, if you do experience the amazement and wonder of finding yourself completely decentered, well you will know that you are in the company of good company.

Swordsmanship for Dummies, Part II: What a Sword Means

Nito kendo--a style using two swords.

Last week I started this series, in which I offer insights for writing scenes involving swordplay gleaned from my ten years (off and on) of studying kendo–Japanese fencing.  My goal in these posts is to explain some of the realities of fighting with swords that most people looking in from the outside simply don’t understand, and thereby provide people with the tools to craft more intelligent, mature battle scenes.

If by chance you happen to be a serious kenshi, please go here and read my disclaimer about my rank and the spirit in which I’m undertaking these posts.

Today, I would like to look into the different ways we should regard a sword on a practical level.  In short, a fighter sees his/her own sword first and foremost as an extension of him/herself.  On the other hand, he/she regards an opponent’s sword primarily as something that gets in the way of a job that needs to be done.

There are, of course, some very complex ways of looking at what a sword is in the esoteric sense.  That is a question that I fully intend to leave alone for the moment, as that mainly affects how your characters will treat their weapons when they are outside of combat.  For instance, a European who sees his/her sword as nothing more or less than a tool used to accomplish a certain end will treat a blade very differently from a Samurai who belives that a sword is connected to the soul of a warrior.  The European will trade a broadsword back and forth with a comrade or stack them in piles, while the samurai won’t even let someone else touch his katana.  The former might ram his blade into the ground in triumph after a battle (a la Braveheart), while the latter may keep his sword in a family shrine, carefully oiled.*  On the practical level in combat, though, both traditions treat swords in a similar way.

As warriors, assuming that your characters are experienced and well-trained, they should rightly conceive of their own swords as natural extensions of their own bodies.  That is one reason why real swordsmen aren’t made in a day.  They have practiced with their weapon so much and carried it with them so often that, in a very real sense, when facing their opponents, they aren’t “hitting them with a sword” so much as they are reaching out and touching them.  Though good fighters will have some intelligent, intentional strategy in mind, the actual movement of the sword will in many ways be instinctual.  In the heat of sparring, I have found this to be very true.  The distinction between your arms and the sword disappears when things are working like they should, and you no more have to pay attention to where your weapon is going than you need to watch your hand every time you scratch your head.  You just know where it is, and also know what you need to do in order to make the appropriate movements.

The only way that your characters will ever reach that level of proficiency is through sheer, monotonous practice.  They have to repeat the same motions over and over again until what they’re doing becomes a muscle memory.  And bear in mind that this can take weeks, months, and even years to master.**

Your characters should regard their enemies’ swords differently.  Of course, they will want to give them a level of respect (a good cut or thrust from even the most unskilled swordsman can kill too), but they shouldn’t fear them.  An attack may provoke a parry or a dodge, but never a cringe or a flinch.  Another important thing to remember is that their opponent’s sword is not their target.  It isn’t even the focus of their attention.***  It’s simply something that is in the way, preventing your characters from doing their job–which is to drive their steel into the actual body of their enemy and end the fight.

This distinction is especially important for American audiences, whose only experience of swordplay is often the stick fights almost all of us had as children or perhaps the swordplay taught in Americanized martial arts studios.  Both are universally bad examples upon which to base your description of swordplay, because the whole point of those situations is to not hurt your opponent.  As a result, we were almost always fixated on attacking each others’ swords, and not on hitting the people standing behind them.  That of course is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do in a real fight.  You need to control your opponent’s sword, not as an end in-and-of itself, but as a way to getting through his defenses and killing him.  Modern fencing (western and eastern) mirrors this by focusing on scoring solid points on vital areas.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every character you write will be a real “warrior” and practice even this basic level of skill.  In a fantasy story, your young hero may pick up a sword and get lucky.  After all, they are heroes,and things have a way of working out for them, but you do want to make them believable.  Understanding how a fighter should regard his/her weapon will let you convey all sorts of shades of meaning.  For instance:

  • Beginners aren’t used to the sword being there and they always think of it as something extra, sticking out into space.  Therefore, they rarely can judge distance properly.  Characters like that might get too close for their weapons to do much good.  (Many swords require leverage to work properly.)  Someone might swing too wide and end up sticking their sword into a tree.
  • They might fixate on their opponent’s blade and fall for an obvious feint.
  • If you want your characters to improve, you’ll need to show (or at least hint at) the time spent practicing.  You could do an interesting psychological study of the process of the sword changing from an alien implement weighing down a person’s arm or hip to it literally becoming an extension of his/her body.
  • Advanced characters will be able to demonstrate a new level of realism.  You will be better able to anticipate what each one thinks, sees, and feels regarding their weapons, and then describe it to your reader.

Anyway, I think I have gone on for more than long enough.  If you care to comment, please do.  What are some other ways that these ideas might affect our writing?

*I once knew an alleged kenshi who literally worshiped his mail order katana before practice, and treated us incredulously when we said we were doubtful that “swords have souls.”  I say “alleged” because this individual also claimed to have studied kendo for ten years, but had never owned a set of bogu (armor) and had never tested.  I can understand that some Americans feel like they must somehow “out-Asian” everyone else in a situation like that order to be more “real.”  I just wish they didn’t make the rest of us look like morons in the process.

**That is one reason why kendo just hasn’t caught on with American martial artists.  People come to the dojo expecting to become Obi Wan Kenobi in a week and a half, and instead find themselves repeating the same basic motions (men, kote, do) over and over again, literally thousands of times before they’re ever allowed to put on bogu.  Their feet will blister and bleed before the callouses build up.  Their backs will ache, their arms will feel like they’re going to fall off, and their knees will give out.  Depending on how severe their sensei is, they might even throw up.  Most Americans just don’t have the patience and discipline.  Our club at our university was like a revolving door of students.

***The sword moves so quickly and unpredictably that you can’t trust your reactions to it.  It is very easy to mislead someone who is watching the tip of your sword, and trick them into opening up to you.  You should focus on your opponent’s eyes, while keeping the entire motion of their body in view.  In kendo, this is called “looking at a far mountain” and I’ll say more about it in the future.

Post Script: Unfortunately, I must also add a very sad note to this post–due to increasing problems with my joints, I’ve had to decide to officially quit practicing kendo for good, starting this week.  My body, it seems, was never designed for the kinds of repetitive motions the sport requires.  I’ve already had two shoulder surgeries and ignored the advice of two doctors.  After going back to practice this month, I felt my elbows start to ache like my shoulders did.  Unfortunately, I’m just not good enough at it to justify four surgeries for the sake of kendo, and I would like to be able to move when I’m older.

Kendo has taught me so much over the years, and in many ways it helped me become a strong and honorable man.  It gave me a backbone, discipline, and intensity that I doubt that I otherwise would have had.  I would like my series of posts here to be a thank you to the sport and those who who have invested so much time and effort in teaching it to me (in chronological order):  Kanako Ono, Ai Nariyama, Charles Riddle, Carl Basham Sensei, Russel Ichimura Sensei, and Min Kang.  Thank you again for everything you have done.  You made a serious difference in my life that will last beyond my days in bogu.