Archives For Creative Writing

Literary Martial Arts

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

nonficOne of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.

I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.

I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.

She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.

I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.

Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.

The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.

The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:

When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.

Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.

I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.

Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.

To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.

Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”

That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.

Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).

Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”

It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.

As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.

father christmasWhen did you first learn how to express yourself creatively? Some of us were blessed with parents who recognized the importance of things like music, art and literature. Others, alas, were not.

Most readers of Mere Inkling like to dabble in writing themselves. Many are quite skilled, and disciplined enough to persist with the demanding task of regularly composing interesting pieces for their own online columns. Some, in fact, are quite accomplished and successful in their personal literary efforts.

Becoming a good, truly good, writer requires experience. One may be born with the innate ability to become a Shakespeare or a Hemingway, but the skills need to be sharpened through effort. Study often helps, but it can never replace the necessity of practice in honing our writing.

It seems to me that the sooner we begin the process of unbridling our imaginations, translating our visions into words, and writing it all down in a way that engages the imaginings of others, the better we can become.

Many of you, especially Europeans, will be familiar with a gaming product that arose in the United Kingdom. They are called Top Trumps, and the cards come in a wide variety of themes. One set that I own is Narnia, from which the image at the top of this page comes.

Tolkien fans will be delighted to learn they just reissued a Lord of the Rings set that comes in an amazing Eye of Sauron tin. You can learn more about that unique item here.

It was while thinking about my Narnia cards when I got the idea to see if there was an online mechanism for making one’s own playing cards. I was toying with the idea of fashioning a C.S. Lewis card to illustrate one of my posts.

I was actually searching online for a site where I could “create” such a card. I found several. Only later did I consider the irony of using that particular word.

For theologians, the word create bears profound significance. When it comes to the human activity of bringing together in some novel shape pre-existing images or ideas, it is not truly accurate. Lewis wrote about that in a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope.

‘Creation’ as applied to human authorship . . . seems to me an entirely misleading term. We . . . re-arrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together! Nothing happens.

And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible we should ever know the whole meaning of our own works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.

Writing a book is much less like creation than it is like planting a garden or begetting a child: in all three cases we are only entering as one cause into a causal stream which works, so to speak, in its own way. I would not wish it to be otherwise.

Still, even though we are not true “creators,” it is enjoyable to rearrange the mundane elements (or words) of this life in fresh ways.

That’s one reason I was pleased to discover a website devoted to offering a “Trading Card Creator” hosted by the International Reading Association. It “gives students an alternative way to demonstrate their literacy knowledge and skill when writing about popular culture texts or real world examples.”
Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was growing up? (If they did, I might be able to express myself better than by having to rely on phrases like “cool stuff.”)

Below you will find their website, along with a second option. I was thinking that my grandchildren might find it interesting to create a set of cards about our family tree. Their own sketches could be used for ancestors for whom we have no photograph. The comprehensive trading card creator maker offers a variety of templates, including for people, places, events and objects.

The template offered by the second site is generic enough that the cards can be produced in similar categories.

Unleash your imagination. And, after you’ve had some fun, consider sharing these links with a child you may know.

ReadWriteThink Trading Cards

Big Huge Labs Trading Cards

C.S. Lewis Card 3C.S. Lewis Card 2C.S. Lewis Card 1C.S. Lewis Card 4

dictionary 1Most “word people” like dictionaries. Some writers go so far as to love dictionaries, but I don’t wish to quibble about where one rests on the affection spectrum in terms of these repositories of words.

This guy, though, has to be pegged on the extreme (idolatry) end of the meter. Ammon Shea wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages after having done just that. The Oxford English Dictionary, you may know, comprises 25 volumes, and Shea warns that reading it at such a rapid pace took a toll on his eyesight. It’s not surprising, that he admits he is not your typical reader.

One could say that I collect word books, since by last count I have about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries. . . . I do not collect these words because I want to impress friends and colleagues with my erudition. . . .

My friends know that I read dictionaries for fun, and have come to accept this proclivity with relative good grace, but they are not terribly interested in or impressed by my word collection.

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier advised his fellow poets to read the dictionary. No better way to enrich one’s language, he claimed, although he also read cook books, almanacs and the like. In fact, his biographer offered this fascinating observation.

He found pleasure in the most indifferent novels, as he did in books of the highest philosophical conceptions, and in works of pure science. He was devoured with the desire to learn, and said: “No conception is so poor, no twaddle so detestable that it cannot teach us something by which we may profit.”

C.S. Lewis indicated that so-called “definitions” offered outside the ordinances of the dictionary must be approached warily. “When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust” (Studies in Words). He offers a very sensible reason for such precautions.

It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote. The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism.

Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so (Studies in Words).

Dictionaries are, of course, their own genre. Lectionaries, collections of words and meanings, are different than any other type of written composition. For example, glossaries may draw together specialized vocabulary—say for medical or theological purposes—but by their very nature they are not intended to blaze any new literary pathways.

There is, invariably, an exception to this rule. Some “dictionaries” are creative exercises. They are works of fiction, and some are entertaining indeed.

The most famous of these satirical works is Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book). The volume is not expressly irreverent, although people of faith will encounter some offensive examples in its pages. However, a number of the entries are brilliant.

Kilt

  1. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Rank

  1. Relative elevation in the scale of human worth.

He held at court a rank so high

That other noblemen asked why.

“Because,” ’twas answered, “others lack

His skill to scratch the royal back.”

Emancipation

  1. A bondman’s change from the tyranny of another to the despotism of himself.

He was a slave: at word he went and came;

     His iron collar cut him to the bone.

Then Liberty erased his owner’s name,

     Tightened the rivets and inscribed his own.

Goose

  1. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird’s intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an “author,” there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl’s thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable: many are found to have only trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.

Another Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert, composed his Dictionary of Received Ideas, which found humor in peculiarities of common understandings.

Absinthe

Extra-violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouin.

Archimedes

On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what it is.

Omega

Second letter of the Greek alphabet. [Note: this would only apply to biblically literate societies.]

The earliest such example of a satirical dictionary was that by the Persian writer Nezam od-Din Ubeydollah Zâkâni. I have not located a copy of his 14th century lexicon, but it apparently includes entries that are still understandable in our modern world.

Thought

What uselessly makes people ill.

Orator

A donkey.

Word lovers can easily get caught up in conversations like this. In fact, I’m certain more than one Mere Inkling reader has contemplated compiling their own creative dictionary! It’s not an insurmountable project, since it’s accomplished one word at a time.

_____

For those desiring to create their own dictionary “entries” such as the one that graces the top of this blog, there a free meme generator you can use online. Available here, it’s a fun little tool. It’s also suitable for creating a little self-deprecating humor.

dictionary 2

A Narnian Madlib

July 23, 2013 — 9 Comments

EVO-WWI-064-01060I got to savor one of the joys of being a grandpa today, watching over two of my five lovely granddaughters while their parents traveled to an important business meeting.

Naturally, we had fun playing, drawing, tossing a ball for their German shepherd, building things, cleaning up their room (not quite so “fun”) and—since it’s summer—playing with water balloons (extremely fun, even though I got drenched).

We also did a madlib, one of those “phrasal templates” popularized by Roger Price and Leonard Stern in the 1950s. These simple word games are entertaining and educational. And, even for novice writers, they’re not too challenging to compose. After all, the stories themselves are by nature brief and rather superficial.

Today I even set my granddaughters in front of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls so I could write a short scene from Narnia for them. You’ll find it below.

I had forgotten how much fun we had with madlibs when our own children were young. We made many up on the spur of the moment, and laughed at the silly combinations of word that resulted. The process, as most readers know, involves randomly selecting a series of words for inclusion in the narrative. With a lack of imagination, the readings can fall a bit flat, but typically you end up with some (accidentally) witty wordplay.

One of the benefits of madlibs is how they can be used more than once. While the outline of the story remains the same, of course, the choices made by readers generate amazing diversity.

Most madlibs are admittedly rather juvenile. That’s because they are written for juveniles. They rely on providing specific types of words, such as nouns or adjectives. Theoretically, you could devise a madlib as complex or sophisticated as you desire. For example, an entertaining tale certainly could doubtless be woven by including random selections for the following word choices.

____________ prime number

____________ copular verb

____________ Napoleonic regimental commander

____________ homograph

____________ life stage of a butterfly (other than larva or pupa)

____________ ditransitive verb

____________ type of psychosis

____________ infielder for 1874 Chicago White Stockings

____________ gerund

____________ rare earth mineral

____________ monotransitive verb

____________ early kabbalist (other than Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa)

____________ type of arachnid with blue coloration

____________ free predictive

____________ reciprocal pronoun

____________ chemical process (other than esterification)

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the story accompanying this worthy list, but if you should write it, I’d love to read it.

There are a number of fan sites online that generate madlibs. I won’t recommend any since the ones I’ve glanced at today are merely advertising collections for sale. (I also found the examples I experimented with to be rather feeble . . . even weaker than the story I wrote today in a single hour.)

You will search in vain if you’re seeking a C.S. Lewis reference to madlibs. However, he was a master wordsmith, who recognized well their power, and greatly loved humor. The following passage, from “Prudery and Philology,”
refers to the versatility and weight of language, and includes a valuable caution.

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own
proper powers and limitations.

The brief tale below is not pretentious, so you need not fear it exceeding its limitation. It simply is what it is . . . one grandfather’s passing literary adventure with his grandchildren.

It you like “Sharpbeak’s Narnian Adventure,” you’re welcome to download a PDF copy of the story I’ve appended to the end of the column. It’s 100% free, and I’m not trying to sell a collection of madlibs after hooking you. Besides, if I was trying to make a profit off of anything including the word “Narnian,” I have no doubt lawyers would be descending upon me in droves.

The Words You Will Need

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ something  you drink

____________ color

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ meal time

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ plural noun

____________ plural noun

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ food

____________ food

____________ food

____________ place

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ place

____________ number

____________ plural relative

____________ verb

____________ adjective

____________ plural monster

The Story Into Which You Insert Your Words

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a/an ____________, young eagle named Sharpbeak decided to set out for an adventure. A wise ____________ climbed his ____________ tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s ____________ nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of ____________?”

As the two friends watched the sun set over the ____________ mountains, the eagle said ____________, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His ____________ companion warned him, “Beware of the ____________ giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for ____________ or even for a snack. Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also ____________ dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate ____________ visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a ____________ burst of their ___________ flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of ____________ and ____________.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my ____________ adventure.”

“Oh,” added Sharpbeak’s friend, “I wouldn’t advise you to fly over the ____________ ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a/an ____________ island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid ____________ to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said Sharpbeak, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the ____________ stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. All I have to offer you to eat is ____________ and ____________.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this ____________ for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my ____________, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing ____________ and ___________ rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a ____________ with my ____________ ____________. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and ____________.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the ____________ eagle soared off to begin his adventure. Sharpbeak would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and ____________ along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Epilogue

Those of you curious about how my granddaughters’ story turned out, should read on.

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a big, young eagle decided to go off for an adventure. A wise deer climbed his pink tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s fuzzy nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of juice?

As the two friends watched the sun set over the blue mountains, the eagle said roughly, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His wide companion warned him, “Beware of the cold giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for breakfast or even for a snack.” Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also hairy dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate old visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a soft burst of their speedy flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of trash cans and flowers.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my fun adventure.”

“Oh,” added his friend, “and I wouldn’t advise you to fly out over the heavy ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a dark island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid bunny to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said the eagle, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the watery stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. “All I have to offer you to eat is noodles and cheese.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this snack bar for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my fairgrounds, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing bravely and messy rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a playground with my ten sisters. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and dance.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the brown eagle soared off to begin his adventure. He would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and dinosaurs along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Downloadable Version

Here’s the story. On the PDF, it is preceded by a list of the type of words required to fill in the various blanks.

Narnian Madlib