Archives For Fiction

Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

April 27, 2013 — 8 Comments

flocabDo you ever have trouble remembering the key elements of a story? Well, you may not now, since you’ve become an accomplished writer. However, there was once a time when you were just learning about such matters. And that learning might have been far easier than it was if some of today’s teaching resources existed then.

This week I stumbled across a very unusual approach to teaching the fundamental building blocks of stories. You might want to bookmark the page, in case you ever experience difficulty remembering those five pesky elements required for your short fiction, or want to teach a young learner. You need look no further than Flocabulary’s innovative lesson “Five Things.”

The song is less than four minutes long, so go ahead and watch it now, before reading on. (Barring a small typo, it’s quite educational, and their website includes testimonials from teachers affirming how well it connects with young people.) Despite the fact that it’s got a hip-hop beat—not my favorite musical genre—it’s actually quite entertaining . . . and it’s easy to see how well it would connect with today’s younger students.

[Warning: If you watch the following video, you may well be singing along with the chorus before it ends.]

Plot, Character, Conflict, Theme,

Setting, yes these are the 5 things

That you’re going to be needing

When you’re reading or writing

A short story that’s mad exciting.

Music is a powerful medium, and when it is harnessed for educational purposes, it can accomplish wonderful things.

Music can be enjoyed for itself . . . its own inherent loveliness.

Music can also be used to communicate holy things. I believe this is the very reason it exists. Divine grace and our response to our Creator’s love are too majestic to be restricted to simple words.

The brilliant African Bishop Augustine of the city of Hippo is cited as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Many have echoed these words. I have no doubt Augustine believed this, but the more accurate quotation is: “he who sings well prays twice” (bis orat qui bene cantat). Lest those of us with less than professional vocal chords be dismayed, I am confident the “well” here refers here to worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23).

I have no doubt which of these two pleases God more. The most wondrous voice ever created (a gift itself from our Creator) flawlessly navigating three octaves and singing of the cares of this world—or the feeble, cracking, off-key strains of a tone deaf beggar who is praising the Lord for the gift of his daily bread.

C.S. Lewis famously expressed his disaffection for most church hymnody in a 1950 letter where he wrote:

I naturally loathe nearly all hymns; the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them, teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.

We must forgive Lewis his condescending comment here, which was only meant for a private communication. And, if read in context it can be interpreted almost as a sort of confession. While he disliked the quality of contemporary Anglican hymns, he was acutely aware of how insignificant the matter was in light of the vital importance of  knowing Christ. (His description of the glorification of the modest Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce reveals how well he recognized that the charwoman beside him, despite her musical preferences, could easily dwarf him in holiness and religious courage.)

In a letter written in 1916, Lewis alluded to the wonder of music, and it’s relationship to particular words. “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis invested much time in a literary study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was actually published after his death, based upon his notes, as Spenser’s Images of Life. It includes a sparkling description of the book as a musical masterpiece.

A story of this kind is in a way more like a symphony than a novel. Corresponding to the themes of the musical form, the literary form has images, which may be delicious or threatening or cryptic or grotesque, but which are always richly expressive of mood.

The images are in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like, just as the musical themes are. But the ostensible connection between them all—what keeps the meddling intellect quiet—is here provided by the fact that they are all happening to someone.

They are all worked into the experience or the world of the characters “whose” story it is. That, no more and no less, is the raison d’étre of characters in the characterless story.

I have no doubt Lewis would have found the video above jarring. Yet, I suspect he would have approved of the fact that the music was creating a bridge to some for whom traditional learning is incomprehensible. He was a traditionalist. In many ways, a medievalist. But he was, above all, a redeemed child of God. And, because of that, he desired the best for his neighbor, his nation, and our world.

That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!

_____

If you are interested in checking out the official website for Flocabulary, you can view their lesson “Wordplay” (on figurative language). I understand, however, that some of their lessons with political dimensions have been considered superficial.

Orwellian Advice

April 8, 2013 — 11 Comments

cls orwellThe title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. 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. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

____

If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here.

bandersnatchIf you’re a writer and you’ve never been part of a critique group, you’ve missed out on some beneficial (and occasionally annoying) experiences.

Critiquing is, of course, the process of providing constructive criticism to someone, in the hopes of improving their work. Good criticism is priceless. The problem is that it takes true skill to offer useful advice . . . and it requires the proper degree of self-assurance to receive the criticism itself.

Those who have been burned by scathing criticism are reticent to “invite” more of the same. However, when the criticism begins with affirmation (about positive aspects of the work), that tiny spoonful of sugar certainly helps the more difficult parts of the evaluation easier to swallow.

And yet, for some, even expertly delivered criticism—covered by a chocolate layer of affirmation and accolades—remains nearly impossible to accept.

A fine example of this truth comes in C.S. Lewis’ description of a prominent member of the Inklings writing fellowship. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

To learn the nature of a bandersnatch, we must travel Through the Looking Glass into Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel. Carroll coined the word and introduced it to the world in a poem called “Jabberwocky,” which appears in Alice’s wonderful adventures.

Lewis, of course, was not likening his dear friend to a frumious* bandersnatch in terms of it’s overall personality. Rather, he was describing the severity of Tolkien’s inability to positively process criticism of his work, to the bandersnatch’s incapacity to do the same. It is similar to the sense in which the White King alludes to the creature’s swiftness in describing his wife: “She runs so fearfully quick. You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch!”

Although few of us are destined to be members of so illustrious a critique community as the Inklings, I highly commend joining one of your local parallels. While you may encounter a bandersnatch or two, on the whole you’ll likely find the process quite beneficial.

____

* “Frumious,” like bandersnatch itself, was coined by Lewis Carroll and is a blending of the words “fuming” and “furious.”

The bandersnatch, as envisioned above, is used with the permission of New Zealand illustrator David Elliot.

Lengthening Good Stories

January 15, 2013 — 8 Comments

bayeuxWe’re all familiar with the saying “too much of a good thing.” Because it’s a cliché, most reviewers wisely avoid the phrase, but in reading a fair number of reviews of The Hobbit, I’ve heard this very thought expressed in a number of ways.

Everyone is familiar with Director Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Most fans were thrilled when it was announced he would also film J.R.R. Tolkien’s much “smaller” tale of The Hobbit. Some were surprised when they learned he would divide it into two parts. Still, the general sentiment was “the more the better” (another tired phrase). However, when it was ultimately announced that Jackson intended to stretch the modest novel into a trilogy of its own, many fans were incredulous.

There is a tad of irony in transforming Tolkien’s beloved adventure of a hobbit assisting dwarves in a regional quest into an epic to rival the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with its conflict enmeshing every corner of Middle Earth.

As I write this column, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing well. It is ranked sixth at the box office, and held the number one position for three full weeks, against tough competition.

In order to discover sufficient content to expand the story, Jackson has incorporated a number of Middle Earth tales Tolkien had written about its history in other sources. The primary sourcebook was The Silmarillion, a collection published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977. Some regard the importing of these elements as a sort of corruption of the simpler story of the single volume. Others welcome the elaboration on the essential story, since the additions are certainly “genuine Tolkien,” and they provide a more elaborate portrayal of Middle Earth.

The reactions to the expansion have been mixed. I don’t have strong feelings either way, but I treasure my time in Middle Earth so highly, that I would likely pitch my tent in the camp of those who approve of the increase. (Not to the point, of course, where I would behead those who objected, as we see on the fragment from the Bayeux Tapestry above.)

In the energetic conversation about the expansion of the saga, people frequently interject the name of the author, and offer suppositions about how he would have reacted. I find this interesting, but somewhat futile. Frankly, there is far too much that we simply don’t know about Middle Earth to authoritatively render Tolkien’s judgment on these things. Yes, we know that he was reluctant to see his work on the screen, but he did sell those rights to his creations. Of course we are aware of his lack of confidence in material originating in the colonies.

In a 1937 letter he writes about a possible publisher in the United States: “As for the illustrations: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” It is in this same letter that he offers his criticism about a Disneyesque presentation: “It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do as seems good to them—as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartful loathing).”

In an essay entitled “On Criticism,” C.S. Lewis described the limitations of outsiders attempting to discern the intent of authors.

Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb.

Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess.

Learning from Lewis, I won’t hazard a guess about Tolkien’s ultimate attitude towards the cinematic portrayals of his works—which will now, I assume, come to carry greater weight in the public psyche than the novels themselves. Well, at least until the current mode of motion pictures becomes obsolete. Then, once again, the words as Tolkien wrote them will reign supreme.

For those who are interested, I created the faux Bayeux Tapestry scrap at the top of the column using a program that allows manipulation of a variety of the hand-stitched images. Then I simply added the text in a simple graphics program. The Historic Tale Construction Kit is available here.

There is also a more sophisticated software interface that I haven’t tried called the “interactive” Bayeux Tapestry.