Perspectives

File:Kaleidoscopes.jpg

photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

Perspective is everything. When I was in college, I took a class with the wonderful fiction writer Joyce R. Kornblatt and read one of her novels, White Water, the story of a family reunion that runs over a weekend. The story is told from the perspective of five family members. Each section offers a different perspective, and moves the story forward. While I realize this technique is more common now, reading Kornblatt’s novel was the first time I’d been exposed to it, and I instantly fell in love with the idea. To do it well, you need each voice to feel different, and that challenge intrigued me. Beyond the challenge of it, though, I’m also fascinated by how different people see the world, and how and why they react differently to the same situation. Sometimes it’s not even just all the baggage and back story people carry with them, but even the pressure they’re under in the moment. Malcolm Gladwell touches on this idea in The Tipping Point when he talks about what makes people act the way they do. In it, he describes a group of seminary students, randomly assigned to give speeches, either on the topic of the good Samaritan, or on another, unrelated lesson. On their way to the speech, a person obviously in distress was placed along the path. Some of the seminarians – even though they were going to give a speech on helping a stranger in distress – stepped right over the man and went on their way. Others helped him. The difference turned on not which students had studied the ideas more closely, or even which had been randomly assigned to give the speech. It all depended on whether the individual speech-giver had been told he was late to his speech. I read the book a few years ago, but his example still sticks with me. Different perspectives matter, time pressure matters, the context matters. All so interesting when you’re studying people’s points of view. 

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Words Carrying Stories

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Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “alphabet in the ball” by Vlado.

Recently looked into my old blog again, and found this post on the origins of language: 

Last year I took a trip to St. Mary’s City, the original capital city of Maryland. It’s a great place where re-enactors dress up as 17th century Marylanders, living as they did when St. Mary’s was the hub of activity in colonial Maryland.  One of the main attractions, besides the Indian village and the Maryland Dove, the merchant ship at St. Mary’s dock, was the printer’s house, where the town’s newspaper was printed. The volunteer there showed us how the printer’s letter blocks were set in two cases – capital letters in the upper case, and non-capital letters in the lower case. This is the origin of the words uppercase and lowercase in English. We no longer see the “case” in our mind’s eye, but it was there once. Countless words grew out of physical realities we have long forgotten. We don’t think of newspaper correspondents as writing letters, but in the nineteenth century, that’s exactly what they did. The famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” came from a letter written to the New York Herald by its correspondent in Africa, Mr. Henry Stanley. His newspaper reports from Central Africa were introduced with the following telegram from the London correspondent in July of 1872: “It is with the deepest emotions of pride and pleasure that I announce the arrival this day of letters from Mr. Stanley, Chief of the Herald Exploring Expedition to Central Africa. I have forwarded the letters by mail.” Sometimes it’s nice to realize how much language tells stories, down into the words themselves.

Well, that last year I referred to is a long time ago now, but it’s funny how much all of these old entries still speak to me. The way words wrap up history and culture inside them has always been a fascination. Letters, too, have histories. For example, the letter z was imported into English from French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and the name “zed” – used in Britain to describe the letter – is thought to come from the Hebrew word for weapon, because the letter shape: ז looks like a weapon. Interesting, isn’t it? 

Empathy

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Courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net, Tree Silhouette On Book by KROMKRATHOG

Last week after my post “a single word” I got the most wonderful comment, asking me to explore how much people need connection and how to develop empathy in people who don’t have enough of it. It all came from the power of the word “alone” which evoked such a response in the kids I was talking to.

We human beings need each other. That’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That word – alone — evokes so much pain when we think of someone left behind, unable to find comfort and company. And yet it’s true, for all we want other people, sometimes we don’t understand them very much. It would be nice if everyone grew up in a loving family, with friends and neighbors who shared the ups and downs of life with them. After all, we’re communal creatures, and even our smiles are contagious to each other. 

Of course, the strong social networks that seem to produce healthier people are not a given for too many, and so we have this problem of alone. Other words figure in too – alienated, selfish, cold, angry.

Judging from all the studies going on, I know there are quite a few brilliant people working on all sorts of levels to counter this kind of painful disconnection. My small part is to write stories. I’ve always believed that stories are one of the best ways to teach empathy. By their very nature, stories make you live someone else’s reality. Recently, science has even begun to back this idea up — the most fascinating studies have been done to show that, when reading a good novel, a person’s brain reacts as though he or she were experiencing the events. Even more, reading literary fiction has been shown to actually teach empathy, because the characters are psychologically complex and the reader becomes a partner in imagining their internal realities. 

In that class last week, talking to the third graders about stories, I asked them what stories were for. The answer that came out of all the detailed responses was basic and profound: stories make us feel things and know things. They let us step outside ourselves into someone else. So my personal response to the question of how to build empathy in other people is first the most basic: reach out to them, welcome them, offer them kindness and aid, so they know what that feels like. (As both a parent and a teacher, I have always been a huge fan of modeling.) And then, dig down into life, think about the intricate world that is each human being, and write it down.

Tell stories. 

A Single Word

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courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “Live and Dead Trees” by njaj.

Sometimes an entire idea pivots on a single word. A part of me has always known this theoretically, but I got an object lesson in it yesterday, when speaking to a class of third graders in New York. We were talking about what makes a story, and had gotten started with the idea that you need a character that has some kind of problem. I once heard this called, brilliantly, “something to worry us” by my good friend and wonderful teacher Judith Hillman Paterson. Trying to illustrate for them the difference between the beginning of a story and a simple statement of fact, I offered them two sentences:

The tree stood in the woods.

The tree stood, alone, in the woods.

Alone. Wow did that word get a response. Suddenly, they saw the tree as a character, something they could relate to, and feel for. Alone is something to worry us. For them, that single word – alone – turned the second sentence into the beginning of a story. I wasn’t exactly expecting that. The words just came out. But it’s certainly given me food for thought. 

And another by Kevin Chen

Image

Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “Microphone Closeup. . .” by Stuart Miles

Last week I posted the poem “Cindy” by Kevin Chen. Here’s an encore:

 

                     Walk with Me

                     by Kevin Chen

Walk with me,

Like we used to

everyday after dinner

Spin dizzy to the sound of frog songs and cricket chatter and

And just for tonight,

Roll your shoulders back

let the earth slip down to your fingertips.

And we’ll pretend that all martyrs die of natural causes

Just for tonight

I want you to leave all the doors unlocked

 

See we’ve gotten into the habit of drowning our problems

they don’t come up for air,

but they never run out of air either

 

You tell me that you’ve always wanted a son

You tell me that men are not like woman,

Men are left the responsibility of a name

that carries a millennium old meaning of a generation past,

you built a marble house back in china

with the name “Chen” inscribed proudly on the terrace- I’m sorry     ,

my knees are shaking,

I’ve been rolling regrets into boulders

Only to watch them unravel when I reach the summit- I’m sorry,

that after 5 daughters and two decades

Of working behind kitchens at carry outs,

I    

was your answer.

 

You made me promise,

that one day I will find a wife,

That one day I’ll bring you grandchildren,

To live in your marble kingdom- I’m sorry,

That I can’t rewire the ventricles of my heart

To flow the way you wanted,

That I will never love a woman

But understand that my definition of love isn’t blind disobedience

 

Walk with me,

And we’ll forgo wishful weather for the forecast

Trade heirlooms for constellations

String Christmas lights from Shanghai

To the forbidden city

 

Run with me,

Laws, tradition, Conditions are meant to be broken

So lets imagine them done with

let’s imagine gravity done with,

let the tombstones drift from your pockets and

 

Run with me,

As if your love for me wasn’t conditional

Tell me I don’t have a condition.

Poetry

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Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “Microphone Closeup. . .” by Stuart Miles

 

I love the sound of language. Beautiful words, powerful rhythms, and the passionate ideas that can unfold from inside them. Is it any wonder I’m fascinated by poets? I’d forgotten for a while how much I loved poetry until my older two daughters – the Book Princess and the Conductor – introduced me to spoken-word poetry. That art form has already produced some stars, notably Sarah Kay and Taylor Mali. But there are so many more yet to be discovered. I realized that when the Conductor recently took a poetry class, and brought home some of the poems a classmate shared. All I could say was, “Wow.” So I asked him if he’d mind sharing one of his poems with a bit of a wider audience. Thankfully, he said yes, so here is “Cindy” by up-and-coming poet Kevin Chen.

Cindy
 
We are pendulums,
living on opposite sides of our father’s clock
you were born on midnight,
with both hands already
raised in a solemn surrender.
 
you were the 4th child of 6.
moved to the united states when you were 5
and met a familiar man who smelled like stir-fry cigarettes
who you’d later call dad at 6
became a makeshift matriarch at 15
Then a full time cashier for our dad’s carryout at 18
your hands have never stopped moving.
 
I remember that night
when you told me, that your whole life
felt like a fraction.
4 out of 6
Bottom heavy.
Like an inverted hourglass that nobody bothered to turn
they told you to keep your mind in the numerator
and your matter on the denominator
but you told me you were never good with math.
 
You preferred art,
growing up–in an empty house,
I used to watch your hands
hang like primary colors.
Your hands dancing
like kaleidoscopes across canvas
 
you were a cartographer,
mapping the intersections between blue
and red and red and blue,
you were painting a cross section of your chest
a sprawling metropolis of arteries and veins
it’s no wonder you left an “x” in the space between your lungs
as if you could solve for it by plugging in numbers and numbers and numbers
you told me you were never good with math.
 
I remember when you started painting black,
twirling on the axis of midnight,
When the rods in your eyes melted like cavities
when you too started smelling like stir fry cigarettes
you told me that the sum of all colors
would always be black.
 
I remember the day you stopped painting,
you told me you were looking for a rainbow
one that wasn’t anchored in pots and woks
behind kitchens at carryouts,
you were looking for a reason to believe
that rainbows could exist without the gold.
 
I remember the day you met a boy,
one that made you feel top heavy
so you fell head over heels
for a man with a prism heart
two partial fractions.
 
These days
I’ve come to the realization that
I was never good with math either
I could never get my order of operations right
I have this habit of subtracting before adding
taking and never giving
 
We haven’t said more than a word to each other in years,
but lately i’ve found myself wanting to be more honest,
no metaphor will ever be a suitable
for the three words i never said to you
when you needed me the most
 
So let’s start over,
Have I told you that I’ve given up trying to be an accountant?
these days I’d much rather be a stormchaser
like one of those guys on the Discovery Channel
I want to dive headfirst towards the nearest twister
and set a picnic in the eye of the storm
i’d like you to meet me there,
with rods and cones in hand
we will find that rainbow.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hooray for the smallest of words

Courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net, "Sun Sky" by samarttiw.

Courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net, “Sun Sky” by samarttiw.

Sifting through my old blog on business writing, I found this:

A tribute to the humblest of words, hooray for the article.

They’re short, they don’t seem important, but look what they do. Consider the following two sentences:

He moved the cart.

He moved a cart.

I’ve noticed lately that people don’t mind dropping an article now and then. Maybe they’re writing quickly, and a short little “a,” “an,” or “the” gets lost in the rush. But articles are important. They give a sense of how specific, how personal, something is.

What’s the difference between “he moved the cart” and “he moved a cart?”

Lots.

A cart is an inconsequential piece of furniture that happened to be there. It belongs to no one, or at least to no one we care about at the moment.

The cart has consequence. It’s there for a reason. It belongs to someone, and that person cares about it. It’s not any cart – it’s a specific one.

All that, accomplished with three small letters.

So pay attention to articles. Don’t drop them; don’t misuse them. They have meaning.

This post caught my eye because since I’ve been focusing on fiction, articles have only grown in my estimation. Actually, I’m in love with small words in general. Conjunctions, for example, are my guilty little pleasure.  I love the word and so much that I often have to prune a lot of my ands on rereading a draft. I love it most especially in the beginning of a sentence, for the biblical sound that construction produces. I know, I know, countless English teachers marked off points for starting a sentence with and or but. But (sorry, couldn’t help myself), the fact is the Bible does it all the time. Talk about falling back on tradition! Listen to these verses:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

In some old-fashioned high school classes, God just lost a minimum of three points on His paper. Somehow, it works, though, doesn’t it? Ands have a nice rhythm to them. Buts too. So hooray for the smallest of words.

Active Reading

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

For years I used to tutor high school students, teaching them how to recognize the elements of a good piece of writing and to duplicate it in their own work. Recently, a friend of mine, who now teaches third grade, asked me about strategies to help her much younger students do the same. Now, third grade is a different ball of wax than high school, where you expect that kids mostly have the basics down. But over the years, I’ve found that even in high school, not all kids do have the basics, and so it helps to understand how to develop writing skills from the ground up. There’s grammar and spelling, of course, but writing is more than mechanics, it’s also organization, a thinking skill that requires you to put ideas in an order that makes sense. And while I’ve often found that teachers excel at teaching mechanics, many struggle nearly as much as the rest of the world does with structure. It’s just so murky, isn’t it? What is it, anyway? The order of the sentences? Of the paragraphs? And does that really matter, after all? Isn’t it style that makes a good piece of writing? Or beautiful sentences?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because I’m the last person to think style doesn’t matter. And beautiful sentences make my day. But the truth is, without a sound structure, a piece of writing fails, no matter how beautiful its sentences. After all, you’re trying to tell a story, and stories do have a shape, in the end. So turns out structure isn’t really that murky, if you actually know what it is. Even young kids are great at spotting the elements of a good story if they have a bit of a lesson in how stories work. And the best way to show them that, I think, is to illustrate how stories work for them. So when my friend asked me for advice, the first thing I told her was to teach her students to be active readers.

You often hear people say that if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read a lot. That’s true, but it’s more than just reading. The best writing lessons come out of thinking about what the writer is doing, how the story works. My friend went back to class and told her students that stories make us ask questions we want to see answered; they make us curious, and give us a reason to keep reading, so that we can get our questions answered. The writer’s job is to make us ask the right questions. She then began reading the wonderful story Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig, to her third grade. (Fun fact – this book was banned in some places because in its animal world, the pigs were the policemen.) Immediately, the kids began to be aware of their questions, and to articulate them. Sylvester is turned into a stone! What’s going to happen to him? How will his parents react? Will anyone find him? Will he be a big rock forever? Now, William Steig is doing what great writers always do — filling his readers with the urgent need to get the answers to questions they never thought of before they opened his book. I mean, really, how often do kids go around thinking about the fate of a donkey turned into a rock? And so they keep turning pages until they get a satisfactory answer to what’s going to happen to poor Sylvester.

What’s wonderful about this process is that though readers always do have questions about what’s happening next, a character’s motivations, and the like, they rarely articulate these, and so don’t get the benefit of realizing that questions are exactly what drive a reader to read. Understanding that, though, is the key to writing anything someone else will want to read.

A side benefit of this technique is that the entire third grade got excited and involved in the daily reading. Next step will be to see if they can start to produce questions of their own to explore in writing. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

The Castle Builder Reads Huck Finn

1st edition book cover

Recently I’ve been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my daughter, the Castle Builder. When she started it, she struggled with the dialect, so we decided to read it together, a process that brought me back in contact with a classic I haven’t read in years. Since I first read the book in my own school years, lots of things have intruded on my memory of the actual story, most notably all the talk about Huck Finn as one of the most banned books ever, because of the language it uses. And I admit that getting back into the book after all these years I was startled by how difficult it was to stomach the racial slurs it uses, and how much I disliked reading them aloud, despite understanding the historical context. And yet I saw what a powerful affect it had on both of us readers, how it shows so clearly the twisted “morality” that Huck is struggling with, a code that taught him to respect slaves not as people, but as property. Part of Twain’s genius is how he has Huck think about how bad he is for helping Jim, but how he just can’t help it, he’ll have to be bad, because he loves Jim. What a brilliant skewering of the wrong-headed rules of the nineteenth century south!

And I guess if I had been pressed as to what I remembered about the book before rereading it, it would have been that. What I’d forgotten was how funny the thing is. The other day we were reading a scene in which Huck is discussing the duke and the king, and the two of us broke out laughing for something like five minutes. When I think about writers and their achievements, I can’t think of a much better one than for an almost 130 year old book to inspire tears of laughter in my high schooler. I guess that’s why they call them classics.

Conversations, continued

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photo courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “Child Studying Under Tree” by jannoon028

I saved one more letter from the reading group in Illinois for today’s blog, because it was one of the most thoughtful. Here it is, from Kyrstina:

. . . I am curious where you got the ideas for the book.  For example, how you decide to have Annie and Rew being captured by Andrew Snow.  That really kept me interested and I couldn’t stop reading to see what was going to happen.  

My favorite part is when Annie got interested in Andrew Snow and she wanted to know what happened to him? While I was reading I was thinking, “what made him do this?” Annie reminds me of my friend Annie because they both are determined to learn more.  I had one question about the book. I wonder if Gran knew that Andrew Snow was going to come looking for them.

 I thought that was a great question and deserved an in-depth answer, so here’s part of my response:

Your questions are great, especially the one about Gran. I thought for a long time about how Gran felt about things and why she did what she did. To answer you, I’d say that she didn’t know that Andrew Snow was going to escape, because she couldn’t have predicted that. But she did find herself a house that was the closest to the prison on the other side of the woods, just so she could know she was near him. Because of what he did, and all that happened when Amanda left, Gran found it too painful to live her old life, and so she made herself and the kids disappear. But even though she couldn’t bring herself to visit Andrew or let him know where she was, she still needed to be close to him, because she loved him. Rew understands this toward the end of the book, when he yells at Gran, asking her why she brought them there if she never went to see him anyway. Some people have wondered if it was a coincidence that Andrew Snow came to the house where his family lived. Maybe. But Gran did know where Andrew Snow was, and she picked the house to be close to him. And Andrew Snow, who loved the woods because of his father, turned that way because his father had taught him how to know his way in the forest, and he had always wanted to see the bottoms of the trees he could see from behind the prison wall. So maybe a part of Gran was always hoping that her son would come out to them. Sometimes people wish things without even knowing they’re wishing.

When I started writing fiction, I sometimes thought about it as having a conversation with my imaginary readers. What I couldn’t have guessed was how much I’d enjoy the real conversation, when it finally came. Thank you, Kyrstina, Tony, Emily, and the whole reading group!