Monthly Archives: June 2010

Curiousity, Responsibility and “The Little Prince”

On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.  L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.  What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

From “The Little Prince”
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A few weeks ago on Twitter, the writer Susan Orlean started the topic #booksthatchangedmyworld.   The topic became hugely popular within seconds and is still active.  Mostly fiction titles were mentioned, although non-fiction books, such as, “Toxic Parents,” “The Joy of Cooking,” and “The Joy of Sex” were popular, too.

I added a few of my own, but the titles that came to my mind were children’s or young adult lit:  “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume.

I could fill a few pages with a list of the books I love or books that affected me in a deep way, but the books that changed my life are mostly books I read when I was  young.

Today, I thought of a book that bridges the gap.  “The Little Prince” by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is a children’s book that I read as an adult and it changed my life.

It was written as a children’s book, but its ideas of open-mindedness, curiosity, and exploration have a lot to teach adults who might have grown up and away from those child-like traits that keep the world new and exciting.

There are two parts that changed my world and have stayed with me since reading the book for the first time 15 years ago.  One is about our responsibility toward others.  The fox tells the Little Prince, who has fallen in love with a rose:

“Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You become responsible for what you have tamed.  You are responsible for your rose.”

The second lesson is the quote at the beginning of this post.  It’s  the fox speaking to the Little Prince again.  “What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Reading that in the simplistic terms, the fox is saying the eye doesn’t see what matters most, it only sees what’s on the surface, but it goes beyond that.  It taught me that it’s important to dig deeper.  By examining, exploring, and questioning, I could learn what is essential to me, what matters most.  That lesson is something that changed my world in incalculable ways.

Happy birthday to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, born June 29, 1900. The link is to his official website, which is in French.  Use Google Translate to translate it into any language. Très facile!

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Learning to Love Poetry Can Strengthen Your Prose

Last week when I posted “When You Are Old” in honor of William Butler Yeats’ birthday,  I wrote that I sometimes use poetry to inspire my writing or help get the words moving when I’m stuck.

Writer Kevin Mackey and others who commented on the post said they do the same.

“I use poetry to remind myself of the beauty that can be wrung from language. It acts as a spur to my own efforts,” Kevin said.

Other comments and conversations I’ve had since then echo Kevin’s thoughts.  But it’s confession time:  I didn’t always like poetry.  I often felt it was inaccessible and that made me feel left out, annoyed, and a little bit dumb.

I stayed away for a while, but I knew there was value in poetry and that I could learn from it.  I wanted to find a way in.  Over time with some effort I finally did.  I’ve learned to appreciate poetry for its precision and imagery, and not strictly for its literal meaning.  “The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide” by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate was particularly helpful.  It’s a tiny book that uses examples to explain how poetry uses the sounds of words to convey meaning in a rich, melodic, and concise way that keeps the reader entranced.  As a writer, I aspire to that.

To use poetry to strengthen your writing, consider these elements that help make a poem a poem.

Sound: As Pinsky says in “The Sounds of Poetry,” poets use the sounds of words to make an impact.  That can be done through repetition, alliteration, assonance, varied word lengths, onomatopoeia, and on and on (and on).

Try it in your own writing.  Are you working on something that is light-hearted? High drama? Horror? Choose words to convey that feeling, not based simply on meaning, but based on sound.  Do it in an over-exaggerated way.  Let yourself have fun with it.  You can fix it in revision, but you might find that what you’ve come up with is strong and vivid.

Precision: Don’t stop at using the right word or getting the scene right.  Keep on writing (and rewriting) until it conveys the most information without overwhelming.  Think about what other senses can be alerted to engage the reader.  If your character is nervous, how can you show it through his senses.  He feels his hands shaking.  He hears his heart pounding.

Precision doesn’t stop there.  Prose does not have the format limitations of poetry, but it’s equally important to avoid unnecessary words, whether in the form of clichés, useless adjectives, or  pleonasms, a form of redundancy, such as past history and consensus of opinion.

Of course, there is far more to poetry than just sound and precision, but adding these two elements to your writing and revising will make a richer experience for  you and your reader.

For information on “How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry),” this post from the Poetry Foundation is loaded with great insight.  It’s a wonderful site, too!

Making New Books from Old

Shortly after I started making handmade books, I decided that I’d make one for everyone in my family for Christmas.  I was managing a used bookstore at the time and had access to hundreds of books that were destined for recycling.  I was happy to save them and give them new life as journals.

The Neil Diamond journal is from an album cover.  I made that one for my Mom, who is a huge fan.  She’s on a first name basis with him, even though they’ve never really met.  Aside from Neil, I tried to pick covers that were somehow connected to the recipient.

Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph them all, but the binding stitch has very little variation.  I used the Japanese stab binding stitch.  As violent as that sounds, it’s called stab binding because you have to punch a hole through the covers and all the sheets.

For instructions on doing this yourself, see this online tutorial from Amphian Photography.

(Where are the) Great Fathers in Literature

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham as Atticus and Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For Father’s Day, I want to write about great fathers in literature.

The first one who comes to mind is Atticus Finch, from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Great dad. He is honest, ethical, compassionate, and he teaches his children these qualities by example, by his actions and decisions, rather than by rote.

After Atticus Finch, there’s … ummm.  There’s, uh…  Hmm.

Okay, let’s talk about bad dads. There are plenty of those.

  • Bull Meecham from “The Great Santini” by Pat Conroy, is a tyrannical and dangerous father, whose abuse severely damages his family and nearly destroys them all.
  • In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the King’s pompous ego and his favoritism of Cordelia over her sisters, leads to her murder and his.
  • Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, misleads his sons on lessons of life and love.  He is so deluded about his own success and his life, that his death is not a tragedy so much as it is an epic failure.
  • Disney Dads, like those of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine, are either absent or too hapless to do anything for their daughters.

All right, this isn’t the optimistic sunshiny Father’s Day tribute I had envisioned, and I’m finding it a little depressing that fathers are not very well represented in books.  So, I’m going to wrap this up and go make myself a Father’s Day margarita in honor and in memory of a true classic, Manny Tejeda, my Dad, who was not absent, hapless, deluded, egotistical, or tyrannical.

He taught me by example; he was honest, ethical, kind, generous, and funny-funny-funny.  He was tough, too.  Some of his expectations were more than I could achieve, or so I thought back then, but everything … all of it, was wrapped in knowing, absolutely, that he loved me.  Like all good classics, his influence lives on.

Happy Father’s Day!

Can you help a daughter out?  I’d love to list more good literary fathers, but I can’t think of any and would love some input.  He doesn’t have to be from the classics or popular fiction.  I’ll take anything at this point.  Dads deserve it!

What the Wild Things Started

Max, the king of all wild things

Max, the king of all wild things

My life-long love affair with books began with Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” As I look back now, I realize it wasn’t just the book that drew me in, but the experience that surrounded discovering it.

I was eight years old and attending a new school, a public school, and for the first time ever, I would be attending a school where I wasn’t related to anyone.

Kindergarten through second grade were spent at the heavily Catholic, heavily Italian, Sacred Heart School, which was populated in my class alone by two cousins, and outside my class by one brother, nine other cousins, three aunts who were related and at least four “aunts” who weren’t. My mom was a class mother and even Sister Catherine Michael, my first and second grade teacher, seemed like family since she came to Sunday dinner most weeks.

In that cloistered world, I thought I was related to everyone, and I never imagined that there might be a world away from those many eyes that watched everything I did.

On my own in a new school I was nervous at first, afraid of the strange surroundings. After a day or two, my nervousness settled down, and I started having the tiniest feelings of independence and the freedom that came along with it. As a compliant little Catholic girl whose every move had been monitored, I had no idea what to do with those feelings, and I wondered what Sister Catherine Michael would say.

That’s when I had the chance to explore the school library for the first time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do there; my old school didn’t have a library, so I just followed the other kids. I walked in and out of aisles and almost over a shelf to “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I saw a classmate leafing through the pages and it looked fascinating to me. I asked God to make her put it down so I could look at it. God answered my prayer that day, even before I started a novena. I said my silent thank you and picked up the book for myself.

The art on the cover drew me in (and still does), and I couldn’t wait to turn each page to see what happened next. Maurice Sendak’s drawings amazed me, they were rich, moody and dark, and they perfectly illustrated the story of Max, the wildly, mischievous boy, who jumps off the pages and shouts, “Let the wild rumpus start.”

Max was exactly what I needed. I was a passive, obedient, timid child, but Max sailed treacherous seas, he swung from high branches and tamed wild beasts. From him, I learned that I didn’t have to be afraid of the world outside my door. I learned that sometimes I could do what I wanted, instead of what someone told me, and that I didn’t have to pray for forgiveness every time I misbehaved.

Throughout my life, I’ve had my Max moments of wild adventure and reckless abandon, but I never quite reached his level of daring. I didn’t need to. What I needed was the lesson Max taught me in the pages of that book, and the thousands of other lessons I’ve learned in the pages of thousands of other books that have pulled, pushed, tugged, roared, and forced me through my own rumpus.

Nearly forty years later, books are still my passion, and I’m still not sated. I’m a reader, a writer and a book-maker, and it all started when Max reached out from that library book and pulled me into his wild world.

Thank you for reading! I’m getting ready to submit this as part of a collection of creative non-fiction. It’s different from the other pieces, and I worry that it might be too sappy or come off as insincere. I’d love some input!

June 16: It’s Bloomsday Yes it is Yes Enjoy Yes

Today is Bloomsday, June 16, the day all the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses take place.

Named for main character Leopold Bloom, Bloomsday is celebrated by Joyce fans around the world, with a huge celebration in Dublin, where the book is set.  Fans spend the day honoring Joyce, reenacting scenes from the novel, and generally having a wild time.

Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife is lusty and seductive, even crude in comparison to Leopold’s more cerebral nature.  Both Blooms have had affairs and at the end of the book they continue to question the value of their marriage.  Yet in Molly’s 24,000 word unpunctuated stream of consciousness soliloquy that ends the novel, it’s hard to deny the joy she finds at the hands of her husband.

In honor of Bloomsday, the final words of Molly’s soliloquy:

… Yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Happy Bloomsday, everyone.  Yes?

David Bowie, Pleonasms, and Stating the Obvious


You would think that a rock star being married to a super-model would be one of the greatest things in the world.  It is.

— David Bowie

.

This quote made me laugh.  When I read the first sentence, I expected a “woe is me” revelation, but Mr. Bowie tricked it up and said something obvious, at least to some.  To others being married to a super model would be hell.

The quote got me thinking about stating the obvious in writing.

For example:  Rebecca twirled her hair with her finger as she looked out the window.

That sentence immediately stops me.  Of course she’s twirling her hair with her finger, what else would she use?  A fork?  Her tongue?  If she’s using something else to twirl her hair that should be stated, otherwise with her finger can be deleted and it does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Those extra words, with her finger, are called a pleonasm.

A whaaat?

Pleonasm.  It’s a form of redundancy.  Merriam-Webster Online defines it as, (noun) The use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense. (1)

It might be an unfamiliar word, but it’s a familiar writing mistake.  Other pleonasms are:

  • exactly the same
  • consensus of opinion
  • bald headed
  • shrugged his/her shoulders
  • 12 noon (and 12 midnight)

Individually, these examples may seem nit-picky, but if left to build on each other, they can ruin a writer’s credibility.  It’s normal, even expected, to find pleonasms in a first and second draft, but beyond that, the clutter should be cleared for concise and powerful writing.

Sometimes after cleaning up my writing, I end up with a series of short, dull, lifeless sentences.  To state the obvious again, that’s not the goal.  The goal is to make every word count, regardless of the length of the sentence.

Here are some examples where the authors do just that.  These aren’t short sentences, but every word has a purpose.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway:
“He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.”

From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:
“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

This kind of sharp, clear writing takes effort, editing, and a strong attention to detail.  It can be frustrating to work a sentence, and work it, and work it again, but as writers that’s what we’re called to do.  We’ll leave the pleonasms to the rock stars.

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My pet peeve pleonasm is listed above: exactly the same.  It drives me crazy and I use it all the time!  Luckily, it’s the red flag in my writing that screams EDIT, so it is useful in its way. What’s your (least) favorite pleonasm?  For an exhaustive list, visit Pleonasms.com.  Of course they have their own website.

The Silent Writers Collective meets every Tuesdays at 9 PM Eastern and/or 9 PM Pacific (US). Join this online community of writers for an hour of quiet writing.  You’ll be amazed at how productive one hour can be.