The English Language as a Lesson in Resiliance

It has been beaten, invaded, subjugated, enslaved, driven underground, sneered at and crushed like a cockroach. Yet it has rebounded to become the world’s first Universal Language. English.
Around the time of Christ, Londinium was the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire. As the empire fell the Romans withdrew. The few Celtish tribes that still existed made themselves at home.
Until in AD499 the Germanic tribes invaded: Angles and Saxons, bringing with them their language that was to become German.
In AD597 a peaceful invasion happened, as St. Augustine brought Latin and Christianity to the Island of Albion. And the language of Celt, German and now Latin merged.
Next the Viking invaders came, raping, pillaging and speaking that mix of Danish, from which the locals again borrowed and stole words and phrases.
Alfred the Great brought together the English clans in AD793 and the basic English language became the common through the realm.
Until 1066 when the Normans defeated the English at Hasting, and imposed a French speaking aristocracy that lasted 300 years. Again the locals absorbed the words and grammar of their overlords, until the overlords were overrun by English, so that French became a second language to them too.
With the hundred year war, French fell out of style, and English was the language of the land.
So came onto the landscape Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s, and then Shakespeare in the late 1500s, followed by the King James bible in 1600 or so.
And the dye was cast. The language that would traverse the world with the British empire, take root in the new world, and spread to become the worlds first global language.
It holds a lesson. Bend but do not break. Adapt. Learn, hide if need be, absorb from others. But never surrender.

Why we read. A Review of ‘North of Normal’

I recently read ‘North of Normal’ by Cea Sunrise Person.
I can see that this book took a huge amount of courage to write. I hope I can find that courage in my writing. Recognizing that bravery I am reticent to throw stones, but I feel the book slightly misses the mark.
Spoiler alert, I am going to discuss content.
As I read the book, following the story of young Cea, I was puzzled by my reaction. The story is written in First Person Point of View (POV). This usually leads the reader to get very close, intimately close, to the main character and narrator. But I didn’t feel that. It was always as if I was watching the action and the behaviour of the people around Cea. I wasn’t getting an emotional reaction, I wasn’t feeling either the joys or disgusts that I would think the narrator experienced. Or the fears.
This lead me to the larger question: What do we want to get out of great literature? Why do we read?
I think it is to get those experiences. I want to know and feel the joy of falling in love when I read. What does it feel like, what is the effort, challenge and excilaration of climbing Mount Everest. And then losing friends up there.
Can I bare the fear of walking through a jungle as a platoon trooper on patrol in hostile territory?
What is it like to be in the command of a mad man chasing a white whale around the globe? Or serving under Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar?
The anguish of rejection by a lover.
The fear of the totalitarian state.
The overcoming of incredible obstacles.
The loss of holding a dying child in your arms.
I want to feel and experience these things, without the costs and effort they would take in real life. And that is what a great book delivers. Not a view to the action, but a role to play and experience in that action. To live it in our minds.
‘North of Normal’ only gave me a peak at the action. So it is good, but not great.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

This thread comes from the ‘Writing Ethnically Different Protagonists’ thread and concern I have from a reviewer.
I have a character in my work, Ruth, who is a North American Native woman from Saskatchewan. She is abused. I am neither a woman nor native. An artist friend who is reading the draft suggested I could be called out for Appropriation of Voice with this character.
I have done some research and found the Canadian Author Margaret Atwood was accused of the same thing with Pauline and Surfacing.
I don’t want to change her background, her culture or her history. She plays an important role in the story and as a metaphor for our Canadian society.
But I want to be empathetic to the Aboriginal culture, history and concerns. Does anyone have any thoughts on how to avoid the charge?
thanks

 

Consenting to Learn in Public

“Consenting to Learn in Public”

I am beginning a journey.
A flag was raised when I had my first draft of a fictional story reviewed. A major character in that story is an aboriginal women named Ruth. She is a North American native from Wood Mountain Saskatchewan. She is abused. And a reviewer suggested I drop the native character as I might be accused of Cultural Appropriation or Appropriation of voice.

I don’t want to change her story or her background, or make the issues invisible. Native people are a real part of the Canada I love and call home. I do want to be empathetic to the real concerns of the community. I don’t want to steal anything. What to do?

The plan is to do some research. To read. Books, web sites, blogs. And to speak to the people I know who have a Native background.
To look for organizations that can teach me, inform me, educate me.

So the journey begins.

I might make some mistakes. I may ask some really dumb questions. I may publicly show my ignorance. Please forgive me in advance.

 

#Consentingtolearninpublic

Anais Nin’s letter to the collector

I had never read this letter until today. It’s wonderful. And puts into words what so bothers me about sex scenes without emotion, passion, love.

“Dear Collector: We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its colour, flavour, rhythms, intensities.

You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional. This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements. You are shrinking your world of sensations. You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.

If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world. The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion. You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation. Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.

How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of distinct and never-repeated wonders? No two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; no two odours, but if we expand on this you cry Cut the poetry. No two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore. What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art…

We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses upon silk, light, colour, odour, character, temperament, you must be by now completely shrivelled up. There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

 

Anais Nin

A Month of Critique Circle

I have been a user of Critique Circle http://www.critiquecircle.com for a month now. I want to record and share my experience, thoughts and feelings about the last month.
I had been trying to put together a group of people who could meet once a month or so. It just wasn’t working. I kept writing but I didn’t share.
There is a monthly ‘Dare’ program here as part of the North Shore Writer’s Assoc, but it is really just a chance to read your work. You don’t get more feed back than ‘I liked that’ or ‘Where do you see the story going?’
I needed real criticism.(And not from my mom.)
I have taken some writing courses, and have received that sort of ‘Single-threaded’ critique where the Prof gives his feedback. One person every week or so. I needed something better. And more.
Then I found a web link that pointed to a dozen good sites for writers. I decided to try Critique Circle.
I joined and began to work through the check list. I read a few critiques and then tried my hand at a few. I did four over a two week period before I posted my first piece.
Giving critiques I found harder than I expected. First I had to read 3 or 4 pieces for each one I wanted to critique. Some I didn’t like and some I thought were such poor quality I didn’t know how to tell the writer that. I wanted to say nice things, because I want people to say nice things to me. Or so I thought.
I asked a couple of questions on the forums and got good friendly responses. I read quite a few critiques, trying to get a feel for how to criticize professionally. And I found some great critiques. I so liked one critique I saw, that I wrote the critter and asked him if he would be willing to crit my work when it came up. I wasn’t sure if this was out of line. I was afraid I was committing a CC faux pas but really liked this guy’s critiques. He told me not to worry, most people here are pretty friendly, and that he would be happy to crit my work.
So then I took the plunge and posted a chapter from a novel I am working on. (In hindsight a mistake.) And held my breath. The next week was exhausting.
It took a day or two to get my first critique, during which time I feared getting no feedback. Did people think my work was so bad they wouldn’t give it the time of day? Did I write crap? Should I give it up now and go back to ditch digging, or whatever. (Writers can be brutal on themselves I learned.)
And then the morning I got my first crit. I’ll admit, I was excited. I opened it up and it was about commas. A whole critique on commas. I had too many, not enough, in the wrong places and missing from the right places. That was it. WTF? Alice through the looking glass I thought.
File that one away and wait. I had to wait two more days. I would compare it to waiting for a child to be born, but that would be a stretch. But I was on edge for two days.
And then someone smiled on me. I opened a crit the third morning and it was just what I was looking for. No sugar coating. She pointed out spelling mistakes and grammar errors. (I thought I had read the piece 10 or 15 times. How had I missed those?) But the critter also made suggestions that I instantly knew were right. ‘How about saying this instead?’ Yes I thought. ‘I am not sure that sounds natural, how about this?’ Yes, your right, that is better. Every suggestion was good. I looked at my work and realized I could make it better. A lot better.
Then another crit came in. Same pointing out the spelling, grammar and formatting errors. But helpful suggestions. And questions about the story. ‘What is the MC thinking?’, ‘I don’t understand why she did this”, and I realized I had not been clear enough. I thought things were obvious but I know the piece too well.
The week became a bit of a roller coaster ride. Up to get a critique at all, down to have the same spelling mistake pointed out, up to have a helpful suggestion.
Then I got the critique I had solicited. Ouch. But in a good way. I realized I have way too many spelling, formatting and grammar errors. I want feedback to help me with the story, the plot, the feel, the characters, the themes, the experience of a reader. But my critters kept seeing these ‘table steak’ issues. I realized I need to submit work that is as close to perfect as I can, so that the critters can move past the spelling errors and get to the real substance. A light came on.
And then I got what I thought was my best critique. (Although I rated three perfect). Questions or comments that probed right into the story, the characters, the motivations. Echoes. And a comment about POV and breaking the story flow. Showing vs telling.
I ended the week exhilarated. I spent as much time re-writing my 1,500 words as I had spent on all the editing I had done in weeks before. I was motivated. I was encouraged. I was inspired even.
Five of the Six critiques I got were gold. Solid Gold. I was a little overwhelmed at times. I am now looking at the larger work and realize I have a ton of work to do. A mountain of work. And just that thought exhausted me. I need to do to those 60K words what I have done to the 1,500 words this week. And I am not done with the 1,500 yet.
Exhausted and Exhilarated. But happy. I have found what I was looking for, what in my heart and head I know I needed. What my writing needs.
Thank you.

Danny Aldham

Review of ‘The Empathy Exams’ by Leslie Jamison

It is not often I don’t finish a book. If this had not been a NVCL book club book we reviewed as a group March 2nd, I would have dropped it.
I found the book a little bewildering. What exactly was the point? It wasn’t about empathy so much, as pain. Did the author want to share her pain, bare her soul? Well she didn’t. She shared a few times she was hurt. And shared the same experiences more than once. But I never felt empathy. Her writing didn’t work to do that, if it was the point.
The part I liked. The Immortal Horizon, about the Barkley Marathons. Not incidentally, the essay where Jamison most steps back and doesn’t find a way to make it about her.
Other essays I couldn’t understand. The Lost Boys, as much as I read it I couldn’t understand the facts of the case, why they were found innocent so much later. Like it wasn’t important.
The academic language. “I am just so tired of Sylvia Plath”. That stinks of ivory tower elites who are so much better than you and me. And Jamison exhibits a bit of that intellectual arrogance herself.
The foul language of the final essay. Blood, menstruation, wounds, abortions, self pity, Steven King’s ‘Plug it Up’. I can’t say I understand women any better for having read this.
And then I was asked ‘Why do you think she wrote this?’ To exercise some demons? To really try to understand empathy? To explore pain and sympathy? To tell us all about her personal experiences?
My thought was more cynical. This was an academic exercise. She told us many times she was at Harvard & Yale. Her career needed a book. She dusted off some old essays, and without even editing them to remove the repeats of stories and events, she pushed it out as a book. She is in that ‘Publish or Perish’ environment and this is what she pushed out.
A swing and a miss.

Virginia Woolf on Writing

‘It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in the beginning a book quiets down after a time, and goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of impending shape keep one at it more than anything’ Virginia Woolf.

The Writing Habit by David Huddle

I can imagine a Klondike miner calling out with joy at finding a big nugget of gold. For a writer this book is such a nugget.
I am working on a re-write of a larger project and it is hard. Hours spent thinking about word combinations, structures, plot points and metaphors and all the issues any re-write entails. It is hard and long and sometimes exhausting. So this book was a gift.
The Writing Habit gives a writer hints and tips, thoughts and processes, and most importanly to me, it gave me energy. It helped light the fire and get the wheels going again. On the weekend I finished reading Huddle’s book I completed more writing and re-writing than I had in a month.
The timing was perfect. The advice was specific and timely. It provided a shot in the arm when I needed it.
The only other book I have found that also helped in this way was ‘A Passion for Narrative’ by Jack Hodgins. The two books will be on my shelf forever.
The Writing Habit talks especially about that, how to make writing an integral, or THE integral part of your life. Not since I read Dorothea Brande’s ‘On Becoming a Writer’ have I seen such real world helpful advice. You must write, everyday, and you must make time for thinking and reading and working on your craft.
This is a wonderful book and one I will read again in the near future. And it also points to some source material that I am already trying to find, things like JD Salingers ‘For Esme with Love and Squalor’ or anything by Eudora Welty.
My one knock on the book is that it underates the importance of Story. If the story doesn’t engage the reader you are wasting your time. I think.
Highly recommended.

Kurt Vonnegut quote

Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Kurt Vonnegut