Write Like Hemingway

A friend of mine just took a brain-killer of a test, one those exams smart people study for and still flunk.  None of the test is easy but she dreaded the essay portion.  These essays test a student’s knowledge of the subject and his/her ability to communicate on paper.  My friend put a great deal of time and effort into her preparation and I won’t be surprised when she passes but the only advice I could offer on the essay part was, “Write Like Hemingway.”

Of course I didn’t mean she should write about hunting big game or creating a reason to live.  (Frankly, Ernest’s, machismo and existential angst is part of what sours me on his novels.  Half the time I want to yell at him to drop the attitude and pick up the baby – nothing cures existential woes like caring for somebody else.)  No, I admire Hemingway’s style, how he stitched together phrases and words.  If I didn’t like everything he had to say, I still love the way he said it.

Direct, the man was direct.  Hemingway started out as a journalist, wedded to the simple sentence and the fewest details that paint a picture.  This excerpt for his short story “Soldier’s Home” shows what I mean

“There is a picture which shows him on the Rhone with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhinedoes not show in the picture.”

Four sentences about a photograph, three of which describe it but what do they tell you?  Two men serving in a foreign country meet women from a different land. (If they were local, the girls’ nationality would not be identified.)  This sounds like it should be an adventure.  But if you look again, everything’s out of kilter.  The uniforms don’t fit.  The girls aren’t pretty.  Even the scenic river is invisible.  Without ever saying it, Hemingway makes it clear: this journey was a big disappointment.

The story may be apocryphal but this anecdote says a lot about Hemingway’s style.  Supposedly, a bunch of writers were competing to see who could pack the most story into the least number of words.  Ernest came up with this:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn” 

Everything’s in a single sentence. The hope, the heartbreak and the aftermath of a loss, all in six little words. If this sentence doesn’t really belong to the man, it should.

Hemingway’s sentences are short and rhythmic, he leans on nouns and action verbs.  Adjectives are few and far between, adverbs even further.  He doesn’t use a lot of exclamation points, even when a herd of buffalo are charging and each one he uses has extra meaning.  That is the essence of Hemingway’s style.  Each word is deliberately chosen and placed to create appropriate impact.

So how does this relate to everyday writing?  Can Hemingway be a touchstone in regular correspondence?

A boss of mine thought so, years ago.  After I typed out the law firm’s usual two-paragraph letter that started “I-filed-my-document-requests-in-the-above-referenced-case-XX-days-ago…” the lawyer crossed out mumbo-jumbo and wrote the kind of business letter I love.  Here, without the identifying info, is the text:

Dear So-and-so:

Where’s my damn discovery?



If you want to get the point across, write like Hemingway.

Capturing the book that captures you.

With my sister away on vacation, she asked me to fill in for her. Since I have known her, she has had the gift of words.  She always had a book in her hand, remembers everything she reads, recalls lines at the drop of a hat.   Mention a book or author and she’s either  read it and read it, deeply and can somehow relate to it. Reading seems effortless for her.   I am jealous. I have to work at my reading, starting and stopping a book because my interest wasn’t hooked.   I think of myself as an “Attention Deficit Reader”.   So when I was asked to write something for this blog… I decided to write about what I know best.  Finding the book that can capture you.

Barbara Z. Goyda
First, I think how you are feeling makes a huge difference in what you choose to read.  I often choose books that portray the opposite of what the state of my life is at the moment.  If I am sad, I want a happy book.  If I am bored, I want an adventure.  If I feel I am in a rut, I want a biography.  Not everyone will chose this “opposite” course, however.  Some will choose a melancholy book because they are feeling sad.  Each way is fine- in the end, just knowing yourself matters.
Second, I discovered it is helpful  to choose books that have something to do with the actual setting I am in.  If I travel, I love to be reading a book that I can connect with readily.  In Iceland, I picked up “The Light of the World” and  I truly understood the descriptions as I was viewing them on a daily basis.  When I travel back to my childhood home in Kansas, I often pick a pioneer adventure  like “The Homesman” .  However, during my last  visit – “Go Set the Watchman” was just being released.  I felt like Scout, coming home again.   These connections cemented the book in my mind.
What you are doing while you are reading is also very important.  When my boys were younger it would be very dangerous to get lost in a novel (when I read, I am oblivious to everything around me).  I needed books that were easily put down as priorities dictated.  When I did return to the story (usually at night) I needed a book that I could easily pick up and would keep my eyelids open.  Beach reading for me also falls in this category.  I can’t stand to sit and sweat.  I need a book that will allow me to leave, jump in a wave, investigate a tidal pool and then sit down for a read.  Just recently, I discovered The Sweet Potato Queen series.  The short essays/chapters are perfect for me and my hyperactive self.
Think of the questions and daydreams you have throughout the day.  Perfect way to select a book!  Daydreaming of escaping from work and going to Tahiti to live on the beach?  Look for a copy of the Moon and Sixpence. Living vicariously through the characters is what deep readers do. As an adult we shouldn’t stop asking questions and wondering.  Books keep our minds active.
Don’t choose a book because you feel obligated to read it or feel ashamed of what you are reading.   Read whatever you want.  If you want to read a trashy novel, do it.  But take the time to consider “why” you enjoyed it.  I love Janet Evanovich’s novels.  She has strong, humorous characters and the plot moves.  I speedily read and before I know it I’ve finished it.  It feels as if I ate a whole bag of Doritos.  In short, I can be a  “plot junkie”.    Exploring the reasons why you like a book can lead to other book choices.  It can also help you refine your tastes as well as realize when your preferences are changing.   I believe reading “sub par” literature helps you appreciate well-written books.  It makes you grateful for vivid descriptions and complex character development.  When comparing books and contrasting books, you become a critical deep reader.  
So many of my friends and family are avid readers.  However, some will say, “I read the book but I don’t remember it”.  Reading is a chance to enlarge your perspective, to evolve as a person and grow.  Reading a book is more than running your eyes over the words, it’s thinking about what the book has to say and applying that knowledge to your life.   Why read something if you won’t remember it?  That’s like traveling to every country but refusing to get off the plane.  You miss the point of the experience.

How you feel, what you are doing, the state of your life should all be considered when choosing a book that will capture you. How do you know if you are captured? The book wraps itself around you and seeps into your mind.  You  spout lines from the book to your co-workers.  You are compelled to give copies of the book to your friends.  You start telling your in-laws how they remind you of the characters. You actually consider traveling to all of the places mention in the book. You want to re-read it again, and again..  and again…  yep, I feeling I’ve got to go find my copy of  Edna Ferber’s Ferber’s Giant.

Book Title Mash-Ups

I love the idea of mashups.  Two separate but familiar works get slammed together to create an idea that has elements of both.  (Sounds familiar, no?).  The results can be kind of fun.  These title mashups came from my bookshelf.  Which ones do you have?

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince of Tides 
Harry hates being the last member of his family until he’s stuck with the Wingo clan on Melrose Island for an entire winter.  By Spring, he sends Voldemort a thank-you note.

Gone With the Wind in the Willows

A southern belle recovers from the Civil War by hanging out with some English vermin and a Toad with ADD. Fiddle-dee-dee, what’s a lil ‘ole war between friends?
The Lilies of the Field of Dreams

It doesn’t matter how whack-a-doodle your idea sounds.  If you build it, they will come and you’ll be a better person for going the distance.  (Hey, I know this one is stretching, but don’t they really say the same thing?  Faith + hard work can do anything.)

Howard’s End of the Affair

It’s England, of course, and Henry or his wife have strayed from those marital vows.  In either case, affection gets muddled up with the rights of property.  Another cup of tea for you, vicar?
The Perfect Storm of the Century
The weather’s always worse in New England.  It’s almost as if someone up there  doesn’t like them.

Pollyanna Karenina

As a young girl, she was glad when she didn’t need crutches.  Later, she was glad to be alone with Count Vronsky.  At the end of the day she’s glad that the train is on time.
Send me your mashups, your portmateaus and puns.  All are welcome, on the shelf.

A firm, steady sight on the truth

Revisionist tales can be slippery.  We love them because they tell the tale we already know from a perspective that gives the story new meaning.  Sometimes a revisionist history promotes a fairer review of the past, like The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.   Wide Sargasso Sea, is revisionist version of Jane Eyre but the new story is brilliant enough to stand on its own.  Most of these tales aren’t that good.  However, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister brings something new to the table.  It isn’t just a send-up of Cinderella – it’s a meditation on the difference between perception and the truth.

Cinderella is one of the stories that teams beauty with goodness.  The poor, pretty orphan is mistreated by those who should love her, which makes her royal rescue all the more grand.  But Maguire’s Clara is a hostage to her own good looks who chooses kitchen life from spite and agoraphobia.  Her mother preached that a lovely face was in danger if exposed to the outdoor world.  Her father attracted customers with her seldom seen beauty, associating her face with his wares in a painting.  The combination has turned this Clara (this book’s Cinderella) into a unhappy, self-pitying child who seeks the kitchen to avoid being exploited and manipulates people to get what she wants. Beauty doesn’t make Cinderella a good person here; it doesn’t even make her the hero.

That role is for Iris, Clara’s step-sister, a girl obsessed with appearance and vision.  In a way Iris has the same problem as Clara since it’s Iris’s fate to ignored by those who are swayed by the mask of appearance.  Of the three sisters, (Iris, Clara and Ruth) Iris is the most discerning and probably the kindest but her vision is limited.  Iris has the ability to view most objects in terms of form, color and light, but she’s blind to her own value.  According to the rest of the characters, Iris is, at worst, plain but that’s a problem, living next to Cinderella.  Who sees the glow of a firefly when it’s in front of a fire?

The presumption of perspective permeates this novel along with its attendant disaster.  Maguire set his revisionist story in Holland during the “Tulip Mania” phase.   While tulips have become synonymous with Holland, they aren’t an indigenous species – bulbs were imported from Turkey.  The Dutch people became enchanted with the blooms and merchants started signing contracts to buy bulbs in upcoming seasons for specified prices; flower futures, you might say.  The craze for the flowers was so strong, people sold and bought the contracts at ever-increasing prices and drove up the price on the bulbs.  All sight of the intrinsic with of the flowers was lost in the search for wealth and when one buyer finally defaulted on his contract, the tulip market imploded.  Prices on the flowers dropped by a hundred-fold overnight and bankrupt merchants finally remembered the true value of their investments.  They had invested in flower bulbs, something people liked but no one needed to live.  The perception of value eventually surrendered to reality.

An old Russian teacher once told me he gauged the leanings of incoming Soviet premiers by how they reacted to history.  The progressives would refer to a certain Russian prince as “Ivan the Terrible.”  Totalitarians called the same guy “Ivan the 4th.”  So was the prince Terrible or an ambitious leader?  The hero or the goat?  The truth gets lost in the glare of conflicting perspectives.

An Interview with Liz the Great

Full disclosure:  The love of words brought my late mom and Liz Kennedy together.  I’m glad Liz stayed in touch with me because she’s someone I admire.  After taking her B. A. in English Lit. at Brown, she earned an M. S. at Emporia State University.  She’s also been a teacher, a museum educator, a mom and for the last several years the resident expert in children’s literature at the website, about.com.  Her column, (http://childrensbooks.about.com/) is a must-read if you want the skinny on current kid-lit.  She was kind enough to (virtually) sit down with me and talk about one of our favorite things : books.

Me:  Liz, you’ve created an amazing career as an expert in children’s literature.   What journey brought you to this point?
LK:  Serendipity and my love of reading and learning were factors. I love to read, libraries and bookstores are my favorite places, and I have a background in education. However, what particularly helped at the beginning is that I also knew html, which when I got started 15 years ago, was very important to writing for the Web. My husband taught me.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child?  Do you still re-read any of them now?
LK: My all-time favorite children’s book is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My mother gave me her copy of the novel, which is beautifully illustrated. It’s the first book I ever read that made me feel I was actually there – inside the story, experiencing what the characters were experiencing – an unforgettable feeling. I try to reread the book every year.
Me:  As an expert, you’ve written about hundreds of books.  Which ones made the biggest impression on you?
LK:I tend to be a visual person so particularly enjoy well-illustrated picture books and books, fiction and nonfiction, in which the author’s words create pictures in my mind of locations, characters, experiences, etc.
Me:  Children’s literature has changed over the years.  What are the trends you have noticed?
LK: There is an increased emphasis on more diversity in children’s books that I hope will result in more books that reflect the diversity we see in everyday life.
The definition of middle grade books is expanding; it used to be that publishers used “middle grade” to refer to books for ages 8 or 9 to 12, and “young adult” to refer to books for ages 12 to 18, but now many publishers are also referring to books for ages 10 to 14 as middle grade.
Me:   Let’s get out your crystal ball.  Any guesses about the future of children’s lit?
LK: I see a bright future, with books available in not one, but many, formats, including traditional books, audiobooks and eBooks.
I do, however, have a concern about funding for libraries. Public libraries are crucial to a literate population. For many children and families, they are their only source of books and book-related programs. Libraries are an important part of a community’s quality of life. Yet, too often, public libraries are woefully underfunded.
Me:       A big part of children’s literature comes from the joy of reading aloud.  Do you have any favorites or memories of books being read out loud?
LK: When I was five years old, my mother read me the first few Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, which I loved. I also loved reading aloud to my own kids and did so for a number of years, from Pat the Bunny and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to The Chronicles of Narnia.  
Me:  You’ve got two book-related wishes.  What kinds of books would you like to see more kids reading, and which literary character or writer would you like to have dinner with and why?
LK: 1. I’d like see kids reading more books for fun, books they want to read, rather than just books that have a certain number of AR points or that meet some other kind of arbitrary criteria.
2. I’d love to have dinner with author and illustrator Brian Selznick whose middle grade books have expanded the definition of “picture book.” I think he is a genius. His latest book, The Marvels, an amazing book, comes out in September and I’ll be reviewing it soon.

Thank you Liz for being my Mama’s dear friend and for being a friend to everyone who loves books.

A Life, Warm and Brief as a Summer’s Day

Not every great writer is a great human being.  We expect the people who touch our souls with their prose to be as wonderful as their words but sadly, that isn’t always the case.  There are some writers whose work I admire, that I wouldn’t want within a mile of me, alive or dead.  On the other hand, I wish I could have met the Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann’s biography of that name.  Seldom has literary genius been paired with such a decent, gentle spirit.

It’s hard these days to think of Wilde’s life as anything other than tragedy.  There he is in his early years, telling the customs agent he “has nothing to declare but his genius.” That was an example of Oscar’s hyperbole and humor but it was also a statement of fact for this Oxford educated son of Ireland.  His moral code was based on aesthetics, not just because he believed in in the innate goodness of beauty but because his own instincts usually directed him to be kind.  His observations and plays outraged Victorian society but they were outrageously funny and stylish.  No one before had let the air out of English sails with such a perfectly poised jab of humor.  And, for all of the unconventional things Wilde wrote or said, in public he led a reasonably conventional life.  He enjoyed the luxuries of an upper class existence, including the wife and two small sons he adored.  As far as Victorian society cared to see, Wilde was only wild in thought.  He made them think a little and laugh a lot and they loved him for it. How could this kind, intelligent man, fall apart at the height of his fame?
Some men are ruined by falling for the wrong woman.  Oscar fell in love with the wrong man.  The gentle soul that wrote “The Selfish Giant” had probably always known he was gay although he’d tried to live as a straight husband and father.  Until the 1890’s any man who shared an intimate part of his life understood the need for silence. Then Lord Alfred Douglas appeared, with his beautiful face and mediocre talent.  Oscar was infatuated, although he never quite forgot that his own success lay in his own hands.  Lord Alfred or “Bosie”‘s future was bought and paid for with family money; Oscar knew his future depended on his efforts as an artist and he tried to be as fair as he could to his wife and sons.  Besides, no matter how beautiful he was, Bosie was only happy when he had churned life into a drama.  Oscar often needed a peaceful retreat where he could think and work.

When Bosie’s father (the Marquess of Queensberry, famous for his boxing rules) described Oscar as “posing as a somdomite [sic]” Bosie insisted Oscar should sue for libel.  Other friends of Oscar argued a lawsuit would be disastrous since the statement was basically true, but Bosie insisted.  So, Oscar “took to the law” and Bosie’s father proved his point with the testimony of some male prostitutes.  The legal bills took all of Oscar’s earnings and the scandal meant no one would produce his plays.  Society’s support for him disappeared.  The transcript of Oscar’s civil suit became evidence in a criminal case against him.  The conviction cost Oscar his family, his health and two years of his freedom.  While Oscar served time in prison, Bosie traveled through Europe.

Ellmann’s biography captures the personal and professional dedication that abided in Oscar Wilde’s life even after his release from prison.  He and Bosie were reunited for a short time but the pressures that undermined their relationship before, undermined it again.  The banished and ruined genius moved to Paris and wrote what he could, correcting copies of his earlier plays and publishing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.  He had lost the joy necessary for writing comedy but not his witty nature.  “My wallpaper and I are in a duel to the death” he said during one of his last outings. “One of us has got to go.”  On November 30, at age 46, Oscar went, leaving behind the hideous wallpaper, one or two faithful friends, some brilliant work and two boys who no longer carried his name.  People who love laughter have mourned him ever since.

Several biographies of Wilde dwell on the salacious parts of his life, and a few focus on his Irish background.  Ellmann included those as well as the disciplined artist whose work was the result of toil as well as talent and the gentle human being who could forgive almost any slight to himself.  Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde scooped a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award and is considered the definitive biography.  It’s a shame the biographer did not live long enough to enjoy the praise this book received.

Ellman’s biography and it’s subject are like a summer itself: warm, generous, and gone too soon.  Still, we can be grateful for their gifts of warmth and, in winter, dream of sun on green leaves.

Cooking with Words

God never meant me to cook good food.  When it comes to spices, herbs, flavors and proteins, I’m a major disaster.  I mean major.  My home economics teacher recognized this when I put tablespoons of oregano in her braised radishes instead of the teaspoons she specified.  (Who braises radishes anyway?) My husband figured it out the night I added sugar to the meatloaf instead of salt.  He thanked me for inventing meat cake and took me out for a burger instead.   The fact is, the kitchen never excited me as much as the printed page does.  So instead of cooking the regular way, I cook with words.

One thing I have learned is that Great Cooks aren’t Born, They Are Made. Julia Child had to go to school, August Escoffier learned through an apprenticeship, and Justin Wilson was taught by his mother.  The same goes for cooking with words.  All writers start out as great readers, picking up skills by studying the best.  And like all students who’ve watched accomplished teachers, those would-be creators studied their texts,  picked up their tools and concocted….horrendous messes.  Good books and teachers can help you get started but nothing is a substitute for practice, practice, practice and lots of failure, failure, failure.
Maybe that’s why, at the age of (ahem) fifty-six, the only dish I make well enough to serve is a hot cup of tea.  I’ve been a hot tea drinker since the age of twelve when my mom told me about living in England. Getting tea right means using good ingredients, proper proportions (water should be hot but not boiling) and a clean, warmed tea pot.  I made bad cups of tea until I could finally make good ones and now I make those in my sleep.  And while I am no Gordon Ramsay at the key-board, I’ve written so many five-paragraph essays, I can churn those out as well.  
A quick word about those ingredients, word-wise: nouns and verbs are your friends.  Action verbs with some zing to them (i.e. howled, scrape, slinging, etc.) are great spice words but use spice accordingly.  It should enhance the dish, not dominate it.  I think conjunctions must be alcohol and I’ll probably need a twelve-step program for these, one day.  It’s easy and fun to compare concepts by sticking them together with a conjunction but if you combine too many, the sentences get blurry. Be careful with conjunctions.  Like Humpty-Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I find adjectives are fairly manageable words as long as they’re spaced well apart.  Adverbs should be approached with great care as they can actually weaken a sentence.   If you’ve got a sentence drenched in words that end in “ly”, take them all out and read the sentence again without them.  Is the sentiment still clear but stronger without all those adverbs?  If it is, don’t say I told you so.
To become really good at anything requires a compulsive interest in the subject.  Great chefs don’t create a brilliant dish once and then never make it again.  They analyze how and why that creation works and create variations or re-invent it as needed.  They know how to make a great plate of food, but they’re always interested in making it better.   If you watch writers at work (which is so entertaining, your insomnia will be cured right away) they’re just as obsessive about getting the rhythm right in each sentence and paragraph. This may look as productive as someone re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but each sentence requires a lot of tinkering to make it sound just right  and they will re-read, re-write, and re-arrange their composition until they either give up, whimpering, or go back to rework it some more.  That’s an obsession but sometimes OCD is required if you want to compose something worth seeing (or eating).
So, I’ll never be much good in the kitchen, I think, except for a great cup of tea.  That’s all right.  I respect the people who work there and improve the world with their art.  I’m grateful for what they do. In the meantime, you’ll find me staring at a screen or piece of paper while phrases swirl round in my head.  Someday I’ll serve and say “Bon appetit!”

The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.