Perhaps the word inspiration has become trite. Whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction, I've been asked more than once if I ever "feel" inspired to write. I know it's a standard author-type question, but I don't quite believe in the idea of a grand light-bulb moment or a guiding Muse.
I do, however, often read something that gives me an idea or image.
That definition of inspire I do agree with--to produce or arouse a feeling, thought, etc.
Two years ago, I was trying to choose a John Donne poem to teach to my high school juniors. And, as often happens, I kept reading because I was enjoying reading Donne for the delight of simply reading poetry much like C.S. Lewis's idea of "receiving" versus "using" the poems we read. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis also mentions how we delight in the stir of our imaginations.
When I encountered Donne's Holy Sonnet V [below], I had a glimmer of an idea. In the moment, I wasn't stirred by his purpose of calling us to repentance. No, I was captured by the image of new spheres and new lands as Donne cried out for the eternal hope of seeing them. I am a little world? The angelic juxtaposed with black sin? New spheres? New lands?
It was then I sensed it.
I call it a compelling.
What new world could I picture? What could I write of? These were the moments that led me to begin writing fiction for the first time, the completed middle-grade fantasy novel I am querying today.
I am a little world made cunningly
*My favorite Donne collection remains the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets Series because...well, who doesn't like a pocket-size book of poetry?
“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence,
and by reason of their very duration, great misfortunes are monotonous.”
As an independent teacher, I was eager to make a curriculum shift to my World Literature class this school year. I added Albert Camus’s best-selling novel The Plague because I wondered how my students would see a fictional epidemic.
Why not use our times as a secondary context to the novel?
I was not disappointed by our discussions in September. Though Oran, Algeria, is beset by plague, the novel is relatively static. It is also uniquely ahistorical. It may be set in 1947 but there are no references to World War II. Neither the Arab nor African populations of Oran are mentioned. Centuries of segregation are never described. And then there are the facts. It is not possible for a town to have sustained itself for the period of time described in the novel. Yes, the characters are realistic, but the novel is not.
This unique paradigm, however, lends itself to the timelessness Camus captures. Within the bubble of Oran, Camus’s commentary as narrator allows him to describe the “portents and panic” with searing truth.
As COVID broke out in March and April, The Plague, of course, was referenced and quoted repeatedly. Penguin Classics has already had to reprint it twice this year.
From my class discussions, here are my top timeless quotes:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind of autumn is no longer accused of bringing a permanent death. Winter is not an evil. Yes, the seeds that the wind blows will die and be buried for but a season because the warm spring wind will certainly return to bring life.
As much as I thrill to the autumn Keats describes in “To Autumn,” I find a deeper, more intense awareness in Shelley’s poem. Both poems are personal, yet Shelley’s feels like a prayer by the fifth and final stanza.
With great earnestness, he asks the wind to play upon him, that he would be the harp just like the trees of the forest are strings for the wind to play upon. Shelley’s plea extends to his heart. Would that the wind could drive his dead thoughts away like nature’s seeds and bring those dead words to life. He commands the wind to do so, to scatter his words across the earth. I know, I know. Shelley may have been prompted by thoughts of glory and fame, but what if the spiritual parallel goes further?
What if Shelley knew of David’s words in Psalm 49:4-5?
My mouth is about to speak wisdom; my heart’s deepest thoughts will give understanding. I will listen with care to God’s parable. I will set his riddle to the music of the lyre."
How unique that Shelley’s earnest determination parallels David’s. A similar passion drives them as both desire to make a mystery known through lyric.
Their expressions continue to resonate with me, and my hope remains—that I too can echo Shelley’s words in prayer, “Make me thy lyre.”
I’m no stranger to George MacDonald. In fact, I would say I often feel like his welcome companion when I’m immersed in his fiction or poetry. You may have read my reviews of Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood or Castle Warlock on this blog or my thoughts on Sir Gibbie or MacDonald’s Christmas poetry, but I recently read George MacDonald’s 1893 essay “The Fantastic Imagination” for the first time. For those who write, read, or teach fantasy or fairy tales, MacDonald provides a delightful perspective.
Fairy tales really have nothing to do with fairies, or at least they don’t have to. They do, however, have a “natural law” unto themselves as MacDonald writes. Our imagination won’t work without it.
This is what he means. When we create from our imaginations and write a story, we naturally follow a pattern of harmony. MacDonald explains it this way: if you were to give a bizarre or crude accent to “the gracious creatures of some childlike region of Fairyland,” then wouldn’t the tale sink then and there? The pieces of the tale must harmonize and not stick out.
Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church."
MacDonald continues with a lively question and answer section in his essay. He repeats relevant questions I’m sure he must have heard many times during his literary tours at home and abroad.
"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have meaning?"
And so on. We each bring our own meaning to what we read and what we experience as we read, but children don’t worry about such things. It seems only adults do.
This is where MacDonald introduces us to my favorite simile. Maybe I like it because it’s a musical term. Maybe it’s because it’s not black and white. But MacDonald says, “The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata.” He argues that words aren’t as precise as we suppose. If a few men were to listen to a sonata and then write down what they thought it meant, the very action would destroy its effect upon them. The tale is to be experienced, not analyzed. It is for the beauty, not for facts and knowledge. It should stir and wake us.
The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists.”
What do you think of MacDonald's observations?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
To read MacDonald’s full essay found at the George MacDonald Society, click here.
IN BOOK I OF HIS CONFESSIONS, Augustine writes that for all the literature he read, for all the glory and passion and tears shed as his teachers required him to read about Aeneas and Odysseus, he never thought to apply what he read of the “empty romances” to himself--
I was obliged to memorize the wanderings of a hero named Aeneas, while in the meantime I failed to remember my own erratic ways. I learned to lament the death of Dido, who killed herself for love, while all the time, in the midst of these things, I was dying, separated from you my God and my Life, and I shed no tears for my plight.”
I realize that in his youth Augustine was lamenting his separation from God, even his ignorance of Him. Yet I wonder to myself how he skipped the step of application, whether spiritual or otherwise. He obviously experienced the pathos of the stories as led by his teachers. But story is more than emotion. Did he not wonder if he would do as Aeneas did. Augustine did admit to tears by the end of reading. Did he not learn about himself by reading The Aeneid? Oh, I wish I could ask him.
This is the question for me. Story is experience. We want to connect to characters, to empathize with them, to cheer, to rage, to grieve, to love because our life experiences are stories.
But if we fail to learn about ourselves from literature or history,
Augustine simplistically concludes that stories are “empty fantasies dreamed up by the poets.” Though they are “enchanting,” they are “futile.” He feels there are more valuable studies and would rather jettison them entirely.
I don’t know what Augustine’s teachers modeled, but I do know that as a teacher, I want to model application. Yes, I want my students to understand a story. But that is the simplest step, the first shallow one leading into the water at ankle depth. I want to equip them with tools and methods and context to analyze a piece further in knee or waist-deep water. And most importantly, I hope to model application to the heart. If I have not asked, “What does this show in our humanness?” Or “How can God use this story regardless of the author’s intent?” then I will have drawn up short.
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash
Spanning generations and political views, the authors I teach here have influenced how I see people, how I see my own students, and hopefully how we all see the world we live in.
1. Booker T. Washington
If you read my blog, you know I’m an ardent fan of Washington and his words. [See An Educator’s Devotion and Booker T. Washington’s Compromise.] When I read his Character Training (1902) in January this year, I was inspired to be more intentional in laying excellence as a standard in my classrooms. I’ve continued to read more of his works and biographies by others, including the singular The Negro in the South lectures with W. E. B. Du Bois. It's interesting to see the two men juxtaposed. Even if you've never read these men before, Washington is naturally more positive in these lectures while Du Bois's deep sense of injustice permeates his words.
2. Lorraine Hansberry
Just as Washington believed hard work and perseverance were noble efforts, Hansberry depicted a different reality in the 1950s, the limitation of the American Dream for black Americans. I know it’s not her only work, but her play A Raisin in the Sun (1957) is such a living picture. She writes to her mother, “It is a play that tells the truth about people. But above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.” It is the essence of a merciful humanism, a good kind, that stirs understanding in the middle of activism.
3. Chinua Achebe
Like Hansberry, Achebe was published by the age of 28. I first read Achebe in college under the tutelage of a visiting professor from Nigeria. More than the class discussions about Things Fall Apart (1958), I remember the sense of my cultural ignorance. Yes, suffering, pride, and injustice are human frailties, but more than that, a native son can criticize his own country for allowing Western values to compete with traditional African culture. I also read his second novel No Longer at Ease (1960) and include my reflections here in Reading Binges. It very much reminded me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
4. Christopher Paul Curtis
I first read Bud, Not Buddy (2000) with my oldest son when he was in third grade. Bud, a ten-year-old African American boy, runs away from his abusive foster family in Flint, Michigan. He embarks on a journey to find his father, enduring the fears and horrors of the Great Depression. Written in a strong, compelling voice, Bud, Not Buddy beautifully evokes what life was like for African Americans, especially musicians, in Michigan during the Depression. Since then, my family was captured by Curtis’s historical fiction, having read The Watsons Go To Birmingham and Elijah of Buxton. I continue to recommend Curtis to families looking for compelling historical reads.
5. Harriet Ann Jacobs
At the recommendation of Karen Swallow Prior, I finally read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) two years ago. Not only had I never heard of the account, but my students hadn’t either. I now include excerpts from Jacobs after I teach Washington's Up from Slavery. Jacobs addresses her autobiography to white Northern women who fail to comprehend the evils of slavery. Published in 1861, it is a harrowing account of hiding for seven years before being reunited with her children in New York. After the Civil War, Jacobs traveled to Union-occupied parts of the South together with her daughter to organize help and begin two schools for fugitive and freed slaves. Her book was well-received in America and England.
TEACHING MY STUDENTS how to improve their own writing is no easy task. I emphasize content and typically focus on one to two stylistic elements per assignment. At the beginning of the school year, I quickly noticed that my seniors were overfond of the verb “use” in most any casual or formal writing assignment. We quickly built a synonym base for the word on the whiteboard and discussed connotations. For several months, I had them search and highlight the word, allowing for a single use.
As I worked on my novel these past months, my editor had to repeatedly teach me how to balance my use of active and passive voice in both dialogue and narration. Repeatedly. It took a number of attempts for my brain to get it. And practice was very much a part of the process.
My point is that it often takes mini-lessons like these as we each take steps in our writing or even speaking. And that is when writing style guides can be such a help. But forget writing classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The concept of spelling out rules with writing examples was tackled well before the 20th century. Think of Aristotle’s Poetics in 4th century BC. Though he focuses on drama and epic, he does address the use of language and a playwright’s diction.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider a short but splendid stylebook of the first century, one that considers the written and the spoken word. More than our contemporary guides, Cassius Longinus explores the motive of the writer. Why is he writing? What is his end? But more importantly, can we attain sublimity of language? Are we capable of learning it?
A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no.”
In On the Sublime I especially enjoy how Longinus speaks of the artistic turn of phrase, the creator's craft, as he cites concrete examples from Homer, the Bible, Sappho, Herodotus, Aristarchus, and so on. The sublime is a simple term that implies so much. The "loftiness and excellence of language" remain the ideal in writing as opposed to fluff or bombast. And yes, Longinus, fully discredits those as false writing. I think today we would call that emotional or reactionary writing. Bombast is simply writing that goes too far. The writer recognizes the need to be original in his use of description and goes overboard. Longinus eventually calls it pathetic. It seems everyone wants to be original. Too true.
In Part XV, Longinus provides real examples from Homer, Sophocles, and others that we can imitate. Grand language and perfectly crafted imagery are praised most, but his third and fourth principles are the most practical. Combine figures of speech or rhetorical devices for the most effect. A “close and continuous series of metaphors” is distinctive. Use conjunctions intentionally. Arrange your words in a certain and best order.
There is so much more to his advice and criticism, but I especially appreciate Longinus’ analysis of a writer’s style. After we have picked at all the parts, how do we determine what the best writing is? His final pages explore this very question--
Is it not worthwhile to raise the whole question whether in poetry and prose we should prefer sublimity accompanied by some faults, or a style which never rising above moderate excellence never stumbles and never requires correction? ... these are questions proper to an inquiry on the Sublime, and urgently ask for settlement."
And Longinus finds it hard to do. At first, he says a reader can discern an innate harmony within an essay. The reader simply knows it is sublime writing. But then, Longinus provides several examples of what sublime language is not. In other words, good writing remains to this day something easy to recognize yet hard to define.
Read "On the Sublime" at Project Gutenberg.
Experience humbles us. So does sin.
In My Divine Comedy: A Mother’s Homeschooling Journey, Missy Andrews not only presents an educator’s memoir but also a spiritual trek, one reminiscent of Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mount Ventoux.” Andrews details the failures of relying on ourselves as parents and educators. Those failures spoke to me as a mother and as a teacher because she calls us to remember that motherhood and home education are “fruitful work.” But not before reminding us that our students might be performance-driven because we have modeled it for them first.
It is the age-old problem of confusing what we do with who we are. Our work as educators or as parents is not our identity nor should our identity be based on our performance checklists, or testing, or following the latest and greatest curriculums. If we do not see that we are imperfect, that our motives and our ideals are impure, we can be guilty of creating an idol out of education itself. Andrews asks us if we’ve mistaken “the good gifts of God for the Giver.”
And that’s the point. What is education really?
Andrews has a wonderful way of describing what it is by what it isn’t. I was captured by her comments on what she called “the identity race” that we see in every type of schooling—public, private, home, or co-op. We can mistakenly train children and teens with questions like “What are you good at?” rather than “Who are you really?” When we equate schooling with performance and doing, we mislead our students and cause them to ask, “Is anything good enough ever?” Here, she poignantly cites the account of the prodigal son and his brother in Luke 15. In this instance, both boys saw themselves as doers, employees, rather than as sons of a loving father.
Andrews leads us through scripture and literature to show us the truth of Proverbs 29:25 — the fear of man is a snare because we become man-pleasers. She is clear. We will never know it all and neither will our children or our students. They need to know this from the beginning.
True education familiarizes a child with the stuff of goodness, truth, and beauty in order to equip him with eyes to see his true condition, the shortfall between the ideal and the real. This self-awareness has the potential to awaken humility and prime the soul for an encounter with the sole source of goodness, God Himself.”
Andrews’ memoir is not about perfect solutions in education or becoming the ideal homeschooling parent. Rather, it’s about a shift in perspective, a humbling awareness of God’s abundant grace that makes us fit for good work.
Read more Book Reviews on classic and contemporary novels.
LIKE MANY READERS during this time of pandemia, my attention comes and goes with the needs of my household. All the classics I want to read or reread are simply standing dusty on the bookshelves. But I do find myself drawn most to fables and fairytales, well because, short reads do count.
Short reads are more approachable because of their length but that doesn’t mean they lack depth, beauty, or truth. And many of these are suitable for family reads and discussions:
No, there's no such thing as husband poetry.
I mean my husband asked me to teach him more about poetry. My husband felt there were decided holes in his education, but I thought surely somewhere in junior high or high school a dedicated teacher must have taught him some famous verse. He swears he remembers nothing of the sort. Thus, three months ago, my husband picked up a volume of Emily Brontë poetry and determined to understand what he read.
He was already a decided Brontë sisters' admirer, so likability wasn't an issue. What did become an issue was rhyme scheme and syllable structure. So what to do?
As he read poetry before bed each evening, he began to ask me questions like Why does this line have eight syllables and this one has ten?
I know, I know. Nerd alert. How many married couples talk like this before falling asleep? Anyway, I began by asking him not only to count syllables in every line, but to also determine if there was a pattern. How many lines are in the overall poem? Did you say 14? So what type of poem is that? What was Bronte imitating? Pretty soon I realized we needed to start at the beginning. All the intelligent Rush lyrics of his youth bred a natural appreciation for poetry and the lyrical art, but that didn't mean he understood the required elements of the poet's work.
This is what we've learned so far in the poetry journey:
STEP ONE: Read poetry you like, poetry you're drawn to.
Each person has their own taste of course. Bronte did that for him as did Frost and Seamus Heaney.
STEP TWO: Break apart the poem skeleton.
This is tricky because if you spend too much time identifying parts you can also remove the pleasure of reading for the beauty of the thing. At the same time without the knowledge of parts it's hard to appreciate the whole. Think of the human skeleton. Knowing the parts of the body that frame it and allow it to stand and move increases our appreciation of its overall appearance.
STEP THREE: Find a teaching text that's written at your level.
Perhaps the most difficult creature to find, an instructional book is a necessary thing unless you already have an English teacher spouse at your side. From homeschooling curricula to college-level texts, there are too many choices. I've read quite a few that make poetry more difficult and even more that make it too simple. The trick is to find the one that fits you. As an adult learner, my husband didn't want a middle school beginner though he was willing. Instead we went entirely old school. Why not learn from two distinguished Yale professors?
MY TOP RECOMMENDATIONS
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It's no longer in print but is a valuable text if you find one. You can learn so much from reading just two chapters on narrative and descriptive poems. Brooks and Warren include plenty of examples and commentary on how the poem works and what it means. It is most helpful to learn from their wealth of experience and to learn from the types of questions they ask about each poem.
The Harp and Laurel Wreath by Laura Berquist. Berquist has compiled a thorough representation for grades 1-12. Poems are listed for memorization, analysis, and writing practice. She includes questions following each poem that are perfect for class discussion or independent learning. The appendices include most every literary term tied to poetry study in addition to plentiful examples on meter, rhyme, and verse.
*originally published November 29, 2017