Great Writing Isn’t Alchemy, It’s Hard Work: Alfred Kazin’s Trip to the Beach

December 17, 2014

aaaaaa el

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.

Steven King (On Writing 147)

As Stephen King notes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (145).

But many people don’t realize that writing is a craft to be mastered. They think it’s some sort of alchemy that mysteriously springs out of one’s experiences. That’s why some people who know very little about writing think they could produce a great memoir or an enticing novel. They love their fabulous lives so much. They are so glamorous, so amusing, and they know so many unique people—the book would practically write itself.

With the application of talent and much work, a great writer can reveal the beauty and complexity of a common experience. In his memoir A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin relives the train ride to and from Coney Island on a hot summer day:

       It was from the El on its way to Coney Island that I caught my first full breath of the city in the open air. Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings, that old train could never go slowly enough for me as I stood on the open platform between the cars, holding on to the gate. In the dead calm of noon, heat mists drifted around the rusty green spires of unknown churches; below, people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight. With each homey crásh-crásh crásh-crásh of the wheels against the rails, there would steal up at me along the bounding slopes of the awnings the nearness of all those streets in middle Brooklyn named after generals of the Revolutionary War. I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face. As we came back at night along the El again, the great reward of the long parched day, far better than any massed and arid beach, was the chance to stand up there between the cars, looking down on the quiet streets unrolling below me as we passed. The rusty iron cars ground against each other, protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn. But in the steady crásh-crásh crásh-crásh there was a comforting homeward sound as the black cars rocked on the rails and more and more men and boys in open shirts came out on the top platform fiercely breathing the wind-changed damp air. In the summer night the city had an easy unstitched look—people sat on the corner watching the flies buzz around the street lamps, or at bedroom windows openly yawning as they stared past us (137-138).

First, notice the extreme paucity of adverbs.

I tell my students that nouns and verbs should do the heavy lifting. When you choose the right nouns and verbs, fewer adjective and adverbs are required.

For example, I could say “My landlord is a mean, ugly, tyrannical, bossy, gruesome, overbearing man.” Or I could simply say “My landlord is an ogre.” The appropriate noun eliminates the need for several adjectives.

And speaking of adjectives, notice how Kazin utilizes several noncordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are parallel, modifying their nouns independently. That’s why we separate them with commas (big, bad John; new, green car). The effect of coordinate adjectives is cumulative; however, noncoordinate adjectives, when properly employed, multiply meaning into something new and beautiful: “first full breath” “rusty green spires” “long parched day” “rusty iron cars” “comforting homeward sound“ “wind-changed damp air” “easy unstitched look.” (Alfred Kazin’s beloved mother was a seamstress.)

I’ve affirmed the elegance simple sentences. I will repeat myself: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. And simple sentences are even more beautiful when they are rare. Like a great jeweler, Kazin positions a great gem in the middle of his creation: I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face.

Notice the strongest character in this paragraph, the anthropomorphized train: “protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn” “Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings”

Finally, notice how Kazin plays upon the illusion that world itself is in motion: “people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight” “streets unrolling below me as we passed”

by Richard W. Bray

It’s Better to Burst Than Ripple Away

December 10, 2014

aaaaaaacowboy

I’m a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
My boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line
I’ll never be humble
And I’ll never be tame
A man’s gotta rumble
And play his own game

Won’t live a life
That lingers
Till the coals are dust
Always quit the casino
Before I hit bust
Won’t swap my tomorrow
For yesterday
It’s better to burst
Than ripple away

Gotta live in the sunshine
If I wanna survive
I’ll never be yoked
To your nine-to-five
Pity the fool
Who tries to fence me in
I ain’t gonna go
Where I already been

Won’t live a life
That lingers
Till the coals are dust
Always quit the casino
Before I hit bust
Won’t swap my tomorrow
For yesterday
It’s better to burst
Than ripple away

by Richard W. Bray

Discovering and Correcting Un-doable Subject-Verb Combinations

December 4, 2014

aaaaaaaa subject verb

These new disposable diapers work hard to keep babies dry.

I call sentences like the one above undoables. Undoables contain a subject which is incapable of performing its assigned action.

I tell my students to correct undoables by picturing the subject executing the action: Can you imagine a disposable diaper working hard?

Each sentence in the following paragraph contains an undoable. See if your students can spot them and explain why they are un-doable.

       One concern that restaurants bring up is the issue of hygiene. Cleaning products take steps to improve cleanliness. However, halfhearted activities will not prevail. Furthermore, the way that many restaurants are maintained does not keep in mind adequate procedures for maintaining a germ-free environment. Many restaurants claim to be clean, but how can we be sure this is true? Our current situation is wreaking havoc on the intestines of restaurant customers. Unhealthy food should force restaurants to have higher standards. Therefore, strict policies must win the battle of the dirty kitchen. That’s why new laws should enforce minimum standards of restaurant cleanliness. Only then will America’s stomachs earn a respite from unhealthy bacteria.

by Richard W. Bray

I Never Drink Alone

November 28, 2014

aaaaaabbbbbbb

My friends at the bar
Are a bunch of crazy boozers
I love em like brothers
But they’re such a load of losers
Lazy, stupid, welfare-cheating
Mother-mooching scum
I like to take a drink
But I ain’t no bum

I ain’t a drunk
I just like to play
I ain’t a drunk
I go to work every day
I don’t even keep
No booze in my home
I ain’t a drunk
Cuz I never drink alone

That cop who pulled me over
Was way outta line
I wasn’t really drinking
Just a little wine
I had a big meal
I was driving fine
My B-A-C was only
One point nine

I ain’t a drunk
I just like to play
I ain’t a drunk
I go to work every day
I don’t even keep
No booze in my home
I ain’t a drunk
Cuz I never drink alone

My whiny kids
And my self-righteous wife
Are really jealous
Of my freewheeling life
They asked me to quit
But they ain’t my boss
If they wanna move out
It’ll be their loss

I ain’t a drunk
I just like to play
I ain’t a drunk
I go to work every day
I don’t even keep
No booze in my home
I ain’t a drunk
Cuz I never drink alone

by Richard W. Bray

Truth is a Silly Concept

November 28, 2014

aaaaaaaurn

You aren’t influenced by that Beauty is Truth claptrap.
—Robert Frost

Truth is a silly concept
That’s where I part company
With Mr. Keats

A slight expansion of our
Lilliputian awareness is the most
We can reasonably hope for
In this sad, sad beautiful world

Solitary drinking is underrated
The drunken man
Is unlikely to say or do
Something beautiful
But drunken thoughts
Often feel lovely

by Richard W. Bray

She Gets to Live Her Own Life

November 25, 2014

aaaaa

Everyone remembers
You were such a crazy kid
I know you want to tell her
“Don’t do the things I did”

She gets to live her own life
And make her own mistakes
She’s gotta blow off some steam
Before she puts on the brakes

Since taking her first steps
She’s been falling on her rear
She’s getting smarter every day
She’s getting bolder every year

She gets to live her own life
And make her own mistakes
She’s gotta blow off some steam
Before she puts on the brakes

That’s the way it’s gotta go
You can stomp and you can yell
If you love her let her be
I know it hurts like hell

She gets to live her own life
And make her own mistakes
She’s gotta blow off some steam
Before she puts on the brakes

by Richard W. Bray

An Activity for Assessing Characters from a Novel (Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich)

November 23, 2014

zzzz

Here’s an activity for assessing characters in a novel. (We’ll be using Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich for this example.)

#1 Class reads a novel with several characters. This activity won’t work with The Old Man and the Sea, for example.

#2 Review nouns and adjectives.

Noun Test

My_______
His______
Her_______
Some_______
A________
An_______
These_______
Those______
This_______
That_______

Adjective Test

My __________ house is __________

My __________ sister is __________

#3 Number off students in to groups of three. (Larger groups will encourage social loafing. It’s better to have two pairs than one group of four.)

#4 Assign a character to each group. It’s ok for more than one group to do the same character.

Group 1
—Marie Lazarre Kashpaw
Group 2—Nector Kashpaw
Group 3—Lulu Nanapush Lamartine
Group 4—June Morrissey
Group 5—Lipsha Morrissey
Group 6—Albertine Johnson
Group 7—Eli Kashpaw
Group 8—Lyman Lamartine
Group 9—Henry Lamartine Jr
Group 10—Gerry Nanapush

#5 Each group uses the novel to generate answers to the following questions:

a) What are four nouns that describe your character?

Example: Nector Kashpaw–Leader, Philanderer, Father, Indian

(Discourage students from going for the easiest, least revealing answers, like man, person, citizen, mammal.)

b) What are four adjectives that describe your character?

Example: Lulu Nanapush Lamartine—Unapologetic, Brave, Concupiscent, Rebellious

c) Explain how two passages (include page numbers) reveal something about your character.

Example—Albertine Johnson

Passage: After two months were gone and my classes were done, and although I still had not forgiven my mother, I decided to go home. I wasn’t crazy about the thought of seeing her, but our relationship was like a file we both sharpened on, and necessary in that way (P 11).

Explanation: This passage demonstrates the tension in the relationship between Albertine, a strong-willed young woman, and her mother Zelda. Albertine is upset because her mother did not immediately inform her about the passing of her Aunt June.

d) What are two things your character wants? (Kurt Vonnegut informs the aspiring novelist to make sure your characters want something, even if it is just a glass of water.)

Example—Gerry Nanapush

1. Freedom
2. To see Shawn, his newborn son

by Richard W. Bray

Part of the Show

November 20, 2014

bill-coby-show4-20120224-161839-large


Been watching him for years
I feel like I know him
Over a couple of beers
I’m sure that I could show him

I really wanna cry
We all make mistakes
He’s such a great guy
I don’t care what they say

There are people in this world
Who do marvelous things
Appreciate their work
And the joy that it brings

Live the life you got
Love the ones you know
And never pretend
That you’re part of the show

by Richard W. Bray

The Truth ISN’T Out There

November 17, 2014

You won’t find it
   On the web
You won’t find it
   At the mall
You won’t find it
   Up her dress
There ain’t
   No one to call

Ain’t nobody out there
To tell you
Who you are
So cast down your buckets
Right where you are

The planets won’t
   Tell you
You can’t see it
   In the stars
You won’t find it
   In a pill
You won’t find it
   At the bar

Ain’t nobody out there
To tell you
Who you are
So cast down your buckets
Right where you are

You can ask
   Your pastor
You can hire yourself
   A shrink
Five hundred bucks
   An hour
Won’t tell you
   What you think

Ain’t nobody out there
To tell you
Who you are
So cast down your buckets
Right where you are

by Richard W. Bray

here i am

November 15, 2014

painting_detail_of_the_sad_guy_by_magzdilla-d68fl7n

showing up
and passing time
there I was
doing fine

there you were
the world grew
days were wide
and full of you

a pocket of time
tender and small
there we were
we had it all

a tiny tear
grew and grew
here I am
where are you?

by Richard W. Bray


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers