Isn’t It Poetic?

Surprise, surprise: the answer isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. I’m pleased to share with you Douglas S. Jones’ thoughts on the matter.

Doug  Jones is well known in local writing groups and has taught dozens of students in the Richmond area. Full disclosure: Doug taught and mentored me for years! I especially appreciate Doug sharing his thoughts on what makes writing poetic because, as many of you know, I don’t “do” poetry.

Is it poetic?

When asked to define poetry, I thought: This is my punishment for not writing a dissertation.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines poem as “1) a composition in verse, especially one that is characterized by a highly developed artistic form and by the use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject.” This sounds like what my high school English teachers probably taught me. But then–rather like graduate school–the second and third definitions contradict and deconstruct the first: “2) a composition that, though not in verse, is characterized by great beauty or expression; 3) something having qualities that are suggestive of or likened to those of poetry: Marcel, that chicken cacciatore was an absolute poem.” So a poem is a composition in verse; a poem is a composition not in verse; chicken cacciatore is a poem (when Marcel makes it).

The same dictionary defines poetry as “1) the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts; 2) literary work in metrical form, verse; 3) prose with poetic qualities; 4) poetic qualities however manifested; 5) poetic spirit or feeling; 6) something suggestive of or likened to poetry: the pure poetry of a beautiful view on a clear day.” So poetry is different from prose, except when it is prose; it is written in verse, except when it is not; it is qualities or spirit or feeling or a beautiful view on a clear day.

I won’t bother listing the eighteen definitions of composition, or the fifteen definitions of verse. But I do think it’s worth noting that the word “verse” can be stretched in service of both “poetry” and “metrical composition distinguished from poetry because of its inferior quality [my emphasis].”  It may be “one of the lines of a poem” or (rarely) “a line of prose.” And verse and composition are both related to structure and music–elements which I suspect have more to do with what poetry is than beauty or elevated thought.

I turned from definitions to word origins. A poem is “something created,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “The word comes via Old French poeme and Latin poema from Greek poema”–which comes from poiesis, “making.” Writers may enjoy poetic license, bring characters to poetic justice, and aspire to become poet laureate. The latter also comes to us from Greece: when Apollo fell in love with Daphne (the daughter of a river) and tried to seize her, she escaped by turning into a laurel tree–which thereafter was sacred to Apollo. “The god ordered that laurel be the prize for poets and victors,” Robert Hendrickson writes in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, “this leading to the belief that laurel leaves communicated the spirit of poetry (the ancients put laurel leaves under their pillows to acquire inspiration while they slept).”

The notion of a “spirit” of poetry raises questions. Among them: Does a poem possess or suggest spirit more or other than that of the poet? Is poetry–as Samuel Coleridge famously suggested–“the best words in the best order”? If so, why should this apply only to poetry? Shouldn’t the same be equally true of good prose?

In his wonderful book How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry), Edward Hirsch writes:

Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way that poems incarnate the spirit–the spirits–and strike the bedrock of being.

Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Cuido Cavalanti–

Noi sian triste penne isbigottite
le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente.

We are the poor, bewildered quills,
the little scissors, and the grieving penknife.

In his preface to Obra poetica, Jorge Luis Borges writes “the taste of the apple … lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book.” Poetry is interactive. Reading a poem completes it, like closing an electrical circuit. Although we can return and refer to it on the page, I think of poetry as fugitive. While you are reading it (or hearing it read) it travels through time and space. Consider the following:

Detail

I was watching a robin fly after a finch–the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase–when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

Eamon Grennan

The poem flies: we follow it from bird to bird to “terminal surprise.”  It begins not with the abstract, but the specific–and the accumulation of specific details is what makes the poem ring true. There is movement in every line: watching, chirping, blazing, shivering, scorching. Even nouns and adjectives move: “a light brown burn/ scorching the air,” “the stopped robin” (my emphasis). The “I” observing the bird becomes the “you” with “your eye on a small elusive detail.” Then the reader becomes both poet and bird, observing and observed: “a terrible truth/ strikes, and your heart cries out, being carried off” (my emphasis). In the end we have not only read or heard the poem: we have in a sense experienced it, flown with and been snatched away by it. The poet meanwhile is self-effacing, claiming only to have begun “to understand/ how a poem can happen.” The poem happens–it is an event, shared between speaker and listener. As Robert Frost notes: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Hirsch continues:

Poetry alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves–it arouses a spiritual desire which it also gratifies. It attains what it avows. But it can only do so with the reader’s imaginative collaboration and even complicity. The writer creates through words a felt world which only the reader can vivify and internalize. Writing is embodiment. Reading is contact.

We can teach poetry by reading poems, reading poets, and reading what they write about what they do: from Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica to Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”; from Wordsworth’s Prelude to Kenneth Koch’s “The Art of Poetry.”

And of course we can also teach poetry by encouraging students to write poetry of their own, to experiment with form, to write poems “in the style of”–and by helping them to find their subjects.  Towards this last goal, consider the following from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, authors of The Poet’s Companion:

We’ve been told again and again to write about what we know, but we don’t trust that advice…. John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things he knew. Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. Elizabeth Bishop wrote about catching a fish, Wallace Stevens about a Sunday morning, William Carlos Williams about a young housewife and a red wheelbarrow. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world….

The trick is to find out what we know, challenge what we know, own what we know, and then give it away in language: I love my brother, I hate winter, I always lose my keys. You have to know and describe your brother so well he becomes everybody’s brother, to evoke the hatred of winter so passionately that we all begin to feel the chill, to lose your keys so memorably we begin to connect that action to all our losses, to our desires, to our fears of death. Good writing works from a simple premise: your experience is not yours alone, but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s.

In the end, I think poetry communicates something like Whitman’s barbaric yawp. We are, in fact, not alone on the planet. The ordinary world is, in fact, extraordinary. The spoken word is not how we compare ourselves out of community or fraternity or sorority or society, but rather how we find our place within. As Appalachian poet Charles Boyd writes:

As you are reading
this–now, in the same moment
I am writing it.

Touchstones
  • Aristotle: Poetics.
  • Horace: Ars Poetica.
  • Barthes, Roland: The Pleasure of the Text.
  • Bloom, Harold: Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism.
  • Brooks, Cleanth: The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry.
  • Calvino, Italo: Six Memos for the Next Millenium.
  • Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism.
  • Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language, Thought.
  • Mill, John Stuart: Dissertations and Discussions.
  • Pascal, Blaise: Pensees.
  • Plato: Collected Dialogues.
  • Santayana, George: Essays in Literary Criticism.
  • Sapir, Edward: Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.
  • Wimsatt, W. K.: The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry.
  • Zumthor, Paul: Oral Poetry: An Introduction.

Douglas Jones has written and seen produced more than forty plays and screenplays, including the musical Bojangles (music by Tony Award-winning composer Charles Strouse, lyrics by Academy Award-winning Sammy Cahn), The Turn of The Screw, and his award-winning Songs from Bedlam–which Backstage declared “a triumph,” and D.C.’s Studio Theatre said “achieves a rare and magnificent balance between brutal reality and sublime fantasy.” His docudrama 1607: A Nation Takes Root plays daily at the Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center. 

He was awarded the Virginia Commission for the Arts Playwriting Grant in 2006, the Martha Hill Newell Playwrights Award in 2015, and the Emyl Jenkins Award for Promoting Writing and  Education in 2016. He teaches memoir, playwriting, and other classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and The Visual Arts Center, and is a member of The Dramatists Guild. He lives in Richmond with his wife actress Harriett Traylor.

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT

(No cats were harmed in the making of this blog.)

Which is to say, there is more than one way to say just about anything. Idioms, slang, and dialect vary greatly by geographic location and by time, so they can be a great way to ground a character in a particular time and place. Here, for your enjoyment and inspiration, are some variations on common concepts.

Drunk

Commode-hugging drunk
  • Inebriated
  • Intoxicated
  • Buzzed
  • Blitzed
  • High
  • Knee-walkin’ drunk
  • Commode-hugging drunk
  • Boozed up
  • Feeling no pain
  • Plastered
  • Ploughed
  • Bladdered
  • Liquored up
  • Under the influence 
  • Seeing double
  • Wall-eyed
  • Goggled
Sloshed
  • Stewed
  • Pickled
  • Battered
  • Blotto
  • Pissed
  • Three sheets to the wind
  • Drinks like a fish
  • Lit up like a Christmas tree
  • Drunk as a skunk
  • Pissed as a newt
  • Tight as a tick
  • Rat-arsed
Legless
  • Under the table
  • Bend an elbow
  • In the bag
  • In his/her cups
  • On Liquorpond Street
  • Away with the fairies
  • Have a load on
  • Well oiled
  • Lush
  • Worse for wear
  • Off the wagon
  • So drunk he opened his shirt collar to piss

Evil/Mean

Covidiot
  • Devil
  • Scum bucket
  • Sinner
  • The second half of saints and sinners
  • Troublemaker 
  • Villain
  • Benighted
  • Snake in the grass
  • Back-biting
  • Oxygen thief
  • Lower than a snake’s belly (in a wagon rut)
  • Sonofabitch 
  • Abbreviated piece of nothing
  • Farging icehole

Frigidity/Arousal/Sex (Female)

Amazons
  • Colder than a witch’s tit
  • Cold fish
  • Like making love to a corpse
  • Enough to make a man choose celibacy 
  • Built like a brick shit-house
  • Body to die for
  • Man magnet
  • Everyman’s wet dream
  • Wanton
  • On the pull
  • Always ready to ride
  • Just call her Eveready
  • Get a bit of sugar stick
  • Make a sausage sandwich
  • Give juice for jelly
  • Little Miss Roundheels
  • Celing Inspector
  • MILF/ GILF
  • No better than she should be
  • She’ll put out for anything in pants
  • She’s had more pricks than a secondhand dartboard
  • Scarlet woman  
  • Cougar
  • Cure for an Irish toothache
  • Go like a herd of turtles

Impotence/Arousal/Sex (Male)

Bro or Dude-bro
  • Can’t get it up/ can’t keep it up
  • Wilts like cut flowers in the sun
  • Drained away like an ice cube in the desert
  • Get a hard on
  • Get his rocks off
  • Carrying a woody
  • Hung like a prize bull
  • Butter her buns
  • Put his little hat on
  • He’s a regular Energizer Bunny
  • Manwhore
  • Roacher
  • Rake
  • Lounge lizard
  • Beau-nasty
  • Dipping his wick
  • Jumping her bones
  • Doing a little front-door work
  • Ring her bells/chimes
  • On the make
  • Jesuit boxer
  • Punk
  • Gym rat
  • Tosser
  • He’d fuck anything with a hole in
  • He gets more ass than a toilet seat
  • All mouth and no trousers

Incompetent

Not the sharpest tool in the shed/ brightest crayon in the box
  • All foam, no beer
  • Doesn’t have all her cornflakes in one box
  • All the cheese slid off his cracker
  • Body by Fisher, brains by Mattel
  • Can’t find his ass with both hands
  • Her sewing machine is out of thread
  • Receiver is off the hook
  • Skylight leaks a little
  • Not up to XXX
  • Not cut out for XXX
  • Out to lunch
  • Just doesn’t have it
  • Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time
  • He would fuck-up a wet dream
  • Not able to hit the ground with his hat
  • Batting zero
  • One step forward, three steps back

Lazy

Permanently set to “Stand-By”
  • Layabout
  • Do-nothing
  • Shiftless
  • Slow as molasses in January
  • Doesn’t have the gumption God gave a turnip
  • His get up and go has got up and gone
  • Too lazy to scratch an itch
  • Wouldn’t even scratch his ass if he could get someone else to do it for him
  • Laggard
  • Goldbrick
  • Freeloader
  • Sponger
  • He counts sawing logs as working

Mentally Unbalanced

Coocoo for Cocoa Puffs
  • Insane
  • Bonkers
  • Crazy
  • Berserker
  • Cracked
  • Lunatic
  • Deranged
  • Mad as a hatter
  • Nut case/job
  • Fruitcake
  • Potty
  • Psycho
  • Mental
  • Unglued
  • Batty
  • Bats in the belfry/attic
  • Looney (Tunes)
  • Has a screw loose
  • Sees the world slant/sideways
  • Has his/her own reality

Stupid

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.
  • World’s only living brain donor
  • Musclebound between the ears
  • Not enough brains to give himself a headache
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • A few fries short of a Happy Meal
  • An experiment in Artificial Stupidity
  • A few beers short of a six-pack
  • Dumber than a box of rocks
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Has an IQ of 2, but it takes 3 to grunt
  • The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead
  • One Fruit Loop shy of a full bowl
  • Sharp as a corner on a round table
  • One taco short of a combination plate
  • A few feathers short of a whole duck
  • Warning: objects in mirror are dumber than they appear
  • Couldn’t pour water out of a boot with instructions on the heel
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • An intellect rivaled only by garden tools
  • As smart as bait
  • His chimney’s blocked
  • She’s so dumb she thinks her bottom is just to sit on
  • Elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor
  • Forgot to pay his brain bill
  • Antenna doesn’t pick up all the channels
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • If he had another brain, it would be lonely
  • Missing a few buttons on her remote control
  • No grain in the silo
  • Proof that evolution CAN go backwards
  • Several nuts short of a full bar
  • Surfing in Nebraska
  • Slinky’s kinked
  • Too much yardage between the goalposts
  • One of her dogs has slipped the leash
  • Dead from the neck up
  • Only 50 cards in his deck

Ugly

A face like the south end of a horse walking north
  • A face only a mother could love
  • A face not even a mother could love
  • Should have been drowned at birth
  • As for how s/he looks, s/he has a great personality
  • Homely
  • Ill-favored
  • Not much to look at
  • As attractive as hairs on a mole
  • Beaten with an ugly stick
  • Doesn’t need a mask for halloween
  • A face that could crack mirrors
  • Face that could scare the walking dead
  • “If my dog was as ugly as he is, I’d shave his butt and walk him backward!”
The Bard is a very useful friend to those looking for creative insults.

For more feline desquamation alternatives, browse through variations of slang used in countries where English is spoken around the world. Some of my favorites are Irish, Scottish, Jamaican, Kiwi, Australian, South African, and New York English. (Yes, New York English deserves a separate listing.) If you really want be specific about a character’s background, consider idioms and slang distinct to a particular region within a country.

Bottom line for writers: fresh phrases or clichés, take your pick.

WEAPONS IN DISGUISE

Consider arming your character(s)! If for no other reason, sometimes a little self-defense could come in handy. And consider the reasons that character might not want to look armed. And then consider your weapons of choice, based on the character’s character and lifestyle.

Rings

  • Poison rings (also called pill box rings): an oldie but goody, the oldest examples date back to ancient Asia and India, popular in Europe starting in the 16th century; an empty space under or in the bezel could contain poison or other substances; a favorite with both assassins and generals  
  • Knife blade ring: the top of the band is sharp enough to cut
  • Hidden spike ring: take off the top guard (rose blossom, ball, etc.) to expose a sharp, pointed blade weapon capable of ripping skin, drawing blood, and collecting the DNA of an attacker
  • Last shot revolver ring: ring looks like a six-shot revolver chamber seen from the back side; one 14K bullet chambered; these may not be effective as a weapon
  • Stealth cat ring: double-spiked ring that poses as a harmless pair of cat ears
  • Secret compartment ring: part of the band or top of the ring opens to reveal a small space in which correspondence, cameras, etc.

Nails or Claws

  • Ancient Chinese symbol of wealth and status, showing that people did not need to use their hands
  • A variation is a finger gauntlet, a jointed metal cover for one finger, usually with spikes or blades attached
  • Claws can be attached like a ring on the smaller knuckles of the fingers or slid over the tips of their finders
  • Blades could be attached to the top of the claw, or the tip of the nail itself can be a blade
  • These can be worn as a singular ornament or as an entire set on all fingers
  • They’re not exactly hidden, but they are easily overlooked as weapons

Bracelets

  • Hidden compartment bracelets can hold a variety of helpful ways to kill people, including poison, lockpicks, keys, correspondence, etc.
  • Bracelets can easily conceal knives, either in the clasp, inside the band, or in a hidden compartment
  • Garrote wires can be covered with ornamentation
  • Chakram bracelets are a traditional Indian Sikh weapon, requiring skill to use effectively as a thrown, bladed weapon
  • Buddhist mandala (meditation) beads are effective blunt ended weapons
    • Really big Rosaries can be used the same way, if a character is very determined
  • Dragon chains are effective wrist guards and can be used as ranged attack weapons (this requires a great deal of training)
  • Spikes can be hidden among decoration on the edges or tops of bracelets

Necklaces

  • Poison pendant: functions like poison rings (above)
  • Hidden compartments in pendants can hold many other useful objects, such as lockpicks, photos, computer chips, explosives, correspondence, lights, etc.
  • Almost any shape pendant can disguise a blade
  • Kunai Blades: particularly useful in hand-to-hand combat, but they can also be used for traction when scaling the sides of buildings
  • Pendants designed with spikes can stab
  • Garrote necklace: handheld chain strong enough to strangle a person
  • Rosaries and Buddhist mandalas can also be worn as necklaces and used as described above

Brooches

  • Poison hidden inside
  • Secret compartments can hold almost anything
  • The pin itself can be used to stab
  • Spikes or ridges in the design itself can be used as weapons
  • Prominently displayed brooches often carry hidden meanings

Earrings

  • Being so close to exposed skin on the neck limits the use of earrings as pointed or edged weapons
  • Carefully designed earrings can have small spike or blades
  • Lockpicks can be hidden within the design of earrings
  • Some earrings can contain specially designed shanks for breaking out of handcuffs
  • Earrings can contain hidden compartments for holding poison or other items helpful for maiming

Sunglasses

  • Blades can be hidden in the frames
  • Concealed tranquilizer or infectious darts can be hidden in the hinges
  • Being at eye level makes them ideal for concealing cameras

Hats

  • Tactical cap with self-defense clip-on-bill
  • Spikes or tasers can be hidden on the back clasp
  • Perhaps the most famous is Odd Job from James Bond, who had a notoriously deadly hat with a razor-sharp brim
  • “Slappy Hat” has a weighted top to deliver extra punch when used as a weapon
  • Almost any hat or head covering can conceal a garrote wire

Hat Pins

  • Designed to pierce through the hat and secure it to the head
  • Hat pins made ideal stabbing weapons
  • Head of the pin was large enough to conceal poison or other items
  • Could be used as lockpicks
  • There is ample newspaper evidence of women using and being encouraged to use hat pins as defensive weapons in public

Hair Pins

  • Japanese kanzashi hairpins were originally designed for personal defense and as good luck charms
  • Fancy pin heads could conceal many useful things, depending on how ornate the hair pin
    • Poison
    • Lockpicks
    • Blades
    • Garrotes
    • Poisonous flowers
  • Throwing knives can be easily disguised as hair pins
  • Could be tipped with poison
  • Used in formal hairdressing in almost every culture in the world, by men and women, depending on the time period

Shoes

  • Blades can be concealed in the toe
  • Actual stiletto blades in the stiletto heel
  • Shoes have been designed with guns in the heal, but they are not very useful as weapons
  • Spikes on sides, backs, and tops
  • Laces can have spike woven in
  • Heavy, steel-cased boots can crush or break bones
  • Provide holsters for knives, guns, brass knuckles, etc.

Undergarments

  • Corset stays can be designed to be removed and double as knife blades
  • Corsets had steel or bone stays (or were made entirely of steel) and served as defense
  • Holsters for knives, guns, and mace can be hidden in undergarments
  • Padded undergarments can provide some protection from knives
  • Kevlar underpants are bulletproof garments specifically designed to protect the femoral artery

Miscellaneous Concealable Weapons 

  • Hidden belt knife: knife is concealed in buckle area, can be pulled faster than from a pocket or sheath.
  • Comb knife: slide the teeth off to expose the knife blade
  • Hidden knife keychain
  • Lipstick tube concealing pepper spray
  • Hidden knife pen
  • Hidden Knife highliters
  • Hidden credit card knife
  • Hand grip concealing spikes
  • Coin purse that doubles as a blunt weapon when full
  • Walking stick or umbrella with a sword inside
  • Carabiners with flip-out knives

Bottom line: whatever the occasion, there’s a weapon for that!

If you’re a superhero, concealing weapons isn’t such a concern.

Body Awareness

 
When writers write human sensations, they typically rely on the basic five: sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation). Everyone since Aristotle has recognized these. But relying on these is over-simplification.

 

In fact, humans have a multitude of sensors. The ability to detect other stimuli beyond those governed by these most broadly recognized senses also exists, and these sensory modalities include temperature (thermoception), kinesthetic sense (proprioception), pain (nociception), balance (equilibrioception), vibration (mechanoreception), and various internal stimuli (e.g. the different chemoreceptors for detecting salt and carbon dioxideconcentrations in the blood, or sense of hunger and sense of thirst).
What constitutes a sense is a matter of debate, leading to difficulties in defining what exactly a distinct sense is, and where the borders lie between responses to related stimuli. Today, a conservative list of senses numbers 10 and the generally accepted list includes 21. The radical list identifies at least 33.
 
But as writers, we don’t have to worry about exact numbers and labels. We just need to develop a keener body awareness for our characters.
 
 
One of my personal favorites is proprioception, the sense that gives you the ability to tell where your body parts are in relation to other body parts and the environment. Being able to close your eyes and touch your nose is one example—a skill that is impaired when drunk, BTW.
 
I first really though about this sense when I read what John McPhee said about Bill Bradley, back in the day when Bill Bradley was a basketball superstar. McPhee was particularly impressed that Bradley, back to the basket, could look him in the eye, hold a conversation, and toss a basketball over his shoulder and make the shot.
 
 
Bradley: “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this….You develop a sense of where you are.”
 
Any character who is athletic would have a highly developed sense of body awareness. The opposite of Bill Bradley is the character who is forever bumping her/his head, tripping, knocking into things, etc.
 
Choose any sense and have a character who is characterized by an extreme of that sense. For example, tea, wine, or coffee tasters; acrobats; inability to feel pain or temperature; etc.
 
Numerous studies have shown that people do have the ability to detect accurately the passage of time, without counting or anything like that: on average, 18 to 24 year olds could tell when 3 minutes were up within a 3 second margin. And perhaps more interesting, our sense of time slows down with age, so that 60-80 year olds, on average, thought that 3 minutes had passed at around 3 minutes and 40 seconds! Again, this might be more useful for people on either extreme from the average. FYI, people with Parkinson’s or ADD have very poor sense of time passage compared to “normal” people.
numbers in color
Synesthesia is, essentially, when our sensory wires get crossed. Such people hear or taste color, for example. Although some people experience this naturally, it is more common under the influence of hallucinogens.

 

BOTTOM LINE: Do a little reading online about human senses to develop awareness of how these can enhance your writing!
 

When Your Character is Prejudiced

character prejudiced
Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on his/her membership in a social group. In my opinion, prejudice is relatively benign for the target person if the prejudiced person does not act on the negative attitude. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.

 

Discrimination is an action or behavior (including verbal)—usually negative—towards an individual or group of people on the basis of the prejudice. This is where the bad happens. Employment opportunities foreclosed. Inequality in lending practices. Lack of access to educational opportunities. Denial of goods or services (e.g., refusing to make a wedding cake for the wedding of a gay couple). Hate crimes.

 

A classic example of prejudice leading to negative behavior:

 

character prejudiced
So, one big question for you as a writer is what your character does as a reflection of his/her prejudice.
 
Although prejudice is an umbrella term for all sorts of -isms (as seen in the image above) it is also a subset of attitudes. And prejudice includes all three components of an attitude: cognitive, behavioral, and affective—how one thinks, behaves, and feels about a person, object, or act.

 

But before you can write realistically about a prejudiced character, you need to decide what function the prejudice serves for this character.
 
Cognitive adjustive: Lacking other information, one accepts stereotypes and/or prejudiced views as a way of knowing how to think and behave with a stranger.

 

Social normative: Holding attitudes—including prejudice—that allow the person to fit into a group or social setting. This might be family, gang, town, workplace, social class—any group the person wants entry to.

 

Ego-defensive: The person is basically insecure and adopts a prejudice to bolster feelings of self-worth. If a person has perceived lacks or failures, one way to feel better about oneself is to develop negative attitudes toward a whole group of people who, by the nature of who they are, can be viewed as inferior.

 

So, do you want your character to change? Depending on the function served, prejudice may be more or less entrenched. If it is based on lack of information, education and factual data will result in attitude change. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting to know members of the group. If it is based on group membership or conformity, changing reference groups will lead to attitude change. For example, moving to a different part of the country, changing schools or jobs, marrying into a family with differing attitudes, etc. The ego-defensive function is the most difficult to change. A person might suppress expression of deeply held biases when they are socially unacceptable (i.e., politically incorrect) but allow them expression when the atmosphere is right. Hate speech, hate crimes, and the rise of white supremacist groups are examples easily tracked online.

 

character prejudiced
The ego-defensive function is highly robust. Prejudice serving this function is immune to factual evidence to the contrary, simply not believing the data. If, somehow, the facts cannot be denied, then one or more other groups might become targets of his/her prejudice. Eliminating prejudice for such people often involves psychotherapy because the cause is rooted in self-esteem, self-concept, and other deep psychological needs.

 

Often prejudice is negatively related to the mental health of the prejudiced person. For example, racism is a symptom of lack of psychological integration, self-esteem, and inner security. Similarly, sexism is unhealthy. Psychologists looked at 10 years of data from nearly 20,000 men and found that those who value having power over women and who endorse playboy-type behavior, and who hold traditional notions of masculinity (such as self-reliance), were more likely to experience depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse, and negative social functioning. So if your character’s prejudice is racism or sexism, consider giving him/her some of these other characteristics as well.
 
Last but not least, consider how your character’s prejudice might bring him/her into conflict with others.
 
westboro rally richmond
“Costume-clad kazoo players and drummers jubilantly respond to the Westboro Baptist Church.” [Source: Style Weekly]
 
Bottom line: Prejudice is a rich resource for writing your characters!

Throwback Post: Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

I’ve been writing a lot, but it’s something other than a blog post! For today’s post, enjoy a throwback article on the pros and cons of critique groups, originally posted in November 2016.

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!

Celebrating New Year’s: Why December 31?

This blog post was originally published on December 31, 2015. 


Currently, most people around the world begin New Year’s celebrations on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. But as with so much in the modern world, it wasn’t always so. Although people have celebrated the beginning of a new year for millennia, astrological or agricultural events typically marked the new year.

 

Where did the holiday begin?

The earliest recorded celebration of the beginning of a new year was in ancient Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. For Babylonians, the new year began with the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a date falling in late March. It was a massive religious festival that required a different ritual every day for 11 days.

chinese new year
[Source: NPR]
Chinese New Year was tied to the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Egypt the new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, coincident with the rising of the star Sirius.

For early Romans, each new year began with the vernal equinox. A year had 304 days divided into 10 months. Over time, the calendar year deviated significantly from the sun year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar consulted astronomers and mathematicians to solve the problem. He added 90 days to that year, adjusted the length of months, and declared January 1 as the first day of the year. January honors the Roman god of beginnings—Janus—who has two faces that look forward and back. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as New Year’s Day for Christians.

julius caesar
The Tusculum portrait, possibly the only surviving sculpture of Caesar made during his lifetime. [Creative Commons]

New Year’s Traditions

We’re all familiar with New Year’s celebrations that involve eating special foods for good luck on New Year’s Eve and/or New Year’s Day: legumes, such as lentils or black-eyed peas, signaling financial success; pork, associated with prosperity; ring-shaped cakes and pastries, because the year has come full circle; sometimes cakes or puddings with something hidden inside, to bring especially good luck to the one who gets the nut or prize. Sometimes the number of courses (3, 5, 7, 9, or 12) are specified. In several Spanish-speaking countries, eating 12 grapes, accompanied by 12 wishes, as the clock strikes 12 is traditional. (In Portugal, it’s 12 raisins.)

Making a lot of noise—shooting guns, banging pots and pans, blaring car horns, playing loud music, setting off firecrackers—is supposed to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Partying with family and/or friends is common, as is fireworks displays or other ritual midnight activities.

In the U.S., the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, begun in 1907, is now watched by millions. Spin-offs involve publicly dropping items that represent an area’s culture, geography, or history: the Peach Drop in Atlanta, GA; Pickle Drops in Dillsburg, PA, and Mount Olive, NC; the Possum Drop in Tallapoosa, GA; Wylie the Walleye Fish Drop in Port Clinton, OH; the Bologna Drop in Lebanon, PA; a Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, IN; the Midnight Muskrat Dive in Princess Anne, MD; a Big Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI; a Pine Cone Drop in Flagstaff, AZ; a Grape Drop in Temecula Valley, CA; a Donut Drop in Hagerstown, MD; a Flip-flop Drop in Folly Beach, SC; a Wrench Drop in Mechanicsburg, PA; Beach Ball Drop in Panama City Beach, FL; the Music Note Drop in Nashville, TN; Chile Drop in Las Cruces, Mexico. Surely I’ve missed some! Please feel free to comment on your favorites.

times square new years

In England, the national icon is the tolling of Big Ben. Similar striking clocks or bells are widespread in Europe. In Albania, people watch a lot of comedy shows because one should enter the new year laughing and full of joy. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, playing the Czechoslovak national anthem at midnight honors the time they were one nation. In Turkey and Russia, New Year’s involves many of the traditions of Christmas in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, running across the street with luggage is to bring travel and new adventures in the year ahead. But in Venezuela, only those traveling in January pull a suitcase around the house. In Japan, people clean their homes and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, representing the mental states that lead people to take unwholesome actions.

In the Philippines, many wear new, bright, colorful clothes with circular patterns. In Brazil, wearing white on the beach to ring in the new year is supposed to bring good luck. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is traditional. Spanish tradition holds that wearing new red underwear brings good luck. In Venezuela, the underwear is yellow.

In Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with First-Footing (going to each other’s houses with gifts of whiskey and sometimes a lump of coal); Edinburgh hosts a 4 or 5 day festival, beginning on December 28th, including cannon fire and fireworks displays.

first footing
[Source: Flickr]
North and South Korea celebrate New Years twice, a Lunar New Year which varies, and a Solar New Year which is always January 1.

The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have been popular first among the ancient Babylonians.

And thus we come full circle—a fine New Year’s tradition! What are your favorite traditions?

December 21: More than the Winter Solstice

There is a joke (based on stereotypes, as so many jokes are) that goes like this: on the Winter Solstice, the English woman says, “Oh. The shortest day of the year.” while the French woman says, “Oooh, la la, the longest night of the year.” My point is that this date means many things to many people.
 
chase calendar of events
[Source: Amazon]
I love this book! Just browsing it is entertaining. For the specifics of the importance of this date, I am heavily indebted to Chase’s. But to start with the solstice, in the northern hemisphere winter begins on this day. (Of course, in the southern hemisphere this is the beginning of summer.) This means 12 hours and 8 minutes of daylight at the equator and zero at the Arctic Circle.

 

Holidays

Celebrate Short Fiction Day: Established in 2013, short stories have been around as long as people have been able to spin a tale about people, places, or things. So, on this first day of winter, when the days are shortest, take advantage of the long night and celebrate short fiction by reading a short story—or two or three! Totally self-serving, consider my collection Different Drummer.
 
Different Drummer - a collection of off-beat fiction
 
Forefather’s Day: Celebrated mostly in New England to commemorate the landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Plymouth Rock, the legendary place of landing since it was first “identified” in 1769 has been an historic shrine since.

 

Fogg Wins A Wager Day: From Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1872, Fogg walked into the saloon of the Reform Club in London, and said “Here I am, gentlemen!” exactly 79 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds after starting his trip. He won a 20,000 pound wager.

 

Humbug Day: Those preparing for Christmas can vent their frustrations on this day. Indeed, twelve “humbugs” are allowed.

 

Yalda: The longest night of the year is celebrated by Iranians in a ceremony that has an Indo-Irianian origin, where light and good are considered to struggle against darkness and evil. With fires burning and lights lit, family and friends stay up through the night helping the sun battle against darkness. They recite poetry, tell stories, and eat special fruits and nuts till the triumphant sun reappears in the morning.

 

yalda night
A family celebrates Yalda [Creative Commons]
Yule: This is one of the “Lesser Sabbats” during the Wiccan year. It marks the death of the Sun God and his rebirth from the Earth Goddess.

 

On this day…

1804: Benjamin Disraeli was born. British novelist and statesman, born in London and died there April 19, 1881. “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.”

 

1824: James Parkinson (born in 1755) died. He was a remarkable English physician and paleontologist who first described the “shaking palsy” that was later named for him, Parkinson’s disease.

 

1860: Henrietta Szold was born. She is best known as the founder and first president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. She established the first night school in Baltimore, focused on teaching English and job skills to immigrants. She died in 1945.
1864: Sherman took Savannah, despite the defense of Confederate general William Hardee. By marching from Atlanta to the coast at Savannah, Sherman cut the lower South off from the center.

 

1879: Joseph Stalin (whose family name was Dzhugashvili) was born in Gori, Georgia. He was one of the most powerful and most feared men of the 20th century. He died of a stroke in Moscow, 1953.

 

1913: The first crossword puzzle (created by Arthur Wynne) was published in a supplement to the New York World.

 

1917: Heinrich Böll was born. He was a German novelist, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, author of 20 books. Born in Cologne, Germany, he died near Bonn on July 16, 1985.

 

1937: The film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered. It was the first full-length animated feature film, also the first Technicolor feature. It was 4 years in production and involved more than 750 artists and 1500 colors. It featured the songs “Some Day My Prince Will come” and “Whistle While You Work.”

 

Snow White 1937 poster
Original theatrical poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren [Source: Walt Disney Productions]
1968: Apollo 8 was launched. It was the first the first moon voyage, orbited the moon, and returned to earth Dec. 27.

 

1970: Elvis Presley met with President Nixon. He offered to be “a Federal Agent-at-Large” to fight drug abuse and the drug culture. The meeting was cordial but he was not made a federal agent. Surprising (to me) the picture of them shaking hands is the most requested reproduction from the National Archives (more than the Bill of Rights or the US Constitution).
elvis presley richard nixon
[Source: Time]
1972: Joshua (Josh) Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the greatest slugger to play in the Negro Leagues, perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever. His long home runs are the stuff of legends, and he starred with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Born in 1911, he died in Pittsburgh June 20, 1947. His recognition was a long time coming!

 

1940: Frank Zappa was born. He was a rock musician and composer, noted for his satire and for advocating against censorship of music. He formed Mothers of Invention. He died in 1993.

 

1988: Pan Am flight 103 exploded mid-air and crashed in the heart of Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a terrorist bombing. Those dead included 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. It eventually became known that government agencies and the airline knew that the flight was possibly a target of a terrorist attack.

 

2005: The United Kingdom allowed same-sex civil unions. Pop star Elton John and his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, were among the first to wed on this day.

 

same sex marriage uk
[Source: CNN]
People born on this day:  Among others, Phil Donahue, Chris Evert, Ray Romano, Michael Tilson Thomas.

 

What makes this day special for you?