Monthly Archives: April 2014

Tell it slant…

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“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–”      Emily Dickinson

Our first experience with rhyme was probably with nursery rhymes—simple perfect word matches—cat and hat, hog and jog, Horner and corner. But you can work with rhyme in subtler ways. One of my favorite approaches is to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson was so fond of doing.

Slant rhymes, also called near rhymes are rhymes created using words with similar but not identical sounds. Words like ground/down, play/stayed and even more tenuous matches like Dickinson’s delight/surprise and eased/gradually. In some near rhymes the vowels are similar; in some the consonants match.

Why do I like to tell it slant? I love it for its rhythmic surprises. It can help you break away from the singsong, drumbeat that’s easy to fall into with perfect rhyme. But best of all, from a writer’s standpoint, it makes this whole business of writing in rhyme easier.

It’s hard to tell a nuanced story in perfect rhyme—with near rhyme your word choices open up dramatically. It makes it a bit easier to do as Dickinson advices—to tell the truth but tell it slant. It can “ease” the telling–and the receiving—both literally and figuratively.

Like Dickinson, I like to mix both near and perfect rhyme. Here are the first few stanzas of my very first book, “The Quiet Way Home.”

“Let’s go the quiet way home.

Not by the dog who growls at the gate

But the way where the kittens play

Hush. Can you hear it.

Skittle. Skattle. Bat and claw

Kitten paw.

Let’s go the quiet way home

Not by the lawn and the roar as John mows

But the way where Mr. Kay’s garden grows

Hush. Can you hear it?

Chip, chop, dig-a-row.

Garden hoe.

There are a couple techniques embedded in these lines. For one thing, if you’re going to use slant rhyme establish early that this is what you’re going to do. With my first stanza, I’ve signaled immediately that I’m not going with perfect rhyme (gate/play). But as you can see from my second verse, I am promising a similar rhythm and pattern to each stanza. And perfect rhyme at times (mows/grows).

Notice also that I use internal rhyme—that is rhyme within the line itself not just at the end, such as “growls” and “gate,” “roar” and “mows,” “way” and “Kay.” Internal rhyme like that is often slant rhyme and poets use it all the time.

(By the way “hush” is a magic word. I’ve never had a class– from kindergarteners to 6th graders–not hush at that moment and listen. I suspect it’s half the magic of “Good Night Moon.”)

Also, with the important moment—when I identify the object making the noise—I consistently use perfect rhyme (claw/paw, row/hoe). It creates a punchy contrast to the near rhyme. Just as Dickinson uses her one moment of perfect rhyme, kind/blind, to such powerful effect in her poem.

One challenge of slant rhyme is it can get away from you. You don’t have the control of perfect rhythm and rhyme. In my book, “Just a Minute” I go so slant at times that I think I come perilously close to going completely off the track.

It’s a tall tale about a boy whose minute of waiting for his mother gradually seems to balloon into eternity. Here’s how it starts:

“Now, don’t you move,”

said Johnny MacGuffin’s mother.

“Stay right here while I shop.

Auntie Mabel will watch.

I’ll be just a minute.”

And she sailed away,

Past the purses and plates,

Up the up escalator

In Bindle’s Department Store.

“But you’ll take forever!” Johnny cried.

“When you get back I’ll be fossilized!”

But it was too late.

He was stuck in the basement of Bindle’s again.

While Johnny’s mom is away he imagines that Christmas comes and goes, a year passes, then more. He grows up and grows old and Bindle’s crumbles to dust. Finally:

The sun shifted its course

And the seas rose and fell

And rose again…

…[then] the tides came in

and the sun burned to a cinder of vermilion…

All this by the time his mother returns. It’s a rather careening path of rhythm and rhyme, but I think it works for a tall tale of time spinning out of control.

Slant rhyme isn’t “cheating” and it can be a powerful tool for you for telling stories in rhyme. But when to use it depends, as it always does, on what’s right for your story. Don’t use it just to be lazy.

As in the Dickinson poem, with or without perfect rhyme, your goal as an author is to “tell all the truth.” To tell a story as honestly as you can. One that is honest about its message and honest about its techniques, and sometimes the perfect choice will be to “tell it slant.”

Swimming in Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

In mid-May my book discussion group will meet to discuss Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece,  In Search of Lost Time.   We’re not taking on the whole seven volumes, of course – if any of us want to do that, we’ll do it on our own. But this overdue introduction to Proust (how is it I never got around to reading his work before this?) can be enough for now. I’m not sure how well we’ll all do with this book – book club members take Proust on with uneven results (click here for one take on that.)

Possible Book Club Reaction

Possible Book Club Reaction

Happily, I’m loving the book – no real surprise there, since I ask little from the plot line of a book and a lot from the language. Proust, who writes long, complicated sentences (even Proust’s whole name – Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – is Proustian!) can be challenging, but I like his digressive style, and I particularly like the way he plays with temporality and the idea that memories change the smell, sight, taste, texture and music of the present moment. I like to linger and float with a story – I need to move forward only so often. This ability to linger isn’t shared by everyone. An editor once said  to Proust’s brother, “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don’t understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Swimming. Precisely. I like my head – my whole body – to swim in a piece of fiction, and I often shoot for that effect in my poetry.  Sometimes submersion is a good thing, and my natural inclination as a reader and a writer is to get a little obsessive about (and totally soaked to the skin by) anything that captures my interest [see ** note below.] When I read, I read in a trance. And during my more lucid moments with Swann’s Way, I dog paddle by doing Proust-related research.

I hunt up Proust’s precise landscape on the Internet…

The village of Illiers-Combray.

The village of Illiers-Combray.

I find a picture of his bed at Aunt Leonie’s house…

Proust Slept Here

Proust Slept Here

I look up a recipe for the very famous madeleine (sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, rosewater…aha, there’s the Proust: rosewater!):..

l_5181_madeleine“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…. but ….as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me …. immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage…” (from Swann’s Way.)

I imagine myself learning French and reading Proust in the original. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: ‘Je m’endors.’ ”

And while I’m at it (speaking French), wouldn’t it be nice to go to France and see the original manuscripts…?

First Proofs - Swann's Way

First Proofs – Swann’s Way

I imagine the trip…I go to the Proust Museum. I drive around Normandy in a Peugeot. I read the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time in a nice little cafe every morning for several months.  I order tea and a madeleine every day.  I write postcards home…

proust stamp

Chère famille, je suis toujours là en France. Je nage dans Proust.

I buy an old farmhouse and restore it…

Chez Julie

Chez Julie

also, considering Proust’s lifestyle, I buy a townhouse in Paris…

Paris Townhouse

and at night (no matter where I sleep) I take at least 30 pages to turn over in bed….

Viking/Penguin Classics came out with a new translation of the first volume, by the novelist Lydia Davis, about ten years ago, and now it’s true, I’m swimming in it. Maybe growing gills would be a good idea? It’s hard to come up and breathe the regular air when you’ve been spending afternoons with Proust. As if that weren’t enough, I’m trying to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life before our discussion because I think it will help me understand the profound effect this book has had on some writers I admire – both in terms of their own writing and in terms of the way they see the world.

There’s no guarantee I’ll love Swann’s Way through to the last page. But I’ll be glad to have read it. I’ll end here with this quotation from Proust. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across – it’s true, and it’s basic: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When writing teachers say, “Make it new,” that’s what they mean.

———————————————-

**Note: I say “swim,” but other people describe it in a less complimentary way. Consider this review of Proust’s work by another author whose writing I admire, Alexander Wollcott: “Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else’s dirty water.”

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by Pierre Bonnard

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by P. Bonnard

Ah, well  – that’s what’s fun about a book discussion group: so many different reactions to the same book! If you’re a writer, remember that you’re not writing to please the largest possible audience – that produces insipid writing. Instead, you’re writing for the reader who is going to feel buoyed by (immersed in, swimming in) the way you tell your story.

 

 

WRITING RECESS

Next week I get to start a series of Writing Workshops with a group of fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. The kids are giving up their lunch recesses to take part. I hope they end up writing like they play out on the playground – with fun and abandon.writex2677

This week, I am gathering ideas for writing games, exercises and prompts. Here are some possibilities:

1. ROUND ROBIN WRITING. This emphasizes the basic form of any story: beginning, middle, end. Using a prompt, (I think I’ll go with “I used to live in a palace…”), kids have six minutes to write a beginning to a story. Then we trade papers and take six more minutes to write middles that fit the beginnings received. Then shift again and on to endings. We finish up by reading our creations, an important part of all writing shenanigans.

2. PICTURE THIS. I have a pile of photos that evoke story. Each kid can choose one as a starting place and see where the story goes. writex4679

3 and 4. COULD WE LIVE HERE? Two sessions. First session, as a group we will create a setting, voting as necessary to narrow things down. Then we’ll brainstorm a list of characters who might live in this place.

In the second session, each kid chooses one of these characters to write into a story in that place.  This is a suggestion from Cassie Cross who teaches at Bellevue College. I wonder if it will work as well with fourth graders as college students?

writex16765. MAPMAKING. Each student maps a place that is special to him or her – neighborhood, house, room, school playground, backyard, grandma’s house – and labels it with stories that happened there, or could happen there.

6. YEAR BY YEAR.  I will ask the kids to think of their childhoods year by year and write a memorable event for each year, noting that memories juicy with emotion hold the most story. Then we’ll choose memories as story jumping-off places. I am curious to see what these ten-year olds remember about their childhoods.

writex3678

7. BEGIN WITH MUSIC. Five-minute timed writings to music. For instance, I’ll play a Bach cello concerto for five minutes and the kids can write the story that is suggested. Then I’ll play a penny whistle jig and they’ll start a new story. I remember using this exercise with the wonderful Lillie Rainwater’s fourth/fifth graders at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle. Ms. Rainwater advised the kids to think of leaping into a story like jumping into double Dutch twirling ropes. Catch the rhythm of the music, she told them, and jump in with words.

That takes us back to the playground. And recess!

Thanks to Paul Borchert, librarian at Maplewood, for helping this Writing Workshop idea come to fruition. And thanks to any of our BATT Blog readers who add to this list of writing prompts, games and exercises in the comments.

Note: photos to illustrate this post are from those I will use for exercise two.

Ode to Steig

steig painter

Spring induces a feeling of joy, and in that spirit I offer this ode to William Steig. Steig was born in Brooklyn in 1907 and lived until 2003.
He was famous for his work in the New Yorker and for his many wonderful children’s books including Dr. DeSoto ,steig doctor desoto

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,steig sylvesterShrek,

steig shrekand Zeke Pippin.

steig zeke pippin

He was famous for his drawings and his language. Steig loved wordplay and even letter-play.

steig fn l

He came from a family of immigrants with strong (Socialist) political views. It was a wildly creative family. His parents, brothers, in-laws, wives, children and extended family painted, wrote, sang, made jewelry, drew and expressed themselves in myriad ways, as did Steig. He stitched…

steig stitcheryand he carved.

steig sculpture

Recently I spoke to students in Pocatello, Idaho. Over a few days and many talks I realized the nugget of what I wanted to say to them: that creativity is a habit, not a gift. Sometimes people say “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” But creativity isn’t a bone - it’s a muscle, and it grows stronger with use. Steig’s creativity,empathy, and wit were limber and strong.steig carnival Steig was a follower of Wilhelm Reich and believed in unleashing his energy,  sometimes sitting in an orgone box in order to do so.
His work vibrates with energy. He evokes a wide range of emotions, often starting with but not always ending with humor.

steig eternal sea

steig insect

steig turkeysteig axolotl

 

I am grateful for all of his work, but most blissfully for his images of bliss. Who could not love this painting of a Sweetheart, a Swain, a Swine and Some Swans?

steig sweethearts

 

If you are hungry for more Steig you can read The World of William Steig, written by Lee Lorenz.

steig gorky rises