Saturday, July 24, 2010

Noble: a word or a way of life?

Seems like I live my life in a defensive posture. Crouched and ready to lunge like some lineman in a football game waiting for the ball to be snapped. The tension is intense. Always on guard.

On guard for the next blow, the next cruel attack. I could lay blame for the life lessons that brought me to this position. But I'm struggling to rise above that blame game.

Recently I reviewed a book written by an author who most evidently lived in a similar posture. I didn't like what I read. It was negative and bent on laying blame for his misfortunes and missed opportunities and failures on the people, institutions, and situations around him.

As we grow, one of the major signals of maturity is the end to the blame game and the acceptance that it is our lives to make or break as we choose. Even in the most dire of situations we have the power to choose how we will perceive, react, use, and grow. Too often I'm crouched, ready to spring on whatever assails me. I'm more surprised when someone does something nice, than if they do something hurtful. I expect the worst and suspect everything else.

I recently read a quote from John H. Dietrich. John is NOT the political writer. He was a minister who lived from 1878-1957 and thought and taught, according to his online bio, that "humanist thinking was the true foundation of religious liberalism."

Truthfully, I'm not quite sure I understand what that means. But towards the end of his life he said, "[My] philosophy and religion have undergone considerable, if not drastic revision. I realize now how my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake; and the way in which I cut mankind off from all cosmic relationship was very short-sighted and arrogant."

I read that to mean that he finally found a greater being, God if you will, to be relevent. As one who loves words and fiber art and the beauty and symbolism of both, I had to smile. Apparently he finds God is the essence, not only of religion, but also of art. Yes, I can see that. Most artists marvel at what they create. Some even wonder 'where did THAT come from?" Now we know, as Mr. D states it -- their 'cosmic relationship.'

Even if Mr D had been misguided during his search for truth earlier in his life, he was right about another thing he said. "The highest and best thing that people can conceive is a human life nobly and beautifully lived."

I mentioned on my Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles facebook page that I stood up to defend my husband by calling a driver an asshole. The studly man was sitting in his bright yellow sports car basically toying with my wheelchair bound husband as he rolled along the crosswalk in front of this man. The driver revved his engine and started rolling forward, grinning, as my husband rolled directly in front of the car. All of the fury that I harbor against the unfair disease and situation that assails my husband erupted from my mouth in that one word. I think I have scarred for life the poor bag boy helping us with our purchases. The anger was almost tangible and the driver quickly stopped grinning and looked at me in surprise.

I heard my husband chuckle. I think he enjoys my Mama Bear mode.

But it is taking a toll on me that I really didn't appreciate until I read Mr. D's words. I hadn't realized that I had gotten off the main journey I was intended to travel. I should be living a "life nobly and beautifully lived." Calling a stranger in a souped up car an asshole somehow doesn't sound very noble.

Of course, noble does not mean silent and long suffering either. So maybe there was a tinge of nobility for at least speaking up, pointing out an injustice, an inhumane behavior. We should live to edify not just ourselves, but to help others which is perhaps the best part of Mr. Dietrich's quote:

"The highest and best thing that people can conceive is a human life nobly and beautifully lived — therefore their loyalties and energies should be devoted to the arrangement of conditions which make this possible. The sole issue is how to make this world a place conducive to the living of a noble human life, and then to help people in every possible way to live such lives."

I think of all of the leaders who make decisions controlling lives and wonder just how nobly they are living. Perhaps the question we should ask our politicians is: "are you living a noble life?"

If one must find a way to 'justify' one's actions, then perhaps there is a bit of nobility lacking. Perhaps if it only benefits the one rather than the many it isn't noble. Or if it hurts others in the process of gathering something you want -- it isn't noble.

We all know noble when we see it. It doesn't require an explanation. Noble doesn't need to wear a white hat or a wimple or a cross, or even a military insignia. Those symbols do not make a person noble. Nobility comes from within. "Noble implies a loftiness of character or spirit that scorns the petty, mean, base, or dishonorable: a noble deed."

If ever I were going to tattoo something on my body -- I think it would be a reminder. "Noble." A one-word nudge to not just live, but to live so that someday someone might come to associate the word 'noble' with my name. It is a word that loses its meaning when describing oneself as noble.

Noble should be spelled with an 'i' in it for a major component, I think, of the term is 'integrity.' But 'ethics' works well, too. The dictionary has such a lovely list of synonyms I just had to list them here:

august, beneficent, benevolent, benign, bounteous, brilliant, charitable, courtly, cultivated, dignified, distinguished, elevated, eminent, extraordinary, first-rate, generous, gracious, grand, great-hearted, high-minded, honorable, humane, imposing, impressive, liberal, lofty, magnanimous, magnificent, meritorious, preeminent, refined, remarkable, reputable, splendid, stately, sublime, supreme, sympathetic, tolerant, upright, virtuous, worthy....

People remark "oh if there was only someone who would ...." or 'if only there were more good people in the world who do....." "We need visionaries; leaders; right-minded thinkers...."

Maybe the lack of doers, thinkers, good people and visionaries is because we have lost our way and we are playing defense, rather than offense in this game of life....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

First Lines: It was the best of 'lines,' it was the worst of 'lines'.

When you first meet someone, or even less than meet --encounter-- a stranger, what do they tell you?

Sure the first words are usually, "Hi!" or "Hello" or if it is customer service, "May I help you?" Although I find less and less that customer service has anything to do with helping me and more about helping the service they represent, but that's another story.

Driving home today along our quiet little residential street, I 'encountered' a man on a bicycle. What did he tell me? Without an opportunity for conversation -- me in my van, he on his bicycle -- he told me quite a bit. I recognized him as a neighbor who seemed to have few boundaries. This was the man who decided to comandeer my garbarge bin, fill it with his own assorted cans of paint and other disallowed hazardous materials and set it out to the curb in front of MY house. Luckily we caught his duplicity and unloaded the contraband near his own trash can. My tight smile as greeting today probably told him that I hadn't forgotten the incident. The fact that I waved (half heartedly) and he acknowledged it and me with a nod, tells me that we are not enemies -- yet.

His shiny silver metalic sweat suit told me that he was attempting (again) to lose weight and his dark locks (not a  gray hair in sight) gave me the idea that perhaps there was a new 'love' in his life or someone he wished to 'love.' His ear buds and the dangling wires told that he was not in the mood for conversation with anyone.

The opening line of a book should be as informative as a brief encounter. It should invite you to want to know more, unlike my neighbor. Often the first line introduces something you have in common, or a common event. People you meet at an accident often establish a bond immediately. Or standing in a checkout line and you overhear a conversation that has you itching to join in. Or you see a couple in a doctor's office and read by their body language just how serious the visit is and you feel their pain.

At the least, the novel's opening should prepare the reader for what is to come.

Finding the right opening line is alot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One may be too big, too small, or just right. In the book "Tom Sawyer in Hell" by Peter Black he writes: "I had it made."

Too short. Do you really care why he thinks he had it made? After the second sentence do you feel invited in or are you already tossing the book aside? "I graduated from a competitve science/math high school, aced the PSATs, SATs, and had an A- cumulative average." What may possibly make you read further is the strange title of "Tom Sawyer in Hell." Yet that opening does not sound like any Tom Sawyer Mark Twain ever knew.

But then, you might argue, short can work. The shortest line of scripture springs to mind: "Jesus wept." Yeah, even if it is Jessica or Morris or Satan who wept, I want to know why, what caused the tears, what's the story?

In Roslyn Paterson's novel "Overtures" she writes: "Fiona walked out of the bustling train station in West Berlin and scanned around her for the signs directing her to Checkpoint Charlie, the portal into another world, and another time, which was Communist East Germany."

Too long. She gives us information. Who, what, where, and maybe a little glimpse of 'time travel.'  But does it invite you in? She also demonstrated that she could use another edit for tighter writing. The setting is somewhat intriguing. The second line tells a rather mundane description of her holding her passport and standing in line. I'm not curious, are you? And yes, yes, too long can work. So why isn't this one working?

What about: "I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods."

Ahhhhh. Just right. I want to read the next line. It is a negative. Writing instructors include in their long lists of dos and don'ts that one should not write in the negative. It is harder to understand. The author must have missed class that day.

"I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me."

I am not one who chooses to read about gods, myths, sorry old women, yet I am almost unwillingly reading on. There's a mystery in these few lines. There is a person who draws me in to hear her story. Have you ever seen a face and immediately thought, "What a life they must have had!" This old woman is giving me that kind of thought. Just let me read another line or two.... But this author is a pretty crafty fisherman. He's setting the hook deeper and deeper. By the second paragraph, I'm hooked and he's reeled me in. "Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write."

I picked the books at random. The third book is a novel by C.S. Lewis. "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold." It is first person, so maybe that makes the opening stronger than Paterson's novel which is third person or omniscent. Yet, Black's book is first person. So point of view doesn't seem to be the point of strength for C.S. Lewis's opening. He's painting a character we may recognize, even relate to, but yet, out of the norm. She has a story I want to hear or at least I think I want to hear more.

What if the first line doesn't introduce a person? What if it goes on for a couple pages, several pages, and doesn't formerly introduce the character. Would you read it? Would it work? Why? Perhaps the place is a character?

First line: "Jail is not as bad as you might imagine."

Do you want to read the second sentence?

I do.

"When I say jail, I don't mean prison."

This requires clarification, so we really must read the third sentence, which leads to the fourth, which leads you to wonder who is telling us this and why and why are they so obsessed about jails? Another good fisherman. The hook is set. This comes from Anna Quindlen's novel, "One True Thing."

When writing for a daily deadline at a newspaper, I found that the part that took the longest was the opening hook. Often we'd write the rest of the article and realize that the last line was actually the first line -- the words that would draw the reader in and cause them to continue reading.

Let me return to Mr. Black's book. Remember the short first sentence he wrote: "I had it made." I flip to the last page (before the Epilogue) and read the last line. "Looking at the river is peaceful, and the reflections on the water are like the reflections on my life." Ehhh well, a little melodramatic and perhaps you've seen that before in some navel gazing overwritten book.

I look over the paragraph and find his opening. This would draw me in. "Nobody wants to help you unless there is someting in it for them."

I want to know how this person came to such a negative outlook and at the same time I realize that I have that same thought surfacing in my own brain now and then. I can identify with the thought and at the same time I am curious as to who this person is. And I really want to hear the story that involves this attitude.

Not only do opening sentences draw in the reader. They set the tone of the book -- not only for the reader, but for the writer. If that first sentence doesn't work, the writer has not found his or her story, yet. Often it takes alot of prewriting, rewriting, screaming and crying, and desperate days to find that first sentence.

Here are a few more firsts for you to decide for yourself whether they work or not:

1.  "Forgive me my denomination and my town; I am a Christian minister, and an American."

[A Month of Sundays, by John Updike] How often do you see a novel begin with an apology?

2.  "Shoot, birthdays, they ain't no big deal."

[Lyin Like a Dog, by R. Harper Mason]

3.  "It happened every year, was almost a ritual."

[The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson]

4.  "The housekeeper is ironing and I am lying on the floor beside her, trying to secretly look up her dress."

[Joy School, by Elizabeth Berg]

Each opening sentence has just enough there to grab you and just enough missing to keep hold of you. And that, I think, is the secret of novel writing -- well, at least writing the first sentence. But remember, by the time you find that perfect first sentence -- you have probably already written the book at least once to find it. Once you've found it, now you can 'rewrite' the book, making it what you were meant to write all along!