I wish I could remember who said the following: “Where there’s no explanation, there’s a legend.” Whether you call it legend or story, it’s at the heart of writing. Even if your prose or poetry appears to have little or no narrative, there’s a legend or story behind what you wrote.
[Photo courtesy of https://www.airbnb.co.uk/s/Lochaline]
Some call it experience, but it’s experience remembered and, no matter how accurate, it’s your version and may be quite different from the original event.
Classic legends come from family. To offer a simple example, I’m named after my Great Step-Aunt Aline, who was born in the mid-1800s. I believe this is fact because her name is listed on the family tree and my mother told me that she named me after her. So far, so good. How Aunt Aline got her name, however, is legend and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s entirely invention.
Supposedly, Aunt Aline’s mother was pregnant at the same time as another woman on the other side of Lochaline, where the doctor also resided. As the doctor couldn’t be on both sides of the loch at the same time, Aline’s father was instructed to row his wife across the loch when the birth time came to ensure that both women could be attended to by the doctor. When Aline’s father finally got around to rowing his wife across the loch, he was too late. She gave birth in the bottom of the boat. Infuriated, she named their daughter Aline in order to ensure that he never forgot (as if he could).
Legend? Fact? Fiction? Who knows? But it’s a great story.
I recently returned from a fabulous trip to Ireland and England. I didn’t manage to get to Scotland (land of my birth), but maybe next time. Our group of teachers and librarians focused on literature—children’s literature in particular—although we managed to take in other literary spots along the way. The group, known as Nye Travelers, not only “does the sights,” but talks to children’s authors and illustrators about their work. So fabulous.
[Photo: I took this in the Lake District, England]
We visited so many wonderful places and were “going” from morning to night. Many of us shared rooms, meaning very little or no time alone during the day. At night, we fell in our beds, exhausted in a good way. It was an amazing journey.
Summer may be the time for rejuvenation and new experiences, but, as a writer, I need to “keep going” with that, too. My solution was to take a pile of needed edits with me. As the day began or ended, I found a few minutes alone to work on an edit or two when there was no way I’d find a block of time to write. It was a great way to keep my work front and center, even as I filled my head with new thoughts, experiences, and sights. I came home with my work still active in my head and was able to go back to my usual writing routine with hardly a hitch. In fact, coming back meant coming west, with jet lag making me wake at 3 am for several days. I simply got up and wrote earlier than usual—a bonus.
In the last month, I’ve had the privilege of leading a class entitled “writing in all forms.” This class meets once a week for five weeks and there are three five-week sessions every year. On Tuesday next, I will complete my second full year of guiding this class. Much of it involves critiquing short excerpts of their work and one of the many joys of this class is the wide variety of amazing stories they present in strong, well-written pieces. One or two of them have even had their stories accepted and published.
The challenge is what happens when they aren’t in class. Some of them write regularly, did so before they came to this class, and will do so after the class is over. Some of them write only when “the spirit moves them” or within the structure the class provides. When the class ends next Tuesday and is not re-formed until September, my challenge is how to encourage the latter between one session and the next (if they sign up again). I find this the hardest aspect of this class and I still look for more success at that goal. I provide prompts to carry them over the summer, but they must choose to use them or find other motivations because, in the end, their inner motivation must kick in.
I was given the opportunity to “teach” this class, but, of course, I am simply a guide on the side, especially when the class if full of good writers who choose to be present and are willing to take suggestions, which I offer to the best of my ability. But, they must also choose to write. I hope they do.
I was born in Scotland and received my grammar and composition grounding in primary school (grades 1-7) in the 1950s. We were grilled and drilled in the way our language went together and were taught “right and wrong” ways of expressing ourselves. Later, I moved to Canada, where I completed high school and discovered that the language skills I’d been taught in Scotland were rich and deep, and that I was blessed to understand English in a way my fellow high school students and subsequent university classmates didn’t fully understand. Even later, after I moved to the U.S., I discovered my language skills were even further ahead of most of my fellow university students. I’ve also been blessed with six years of Latin training, one of the best ways to understand our complex English tongue.
Throughout that time, I continued to think of language as having rights and wrongs. While this attitude and approach still has merit, I am also aware of subtle differences among the three countries where I’ve lived for extensive numbers of years and that what constitutes right and wrong reveals some slippery slopes. For example, in the U.K., I was taught “different from.” A is different from B. That’s right; every other construction is wrong. In Canada, I heard “different from” and “different than,” and no teacher bothered to correct it. In the U.S., I discovered that the common expression is “different than.” So, not an error necessarily. A is different than B.
Recently, I conversed with an Australian teacher who used “different to.” A is different to B. This sounded strange to me, but I’ve grown schizophrenic enough about language to realize that this is a simply a slightly different evolution of the English language as it wended its way across the Pacific.
While there are still many “errors” in grammar I see in student papers (subject-verb agreement, anyone), I’ve grown more tolerant of slight variations (Oxford comma, yes or no?). I have also learned that language evolves (e.g., whom having been discarded by the Oxford dictionary as now obsolete or, at least, on its way out, not to mention the last vestiges of the subjunctive). I won’t even start on “lay” and “lie,” which are still very clearly different verbs. Such changes may sound strange and “wrong” to my ears, but the next generation will think them just fine and, in the end, it will be up to me to adjust.
Grammar, etymology, punctuation, usage—all fascinate me and I deeply enjoy pursuing my native language in all its nuances, which I consider important. I hope you do, too. As a parting shot for this blog post, in case you think I’m splitting hairs, I refer you to a newspaper article from March 16 of this year.
Recently, I became a Granny for the first time and apart from thinking he’s the cutest grandson in the world (doesn’t every granny think that?), I’ve also wondered about how the beginning of any life affects the many people around that life and how that life is recorded and shared. The obvious answers include parents who get insufficient sleep, grandparents and uncles and aunts and friends and a host of others who are thrilled, and a baby who is “recorded” from birth mostly in photos and videos. But where do reading and writing come in?
David Strathairn, the actor, once said that “television and film are our libraries now, our history books,” but more of us than ever are writing—memoirs, fiction, poetry, and “morphed” forms of digital texts and blended media. Our children and grandchildren will be recorded—eventually—in those forms, but the beginning is photo, photo, photo. I admit my bias in this matter: I’ve worked in libraries all my life, watching us de-accession physical books, while acquiring more and more electronic books, journals, and other formats.
What writing will this child see? What will he read? More to the point, will he read? Knowing his parents, I can safely say “of course” he’ll read, but I suspect what he’ll read will be very different from the reading I enjoyed growing up—more fact, less fiction, and certainly less poetry (I read a lot of that—still do). The thought of this saddens me. I believe in fiction and I worry that there’s too little in our children’s lives. My grandson has been born into a family that is highly skilled in the computer industry, which makes me confident that, if he is as skilled in math and science as his parents, he’ll have as secure a future as it’s possible for one human being to have. I just want him to have other forms of imaginative life. As long as I’m on the planet, I’m going to try to make sure he has stories.
Sometimes, I think writing poetry is both a blessing and a curse. Only poets would spend hours wrestling over a word or a supposedly simple sentence. We must be crazy.
After agonizing for days, weeks, maybe even months, are we satisfied? No, because we’re not sure we’re finished. We’re not even sure that the poems we get published are finished. We look at them after they come out or, maybe, a year or two later, and see something we want to change.
Even the “greats” experience this. I once read a poem by Eavan Boland in the New Yorker and, later, in her latest collection of poems. I’d saved the New Yorker version and even knew where I’d put it. When I compared it to the version in the book, I saw that she’d made changes. So reassuring. If Eavan Boland isn’t satisfied with a version of her poem in the New Yorker, then the rest of us have permission to tinker forever.
At some point, however, poets have to say “enough,” bite the bullet, and send out some version of their work. If it’s accepted, it’s fixed in that moment in time. Happily, with Eavan Boland as our inspiration, we can always change it later.