Troubled Times and the Purpose of Writing

He was a rich kid who lived through his family’s loss of wealth. Later he’d write poetry that in the 1920s won him three Pulitzers.

Yes, poetry that has haunted me for decades.

E.A. Robinson was his name, and his family were Maine lumber barons until the Panic of 1893 crashed the American economy.

His poem, “Cassandra,” used Greek mythology—the wise prophet whom no one heeded—as a call to America, his America of the 19th century:

Because a few complacent years
Have made your peril of your pride,
Think you that you are to go on
Forever pampered and untried?

Robinson’s poem troubled me. I was a high schooler, after all, and a dentist’s daughter. My great challenge in life had been a move from San Jose, California to a small town in Michigan. I had been pampered—very. Our family had a tennis court and I had my horse. I was untried.

But Robinson knew better. He had lived through the shock waves of a decimated lifestyle. He then watched his brother, a medical doctor and family star, abuse drugs and spiral to ruin, before his second brother followed suit.

From such experiences he carved the haunting lines for “Cassandra” and his better known, “Richard Cory.” Why? Because Robinson lived the life of a schope.

The schope, explains writer Walter Wangerin, crossed battlefields in ancient Greece to record who lived, who died, who won, who lost. That was the job: naming what was. And that’s the task Robinson labored over, his commitment stalwart and beautiful. He grappled with his family’s ruin and made a valuable commodity, meaning.

When I confront today’s bewildering turmoil, I repeat the lines from this poet who knew, “Think you that you are to go on/Forever pampered and untried?” and watch and study the turmoil and then return to my work—my writing—to do what I must…meaning make.

Improving Characterization: Diverse Voices

Joe Harman, the Australian cattleman in A Town Like Alice, habitually concedes, “You’re too right” or “It’s a fair cow.” Merriam-Webster defines the latter slang for me: “exceedingly troublesome.” Who knew? Australians knew.

Our speech patterns are riddled with clues about our geographical region, personality, habits, generation, occupation and so on. What don’t we reveal when we speak?

Think of word choice alone.

  • Age or generation: Do you say “couch” or “davenport,” “chill” or “cool”?
  • Geographical region: Do you say “soda” or “pop,” “runners” or “tennis shoes”?

As we listen, we’ll hear the word our character uses repeatedly as she launches into an angry tirade. Or how another character interrupts and over speaks others.

If a little smile is lifting your lips, you’re right. This is fun.

 

 

 

BRAIN MATTER
Consider It: Study a piece of nonfiction or fiction that uses multiple viewpoint characters (Wonder or Hugh Cook’s Heron River are excellent fiction samples).
How do these writers create different voices? Compare two characters. Cite
examples of how the difference in voice is created (e.g., sentence length).
Write It: Create different voices in your dialogue by brainstorming these
prompts for two characters:
• Name
• Level of diction
• Pet buzzwords
• Favorite swear words
• Preferred metaphors
• Length of sentences or turn-taking

from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care

Word Craft and Wood Craft

Longtime nonfiction writer Larry Cheek, who wrote for national magazines like Arizona Highways, learned something of life and craft as he used his hands to build a thirteen-foot sailing dinghy in his garage.

His slow learning and adept noticing, his quiet, patient work along with his frustrations and discouragement, letting his hands learn the feel of wood—when it’s wet enough to bend or dry enough to glue. His hands learned; he learned. And over a year’s time, his hands built his sailboat, Far From Perfect, that in full sail transported him to the dock at Whidbey Island, ready to teach MFA-level writers about writing craft.

Cheek’s woodworking lessons, recorded in his book The Year of the Boat, echo lessons about word working.

Woodcraft teaches how to hone the lip of a piece of wood to fit with another, how to sand and smooth so splinters will not ruin your next voyage. Story craft teaches how to listen so hard to words that you hear beneath them—their cadence, their musicality. How you use dialogue and plot and characterization. How you use words to describe, to bring to life the world of story.