Beautiful Lines

Beautiful Lines

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time editing and lamenting over my own work. Admittedly, I probably should spend more time revising papers than text messages, (yay, overthinking!) but in either case I am painfully aware of my weaknesses as a writer.

However, sometimes I surprise myself as the ink on my page forms something truly lovely. My next story will not be published for at least a few more days, but in the meantime, here are some lines that I found to be beautiful (or, at least, intriguing) as I reread my first draft:

“I recognize the bounce in her step. It is the dance of a writer who has just written something with which she has fallen wholeheartedly in love.”

 

“On occasion [my journal] explodes into poetry and that’s when I know I either am going to be brilliant or mad.”

 

“I like this little idea of mine, in all its ragged swaddling clothes of free verse.”

 

“She either doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.”

 

“Finals are over and the university students are coming to life again…I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Best yet, all three at once.”

 

“They are flirting by arguing whether Jane Austen or Emily Bronte is better. I hope they settle on Austen…any relationship founded on Bronte is doomed from the start.”

 

“A steaming beverage in a warm mug is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”

 

#WriterGoals by Homer, Odysseus, and Ryanne

#WriterGoals by Homer, Odysseus, and Ryanne

Yes, my title is a hashtag. Sometimes I like to break the trend of ordinary prose. Sorry not sorry. Ironically, however, this post is based on writing standards set waaaaaaaay back in the days of Homer. In reading through The Odyssey for my university’s honors institute, I realized two things: First, listening to Chopin’s nocturnes whilst reading makes even the most boring of passages intensely moving. For real, I felt tears coming when Odysseus’ men were turned into pigs. Thanks, Chopin. Secondly, although Homer (whether of not you believe in him or think he was a group of poets or whatever new conspiracy is floating around in the literary community) does tend to be a bit- well- wordy in his accounts of first the Trojan War and then the homecoming journey of Odysseus, he is a master at his craft and the fact that philosophers and students alike have been studying his epics for thousands of years ought to be proof of that. Further evidence for this mastery is in his recognition of the key components of good writing/story-telling: truth, reason, and beauty.

He says in Book XI lines 363-369:

“‘Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine

that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth

breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up

lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have

a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,

and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story

of the dismal sorrows befallen yourself and all of the Argives.'”

In this instance, a king is praising the eloquence and clarity of Odysseus’ account of his journey, but more significantly, Homer is, through this character, identifying the essential components of writing worthy of enduring esteem. Such writing, first of all, must feature truth. When Odysseus concludes his tale, the first remark that the king makes is regarding the verity of Odysseus’ words; they are not fantasy, at least in the context of this epic, and thus deserving of serious consideration. But does all writing need to be true then in order to be great? The Harry Potter geek within me screams “NO!” in answer to this and, actually, the fangirl part of me is correct. C.S. Lewis believed strongly in fiction because of its seemingly paradoxical ability to convey truth. Take his most famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. In any given library, these would be shelved with other works of fiction and probably even among children’s fiction. However, it is impossible to read these wonderful books without coming away having learned from them lessons of sacrifice, morality, family, forgiveness, and, consequently, truth. Good fiction always centers on truth.  Whether this truth is found in the form of a universal theme such as what it means to be a man or even a real event such as the an ancient war, if you dig deep enough as a reader or write well enough as an author, some aspect of truth will always be found at the core of a truly great piece of literature.

Continuing on, the king praises the sensible nature of Odysseus’ words; he does not use more than necessary. Bored readers might argue that Homer is not exactly concise, but when one considers the vast amount of mythology, culture, character descriptions, interactions, geographical courses, and rituals that are woven together to create the intricate tapestry of this epic, it becomes a wonder that such a magnificent story could be consolidated into a mere twenty-four book poem. This often unappreciated conciseness is vital to truly great writing. Of course, as the saying goes, “even Homer nods”, and some passages, such as the listings of over 600 Achaian ships in The Iliad are arguably a bit much, but considering the wealth of information and the overall complexity, this is certainly excusable.

Finally, Odysseus’ (and Homer’s) words are revered as beautiful. Being originally poetry sung by roaming bards, it is probably a no-brainer that The Iliad and The Odyssey are considered among the most beautiful pieces of literature. In this passage, great writing is described as having “a grace” and being crafted “expertly, as a singer would do.” Both poetry and prose must have a flow, a grace like the one here described. In music performed by a singer, every note, every inflection of the voice, every tiny breathe and consonant must be purposefully employed in order to convey the message of the song. In the same manner, a great writer must choose his or her words with purpose; not a “jot or tittle” is thrown in carelessly in attempt to meet a word count or appear more intelligent to the ignorant reader, but rather, each phrase is composed like a line of music, thus appealing to the reader’s deepest sense of beauty. Of course, one might debate that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but regardless of personal opinions of individual readers, by combining intentionality with artistry, a level of universal beauty, such as that achieved by the enduring works of literature, can be achieved.

To summarize: Many truths. Very clear. Much beauty. (Sorry, breaking the flow of my prose again. At least it was not a hashtag this time.) This passage in The Odyssey was one of those passages that make me gasp “Ah-ha!” aloud in the middle of the library. It made me race to the nearest computer to jot down my thoughts and publish them to my blog in the unlikely case that one of my readers may find inspiration in them as I did. This passage made me take a step back and reevaluate myself as a writer, but it also gave me a renewed passion as it guided me toward the path of truly great writing, that which is truth-centered, focused, and beautiful.

Everyday Miracles

Everyday Miracles

There are two tales to this post, one leading into the other. This is what literature enthusiasts would call a “frame tale” structure, but let’s not clutter this post, intended to be sweet and heartwarming, with literary devices. Instead, let’s begin with the first story…

It was nearly midnight, but my eyes, as usual, would not rest without being lulled to sleep by the words of books. So, stealing across to my bookshelf, I skimmed its neat rows in the dim light for something to read. But I did not want just anything; it needed to be something special… Tolkien? Too heavy. Austen? Too flowery. Poe? Too dark. Even these, among my favorite authors, were not the companions that I sought. Disappointed, I sat back on my bed and 51JJC4Z7VHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_then, in a flash of inspiration, remembered the slender green volume that I had never gotten around to reading, waiting patiently under my nightstand.

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories

 By L.M. Montgomery

It was cute and light and adorable, so I read several of its stories before falling asleep. Reading this book was like receiving a Christmas present and I am so glad I waited until now to read it. (Actually, I just forgot that I owned it, but shhh…)  In this story collection, Montgomery writes of a woman sharing the bounty of her picnic basket with suffering strangers, a girl sacrificing her only valuable possession for the happiness of her cousins, and forgiveness restoring friendships. On the surface, these are just good “chicken soup” tales, but I realize that they are also tales of miracles.

When I say “miracles”, I do not mean huge displays of splendor, but tiny instances of service and joy that often get overlooked, but that Montgomery had a special talent for finding and recognizing in her writing. I seek to do the same in my own writing and it is here where the frame story comes into play. You see, the reason I find these stories so touching and lovable is that they are so clearly real.  I do not know if they all happened exactly as L.M. Montgomery penned them, but they are distinctly believable in their displays of everyday Christmas miracles. (I know that sounds like a Hallmark card, but it is true!)

Today, I stumbled upon a Montgomery-esque Christmas tale myself…

My great-grandparents, both in their mid-nineties, live in an assisted living facility. My grandparents (who are pretty great, but not old enough to have the official title) heard that many of the residents of the care center do not have any family left and would be spending the holidays alone. Being the generous-hearted people that they are, they spent their day at the facility handing out gifts to these lonely people and invited me to come along.

As an introvert, I was uncomfortable speaking to and giving gifts to strangers, but, as a musician, I was in my element performing for them. So, forming a rather eclectic quartet of two basses and two sopranos, three friends and I set off to sing, praying that we would successfully sight-read our carols and – I’ll admit- hoping that the elderly residents would be either so tickled or so hard-of-hearing that they would not mind our lack of practice.

They did not.

Well, at least the ones who let us sing for them did not. There was the occasional woman who, upon being asked if she would let us sing for her, replied “I don’t think so,” and shut the door before we could sing the pickup note, but on the whole everyone was gracious. We were offered donations, candies (probably those little strawberry hard candies that everybody has yet nobody buys…), and, by one insistent man, cupcakes.

“No, thank you!” we replied to every offer. “We just wanted to spread some Christmas cheer!” Our listeners would look at us in surprise when we did not ask for anything in return and we would bow and “Merry Christmas” our way down the halls.

None of this really resembles Montgomery’s stories yet, but I suspect that if I had stuck around to hear what happened between the residents after we left, tiny Christmas miracles might have revealed themselves. Even from what little I saw, there were hints of miracles that made my heart happy.

For instance, there was the man in the wheel chair who beamed through our carols, cradling his Christmas gift in his arms. Then there was the woman who declared “This is the best way to wake up from a nap!” and proceeded to hug her friend, who wiped her eyes and wished us all of God’s blessings. And of course, how could I forget the single woman, perhaps a widow, who stood in the doorway with an expression of pure surprise and delight as we sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? Even a husband and wife, who were said to be deaf by a man I assumed to be their son, smiled at us and clapped enthusiastically when we finished our song. And then there was the woman who asked us how much we had to practice to sound so beautiful (we quickly offered to sing another carol to avoid admitting that we had not practiced at all) and after her came the table of friends who applauded even after our truly horrible reading of “Silent Night.” Most poignant to me, however, was when my ninety-six-year-old great-grandfather, who has been more quiet and tired than before lately, laughed aloud, pretended to conduct us as we sang for him and my great-grandmother, and then bragged about us for the remainder of the afternoon to anyone who would listen.

Yes, joy resounded louder than our four voices in the halls of the senior living center. You might not think so to look at the dim rooms and quiet common areas, but behind the doors hung with wreaths and decked with an odd assortment of stuffed animals, holly, and stockings, lived men and women who, by hearing a simple carol, were able to remember Christmases past. As one tearful woman said, “Oh, this brings back so many memories. It’s simply beautiful.”

And it was simply beautiful. We certainly were not the Cambridge singers, being just four teenagers, but even our humble songs stirred memories long forgotten and warmed hearts that might not have been expecting visitors. So really, there were miracles today, and, though on perhaps a smaller scale, they were miracles yet.

Back to the frame of my story and reading Christmas with Anne and other Holiday Stories. The characters continue to be delightful, generous, souls and their stories equally lovable. It makes me want to go back and hug those who we sang for today, especially those who gave my friends and me a bad case of “the feels” with their shows of emotion. It also reminds me to be grateful for those who came with me and helped to make today special for so many, so I must post a brief shout-out here to my loving grandparents and great-grandparents, and especially my fellow carolers, who braved sight-reading and high notes in order to spread Christmas cheer.