Saturday, July 30, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I have just seen a remarkable, unforgettable film, Of Gods and Men (2010), about the final days of a small group of French Trappist monks in Algeria who were taken hostage by Islamic extremists and executed in 1996.

This sounds sensational and violent, yet the film is anything but. The viewer is given no historical context, just a series of quiet, eloquent scenes that unfold slowly, without soundtrack, as we watch these eight monks interact with and serve the villagers at a clinic and perform their daily ritual of work and prayer. Even the bell that is rung for prayer is silent. All we hear is the chant, as they pray in one memorable scene for the God of light to strengthen them as the darkness of inevitable death descends.

They have been warned to leave, have seen local terrorist activity, but have decided to stay in solidarity with the people they serve and in fidelity to their vows. As one of them says, "staying is as crazy as being a monk." They have given up everything already for God and so the coming of death, which forces them to examine their vocations and their lives, becomes the ultimate test of courage for these men of the desert, these Christian outsiders in a foreign land.

They do so with quiet dignity, some full of fear and wishing at first to leave for France, others resigned to stay. That they persist in their faithfulness to the village that depends on them as long as possible is a remarkable display of courage. "We must be brothers to all," the leader, Christian, says. And so they are, nurturing each other with a strong, gentle masculinity that is itself unusual to see on the screen while their continue to care for the Algerian villagers.

A key point made by Christian, the prior, is that they do not forget that the true Islam that they have come to know over the years is not a faith of hatred and violence.

The quiet ending, with the monks going off into the snow, avoids showing us their violent end. And so we are left in a reflective, prayerful mood, having come to know a band of brave men whose faith in God and whose faithfulness to their calling are inspirational.

I could not help but think of people like Etty Hillesum during the Holocaust, who willingly gave up the relative security of her Amsterdam apartment to join her fellow Jews when she knew it was only a matter of time before they would all be taken away, probably to death. Her final words, scribbled on a postcard, as she was taken away by train to Auschwitz: "We left the camp singing."

This is the spirit of hopeful courage that dominates the narrative of Of Gods and Men, filmed in Morocco and widely acclaimed in Europe. Being a French language film, it will unfortunately have limited viewers in the English-speaking world.

I was struck by the beauty of this film, by its silence, reminding me of that eloquent documentary about the monks of the Grand Chartruese, Into Great Silence, which is another example of film as a source of meditation and inspiration.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Attention Must Be Paid

"Attention must be paid," Linda Loman tells her sons in Death of a Salesman, a sad line that has always stuck in my memory perhaps because it is indirect and passive, like Linda herself. She is referring, of course, to her husband, Willy, in Arthur Miller's classic play.

The same words can be directed at anything, without the tragic implications of Miller's play. The need to pay attention is the topic of an article I am completing, having written 5-6 drafs and now wondering how it can be expanded after a week of condensing it...Ah revision, which in the age of word processing is actually enjoyable.

The challenge of paying good attention in a world of ever-increasing distractions was brought home to me by what David Ulin says in The Lost Art of Reading. He has in mind the books he wants to read, not the endless e-mails, Twitter messages and other media interruptions--he calls them Weapons of Mass Distraction--that prevent the silence needed for immersion in a book.

I find that the same thing applies to what can generally (and I hope not uselessly) called spirituality. I mean the mindfulness of the present moment in which we are present to ourselves or to others as we listen to them with full attention. Or it might be the pet who demands our attention because he or she needs attention (love) and the challenge we face of giving up part of our lives (our time), ourselves, for the needs of a being other than ourselves.

Since I see writing, like reading, as a spiritual activity, I can easily apply the importance of attention to writing. I tell my students to begin by looking for a long time at something they admire (the advice once given by Colette to a young writer). The "long time" is hard for people in the 21st century.

Observation, leading to description, is usually a sure way to begin any type of writing since we need to find the details that will make our article or story ring true. We need what is often missing in our lives: time for reflection.

Pay attention to the "divine details," said Vladimir Nabokov. Like Colette, he was talking about writing but implying something more: paying loving attention to the people and things around us is a key to love and happiness.

What gets in the way of everyday attention, such as listening, are not just the external distractions but the internal preoccupations of the overly busy mind.

To listen well, I have to set aside all this inner chatter, at least for a few minutes, and look at and listen to another person, surrending my own concerns while taking in the concerns of another. It takes real effort to notice who the other person seeking my attention actually is.

When my cat Lizzie seeks my attention each evening, I don't have to worry about who she really is, but I do have to sacrifice my preoccupations and try to enter into her world, where the time is always now. I can benefit from time spent with Lizzie, enjoying the peace of the present moment, the chance just to be, and experience simple gratitude.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Resources for Writers

Since I am in the middle of teaching a short-term workshop for writers, I decided to list here some of the many resources, including groups in this area of Florida, that aspiring writers might want to know about. Many beginning writers want to know about how to get published, and what follows might be helpful:

1. Groups: The Florida Writers Association (FWA) is a state-wide group that has an important annual convention with nationally known agents and editors as well as monthly meetings in most cities. In Orlando, the group meets on the first Wednesday of the month at 6:30 at the University Club of Winter Park. For information on this group, whose motto is "writers helping writers," go to

2. E-mail newletters: Mary Ann de Stefano's MAD About Words conducts workshops on writing and provides editorial services; she also sends out each week a free (I think) newsletter that is very helpful:

Darlyn Finch's Scribblers ( has been sending out, as a free service to the community, a newsletter about the various workshops, readings, and literary events in central Florida. Write to her and to Mary Ann to get on their lists.

3. Books and magazines:
Although writers will spend most of their time writing, you know how important reading is in general; and in learning about becoming a professional, you need to be connected to the national writing world via publications like Poets and Writers magazine and Writer's Digest (check out contests and what editors are looking for in your area). See also Jeff Herman's annual book on editors, agents and publishers or check him out on line.

There are many good books, like the ones by Stephen King and Julia Cameron that I have quoted from, that provide guidance and inspiration. Another classic is William Zinsser, On Writing. I am not a fan of the little guide by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, which seems out of touch with the literary world of the 21st century.

You know that there are many fine reference books, including my own co-authored GRAMMAR, ETC., which can be downloaded free or for a small fee from (you can order just the chapters you want).

Just before our summer class began, I got a note from Darlyn Finch saying that a new journal is looking for short submissions: Go to the website for details. Narrative magazine is one of several quality online-only journals; it's worth checking out, even if they charge a fee for submissions. My friend Chris McClelland is one of the contributing editors.

I conclude my wishing you well as you launch yourself into the competitive world of getting published. Never be discouraged (remember how many notable writers have been repeatedly turned down) and be informed about where to send your work. My advice: do not be in a hurry to submit. Make sure your story or article or book is ready for readers. Be part of a group; let others read your work and accept honest criticism if it will help you. Revise, revise, edit, edit.

And feel free to contact me via e-mail if you have questions or want a quick free opinion. I cannot read manuscripts longer than 10 pages; beyond that, it's $10 an hour. Good luck!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Of sundry things

My mind is filled with ideas and facts from the various movies I have recently seen and the things I have read, so the best way to make sense of them is to record them and see what they mean, if anything. Writing is, after all, a way of ordering and making things clear to ourselves.

First, I was struck by the fact that while we in the U.S. were celebrating our independence day on July 4, in Bavaria, the former crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire died at 98, a member of the oldest and grandest of the European royal families, going back to the 6th century: Otto von Habsburg.

Actually, he had seventeen first names (Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Ludwig, etc., enough to put the British royals to shame--they have only four names). But if I had all those first names, why would I choose to be called Otto? I guess choice had nothing to do with it.

Despite the breakup of his father's empire in 1918, considerable dislocation and danger as the old world gave birth to the 20th century, Otto seemed to have had a good and happy life, making a notable contribution to the world, working for the birth of the European Union and, as a faithful Catholic, for ecumencial dialogue with non-Christians. His son Karl inherits his father's superannuated titles.

The European past reminds me of Woody Allen's tribute to Paris in the twenties, Midnight in Paris, a totally enjoyable movie involving a writer who so desperately wants to go back in time that he is able to do so. The movie assumes that we know something about the many expatriates he meets, writers and artists who then worked in Paris, like Gertude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, and of course, Hemingway, who here is parodied rather crudely (compared to the clever immpersonation of Dali by Adrian Brody).

The movie we saw last night was a much darker product: from Britain in 1949, based on a D. H. Lawrence story, "The Rocking-Horse Winner," a superb production in black and white. Not knowing the story, but knowing something of Lawrence, I was not surprised to find that the young boy who develops a knack for winning at the races does so to please his mother, in a version of the Oedipus complex. It's a shame she does not deserve his devotion.

The cold, materialistic mother, who has been spending money with abandon, whose husband does not satisfy her emotionally or financially, is chilling, as is the tragic conclusion, which came as a shock. As a result, I went to bed so full of the film's images in my head that I woke up thinking about them. This is one of several post-war British films, little known to me, that we are discovering thanks to Netflix and Turner Classic Movies.

I didn't finish the recent memoir by Stephen Fry (The Fry Chronicles), whom I admire as an actor (he was Jeeves in "Jeeves and Wooster"). He uses as his epigraph: "Work is more fun than fun," a quote by Noel Coward. I suppose Coward and Fry with their various talents and careers in show business (writing, acting) embody the truth of this axiom, but Fry is brutally candid about the various demons he has battled, as only a 21st century author would be.

In a noteworthy comment on the first page, Fry says, "Wanting to be liked is a very unlikeable characteristic." He doesn't like it in himself and goes into great detail to show why. Since he writes in a style that only a witty Brit could pull off, Fry is able to make his confessions interesting and entertaining--at least in the chapters I actually read.

If there is anything common in these random comments, I guess it is my interest in the past. Even Fry, though younger than I, conjures up an earlier era because of the roles he has played. As Eliot (T. S., who also makes a cameo "appearance" in Woody's Allen's flick) said, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

An Idea for Job Seekers

I read an article today about a woman who visits perfect strangers. For a fee. Dead strangers. In cemeteries.

It seems this 57-year-old New York woman, eager for more money in a tight economy, has advertised to help out family members who are unable to pay their respects in person to area cemeteries. She brings flowers, says prayers--though she is not religious--and takes a photo that she mails to the family, along with her invoice for $35 or so. Just in case anyone would doubt that she really got to the right "address." (It's all in today's New York Times, if you think I'm making this up.)

Does it sound too creepy for you to consider? Is there a market in my area--central Florida--for cemetery visitors for hire? If so, perhaps I should consider starting up my own surrogate visitors' service to bring in some extra cash.

My wife would be even better at this since she loves cemeteries, the older the better, and has introduced me to quite a few on our trips. At first, I wasn't too enthusiastic about such visits, but eventually I saw the beauty and the vivid sense of the past that comes alive, so to speak, in seeing old tombs.

Especially memorable were for us the old churchyard in Charleston, another in Bennington, Vt., and of course the creme de la creme of all cemeteries, Pere Lachaise in Paris. (I haven't seen Forest Lawn in California.)

In this home to permanent Parisians, there are lots of visitors--no need to hire anyone there--out looking for the tombs of Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, the American rocker who died in Paris; there's also Rossini and from the 13th century, the lovers Eloise and Abelard, together forever in marble.

You have to be Somebody to get buried in Pere Lachaise. It's a garden of elaborate sculptures (I like the weeping angels from the 19th century) and the ivy that climbs over well-cared-for crypts.

The great thing about such old cemeteries is that they are old, with tombstones, often half-illegible, that include moving bits of people's life stories carved in headstones, with names that could only belong to another era: "Sacred to the memory of Abigail, beloved wife to Ebeneezer Finch, age 32, died 1845." A typical New England inscription. I wonder what her life was like.

There's nothing gloomy about the cemeteries I've seen, and I think being paid to visit such places would be incredible, whether I need the money or not. If you're a poet, you might be inspired to write an elegy, even if you find yourself not in a country churchyard.

Or you might find some interesting material for a family history. That it's not your family would make it all the more valuable (the imagination can run wild). To get paid for going to such a place would be like icing on the cake (to use one of those cliches that I enjoy using now and then).

Who says there's nothing new to write about? Or that there are no new sources of income in a tough economy?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Superannuated words

I happen to like superannuated, not when it refers to me but if used for words or ideas that are obsolete, out of date, too old to be useful. But it's not a word I recommend for everyday use: some words should be saved for special occasions.

I thought about the currency of language this week while watching a Sherlock Holmes story in which a character called himself a "valetudinarian," and I thought, first, does it mean what I think (invalid or hypochondriac)? Yes, it does and it fits in a Victorian bit of dialogue. Would we use it today? Probably not, unless we are trying to impress people with our love of obscure, Latinate words.

A friend of mine tends to think, along with the late Wm. F. Buckley, Jr., that every word in English has some place in the language and should be used. I tell him this is nonsense since some of the words marked in the dictionary as "Obsolete" or archaic have fallen out of use; others are simply too technical for ordinary use in standard edited English for the general reader.

Take interstices, for example: I remember it from Dr. Johnson's 1750 Dictionary. It is still used in science to mean tiny openings or crevices; general use of this word seems pretentious and confusing. If the reader is puzzled by such an odd word, it seems to me I as the writer have failed to be clear and idiomatic. To take a word, useful in technical writing, and move it into general circulation is what we call jargon. Usage is all about the context of the words we use.

Here are some other words that are, or should be, obsolete: peradventure, obloquy, hussy, gustation. Pusilanimous would not be missed since we have the words cowardly, timid, even dastardly, if we want a bit of old-fashioned color. Procumbent surely would not be missed (just say prone, prostrate). The short, Anglo-Saxon word is often better than the Latin-originated word like impecunious, an unnecessary word in a language that has penniless, indigent, even the more general poor.

The following words are officially obsolete, according to an online dictionary: caddish, coiner (for counterfeiter), costermonger, kine (cattle), nought, and withal (mentioned above).

In reading a New York Times review of the 1955 film noir classic Night of the Hunter this week, I found the word "withal" to mean "nonetheless." A clear sign that the review was written in 1955 by a highly literate writer of that era who would probably say "postman" and have no trouble with "valises" instead of "suitcases." Some words, like these last two, drop out of ordinary discourse. Language is a constantly changing thing, though we who are writers and editors approach such changes with caution and care.

When I hear the word "pocketbook," I often think that this word should have given way to purse, wallet, billfold, but somehow it is still used. It reminds me of my otherwise cool, hip students who insist on using amongst (for among)
and unbeknownst, which sounds truly antique and superannuated to my ears.

Logic and reason have as little to do with usage, it seems, as they do with love.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

For Writers: a few of my favorite quotes

Herewith a few favorite bits of advice from writers:

1. Good writing is often letting go of fear. --Stephen King

2. I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. --Stephen King

3. There is no writing without re-writing. --Donald Murray

4. Writing helps us map our interior world. --Julia Cameron

5. Writing is about honesty. It is almost impossible to be honest and boring at the same time. --Julia Cameron

6. If there's a book you really want to read, butu it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. --Toni Morrison

So, if you're a writer and still reading this, why aren't you writing? I ask this mostly in jest because my first principle of writing is that reading--paying attention to interesting sentences and the way they're constructed--is at the very heart of writing. See my earlier post, "Advice on Writing."