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Archive for May, 2010

I cannot imagine how any writers who have followed the Lost series to its conclusion could fail to have found it a stimulating learning experience.  While viewers debate the meaning behind the Scriptural names, the river of light, the plug in the hole, the various realities, the ancient mythological themes, the time travel and shifting relationships (who loves whom? Should he or she love someone else?), and Connie ( hat off to you, Friend) admires the depth to each character and how each one changes hues, prism-like, with our further scrutiny (ah how like real life, real people), what struck me most, overall, was the use of analogy.

When I say analogy I want to rope in every synonym: allegory, metaphor, variation, symbolism, etc.  Call it any one or more of those things; it is one of the greatest of writer’s trick. (Why I don’t remember to use it myself more often beats the hell out of me.)

It is also the most easily forgotten secret. And such a valuable one, too.  A writer using symbolism can give meaning even when he or she isn’t sure what that meaning really is.  The power is shared between writer and viewer.

Plato knew that when he wrote “The Allegory of the Cave.” (Granted, It might have helped generations of students, perhaps, if a few of the people chained in the cave had fallen in love with each other.) Kafka knew that when he wrote “The Metamorphosis.” (That cockroach can symbolize every teen’s worst phobia, the fear humans have of becoming unrecognizable in extreme old age, or . . . whatever you can think of. ) Allegory/ symbolism, etc. lend themselves to the use of strong imagery, which stays in the memory–and then the story does too. How clever is that?

In my opinion, Lost could have gone on virtually forever.  While survival was always the main theme, the second theme was the characters finding themselves—nothing like the perfect title to remind you what you’re writing about (or help you decide). Obviously the Lost screenwriters had to come to some sort of agreement on an analogy they could use for the “other” reality—firm enough, anyway, so that viewers would see that there was an attempt to explain life and death and tie things up.  But if the writers had not been forced to make some meaning clear in the conclusion, I see no reason why the series could not have gone on for several more seasons.  (Part of me wishes really badly that it had.)

Thanks, writers of Lost.

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Like millions of others, my husband Jody and I watched the series finale of LOST last night and came away a bit dazed. My first thought was that Jack had saved the island and thus his island comrades—and I’m still leaning in that direction. Jody’s first take was they were and had always been dead. Further reflection this morning gave me another theory: that all the people who crashed on the island were in their own personal Purgatory; that each one’s individual mission had to be completed before they could move on to the happily ever Afterlife. Later this morning, I’ll surf about the net and read what others are saying, but for the purpose of this morning’s post, what’s important is what I and millions of other fans took away from the story on a personal level.

Prior to the beginning of this final season, Jody and I re-watched the first five seasons. If you haven’t yet done so, I highly recommend it. You’ll pick up a lot of little things you missed the first time through that just might change your entire outlook. Take Sawyer’s character, for instance. The first time through, I hated him with a passion. On second viewing, he became one of my favorite characters. And in fact, I loved ALL of them more the second time. Each one filled with human flaws, yet always able to rise to the occasion when the moment of truth arose. Charlie sacrificing himself in hopes it would save Clair and Aaron; Sayid finding himself able to deeply love and thus worth redemption; Hurley realizing he has so much more than money to offer to the world; Kate being able to forgive herself; Sawyer realizing he can love and love deeply; Sun and Jin’s tragic but remarkably romantic, teary ending; and, best of all, Jack’s leap of faith from reluctant to insistent hero. My only character complaint resides with John Locke. I think he deserved better than to die so the smoke monster could use his body, but perhaps after I have time to analyze and re-watch the show again, I’ll figure out why that had to happen to save him. And oh yes, Ben. The much hated, despicable excuse for a human being Ben. How wonderful to see him being a decent person in the sideways universe, and his ultimate decision to stay out of the church and the journey to the light until he has figured himself out. Well done on that one, LOST writers. Very well done.

Not everyone will agree this was a satisfying finale. Some will complain of too many questions left unanswered. What about the theories surrounding the mysterious island, alternate universes, and time travel? Naturally all of those elements added depth to the show, but in the end, who really cares? We watched LOST because we cared what happened to the characters. The people we came to know and love will live on in our hearts and minds for many years to come. And therein, of course, lies the key to great storytelling for without such characters, they can be no great stories.

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Jonathan Montiel

This semester I had an extraordinary group in English 1A; reading through their timed final essays yesterday was euphoric.  (There is nothing like being a teacher.  The salary may be low, but the students make up for that a hundred times over.) Jonathan Montiel has been the first to agree to share[1]:

Following Our Talents makes for an Ideal Society

Becoming president of a nation is a lengthy and arduous process. Over a couple of years, the least of the best are weeded out. In order for our new Commander-in-Chief to be selected, however, a candidate needs the majority of the most “powerful” and biggest states to vote for him/her.  Education, know-how, personality and intelligence are some of the prime traits we take into account before casting our ballot.  Thousands of years ago, it was dramatically different, but one man wanted to change the process for the better.

In Athens, a Greek philosopher named Socrates saw a better, cleaner and more rewarding system for choosing a king. Being born into royalty doesn’t always guarantee the most competent ruler. Socrates thought it would be best if rulers were chosen based almost solely on intelligence and youth.  Socrates never saw his idea come to fruition, most likely because of his lowly position in the city.

His notion applied in other facets of life seems reasonable, however. When going to a doctor’s appointment, you’re hoping you will be greeted by a prompt, educated, straight-A, honor roll kind of physician. Showing up to court, you want a proper, clean, on-the-ball lawyer defending you. A teacher versed in what he or she is teaching always alleviates a lot of stress in an otherwise stress-filled day. In general you want the best to be in your support.

“Ideal society” is a far-fetched pipe dream, but we’d be as close to it as ever possible if everyone found and respected his or her niche. Unfortunately, people often fall into job positions they did not necessarily want to be in. Whether their parents forced them or emblazoned the idea into their minds, guardians frequently are the ones who change the plans.  Slinking into work with a monotonous lethargy was never a part of our dreams.

In the end, Socrates’ thoughts are ahead of his time and revolutionary. Following our dreams will be beneficial not only to ourselves, but may set off a healthy chain reaction. With talent, drive and intellect, our dream is just a short-term goal away. And if we are steadfast in that sense, evidence for Socrates’s “only the best and most intelligent” will grow exponentially.

Socrates


[1] Summarized prompt: Did Socrates have good reason to believe Athens should compel the best and most intelligent young men to be rulers of the state, and if so, would it be equally proper to compel those well suited to other fields to follow those respective callings? (Jacobus, A World of Ideas. New York:  Bedford/St. Martin. 8th ed. 458.)

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Yesterday was the final grammar exam for my English 252 class. By the most amazing strategy, they all received 100% on their exams.  Everyone who showed up (there was only one absence) is passing the class (it is a pass/fail class). They are nonetheless anxiously awaiting their grades because a good GPA can help them get lower car insurance rates.

As they stood around me, I asked, “Are you waiting for me to cry?”

Yes, I will miss them that much.  I may have been their torturer for 18 weeks, but they realize they have learned something.  They have also been warned that the next level up, English 125 (writing) and English 126(reading) is going to be harder, with more readings, more assignments, and a higher level of required skill (especially at the end).  Their teacher, whoever it may be, will have less patience for studying not accomplished.  I pointed this out.

One of my students, a mother and nurse named Athena, said, “When we came to this class, many of us had not been in school for years.  It was a huge shock for us, just trying to take the time to get writing and reading done and go to the tutorial center!”

English 252, at Fresno City College, is two levels under the college entry level English writing course usually referred to as 1A. Aside from those students who have been away from school for several years due to having a young family, like Athena , there are those who tested into 252 at the counseling center, and who came the first day perhaps with some resentment, feeling that this class would be more of the same boring stuff they hated so much in high school.

There are lots of reasons why high school students hate to write—so many reasons, in fact, that I cannot list them in this post.  It is my job to find a way to persuade my class that some people, like I and the other English teachers on my campus (truly dedicated people), are very interested in what students have to write.  They and their opinions matter a lot to us.

I wanted to tell my class this in public, so here you are. You did a great job, and you have no idea how proud I am of you.

God bless you all!

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I suppose that would depend on your definition of failure. For writers, failure can mean many different things insofar as its relationship to our careers. Inability to finish a project due to time constraints and/or a lack of self discipline. Failure to secure an agent and/or publisher for a completed work. Rejected contest entries. A bad review. A cancelled contract. All of those things represent an inability to reach our goals writing-wise, but it’s our reaction to those setbacks that determine how others view us as people. Do we get up, brush the dirt from our clothes, and get back on the horse, or do we lie there on the ground, yelling for someone to call 911?

On Monday night, The Lakers eliminated the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semi-finals, four games to none. Afterward, a reporter asked Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coach, how he felt, having been eliminated three straight years by the same team. Sloan said that while he would have loved to beat the Lakers, losing wasn’t the end of the world because, in the end, basketball is just a game. A job. He knew his guys did the best they could. They just got beat by a better team.

So okay, writing isn’t a game to most of us. But on the other hand, our world won’t end if we never sell a book either. We do the best we can. We write when we find the time. We learn our craft and continually work at getting better. We keep trying. Some of us will make that big sale. Some of us won’t. When all is said and done, the people we care most about, our family and close friends, will judge us by the type of person we are, not by how many bestsellers we’ve penned.

My daughter Katie often tells me that I’m an inspiration. That she admires my drive. My tenaciousness. My refusal to quit chasing my dream. I must admit there are days where it isn’t easy to keep trudging along, but then, as Nixon once said, life isn’t meant to be easy. Maybe it really is the journey, and how we choose to travel it, that matters.

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       Strolling over Pont Neuf on a sultry summer’s day in Paris many years ago, I crossed paths with a writer-acquaintance, Jean-Pierre Barrou, who had made a splash with his book, Gilda Je t’aime, a Bas le Travail  (Gilda, I love you; Down with Work) for which he had been interviewed on television (the French maintain a superior hold on diligently interviewing writers on all their channels until today).  Jean-Pierre had subsequently become an editor for Le Seuil publications in Paris, a reputable house that has been around for decades and has published many fine books.  Though he was much my senior and spoke from experience, I did not believe him when he said that my first book, which I was then writing, would never be published. (As it happens, he was right. I threw it in the trash.)

 Seeing I was not to be talked into a visit to the local swimming pool, he invited me to something far more interesting: a dinner in the 16th arrondissement. The chef/hostess was a well-to-do lady who had written a book Jean-Pierre was considering.  When I asked him if he liked it, he looked up at the sky and said he didn’t know yet, but added, “She really wants me to publish it.”

The lady and her husband lived in a penthouse apartment, tastefully decorated and redolent with odors that grace the finer French restaurants. (My talented mother ran a superlative “French” restaurant at the very same time, named Le Mouton Noir, in Saratoga, California, and had been attempting to cultivate her children’s taste buds for years.)

 The talk that evening in the 16th arrondissement, beginning out on the balcony and moving into the dining room, was all literary.  I enthused about the British writer Lawrence Durrell, and the lady who hoped soon to be published smiled patiently upon me.  In hindsight, I imagine my presence was a bit annoying since we talked very little about her book.  But Jean-Pierre had the book, didn’t he? He was reading it, or having done so already, was thinking about it.

In the meantime, the writer had knocked herself out shopping, cleaning and cooking. The masterpiece of the evening was handmade Cassis Sorbet.  Its memory makes my mouth water.  I wish I were able to relate the ending to this tale—whether her efforts were rewarded by publication—but I have no clue.  Make of it what you will, with a cooling sorbet on a warm summer evening.

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Most people who aren’t writers probably think we do it in hopes of becoming rich and/or famous. And they’d be partly right. Who among us doesn’t dream of writing a bestseller or winning a national award? Either accomplishment would be a dramatic game changer. Agents who told us thanks but no thanks would be knocking on our doors, contracts in hand. Manuscripts we’d failed to sell the first time around would be touted as diamonds in the rough. People who told us we shouldn’t quit our day jobs would suddenly be singing our praises, bragging to their friends about our marvelous talents.

Nice accolades, but they aren’t the ultimate goal.

While writers don’t often admit it, we love each and every wonderful, miserable moment we spend working on our books. We adore playing with words. Inventing characters and watching as they take on lives of their own. Exploring back stories and incorporating them into the plot. Researching locales and subjects that interest us. Our individual lists vary, but our objective remains the same: like most career-orientated folks, we want to make a living doing what we love to do.

On the surface, that might not sound like such a lofty goal, but those of us who’ve been at it for a while know the ugly truth: It’s incredibly hard to make a living writing books. But that doesn’t keep us from trying. Susan Boyle had been singing most of her life before being “discovered” on Britain’s Got Talent. Why? Because she loves to sing. I’ll go out on a limb here and say I don’t believe she would have given up music if she hadn’t landed a recording contract. A few lucky writers will realize their own Susan Boyle moment someday. Most of us won’t, but we’ll still continue to plug away on our keyboards until the day we die, ever hopeful that we might. Why? It’s elementary, my dear Watson. Because we love to write.

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