Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?

Punctuation

This is going to seem like a relatively random posting, but as I’ve been writing on my novel, reviewing a friend’s novel and having some discussions about Biblical interpretation, I’ve been thinking a lot about punctuation lately. Here are some of my musings:

Punctuation is critical in all forms of writing; understanding and properly using punctuation lends authority to anything you write. In my experience, most people do not use proper punctuation. I don’t mean that they make occasional mistakes in their punctuation–everyone does that. I mean that they flagrantly ignore the rules of punctuation and how to use (and intentionally misuse) those rules to greatest effect.

The most egregious culprit is the semi-colon. When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant in English, I would (usually frustratedly and spontaneously after grading the first round of tests) spend a class period reviewing grammar and punctuation with my classes, with a particular focus on the semi-colon. Much to my dismay, what I typically found is that after this session, many students would liberally disperse semi-colons throughout their writing in an effort to seem more capable writers. “What’s the problem with that?” you ask? Nothing, if done correctly. But my students seemed to sprinkle semi-colons over their papers like literary glitter without regard for whether their sentences required glitter. Have I mentioned that I hate glitter? It’s craft herpes–once you’ve contracted it, you’ll be finding it on you forever.

So my students committed a cardinal sin of writing–using something (whether punctuation, a word, a stylistic device, etc.) you don’t understand in an attempt to come across as more talented than you are. Like most good writing techniques, punctuation is most effective when subtle, when it influences the reader without their perceiving that it is doing so. Like much social subtlety, this is crass when recognized and only acceptable in polite society when carefully concealed. The improper use of punctuation breaks the illusion, making this manipulation painfully and embarrassingly clear. A misused piece of punctuation–whether a comma splice or an unneeded semi-colon for instance–thrusts itself into the mind of the reader like an unwanted and socially awkward guest who cannot read the room. It breeds mistrust of the writer and should thus be avoided at all costs.

I think many of us, myself included, are embarrassed to look up rules of punctuation when we don’t know a proper usage. These are things we’re taught in elementary school, so we assume that they are so basic that a person of reasonable intelligence would not forget them. Nothing is farther from the truth. We start learning punctuation and grammar early because these things are difficult and require much practice. Writing is like a muscle, not like riding a bicycle–it atrophies if unused. Because of that, there is nothing wrong with having to refresh your memory about “basic” grammatical concepts. If it’s that big a deal, clear your browser history afterward. But, for the love of God, look up the rule in the first place if there’s any question.

The opposite of the above is, thankfully, also true. The proper use of punctuation is an extremely effective aspect of writing style. To be clear, the word “proper” as used here relies heavily on context. In (most) professional writing, rules of grammar and punctuation should be kept religiously. In fiction writing or circumstances where the perspective and mind of the author are part of the writing itself, the rules should be liberally–but carefully and thoughtfully broken.

I came across an excellent example of this (and probably the impetus for this post) while starting to read a friend’s young adult novel. The novel (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is told in the first person point-of-view of a sixteen year-old young woman. The style of the writing is clipped, using short sentences, sentence fragments and well-placed punctuation to convey the fleeting, sometimes confused and quite excited thoughts of this character as she attends a sort-of debutante party that she knows represents a crucial fork in the road of her life. The character comes to life not just in her words, but in the way that the punctuation groups her thoughts into clusters, abruptly changes subjects and gives us a feel not just for what she thinks but how she thinks. That is great writing; the kind we should all strive for. I’d love to include some examples here, but it’s not my writing to share.

And in that effort, we should bear in mind that there are a number of approaches to punctuation in any writing, but fiction in particular. I would–admittedly making this up as I go–call the above example an heuristic approach to punctuation. But maybe I ought to be less pretentious and call this a “character-based” approach. Alternatives, if you like, might be to call this a “stream-of consciousness” approach or even a “Joycian” approach. The punctuation defines the character, not the author or the style of the writing itself necessarily.

We might alternatively use a dramatic or theatrical approach. In dramatic works, actors are trained to use the punctuation as keys to the pacing, pauses and breaths in speech. Here, the punctuation serves as a code to help the written word mimic normal speech patterns. I find that most people naturally follow this approach when reading aloud, whether or not the piece is dramatic. So, using this method, good punctuation should be used to assist the flow of the text for the reader and to enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the text. Does this sometimes overlap with the first-described approach? Probably, but not necessarily. Some people don’t think or speak in ways that are easy for others to understand, and not all points of view in narrative are going to be able to characterize and define those involved in the action described.

A more formal adherence to the “rules-as-written” of punctuation would likely serve the same function as the theatrical approach, though perhaps with a different feel. The ease of communication of content is paramount here, but should not be sacrificed for other cognitive effects that might be created in the mind of the reader through creative and effective punctuation.

I don’t think that it’s necessary, nor probably even helpful, to spend a lot of time trying to categorize your punctuational approach by the groups given above (or any others for that matter). What is important is to be intentional about your punctuation. This takes us back to Professor Brooks Landon’s comment that writing is “brain hacking.” Punctuation is an integral part to how your text creates, divides and sequences images and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Your punctuation should always be calculated to bolster the substance of the text to your desired effect. Is that easy? Hell no. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

 

Review: Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies

I love pirates. Maybe it’s the frustration in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”). Maybe it’s the rawness of men living by their own ideals (however misguided) and skill and cunning. Maybe it is the more idealistic aspects of piracy–a good scholarly argument exists that American democracy has more in common with how pirate vessels voted on their leaders and courses of action than with ancient Athens. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love pirates, whether historical or fantastic.

If you read my review of the previous novel in this series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, you know that I had many good things to say about it. The characters, the tightness of the plot, the fantasy heist–all of these worked in concert to create a story I very much enjoyed.

The sequel, more or less, picks up where the first novel lets us off. I don’t want to go to far into the details lest I give too much away, but Red Seas Under Red Skies takes what works in the first novel and throws in some maritime hijinx and semi-fantastic pirates. I must admit that I had my doubts about this at first; it seems a strange turn for the novel to take after its opening (and in light of the substance of the first novel). By novel’s end, my reservations were allayed; the story and its nautical elements manage to work their way in while preserving the atmosphere and mystique created in the first book.

Again, Lynch proves a master of “narrative circles,” those precognitions and slight references that turn out to have great significance before all is done. I’m not sure that I can remember any “loose ends” left at the end of the novel that proved unsatisfactory.

What really interested me about this novel was its focus on the relationship between Locke and Jean. Their brotherhood drives the plot, the complexities of their emotions toward one another and their interactions ring true of familial relationships, and the story ultimately turns on the extent of their willingness to sacrifice for one another. That’s a strong–and effective–message for a fantasy novel.

Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give Mr. Lynch. If stories ought to entertain, educate and inspire, the fantasy genre manages to reach its highest art when it manages to effectively do these things with style. As more writers like Lynch are able to do this, the fantasy genre gains legitimacy, legitimacy it greatly deserves, as the fantasy genre allows us to address all manner of existential and philosophical questions with creativity and relative safety (compared to the cost of exploring these questions in “real life”).

Don’t start with this book; I don’t think it stands alone without the extensive character background for Locke and Jean in The Lies of Locke Lamora. But if you’ve read the first novel, I highly recommend that you proceed to the second.

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in the “Gentlemen Bastards” series by Scott Lynch (first published in 2006). Go read this book now. I can’t stress that enough; go read the book. For those of you who are by now used to ignoring my advice (don’t worry, you’re in good company), by all means continue to read.

As is my wont, I listened to this book on Audible. The narration of Michael Page truly brings the text to life—his voices, accents and narrational panache accentuate the style of the writing in a powerful synchrony. That said, you do not need to listen to Mr. Page read the book to you to enjoy the pleasure of this novel.

I love a good fantasy heist novel, and that motivated me to pick up this book to give it a try. The story begins with a focus on a fantasy con with all the cleverness of anything that’s been done in our own world. If, like me, you’re interested in the schemes and stratagems of con artists (fully knowing that I’ll never put such knowledge to use), you can follow along with the realistic moves made as Locke Lamora masterfully strings along Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife Sofia by appealing to their egos, their greed, and their credulity by turns.

But this is not a heist story, or even a con story. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards at the heart of the story are thieves and con artists of the highest level, but the story quickly takes a turn. Where the tale begins as somewhat light-hearted and jaunty, with the unpleasant aspects of the criminal underworld only appearing at our peripheral vision, it soon becomes a grim and gritty tale of survival, revenge and underworld power plays. This only made me love it more.

There are four major compliments I can give to Mr. Lynch to help establish his bona fides as a talented author:

First, his style is simply a pleasure to follow, accentuating the tone of the story and shifting ever so slightly to fit the mood—he just plain writes well.

Second, Lynch gracefully steps back and forth in time in telling the story. Intermixed with the present struggles of the Gentlemen Bastards are stories of their upbringing. They were raised together from their tender youth by a master thief and priest of the Crooked Warden known as “Father Chains” or “Old Chains” to be exactly the kind of expert thieves and conmen that they presently are when the book begins. This reminded me somewhat of the TV show Lost, where every episode would reveal something about the past of one or more characters that gives us insight into their present motivations and behavior. But Lynch goes even beyond this—each childhood story told not only reveals something about one of the Bastards, it directly relates thematically to the present-day scenes that follow it. Which leads me to my third point:

Mr. Lynch is a master of firing Chekov’s gun. I like to think of this tactic as a “literary circle,” where something in the early text returns to add significance to a later event. Most published authors whose advice for writers I’ve read strongly suggest that the culmination of a story needs to create some level of both surprise and a sense of inevitability in the reader when confronted with the story’s climax. This is, I think, exactly what Chekov’s gun is about, and Lynch liberally distributes them throughout the work, some subtle and some not so much.

Fourth, his worldbuilding is excellent and hits that unicorn of a middle-ground such that the setting amplifies the story without overwhelming it. To be fair, Lynch has taken the shortcut of basing the City of Camorr, where the action takes place, on late-medieval or early-Renaissance Venice. But he does so in a way that shows that an author can use a historical backdrop as an influence in a way that gives the reader quick insight—as a Renaissance scholar and lover of early-modern Italian history, I readily recognized the inspiration for the setting and this allowed me to make assumptions about how the world of Camorr works without Lynch having to say much about it. At the same time, the Venetian inspiration does not prohibit Camorr from standing on its own, from being different enough from a historical place and time (this is a fantasy novel, after all) that the reader finds herself satisfied with the setting and not turned away from the story by it. If this had been a real-world story, early-modern Venice would have been the perfect setting for it. As it is a fantasy work, Camorr serves in the same role.

I ought to admit some personal bias here. There are a number of aspects of Lynch’s world that are close to some of the setting choices I have made (or will make) in writing some of the Avar Narn novels. While the settings are ultimately vastly different in many ways, the feel of the setting and story matches what I hope to capture in my own works and it seems that Mr. Lynch and I share similar positions on certain meta-approaches to “modern fantasy.” So, take with a grain of salt my glowing review of his choices—I may be lauding him in the hopes that my agreement with him means that I may, too, be successful as a fantasy author. That very much remains to be seen. Very much.

And let me leave you with my greatest criticism of this work. The antagonist is well, meh. He’s two-dimensional and unfortunately just not very interesting. He exists mainly as an obstacle for the Bastards to overcome, as a threat to their existence, rather than as a fully-realized and believable character. In a novel with so many interesting characters, written by an author with such talent, this is a grave oversight. Not one that tempts me not to recommend the book to others, but one that nevertheless leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth when the rest of the work was so satisfying.

I’ll be beginning the next book in this series presently—and hopefully I’ll finish it in a shorter time than it took me to get through this one.

Word Count Worries

I’ve posted in the past about short short stories (1500 words or less) and you have some examples on this site with regards to my more “standard”-length short stories. My current plan is to write more short stories set in Avar Narn and submit those for potential publication in spec-fic magazines before turning to attempt publishing a fantasy novel.

To that end, I’ve been working for the past short months on what began as a short story. This story–I’m calling it Shadowgraphy–is a noir story set in the city of Ilessa on the island of Altaena in Avar Narn. The story combines a fantasy setting with a noirish subject into something reminiscent of cyberpunk (a favorite genre of mine); it’s an orphan bastard from a genre perspective, but that’s something I love about it.

The problem is that noir stories are, by nature, complex. I must admit that I don’t read much in the way of conventional mysteries and I can’t recall reading a “proper” mystery short story ever. When you add in the characterization necessary to the noir aesthetic–not just characterization of the people within the story but the setting and sociopolitical milieu (arguably characters themselves in such a thematically-oppressive genre)–perhaps any aspiration at writing a noir short story is a pipe dream to all but the most genius and unburdened of writers. I am neither. I think of Churchill’s “I would have written you a shorter letter if I’d had more time.”

When I started Shadowgraphy, I did what I often do with shorter works–I mulled over a plot in my head for a while and then sat down to commit it to paper without rigid structure, figuring I’d go back and edit it into a more structured and satisfying story once I’ve gotten something on paper (or computer screen, as the case may be). After about 4,000 words of this, I realized two things:(1) a noir (or perhaps any good mystery) story requires very careful planning and plotting and (2) there would be no way I’d fit the tale into the more or less 7,500 words usually allowed for a short story.

At the time of this post, I’m at about 17,000 words. This after scrapping those first 4,000 and spending nearly a month on writing and rewriting an outline of the plot–much time of which was spent on addressing little details and questions that had to be answered to make everything “fit.” When I’m done, I expect it’ll be between 20,000 and 24,000 words.

From one perspective, I’m quite proud of that. It will be, I think, a well-plotted longer story that’s given me a chance to really work on some of the skills I’ll need for writing novels. From another, it’s going to leave me with a commercially-useless result. The novella is a length for self-indulgence or well-established authors with a dedicated fan-base, I’m afraid.

There’s something to be said for putting in such effort for the story’s own sake. It’s a labor of love unfettered by the demands of the marketplace. Money does ruin things–especially art–and there’s a freedom for the artist that often comes from a certain hopelessness at commercial success. It’s also proof that I’m writing because I love it, not because I think it will prove lucrative–this is a good lesson in humility, and one I personally can stand to be reminded of.

Nevertheless, it’s only natural for the writer to want others to enjoy his work enough that they seek it out. You can’t generate that kind of audience without getting something “out there.”

So, here I am, scratching my head about what to do. There’s no question but that I’ll finish the story–it’s come far too far not to. But then what? Do I self-publish it on Amazon for nintey-nine cents and see if anyone reads it? Do I post it on the blog and ride the waves of insecurity and emotion upon seeing the analytics of how many actually read it? Do I put it in an (electronic and metaphoric) drawer to be saved for some later time?

I don’t know. When I post on the blog about writing, I usually want to share some humble advice born of my own experience. Today, though, all I have is a venting of frustration.

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Advice from a dear reader?

An Exercise in Confidence

I apologize for my silence over the past two weeks; that strange combination of business and laziness that tends to hit at the end of the year overtook me for some time. But now I’m back, looking forward to the blog in the new year.

I’d prefer not to name names, but a few days ago a friend asked me to read a short selection from a book by a fantasy writer whose name I have heard but whose books I’ve never read. If you’re confused, it’s the author and not the friend who I’d like to avoid naming.

After reading the selection, I advised my friend never to read something by that author again—to his chagrin. When I told him that the author’s style left much to be desired and that life’s too short to waste time on bad books, the look he gave me said, “Yeah, but he’s been published. Many times. How ‘bout you?”

He’s got me there, but that only matters if you think that only good authors get published. Before they disappear entirely, go walk through the fantasy fiction aisle at your local Barnes & Noble—or, better yet, your local library. Pick a few things at random and read paragraphs from them. You might be surprised at how many make you (honestly) say, “I could do better than that.”

To be fair, no writer is “on” all the time, and even great writers can write bad books (they just do so less frequently than the rest of us). Nevertheless, I think that one can often discern between “could be good but isn’t here” and “please stop writing things.”

Regardless of caveats and fairness (because, hey, the whole writing industry isn’t fair in who gets picked up and published and who does not), the encounter above with my friend gave me an idea. In trying to convince my friend of the author’s poor style, I picked one of his sentences, read it, and then gave my “improved” version (which could have been further improved, but I stand by my assertion that it was better than the published sentence).

That’s where my idea comes in. When I was in law school, K wanted to watch some legal sitcoms. I had trouble with how inaccurate they were until I decided to make a game and study tool out of them. I would watch alongside her and point out the inaccuracies, explaining how things should have been done accurately. While this might have put a strain on our relationship (at least with regards to watching TV), it did prove helpful in honing my legal skills.

All writers need to practice editing, and why not boost your confidence while you’re at it? Here’s the exercise: take a book you think is written poorly, select a passage from it, and rewrite the passage. For bonus points, put the original and your version side by side and see which one your friends think is better. If you’re successful there, try moving to better authors and continuing to use your friends as guinea pigs.

If you become confident with that, try moving beyond the technicalities of syntax and structure to playing with the art of style. Take a passage from a good book and rewrite it as if it were in a different genre or a different point of view.

I do firmly believe that life is too short to waste our time reading bad books. But if we can learn something from a bad book? Well, that’s something entirely different.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part I

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, a German Jew who had fled to Istanbul to avoid the Nazis wrote what I think is one of the foundational books for any literary understanding of the scriptures. His name was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

If the stories are to be believed, circumstances forced Auerbach to do much of his work by memory, for he did not have access to all of the texts drawn from and cited to in Mimesis. While a fascinating thought, it is largely irrelevant; Auerbach was a genius whatever the strength of his memory.

It is only the first chapter of the book, entitled “Odysseus’ Scar,” that concerns us for the time being. In that chapter, Auerbach argues that there are two major iconic styles of storytelling running through western civilization, at least historically speaking. Like Tolkien, Auerbach was a philologist by training, born at the end of the 19th Century, and with a penchant for looking backward, far backward, rather than at the contemporary.

Two iconic styles of literature in historic western writing. Only two. The first, Auerbach tells us, is the style best exemplified by the works of Homer, in the Iliad and (as the chapter’s title suggests) the Odyssey. By way of example, Auerbach carefully describes the scene in which Odysseus has returned home in disguise after his long journey. He is recognized for his true self by a scar on his leg, and Homer gives us great detail about that scar—how it was got, where it is, etc.—as it plays its pivotal role in the plot.

That is Homer in a nutshell, overflowing with detail, carefully crafting images in our mind’s eye, little left out for us, all with the purpose (Auerbach says) of giving us a profound sense of awe, and therefore pleasure. This is a pagan style, rich in sensory data and concerned with worldly delight.

Homer is to be contrasted with the Biblical style—a Dragnet-style, “Just the facts, ma’am,” and not even all of the facts we want to know. We get the bare bones of the story, just enough information to understand the flow of events, but not enough to become cognizant of all that is going on in the story.

Auerbach’s example of this is one I never forget and often use. You should play along. Think about Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. We know that Isaac is Abraham’s son, that God has commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test of his faith, that Isaac seems to go along willingly. But how old is Isaac? Before you go back to the text to check, I want you to see if you can recall the answer by memory. What does Isaac look like in your memory? How old is he?

Of course, I’m pulling one over on you. Genesis doesn’t tell us Isaac’s age at the time of Abraham’s trial. We tend to think of him as young, perhaps pre-adolescent, seemingly innocent and only wanting to please his father. But that’s not the only possibility.

In the middle ages, theologians largely believed that Isaac was thirty-three when Abraham took him to be sacrificed. An adult! One who might have moved out of his parents’ home! Who might have his own children! My age, in fact.

Does an adult Isaac willingly going along with Abraham seem strange to you? For the medieval theologians, it was strange to think that he was only a boy. Why? Because they believed that Jesus was thirty-three at the time of his crucifixion; they were searching for parallels that showed continuity between the Old Testament and the New.

What Auerbach wants to show us here is that the Bible often, seemingly purposefully, leaves out details from the story, even potentially important ones for the story’s meaning. The literary effect could not be farther from the Homeric one. Where Homer fills in all the details, forcing the reader to step back and spectate in awe, the Bible forces the reader to fill in the blanks, engaging with the story. The reader of scripture must make choices to resolve ambiguities in the text, must interpret, must participate.

It is commonly argued that the gospels are written in both style and substance in such a way as to force the reader to ask and answer the same question as everyone else in the narrative: who do you believe Jesus is? But Auerbach takes this idea even further—the very style of the entire scriptures (though he was more focused perhaps on the Old Testament) does not allow us to stand idly by and watch—we must struggle with the text (and here Jacob wrestling with God comes to mind quite readily) to make it mean something. We must invest ourselves in it and synthesize it with ourselves for the text to come alive. The sparsity of detail naturally pulls us in to do just this, even if you don’t recognize it’s happening.

Point One: Ambiguity forces us to engage; we cannot simply absorb.

For the next post in this series, click here.