If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
– Desmond Tutu (1931- )
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
– Arthur Ashe (1943-1993)
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)
Reposting this today in honor of Mick Mulvaney, who stood in his green tie and shamrock pin yesterday to assure us all that feeding the hungry was an unnecessary luxury.
Most of the time I find history boring. But every once in awhile, I stumble over something fascinating. And usually, that something makes me cry.
I’d heard quite a bit about the Irish Famine at different places along the way, like in English class in high school when we read Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It gives an incredible satiric look at the British government’s feelings on “the Irish problem.” The problem, in short, was that there was such a thing as “the Irish”.)
At any rate, the subject cropped up now and again. But it wasn’t until I started writing my Donovan series that I realized how closely related I was to it. My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century, chased out by the British Army (or so the story goes). As I started…
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First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)
Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to these words again. For “Socialists” read “Muslims”, for “Trade Unionists” read “Immigrants”.
Which of us knows who will be next? The time to speak out is now.
In the craft of writing, editing is accepted as a necessary evil. We all realize that our sentences must be properly punctuated, our noun/verb combinations must agree, our sentence and paragraph structure must meet certain recognizable norms.
Yes, there are exceptions. Books are written in verse. Writers experiment with no dialogue tags, single-sentence paragraphs, and chapters that consist of fewer than 10 sentences. And at least one author, Cormac McCarthy, has eschewed the use of almost all punctuation.
But for most of us, editing is an acceptable, if somewhat mundane, chore.
Revision, on the other hand, is greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Revision is “hard”. Revision is “based on someone else’s opinion” and is “not the way I write.”
Yet revision can be the most satisfactory part of writing.
I’m not talking about the “Revise & Resubmit” advice an agent or editor may give, and which any author is free to accept or reject. I’m talking about recognizing the shortcomings in our own work, and making a concerted effort to improve them.
In a previous post, I talked about the books, primarily mysteries, that my grandmother and my mother have bequeathed to me. A few days ago, I was reading one by Ed McBain, an author very popular in the 70s-90s, whose style of terse conversation and fact-based investigation is a bit Hemingway-esque. McBain’s most popular book is probably HEAT, and if you’ve ever seen that movie FUZZ where Burt Reynolds dresses up as a nun to catch the bad guy, you know the one I mean. But the point is, in this book, POISON, McBain waxed poetic over the weather. Not the spring or summer weather, or even autumn. But winter weather.
It was unexpected, and breathtakingly beautiful. I can do that, I says to myself. In my first novel, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, I have a scene where the winter weather is at the heart of a conflict. I can make it much more dramatic. I can almost make it a character – an antagonist – in its own right.
That started me off. The next question was: where do I have weather? Or time of day? Or anything that has to do with the characters’ surroundings. I can do this. I will do this!
In most cases, it doesn’t take much. The description of a table as old and scarred; of a porch as sagging around its posts; of a cabin with grass that’s been seared to gray. Sometimes the scene calls for more than a few words. As an example, I’ve made a change at a critical point in the story. I started out with:
When he left her, the night was at its darkest hour.
Everyone’s heard “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Most of us have spent at least one night awake, drunk or sober (oops, did I say that?) and have experienced it for ourselves. The sentence as it stands brings that idea to the mind of the reader.
But so much more has happened, so much terror and heartache was revealed in the previous chapter, that the opening was really, really trite. Revision created this:
When he left her, the night was at its darkest hour. The stars had faded, the tired old moon had set. But the night was no blacker than the wound on his heart.
And now, it’s not just a dark hour in the night. There’s a complete lack of light. And a more complete understanding of the character’s emotions.
Revising is difficult, yes. It takes a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a whole lot of willingness to look at those perfect words we wrote and find a way to make them better.
No one can deny the importance of editing – every comma needs to be in its place, every pronoun needs to refer to the right person. But revision – I’ve come to believe that’s what makes the difference between a good book and a great one.
What are you working on now, and what specific revisions have you made or do you intend to make?
A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
One of my favorites! This traditional song is a perfect rendition of the pull-and-tug between a courting couple: a man who’s madly in love, and a woman who’s trying to ‘play it cool’. You can find a version of it by the inimitable Wolfe Tones here.
Young Rory O’More courted Kathleen bawn.
He was bold as a hawk and she soft as the dawn.
He wished in his heart pretty Kathleen to please,
And he thought the best way to do that was to tease.
“Now, Rory, be easy,” sweet Kathleen would cry,
Reproof on her lip but a smile in her eye.
“With your tricks I don’t know in troth what I’m about.
Faith, you’ve teased ’til I’ve put on my cloak inside out!”
“Oh, jewel,” says Rory, “that same is the way
You’ve treated my heart for this many a day.
And ’tis pleased that I am and why not, to be sure?
For ’tis all for good luck,” says bold Rory O’More.
“Indeed then,” says Kathleen, “don’t think of the like,
For I half gave a promise to soothering Mike.
The ground that I walk on he loves, I’ll be bound.”
“Faith,” says Rory, “I’d rather love you than the ground.”
“Now, Rory, I’ll cry if you don’t let me go;
Sure I dream every night that I’m hating you so.”
“Oh,” says Rory, “that same I’m delighted to hear,
For dreams always go by contrairies my dear.
Oh, jewel, keep dreaming that same till you die,
And bright morning will give dirty night the black lie.
And ’tis pleased that I am and why not, to be sure?
Since ’tis all for good luck,” says bold Rory O’More.
“Arrah, Kathleen, my darling you’ve teased me enough!
Sure I’ve thrashed for your sake Dinny Grimes and Jim Duff.
And I’ve made myself drinking your health quite a beast,
So I think after that I may talk to the priest.”
Then Rory, the rogue, stole his arm round her neck,
So soft and so white without freckle or speck,
And he looked in her eyes that were beaming with light,
And he kissed her sweet lips – don’t you think he was right?
“Now, Rory, leave off sir, you’ll hug me no more;
That’s eight times today and you’ve kissed me before!”
“Then here goes another,” says he, “to make sure,
For there’s luck in odd numbers!” says Rory O’More.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
-Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965)