BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

The Art of the NovelThe Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of essays by the renowned Czech novelist about the literary novel, and particularly the European literary novel. That said, the pieces gather nicely into this collection without seeming disparate. Points and themes carry across the essays such that the book has a life as a whole. Also, the there is food for thought in this book even if one isn’t particularly interested in literary novels. There are ideas that could be of interest to any story crafters or writers.

There are seven parts (essays) in the book. The first and third part take specific novels as their focal point: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Hermann Broch’s “Sleepwalkers,” respectively. That said, the feel isn’t greatly varied from the more general chapters of 2, 4, and 5. That is, Kundera uses critique of those novels (as well as others) to make general points about what is more or less effective, artistically speaking, in the novel. Besides those two novels, not surprisingly given Kundera’s heritage, he also repeatedly uses the novels of Franz Kafka and “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek as examples. That said, many well-known novels come up in the discussion including those of Tolstoy, Musil, and even Faulkner (I say “even” because he’s clearly not a European novelist.)

The sixth and seventh parts are both a bit different. Part six is entitled, “Sixty-Three Words,” and it’s Kundera’s discussion of words that he believes are misconstrued. In some cases, they are words prominent in his own works, and in other cases they are of interest regarding novels more generally. Like many writers, Kundera takes a strict approach to words, arguing that synonyms don’t exist because if meanings were truly identical one of the words should die. The last piece is from an address that he made about the novel as a European artform.

While I read this with interest as a writer, I found that the discussion that most intrigued me did so on the level of a jnana yogi. That is, what interested me was his discussion of what constitutes a person – fictional or not. Kundera speaks in considerable detail about this issue. He’s writing about fictional selves, but some questions carry over. What makes a character and what is superfluous information – i.e. the illusion of a self? What is necessary and beneficial to convey to reader? Kundera criticizes the modern novel for getting bogged down in describing physical attributes and background information. On the other hand, Kundera praises novels in which one learns little about the character beyond what they do in the novel. His objection is that this denies the reader the opportunity to mentally build the character, him or herself. However, it also raises the question of whether those characteristics are really the relevant information.

I learned a few things from this book. It’s short and surprisingly readable given the topic-at-hand’s potential to become arty and pompous. If you’re a writer (particularly if you’re interested in the novel as an artform) this book is worth a read.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. IX [Streaming Poetry]

As I continue to look at variations in consciousness, it occurred to me that poetry writing (or at least pre-writing) often involves an altered state of consciousness. Often, I do an exercise akin to freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise that has been popular for a long time for beating writer’s block. You just write: fast, without judgement, and without concern that you’re taking a reader to any particular place. (It’s somewhat like “brainstorming” in process, but usually solitary and producing sentences or phrases and not bullet-point lists.) The point is to break the grip of self-consciousness and lay waste to the idea that every word has to be pure brilliance to be worthy of your time.

My process begins by quieting my conscious mind, typically with long exhalation breathwork (pranayama.) For those unfamiliar with yogic pranayama or other forms of breathwork, drawing out one’s exhalations (in conjunction with relaxing the body) slows the heart rate and otherwise activates the rest and digest functions of the body. (The curious or dubious can look up “cardiac sinus arrhythmia” or “respiratory sinus arrhythmia,” which is the same thing alternatively labeled by the cause [respiration adjusted] or the effect [heartbeat changes])

After my conscious mind is tranquil, I set pencil to paper and just start writing quickly — without looking back or forward, but just trying to be present with whatever my mind vomits forth. Usually, there is an understandable grammar, but no understandable meaning (at least not beyond the granularity of a phrase.) But building meaning isn’t the point, and I don’t care. Sometimes, I fall into a rhythmic sound quality, but other times I don’t. To give an idea of what the raw feed of this looks like, here’s an example from this morning:

Turn ten, run the nines. I found a fever down the line and could not bend the wall to weep, but heard the conveyor line… beep – beep – beep. Oh, so some fucking wisdom says let live the demons that I dread, but there’s a cold magnolia leaf on the ground and I can hear it skid at the break of dawn, but what sign is that to feel it out. I killed a monk and stole his doubt, but you’ll never blame away the triple frame…

So, it’s a collection of words and phrases that has no discernible meaning collectively. Once and a while, I go through some of these flows of verbiage and underline words, phrases, or ideas that have some spark or merit, and then — if I can — unshuffle and word-cobble until I have a poem.

However, my point in this post isn’t to describe how a poem gets its wings. Instead, it’s to discuss the process by which the consciousness “presents” us with something from out of nowhere. (The conscious mind would claim it “created” it, but I have my doubts. I’ve learned the conscious mind routinely takes credit for many things that are not its doing.)

It’s not like I have an idea (stolen or otherwise) and then I think it through, and then I order those thoughts into an outline. (The usual writing process.) On the contrary, I go to great lengths to make my conscious as quiet as possible as a precursor. I think about the term William James coined, “stream of consciousness” which became a prominent literary device. Is it streaming into consciousness, from consciousness, or through consciousness? Where does it come from? 

You might say, “Why worry about where it comes from because it’s a garbage heap?”

But once in a while there are epiphanies and flashes of insight amidst the rubble and dung. Sure, maybe I grant detritus post-hoc gold status, but there’s something there I feel I have yet to understand.

In consciousness, we seem to have awareness of [something] and meta-awareness (i.e. we are aware of what we are aware of [something.]) Sometimes that meta-awareness is a grand and beneficial tool, but sometimes it’s just another word for self-consciousness. Sometimes having a one-track mind is a beautiful thing.

I said that my practice was “akin to freewriting,” and it might seem exactly freewriting, but the main difference is that it’s purposeless. Sure, once and a while I go back through and rag-pick, but mostly I do the practice just to revel in the experience of being completely with whatever words are streaming. The writing and being consciousness of what is surprising me on the page takes enough of my mental faculties that I have none left to be self-conscious.

Who knows where this journey will take me next month? There’s still a lot of territory left in the altered states of consciousness. Fasting, dance, shamanic drumming, tantric sex, psychonautics, etc. Who knows?

5 Posthumous Gods of Literature; and, How to Become One

There have been many poets and authors who — for various reasons — never attracted a fandom while alive, but who came to be considered among the greats of literature in death. Here are a few examples whose stories I find particularly intriguing.



by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

5.) William Blake: Blake sold fewer than 30 copies of his poetic masterpiece Songs of Innocence and Experience while alive. He was known to rub people the wrong way and didn’t fit in to society well. He was widely considered insane, but at a minimum he was not much for falling in with societal norms. (He probably was insane, but cutting against the grain of societal expectations has historically often been mistaken for insanity.)  While he was a religious man (mystically inclined,) he’s also said to have been an early proponent of the free love movement. His views, which today might be called progressive, probably didn’t help him gain a following.



4.) Mikhail Bulgakov: Not only was Bulgakov’s brilliant novel, The Master & Margarita, banned during his lifetime, he had a number of his plays banned as well. What I found most intriguing about his story is that the ballsy author personally wrote Stalin and asked the dictator to allow him emigrate since the Soviet Union couldn’t find use for him as a writer. And he lived to tell about it (though he didn’t leave but did get a small job writing for a little theater.) Clearly, Stalin was a fan — even though the ruler wouldn’t let Bulgakov’s best work see the light of day.



3.) John Kennedy Toole: After accumulating rejections for his hilarious (and posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide. After his death, Toole’s mother shopped the draft around and brow-beat Walker Percy into reading it, which ultimately resulted in it being published.



2.) Emily Dickinson: Fewer than 12 of Dickinson’s 1800+ poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson is the quintessential hermitic artist. Not only wasn’t she out publicizing her work, she didn’t particularly care to see those who came to visit her.



1.) Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your definition of a good friend), Brod ignored the instruction and the works were posthumously published.



In brief summary, here are the five ways to become a posthumous god of literature:

5.) Be seen as a lunatic / weirdo.

4.) Live under an authoritarian regime.

3.) Handle rejection poorly, lack patience, and / or fail to get help.

2.) Don’t go outside.

1.) Wink at the end of the sentence when you tell your best friend to burn all your work.

5 of My Favorite Books on Writing [So Far]

I’ve read enough books about writing to make it a challenge to pick a top five, but not so many that I would dare consider this list definitive. I know there are many great books on the subject that I’ve missed or are yet to come. I’m always interested in hearing about the picks of others, so feel free to comment.



5.) Writing Fiction from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop: This book is one-stop shopping for the fiction writer. Besides offering lessons on writing, it presents exercises to help one get down to the nitty-gritty. It explores character development, plotting, pacing, dialogue, revising — i.e. the whole ball of wax. While the book offers the advice of many and varied experts, it uses a Raymond Carver story [which is included as an appendix] as a connective tissue across the various chapters.

 

4.) Wired for Story by Lisa Cron: Cron explores what it is about stories that appeal to the human brain, and how to take advantage of such knowledge in crafting effective stories.

 

3.) Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon: I bought the audio course from The Great Courses that this book is based upon and listened to it many times over. Landon’s approach to sentence crafting resonated with me, and while it might seem overly technical as one is perusing the Table of Contents, the author’s use of examples and his manner of explanation is clear and informative.

 

2.) The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: Like the GWW book above, this is a guide to crafting stories. However, while Writing Fiction gets into a lot of concrete details, Truby keeps a systematic emphasis on taking a flawed character through a course of events and decisions that will result in the character coming out of the story changed. Writing Fiction presents a greater diversity of views about what is important, but The Anatomy of Story offers a more cohesive approach to building one’s story.

 

1.) Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: Ray Bradbury was, in my opinion, one of the best when it came to combining story-crafting and creative use of language. One gets a lot of the latter in this book. It’s not a guide in the sense that most of the books above are. It’s inspiration — explicitly, and by example.

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Woods by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into StoryInto the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a book about story and story structure. While Yorke pokes fun at writers who have exacting structural formulae, one need not get past the subtitle to realize he’s advocating a form of structure himself: the five-act structure. And not just any old five-act structure, but Yorke proposes that there be symmetry around a third-act midpoint, and that the approach to story be fractal (to be elaborated upon below.)

The book is divided into five “acts,” or parts, but the theme of each part isn’t related to the role of that particular act in a story or play. The first act consists of five chapters that explain what makes a story. Yorke describes the three-act structure as well as five-act structure, and then explains how these forms are connected — i.e. how five acts can be overlaid, or mapped to, the three-act structure. One chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the crucial topic of change. After all, in a story we have a character who wants something and is put through the wringer as he / she attempts to get it, and the moral and / or psychological change that they experience as a result is a major determinant of how satisfying the story feels.

“Act II” explores the components of story – acts and scenes – and how they are arranged into a story. The first of the five chapters describes fractal structure. For those who don’t deal in mathematical concepts on a regular basis, a fractal is a shape that — if one zooms in — one finds smaller and smaller copies of the original shape. This applies to story telling in that one wants acts and scenes to follow a progression that echoes the overall story. That is, a character (at the scene level it may or may not be your hero) wants something, confronts opposition, and this clash either results in more conflict or a resolution. There’s a chapter devoted to the “inciting incident,” which is sometimes called the “first doorway,” and is an event that forces the hero to make a key decision that will put him or on the road of story.

The third “act” consists of only one chapter, Chapter 11, that is entitled “Showing and Telling.” This obviously references one of the most oft-recited (and trite) pieces of writing advice: “show, don’t tell!” As most writers soon discover, this advice is a great rule of thumb but a poor law. Hence, the need to discuss what would otherwise be a simple idea over the course of an entire chapter.

The penultimate “act” is about character, characterization, dialogue, and background. Like most books on story, the emphasis on making memorable characters is more about determining their wants, needs, and weaknesses, rather than being about figuring out how one will dress them or what accent one will assign them. Not that studying the latter isn’t worthwhile, but it’s a common error to produce a muddled character because one hasn’t given enough thought to who they are at the most fundamental level.

Chapters 15 through 17, address the subjects that are probably most responsible for poor story writing: dialogue, exposition, and subtext. The central challenge is to tell the reader just the right amount, neither letting the story get bogged down in needless information, nor leaving the reader thinking the story unbelievable because they don’t have the requisite background to understand what motivates characters. From “as you know, Bob” dialogue to Bond-villain monologuing, there are many ways to ruin a good premise by botching these story elements.

The final “act” deals mostly with the challenge of writing series. Series writing presents a huge challenge unto itself. We are all familiar with examples — such as the television show “Lost” — that started out with great promise and devolved into a pile of rubble by the end. The first three of the five chapters in the final part discuss television and series writing challenges in detail. The last couple chapters close out the book.

The book has seven appendices. Five of these are examinations of the structures of stories known for being exemplary: “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Hamlet,” “Being John Malkovich,” “My Zinc Bed,” and “The Godfather.” [“Being John Malkovich” may be included because Charlie Kaufman was known for strongly rejecting “formulaic” approaches to story structure, but Yorke wanted to show that structure happens organically even if it might not be purposely pursued.] The sixth appendix considers first and last act parallels. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Yorke proposes that there is a symmetry around the midpoint that occurs in the third-act of a five-act story. The final appendix is a handy table that shows how the structures taught by masters of screenwriting (e.g. John Truby, Robert McKee, as well as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” [which is referenced throughout Yorke’s book]) map to five-act structure.

I found this book interesting and informative. Like other great books on story, there is extensive use of well-known stories [particularly cinematic, e.g. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” etc.] to help clarify the author’s points. I would recommend this book for those is interested in story, and how stories are structured to be best received by an audience. The space the book occupies is bit different from Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” [which I reviewed recently.] While Truby’s book is the kind one would sit down with as a reference after reading it in order to help one build one’s story structure and scene weave, Yorke’s book is less of a hands-on guide and more of a light read to improve one’s ideas about story more generally.

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The Yoga-Poetic Nexus

Note: This post is not advocating a new distraction yoga mashup of the type that I’ve been known to rant about, but is merely a discussion of the synergy to be found in practicing both yoga and poetry.

In Patanjali’s conception, the problem for which yoga presents a solution is the mind’s tendency to run amok. One would like to be able to hold the awareness on a given object, effortlessly and for extended periods of time, but the mind is insistent in its desire to roam. This roaming can be to many different ends, but often it’s ultimately about eliminating uncertainty. The mind wants a plan against the unexpected. It seeks solutions to problems — existing, anticipated, or imagined. It wants to replay entertaining stories, which is really a way to learn and store general solutions for later surprise problems that might otherwise catch one off-guard. The more anxious or emotionally charged the mind, the more turbulent it will be.

Poetry is the use of metaphor, imagery, and sound to strike an emotional chord. I don’t mean “emotional” exclusively in the sense of displaying strong, behavior-driving emotions. I mean all sorts of internal, subjective feelings, including nostalgia and the residue of memories and dreams.

Sometimes, the feelings a poem seeks to generate are primal emotions. For example, consider Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” [1096] (about a snake, if you didn’t make that connection) that concludes:

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

 

Or, from Poe’s “The Raven:”

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

 

Just to show that poetry isn’t all fear and melancholy, let’s look at a stanza from Whitman, from his aptly named “Poems of Joy:”

 

O to go back to the place where I was born!
To hear the birds sing once more!
To ramble about the house and barn, and over the
fields, once more,
And through the orchard and along the old lanes
once more.

 
So, emotion is the connection. Poetry helps one form, shape, and refine emotional content, and yoga helps one to experience that emotion without applying value judgments or allowing the motive force of emotion to drive one into endless cycles of destructive feedback. That is, one feels the need to think about an emotionally charged situation, and the more one thinks about it, the more intense the emotion becomes, and the more intense the emotion, the more one thinks about it. I’ll just call this process “wallowing” — wallowing in emotion.
 
The word “emotion” carries with it a lot of baggage. Emotion is often juxtaposed with rationality / reason, which isn’t accurate. (Reason works great for making decisions when there is adequate information, emotion forces one to move one’s ass when there isn’t sufficient information. So they are not so much opposites as complimentary systems supporting decision and behavior.)
 
In the common conception, emotion also tends to be more linked to the expression of emotion rather than the experience of emotion — which are necessarily related. (Some people very readily express intense emotion despite an easy life and others are non-expressive despite constant uncertainty or even challenges to survival.) When one imagines someone unburdened of emotion — e.g. fearless — one might picture a hero — bold and courageous — but what one sees among people who suffer afflictions (e.g. brain damage) that prevents them from feeling emotion is often paralysis by analysis. Without emotion to make decisions under uncertainty, such individuals simply get bogged down. Individuals who don’t feel fear, in particular, are also prone to carelessness.
 
The key to making one’s yoga and poetry practices simpatico is avoiding that very popular form of poetry — the wallowing poem. If one’s poems constantly spiral into ever greater depths of angst (as many a famous — and, sadly, suicidal — poet’s work has been known to) you might want reevaluate. And, perhaps, start with haiku and that forms Zen distaste for hyperbole or analysis.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read OneHow to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The sentence is the unit of writing at which beauty resides. So, while sentences might not be the sexiest scale of writing, it’s worth learning how to do them well. Stanley Fish offers a book which explores why we should care about the sentence and what separates the good and bad of sentences, before it moves into investigation of various types of sentences.

The first four chapters lay the groundwork by explaining what it is about sentences that make them worth mastering, and then outlines what makes a good sentence (while simultaneously explaining how truly great sentence construction might not come about through the sources and approaches that one has been led to expect.)

Chapters five through ten examine a few different classifications of sentences. Chapters five and six contrast the subordinating style with the additive style. The former sentences are hierarchically arranged, while the latter offers the freer / less ordered approach. Each of the two approaches has its advantages. The former make up many of the pithy bits of wisdom transmitted through sentence, while the latter supports a streaming consciousness style of writing (if done well.)

Chapter seven considers satire by sentence. Chapters nine and ten turn to a different classification scheme: first and last sentences, respectively. Both first and last sentences are disproportionately remembered, and each has a unique role in written works. The final chapter is about sentences that are self-reflective.

Throughout the book, Fish uses sentences – some famous and others from famous works – to offer the reader exemplars of the craft. The general approach is a good deal less technical and more reflective than most books on the subject. This makes Fish’s book both more readable, but also more contentious (in as much as a discussion of sentences can be contentious) than related works.

I’d recommend this book for writers and those interested in crafting language.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Whether a story works or not is often clear to small children and demented lunatics. Why a story does or doesn’t work requires a level of technical understanding not much less complex than that required to know why an internal combustion engine is or isn’t working. Why? Story structure rests invisibly below the surface (except to the writer and those who mine for it, and sometimes even to them,) and structure is where the story wins or fails.

John Truby’s book systematically explores what components are necessary to have an appealing story, and how those components are best arranged. It’s written for writers, allowing one to systematically proceed through the chapters in order to build a detailed outline of one’s story, but it could be beneficial for those who want to understand story in contexts other than writing (e.g. business uses, film-making, etc.)

As the subtitle mentions, Truby’s model of story revolves around a 22-step framework. It should be noted that this division is neither the only one imaginable, nor the only one that works. There are numerous great books on story available, and most have their own unique ways of organizing the details. While some authors focus heavily on screenplay versus the novel versus other story forms, Truby keeps his approach generalizable. Like others, he uses examples from both film and classic novels. Having said that Truby’s way isn’t the only way, it is a way that works, and it’s among the most popular works on story building.

While would-be writers may seek out books that focus on “concrete” issues, i.e. building character details, describing setting, plotting actions, etc., this book keeps eyes on the conceptual details that make or break a story. That is, the story consists of a flawed character with a need who experiences a chain of events or trials that results in him or her having a revelation and coming away changed. This is not to suggest that Truby doesn’t investigate issues like character development and creation of setting (there is a chapter each for those issues,) but he does so always with an eye to how one takes that character from a psychological and moral need through to a revelation, coming away somehow changed. I don’t want to make the book sound boring because it focuses on concepts like moral need, theme, and symbolism. Such concepts are what good stories are built upon. If one wonders why even movies with blockbuster budgets sometimes fail, it’s often because they lack such a conceptual framework.

The book consists of eleven chapters. The first sets up the idea of story and how stories work. The second chapter is about the premise of the story, the one-line idea that shapes the happenings of the story. Chapter three describes seven key steps of story, the seven are added to / expounded upon to develop the aforementioned 22 steps. The seven steps are: 1.) weakness & need, 2.) desire, 3.) opponent, 4.) plan, 5.) battle, 6.) self-revelation, 7.) new equilibrium.

The fourth chapter is about characters. However, it’s more about arranging characters in webs of interaction and considering them as archetypes in order to advance the story, rather than the usual types of advice on making unique characters. Chapter five is about the moral argument being made by the story. The hero’s path from need to revelation will reflect some sort of moral lesson. The sixth chapter is about story world, which other books might call “setting.” Again, the approach remains focused on advancing the story, and not on picking a time and place that seems neat or interesting for their own sake.

Chapter seven delves into territory that one doesn’t see in every book of writing advice, and that’s symbolism. The chapter describes building a symbol web that – like the story world – advances the feeling one is trying to create in the story. Chapter eight is about plot, and it fleshes out the seven key steps mentioned above to offer the full 22-step model. Chapters nine and ten discuss scene, the individual events happening in a story at a given time and place. The first deals with what Truby calls “scene weave” or how scenes are organized to create optimal tension. The penultimate chapter is about how individual scenes are constructed to advance the story. Chapter ten also explains how dialogue is most effectively written. The final chapter is a brief conclusion that explains how stories with good structure maintain relevance.

The book uses text-boxes, graphics, and notes as necessary.

I found this book to be tremendously useful. Truby spends a lot of time using well-known examples from film and literature to explore how the masters put together stories, and that benefits the reader greatly. 22 steps sounds like an unduly complex approach, but it works, especially as the focus remains so tightly on the hero’s arc. I’d highly recommend this book for writers, and anyone else who needs to understand story at a detailed level.

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POEM: You’re Killing Me, Ms. Dickinson, or: Samurai Surgery


“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”    – Emily Dickinson

 

It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.

Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.

The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…

or is it?