Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Power of Words

It takes my breath away when writers do it well. In this passage quoted at the blog First Things, three co-authors labor to bring forth this beautiful passage--beautiful on many levels:

[A Newsweek columnist and editor together are] speaking . . . in familiar tropes and fused-phrases and easy clichés. They’re trying to convey a feeling, really, rather than an argument: Jesus loves us, love is good, homosexuals love one another, marriage is love, love is loving–a sort of warm bath of words, their meanings dissolved into a gentle goo. In their eyes, all nice things must be nice together, and Jesus comes to seem (as J.D. Salinger once mocked) something like St. Francis of Assisi and “Heidi’s grandfather” all in one.

This little passage refers to the use of language as a tool, then demonstrates how it is being done in a particular instance, then comments on the effect, helping us identify it for ourselves with a reference to other cultural referents. To understand the paragraph we need to know Heidi's grandfather AND St. Francis AND Salinger AND what tropes are. (Or at least we need to be able to link on to how tropes might be like fused-phrases and easy cliches--that's how readers cheat.) Reading this passage and enjoying it is like meeting someone we realize will be a fast friend very soon--we have so much in common!

Please use the link above to explore the post from which I have drawn, and from there then the review from another publication, as well as the original article.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Finding

I just heard on the Focus on the Family radio program an inspirational speaker-- funny, really, Ellie Lofaro--who quoted the following passage in part. It really struck me, so I looked up a phrase and found it immediately--I love Google. :-)


"Now the range of our possible sufferings is determined by the largeness and nobility of our aims. It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows by the cultivation of an insignificant life. Indeed, if it be a man's ambition to avoid the troubles of life, the receipt is perfectly simple -- let him shed his ambitions in every direction, let him assiduously cultivate a little life, with the fewest correspondences and relations.

By this means a whole continent of afflictions will be escaped and will remain unknown. Cultivate negations, and large tracts of the universe will cease to exist. For instance, cultivate deafness and you are saved from the horrors of discord. Cultivate blindness, and you are saved from the assault of the ugly. Stupefy a sense, and you shut out a world.

And therefore, it is literally true that if you want to get through the world with the smallest trouble, you must reduce yourself to the smallest compass. And, indeed, that is why so many people, and even so many professedly Christian people, get through life so easily, and with a minimum acquaintance with tribulation. It is because they have reduced their souls to a minimum, that their course through the years is not so much the transit of a man, as the passage of an amoeba. They have no finely organized nervous system, or they have deadened and arrested the growth of one nerve after another. They have cut the sensitive wires which bind the individual to the race, and they are cozily self-contained, and the shuddering sorrow of the world never disturbs their seclusion.

Tiny souls can dodge through life; bigger souls are blocked on every side."

John Henry Jowett (1863 -1923)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Favorite

For this Friday in gift-shopping season I wanted to share a personal favorite gift for book lovers and students: Book Darts .

These classy little metal markers make readers feel special, and the tins are especially nice. Right now they have a sale if you mention "Holidays Special" in the comments section of your order--order four 18-count sleeves or four 50-count tins and get a fifth of each one free.

I get no incentive for posting this little notice. It's just the testimonial of a fan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Jack Lynch, My Hero

I had occasion today to refer to a favorite resource, Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Writing, incorporating "Getting an A on an English Paper," and I am eager to draw it to your attention.

Here's a taste:

Rules: There ain't a rule in the language what can't be broke. The so-called rules of English grammar and style were not spoken by a burning bush; they're just guidelines about what's likely to be effective. If you learn to treat them that way, you'll live a happier life. To that end, read my entry on Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars. . . .

Jack Lynch is a man of good sense, firm principle, and gentle wit, and he says a number of things the way I wish I had said them. Browse his entries and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Flannery O'Connor in Her Own Voice

I have to share a treasure with you, come to me thanks to the blog First Things. Use the title link of this post (above) to go to a little article about O'Connor and the precious links to audio files from a radio broadcast O'Connor made the year before she died.

As I listened to her lecture about the grotesque in Southern literature, I was amazed at O'Connor's eloquence and wit and warmed by her familiar voice, feeling protective of her against the opinions of those who might think her a slight thing because of her childlike tone and Southern accent. I am as I type this listening to her reading of "A Good Man is Hard to Find."


Monday, December 1, 2008

Delightful Diversion

Thanks to the blog Soul Shelter, with which I do not always agree, I have a Delightful Diversion for you today, E. M. Forster's little essay "My Wood." Use the Soul Shelter link to see their presentation of the essay, and use the essay link to read it in its entirety.

Forster has a self-deprecating humor and fun twists on Scripture references. This is the fun of a really good writer at play.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Everybody Needs an Editor!

Let me start by saying I admire William F. Buckley, Jr., and was sad at his passing. We have subscribed to National Review Magazine since before we could afford it, as I am fond of telling people. But I have a love-hate relationship with WFB's writing. He is famous for his impressive vocabulary, and that is kind of fun, but I think he writes some of the worst sentences I have seen in print. In the excerpt below describing the religious background of the Reagans' son Ron, who became an atheist in his teens, the first sentence is perfectly fine, but I'm not sure what he means by the second. Does the "it is popular" suggest that the belief so described is faulty? What risk are people assured of being eliminated? Which people?

We do not need to assume that a familiarity with history recalls the Ninety-Five Theses of Luther, or the causes of the Thirty Years’ War. It is popular in quarters of young America to believe that deference to individual religious inclinations eliminates any risk of submitting to indoctrination.

The next sentence, in the next paragraph, is also fine. But the final sentence is just poor, violating my teacher sensibilities about the need to enliven prose and to use more active verbs and clear nouns, and not to turn verb phrases into noun phrases. Note WFB's use of the passive voice, which has its place, but in sparing doses:

When Ron Jr. went on to reject his father’s political positions, ruing the Reagan presidency, it was not necessarily the result of alienation from the family per se. Weight by the son to his father’s principles is here given, here withheld, after thought is paid to them, cursory or profound, and how they figured in the allegiances of the parent.

From The Reagan I Knew, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
At the National Review website November 26, 2008

So how would YOU fix that last sentence? Here is my try, preserving much of the language of the original:

The son thought-- sometimes cursorily, sometimes profoundly-- about his father's principles and about how they figured in his allegiances, and he gave them weight or withheld it accordingly.

I still don't like it much, though, so here's another try, with more freedom of vocabulary:

Ron Reagan watched his father's principles at work, especially in his allegiances, and, with a teenager's alternating deep and shallow thought, respected or cast off those principles accordingly.

So can you do better? I probably can, though the exercise shows me that WFB's words "principles," "allegiances," "figured," "weight," and "accordingly" were very carefully chosen! :-)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Holistic Scoring Rubric

I elected not to include the following information on the new version of my web site, as it has probably been updated in recent times, and I do not do too much with GED preparation now. However, these guidelines are sound ones very similar to those used for the SAT and ACT exams, too. I hope you find them useful!

GED Scoring Guidelines

These guidelines were supplied to me in the 1990s by an instructor for the then-extant AOL Academic Assistance Center. Jane (Teachitall@aol.com) taught GED preparation courses in her community and was a great help as I designed [a GED prep course I used to teach online]. Most standardized essay exams are graded holistically by a small committee according to guidelines like these. I have seen similar ones for statewide exams for middle school and high school,
the CLAST exam, and two community colleges in Florida and California.

The following is quoted from the Scoring Guide section of the GED Teacher's Manual.

Upper-half papers make clear a definite purpose, pursued with varying
degrees of effectiveness. They also have a structure that shows
evidence of some deliberate planning. The writer's control of the
conventions of Standard Written English (spelling, punctuation,
grammar, word choice, and sentence structure) ranges from fairly
reliable at 4 to confident and accomplished at 6.

(6) The SIX PAPER offers sophisticated ideas within an organizational
framework that is clear and appropriate for the topic. The supporting
statements are particularly effective because of their substance,
specificity, or illustrative quality. The writing is vivid and
precise, although it may contain an occasional flaw in the conventions
of Standard Written English.

(5) The FIVE PAPER is clearly organized with effective support for
each of the writer's major points. While the writing offers
substantive ideas, it lacks the fluency found in the 6 paper. Although
there are some errors, the conventions of Standard Written English are
consistently under control.

(4) The FOUR PAPER shows evidence of the writer's organizational plan.
Support, though adequate, tends to be less extensive or effective than
that found in the 5 paper. The writer generally observes the
conventions of Standard Written English. The errors that are present
are not severe enough to interfere significantly with the writer's
main purpose.

Lower-half papers either fail to convey a purpose sufficiently or lack
one entirely. Consequently, their structure ranges from rudimentary at
3, to random at 2, to absent at 1. Control of the conventions of
Standard Written English tends to follow this same gradient.

(3) The THREE PAPER usually shows some evidence of planning, although
the development may be insufficient. The supporting statements may be
limited to a listing or a repetition of ideas. The 3 paper often
demonstrates repeated weaknesses in the conventions of Standard
Written English.

(2) The TWO PAPER is characterized by a marked lack of organization or
inadequate support for ideas. The development may be superficial or
unfocused. Errors in the conventions of Standard Written English may
seriously interfere with the overall effectiveness of this paper.

(1) The ONE PAPER lacks purpose or development. The dominant feature
is the absence of control of structure or the conventions of Standard
Written English. The deficiencies are so severe that the writer's
ideas are difficult or impossible to understand.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Argument: The Wisdom of Proverbs

In the Progymnasmata exercise Proverb Amplification students are asked to consider carefully the meaning of a particular proverb and go through a series of development points to explain it. In a follow-up assignment, I ask Tutorial students to argue for or against a particular medical or health proverb, like "An apple a day . . ." or "Early to bed . . ." This is a popular one:

A good surgeon must have an eagle's eye, a lion's heart, and a lady's hand.

Most agree with this proverb and do a decent job explaining its wisdom. But then I throw in an additional assignment with a twist: argue the opposite.

The best students should be challenged to argue against their own points. This does not develop hypocrisy but humility, logic, and empathy. For example, a student could argue first that the proverb about the surgeon's qualities is certainly true--he needs skill, courage, and delicacy. But there is an amelioration of each of these: sometimes good sense or the use of good tools can take over and get a better result than detailed knowledge of the minute or perfect eyesight; sometimes courage can become arrogance and needs to be tempered with humility; and sometimes a decisive, radical action is needed to save a patient, rather than a slow gentleness that allows life to ebb away. So in a way one could argue that wisdom and decisiveness overcome perfect coordination and a conservative approach.

In any meaningful argument we should fully understand the other side--in part to sympathize with our opponents even if we hold our own line, and in part to strategize the best arguments for our own side.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Web Writing

I am currently rewriting my web site for Writing Assessment Services, and though it is not a good time in the school year to be doing this, it is necessitated by AOL's wrongheaded determination to evaporate all member web sites by the end of this week. The only notice I got was a banner on the top of my site that I saw when I happened to go there a couple of weeks ago! Boo, AOL!

Anyway, I first created my site back in 1995-96, using a bit of html code from Fritz Hinrichs, bless his heart, after he encouraged me to take my services on to the infant Internet. I was at that time expert at signing on and off of AOL quickly so as not to use up my precious monthly minutes, but soon came unlimited time online and a whole new world was born--cyberspace! I laboriously typed in all that "href" and the letter "A" within pointy brackets and so forth (and learned how to use copy/paste efficiently), and my web site was born. Thanks, Fritz!

Over the years since, I have incorporated tables and a few graphics and shopping cart buttons and several things like that, but usually kept everything streamlined, using old pages as templates for new ones. But suddenly I've been dumped from AOL and it's time to start fresh with some new technology. I spent hours and hours investigating hosting and templates and software and found myself at the bottom of one decision tree with a few scattered apples, including a free limited subscription to Soholaunch. When people have asked the last couple of weeks how I'm doing, I mostly just give a big exasperated sigh.

But I want to try to explain.

Writing is hard, especially when you have a Purpose for it, and an Audience, and Money is involved . . . so many expectations!

Html is interesting but dizzying, and it has come far, including through translations like Java and php and things like that, and I can't do it from the keyboard anymore. But templates are limited, and Soholaunch's templates are not as flexible as I want to be, and my aspirations for flexibility go beyond my capacity to make use of the flexibility. I can override the templates, but I haven't figured out quite where and how to do so.

So here is what this kind of writing is like:

You know how to play chess? Not the basic way I play it, one move at a time, but with foresight into the possibility of each move, the potential future moves of the other guy? Each move I make with this new writing task has many future implications--will a site viewer be frustrated at the lack of information, overwhelmed with the plethora of it? Do I have too many choices, or too few? Can a visitor find his way to what he wants? Have I made the connections as clean and clear and intuitive as possible? How can I win? How can I keep from losing in a shameful way?

Well, now, imagine playing chess on the Enterprise, with that multi-level chess board, three-dimensionally? That's what this kind of writing is like. Not only do I have to do all that strategizing and organizing, but I have to do it within the limited compatibility of Word and the Soholaunch template, the "dynamic" but still constraining three cells across the page that Soho allows me, and the mystery of what it will look like once I hit the "preview page" button. If you go visit my site, stand in awe and wonder at the arrangement of icons near the bottom of the home page. No, they're not quite ideally spaced, and you've seen better, but it took me the better part of two hours to make them look that good.

Even something as simple as menu items, and sub-menu items, is dizzying. Soholaunch does not allow for more than one instance of any menu item. So even though a visitor to the "Schools" page might want to know the same things about "Evaluations" as a visitor to the "Home Schools" page wants to know, only one of them can get the sub-menu item "Evaluations" if my main menu has "Schools," "Home Schools," etc. on it. So that's why the main menu that appears on each page has "Evaluations," "Courses," and so forth on it. Then the sub-menu for the home page takes you to special pages for Schools, Home Schools, etc. Trouble is, where do I put a sub-menu for, say, "Client Comments?" Is that a Credentials matter, or a Link, or what?

So I spend a lot of time thinking, and I put links within the text on each page so you can still get to the pages the menu and sub-menu won't reveal while you're on that page.

So I'm playing chess, which I'm not any good at except against pre-pubescent normal kids; and three-dimensionally, with strategies needed both for each level and for the interactions of the levels; and look again at my opponent--the extremely logical Mr. Spock! I am Dr. McCoy, in the background, with the wild look in my eye.

I do it all for you, dear readers. Please feel my pain.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Summer Reading Challenge Update

I just updated my progress on the Summer Reading Challenge. Eight out of sixteen isn't too bad, I think! It was an ambitious list. And guess what--I've read other things, too, in the meantime.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Scholastic Argument

In my course Apprenticeship Writing Workshop , Part Two, students are to create a

Scholastic Argument Modeled on Thomas Aquinas's “Just War.”

This is my attempt:

Pro-Life Voting

Question: Whether it is necessary to vote for the most pro-life candidate in an election.

Objection 1: It would seem that it is always necessary for the godly to vote for the most pro-life candidate on a ticket, because God calls us to “defend the fatherless” and our vote is the best way to do that in our government.

Objection 2: Further, whatever endangers “the least of these my brethren,” from the fertilization of an egg on, is contrary to the value of human life, so any candidate who admits of legitimacy of abortifacient drugs, embryonic stem-cell research, or abortion in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mental or physical health of the mother is transgressing that value of life.

Objection 3: Further, any softening of the pro-life stand for an otherwise-acceptable candidate is a betrayal of the value of life. Even if the result of abstaining from voting or voting for a hopeless candidate is that the godly voter sees worse candidates elected, by his drawing away votes from a partially pro-life candidate, that godly voter must content himself with having done the right thing in a symbolic action.

Objection 4: Further, because the pro-life cause is of fundamental importance, it is incumbent upon the godly voter to choose the most pro-life candidate no matter what other positions the candidate holds.

On the contrary, the Lord calls His people to pray for government that allows them to live peaceably, that we should “do good to all men.”

I answer that the godly voter has an amazing privilege in our government, one with scope unheard of in Bible times. Each vote is fairly small in its own impact but nevertheless significant. As rulers in Scripture are called to be wise, and their trials in ruling are there evidenced and cautioned against, so voters must be wise, considering the whole of a “kingdom” or nation or even town in their voting.

Firstly, the voter must acknowledge his whole duty, not just his duty to a single aspect of governance. Even if his passion and interest lead him to focus on “life issues,” he must not ignore the rest of the scope of his “rule,” just as a godly king or governor must consider the whole of his realm.

Secondly, the voter must see that if the nation is taken over by a hostile power, or its infrastructure ruined by a disastrous economy, many lives may be lost of those already born and especially of the sick, old, or disabled.

Thirdly, no candidate for office will be ideal, either in himself or in comparison to the other candidates. One may champion “life issues” while callously downplaying the rights and needs of those already born, while another has promising plans to care for the needy, or at least not hinder our care for the needy, while not understanding well the value of unborn life. In fact, this candidate might even have a strong life ethos but apply it only at a later stage of development, say the traditional Jewish concept of “quickening.” In cases like these the godly life-loving voter must apply great wisdom and discernment, knowing that his decision will help put into office a person who will then require wisdom and discernment in exercising that office.

Fourthly, the voter’s responsibility starts before election day, beginning with identifying the best possible pro-life candidates, supporting these candidates’ campaigns, and seeking to help those candidates and office-holders better solidify their regard of life in all its ramifications. Voters can be counselors and advisors to elected officials and perhaps even live out their convictions by running for office themselves.

Reply to Objection 1: Indeed the godly are to “defend the fatherless,” but this appeal to us to use all our powers in the furtherance of preserving life speaks to the whole of our lives. With wisdom and charity we must steward our powers, recognizing that the aim of protecting life, even in the womb, goes beyond the symbolic power of a vote for a “pro-life”-labeled candidate.

Reply to Objection 2: In the aim of defending and protecting life, a lawmaker may recognize that his constituency does not embrace the full scope of a purist pro-life ethos. For the sake of building a “culture of life” in his term of office, a culture that may well one day bring life-affirming consensus even on the “hard cases,” he may find it necessary not to hold a hard line on those “hard cases” in his governance, even if he holds that line in his private convictions. In this way a candidate fully bent in the direction of life may nevertheless not set forth an intent to abolish abortifacient drugs nor to prohibit abortion in the case of rape, incest, or the endangerment of a woman’s health.

In the case of embryonic stem cell research, the lines are drawn, even by purists, only with great difficulty. Even if experimentation on new embryos is prohibited, is it also against the culture of life to make use of stem cell lines derived from embryos destroyed long ago? And if that, too, is prohibited, what of using vaccines derived decades ago from a culture derived from an unborn child? Even if a lawmaker seeks to cleanse our medical research of any reliance whatever on processes and products derived from the sacrifice of human lives, this cleansing may be a long process and require first that the lawmaker hold office, voted in by those who take the long view on life issues.

Reply to Objection 3: Those who stand alone on the moral high ground, calling others, too, to abstain from voting if no candidate fulfills their purist ethos of life, put themselves in a place of powerlessness to actually save some lives. They remove their influence from our representative government. Queen Esther used her charms to appeal to a pagan king to save her people. If she had from the beginning determined to maintain her purity as a Jew, she might have hidden or disfigured herself to become ineligible for the beauty contest, or purposely set about not to please the king. And so she would have lost her opportunity to make a difference.

So Daniel, if he had flatly refused to eat the king’s delicacies, would have been killed or turned out of the elite school. Instead he took stock of the possibilities, appealed to authority, and made his case in a winsome way.

We as voters can use our power, our influence, to find the best candidates in a field of candidates, analyzing their real potential to win office, and cast our votes in a way that will best actually further a culture of life.

Reply to Objection 4: Catholic and Protestant pro-life advocates often call themselves “co-belligerents,” recognizing that they work for the same ends in most areas of life advocacy, however much they may disagree in other areas, or even in minor points in their beliefs about the beginnings of life and the permissibility of man’s interference via contraception, for example. But sometimes it is unsettling to learn that people of a very different world view hold convictions similar to one’s own. So, for example, a racial purist like Hitler might object to abortion for the favored races and perhaps even for the others, with a view to enslaving the offspring of the lesser. Is such a person really a godlier choice than a typical “pro-choice” candidate? Or what of a simply incompetent, naïve candidate, one who holds a purist life ethos but is certain to stumble in so many other areas that he endangers the stability of our government?

Our votes in support of life may not be so cleanly and clearly discerned as we might hope. In each vote, we must consider that we have come to this opportunity for influence, with this slate of candidates, “for such a time as this.”

~1300 words

Cindy Marsch



Thanks to "Sir David M." for his comments on my effort and for his own models on his blog!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Lovely Quote

From Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders, a novel about plague in 17th-Century central England. Beautifully written but heartbreaking and "difficult." The first two sentences have a lovely image, but the whole of the paragraph is worthy, too, giving us a snapshot description of the village that is the focus of the whole novel:

Our village is a thin thread of dwellings, unspooling east and west of the church. The main road frays here and there into a few narrower paths that lead to the mill, to Bradford Hall, the larger farms, and the lonelier crofts. We have always built here with what we have to hand, so our walls are hewn of the common gray stone and the roofs thatched with heather. Behind the cottages on either side of the road lie tilled fields and grazing commons, but these end abruptly in a sudden rise or fall of ground: the looming Edge to the north of us, its sheer stone face sharply marking the end of settled land and the beginning of the moors, and to the south, the swift, deep dip of the Dale. (p. 11)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Mercy of Moonlight

During five full days without electricity (and thus without water from our well) after widespread windstorms in Pennsylvania and Ohio, we have lived a bit of an adventure. A commiserating friend suggested that at least we will have a lower electricity bill this month. But I think there's more good than that to come out of the week.

It was good to slow down and just "wait" at times. I had several periods of that during the week--like at first when we thought the power would be back within hours, or after I'd gotten all the perishing food dealt with and had only to wait until it was time to drive to town to make a dinner. And then I could get through a good chunk of Bible study or math with a son, or set a sparrow free that a daughter had rescued as a fledgling two months ago, or read a light novel myself, or have a long talk with another daughter about *The City of God.*

It was good to have offers of help that I know were sincere, and only a few of which we could take advantage of, though it's a little chilling when some people ask how you're doing and have a too-bright smile on, as if they're eager to hear of your discomforts.

It was good to enjoy a shower when I got one the first, third, and fourth days, and to do the dishes with small trickles of water from a pitcher and from a kettle the fourth day. It was good to enjoy the scrambled eggs my husband insisted on making for us on the propane ring the fifth day.

It was good to bask on the porch--front or back--and just enjoy the sunshine and breezes; we marveled at the wind storm the first night, too, until some of the gusts showed their frightening power.

It was good to share the church kitchen with others without power, and to create pleasant, orderly meals out of the chaos of thawing and cooking. It was good to create a vat of chicken and sausage gumbo to be frozen in batches for the future.

It was good to enjoy the smell of matches and candles and to live "pioneer evenings" thinking about Lincoln reading in such an atmosphere (I waited to try to read until Thursday when we borrowed a kerosene lantern).

It was good to get a toilet flushed with the aid of a five-gallon bucket of water. It was good to keep ice in a cooler and to serve two children chilled pudding cups with the last of a can of whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg the fifth day.

It was good to give people the opportunity to share and offer hospitality and equipment, as those who did did it with such ease and good will and cheerfulness--one called me on the phone the fifth day to pester me to bring over my laundry!

It was good to have so much of the world around us electrified, so that we could drive a few miles to campus to use computers or some of us to shower and shave, and so that others COULD offer us help.

When I got word last evening that the power was restored, it was good to share the news with one who had lived the same sort of week and to have a spontaneous hug of celebration.

It was good to know the graciousness of God in the midst of inconvenience (for that was all it was for us, really): We had ideal weather for such a week--sunshine and temperatures ranging from the 40s to the 70s, and what I came to think of as His gracious timing in a full moon all week--the Mercy of Moonlight.

Moonlight made it easier to navigate in a pitch-black house at night, to fumble to the candle or flashlight. Moonlight cheered our arrival at home each evening for bed (after we'd whiled away some darkness in the realm of electricity). Moonlight spared us the fear that might have otherwise closed in, gently reminding us of the goodness of our God and showing us that nighttime is just the same as day, only seemingly less in our control--it is all in His control.

Moonlight revealed much in its tender, comforting way. Did you notice it?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Good Assignment--Imitating a Narrative

This Progymnasmata Narrative assignment includes several exercises you can . . . well, imitate . . . to work with a narrative. This version is from my Great Books Writing Workshop: Modernity.

From Greenmantle, by John Buchan, 1916

Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994

The introduction to this edition notes that “John Buchan wrote this swashbuckling tale of high adventure between February and June 1916 when serving as a Major in the Intelligence Corps in France during the First World War.” The hero of the tale, Richard Hannay, is sent as a spy on behalf of Great Britain to uncover and foil a plot by the Germans“to invoke a Jihad or Holy War amongst Muslims in the Near East against the British.” In this selection, a little over halfway through the novel, Richard Hannay and his companion Peter are on horseback, finding their way through pitch darkness in a land unfamiliar to Richard. Though it is a narrative, the piece shows how a narrative can create an overall atmosphere or description. Each step through the darkness emphasizes how dark it really is.

We had to trust to Peter’s instinct. I asked him where our line lay, and he sat very still for a minute sniffing the air. Then he pointed the direction. It wasn’t what I would have taken myself, but on a point like that he was pretty near infallible.

Presently we came to a long slope which cheered me. But at the top there was no light visible anywhere—only a black void like the inside of a shell. As I stared into the gloom it seemed to me that there were patches of deeper darkness that might be woods.

“There is a house half-left in front of us,” said Peter.

I peered till my eyes ached and saw nothing.

“Well, for Heaven’s sake, guide me to it,” I said, and with Peter in front we set off down the hill.

It was a wild journey, for darkness clung as close to us as a vest. Twice we stepped into patches of bog, and once my horse saved himself by a hair from going forward into a gravel pit. We got tangled up in strands of wire, and often found ourselves rubbing our noses against tree trunks. Several times I had to get down and make a gap in barricades of loose stones. But after a ridiculous amount of slipping and stumbling we finally struck what seemed the level of a road, and a piece of special darkness in front which turned out to be a high wall.

I argued that all mortal walls had doors, so we set to groping along it, and presently found a gap. There was an old iron gate on broken hinges, which we easily pushed open, and found ourselves on a back path to some house. It was clearly disused, for masses of rotting leaves covered it, and by the feel of it underfoot it was grassgrown.

We were dismounted now, leading our horses, and after about fifty yards the path ceased and came out on a well-made carriage drive. So, at least, we guessed, for the place was as black as pitch. Evidently the house couldn’t be far off, but in which direction I hadn’t a notion.

(pp. 132-133; 364 words )


Answer the journalist’s or even military intelligence reporter’s questions about this narrative.

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Condense the 364 words of the main narrative to about 100-150 words. Think about getting “just the facts” for an intelligence report.

Submit your version as “Part 1—Condensed”


Expand the narrative again to a solid 250 words from your condensed version, without looking at Buchan’s original, and create your own details to convey that sense of darkness Richard Hannay reports.

Submit your version as “Part 2—Expanded”

Anaerobic (Optional)

Create a similar narrative to Buchan’s to convey in a series of events a pervading impression. Below are some suggestions to get you started, but try to create something original if you can. Use about 250-300 words.

  • Enter a familiar room occupied by people of longstanding habits and find something that’s just out of place, something wrong in the atmosphere. Use details in the room, discovered over time as you look around or walk around, to convey that feeling. This is a great opportunity to use the comparative mode: instead of…although…
  • Tell how a young person discovers bit by bit in a particular interaction that another person is in love with him or her.
  • Trace the excitement or dread of a journey (like the one above), as the traveler gets closer and closer to the destination.

I hope you can make good use of this assignment, and perhaps I have interested you in Buchan's fine work!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beg, Borrow, or Steal

While I'm busy planning the school year for my children and my clients, I offer a little something from a friend . . . "Writing As a Craft."

Thanks, Chris!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meeting the Famous (and a rule for Real Writers)

From the interesting blog Soul Shelter comes a little tale from a writer about meeting a more-famous writer. The famous one has a run-down little structure in which he Writes, but we don't find out about that until the end of the piece, and in that little shelter is a closing piece of wisdom for all writers or aspirers to important things. You'll have to click the link to read it. :-)

This entertaining account reminds me of one of my favorite topics from my teaching days at Auburn University. Students had, in preparation for an end-of-term exam, read a journalist's account of a breakfast in the presence of Abraham Lincoln. The journalist gave a close description of Lincoln's now-familiar odd looks and just the sort of detail we'd want to know about the President in an article such as the journalist wrote. However, the original was edited down significantly, to leave out the "disrespectful" parts (the parts about how unattractive the man was--though the journalist described him with real restraint and awe). That editing itself is an interesting study. But to the assignment . . .

In the exam period, a timed writing, I asked each student to write about a famous person he or she had met. One had been hit in the leg by the erring golf ball of a famous golfer and got a dinner invitation as a result. A good proportion of the tennis team happened to be in the class in which I first gave this assignment, and two different students had met John McEnroe (notorious bad-boy tennis player at the time). For one student McEnroe performed as expected, ranting at reporters outside a locker room. But for the other--female--he was a charming and unrecognized companion in a long line for a soda at a tournament. When they got to the stand, he bought her drink for her and then walked away, and only then did she hear someone nearby say, "Hey--that's John McEnroe!" I had a great time reading those essays!

So I commend to you the assignment for students to write about meeting someone famous. Marlon Brando once offered my mother a stick of gum when she was a teenager. I once had novelist Larry Woiwode to Sunday dinner. . . .

Saturday, July 26, 2008

New Course Announcement: Apprenticeship Writing Workshop

NEW!! Apprenticeship Writing Workshop Part One with CriterionSM Service $175 (Introductory Price)

Designed for more advanced students desirous of working on their writing style and experimenting with creativity and invention. Both parts of this workshop use Gregory Roper’s The Writer’s Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing, which students should purchase on their own. Students and the instructor will complete approximately eighteen assignments of from 50 to 400 words (about 5000 words total in submitted work) and share them with other workshop participants, commenting on one another’s work. “Part One: Foundations” includes exercises using models from Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Dickens, Hemingway, Joyce, Sojourner Truth, Moses, and the Apostle Paul. Writers will consider the effects of small decisions in writing, reflect on Impressionism and Realism, Rhetorical forms, law and morality, authority, and invention.

Letter grades will be assigned to a final portfolio of selected assignments, and I suggest ½ credit for this workshop. CriterionSM Service is included to give students access to the online workshop space and to provide additional practice with essays through graduate school level.

Please visit my blog at wrasselings.blogspot.com to see my own work on two assignments—July 16 and 17, 2008.

Part Two of the Apprenticeship Writing Workshop will be available by late 2008 to those who have completed Part One. It continues with Roper’s “Part Two: Precision Tools and Finer Crafts” and involves close work with Logic, Argument and Negotiation using models from Aquinas, Cicero, a Pope, and a King. This is Rhetoric in action, a great apprenticeship for aspiring serious writers. This workshop introductory price is $150 and it, too, is approximately ½ credit with assignments totaling about 5000 words.

Please visit my website below to learn more!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mini Review of *The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease* by Susan Wise Bauer

Renee Mathis pointed me in the direction of Susan Wise Bauer's new book series, The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease Instructor Text. Visit that link and read the sample pages from the chapters "Why Writing Fails" and "The Three Stages." I agree quite a bit with SWB, though she advocates saving the Progymnasmata (see my own web site for that :-) ) for the last years of high school, treating them as advanced tools to be used when the student has a good understanding of how to use them. I believe the Progymnasmata can be introduced in the elementary years in a small way and worked on as profitable exercises in themselves in middle school. So that's how I use them. But I think her overall observations of the state of student (college) writing today match my own, and I think her prescription is a good way to deal with the problem. I intend to use some of her ideas with my youngest, entering fifth grade this year.

So check it out--see what you think--and let me know! :-)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Definition Exercise--Creative Imitation, Part Two

See July 16 post for Part One

Exercise 3.6
“Contentment” on the model of Sojourner Truth’s “A’n’t I A Woman?”

(First, I outlined the basic structure of Truth’s argument, then used that structure for my own. Because I do not have the drama to set up the argument, I begin a different way and wind up with a reference to it to tie everything together.)

On Deal or No Deal, now on NBC, or the old Let’s Make a Deal, a contestant comes to a suspense-filled decision, at a point at the top of the roller coaster: Will you keep what you have or cast it away for the unknown Other, the Possibility? What is behind that curtain, what’s in that case?

The one who chooses the modest thing he knows or thinks he knows holds interest for us only if what he passed up is worse, or if we crave seeing his disappointment at what he lost. But the contestant so resolved often crosses his arms against his chest or puts his hand on the case, illustrating with his body language the original meaning of “contentment”—“I’ll hold with this.”

Some say contentment comes with true grit, determination, hard work, and the satisfaction of a job well done. Yes, that satisfaction is a part of contentment, and does come with the knowledge that we’ve worked hard. But how often does that hard work miss the point of contentment and become focused on itself, on the sweat and the clenched fist? Better to hold loosely, easily, what comes of our work.

Others say contentment is just bearing up with What Is, being realistic, not expecting much. But how easily this becomes bitter cynicism, a drafty emptiness. The hands are missing something—half empty rather than enjoying the half full.

Still others suggest that we must be unselfish and not measure our contentment by what we have, even if it’s just a little, but we must give it all away. We must abase ourselves, claim to deserve nothing even to the point of turning away what is offered, in apathy. But what sterility there is in this kind of emptiness—no material for growth, or for sharing with a smile and enjoying something WITH another person.

If these misunderstandings of contentment were put together we’d have tension, emptiness, stagnation. But Spirit-led contentment brings freedom, fullness, and growth, which the fist, the empty hand, and the downturned hand don’t have. The case and the curtain hide secrets, surprises. But the Lord owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and every knee will bow to Him, and He sees and cares for the lily and the sparrow. Godliness with contentment brings great gain. I’ll hold with this.

© Cindy Marsch

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Definition Exercise--Creative Imitation

I have been reviewing The Writer’s Workshop by Gregory L. Roper for possible course development, and doing the exercises myself. I found a real winner yesterday, and I wanted to share what I have done with it.

Exercise 3.3
Definition of “Contentment” on the model of I Corinthians 13.

The students are asked to do a close reading of the Bible passage, taking notes on its macrostructure and microstructure, then creating a definition of another term using that structure. I found the analysis itself taught me a lot about Paul's original--how "tongues, prophecy, knowledge" are echoed later in the note that these things will fade away, and even in the description of a child's speech and thought compared with those of a mature person. I used the three elements myself to show a contrast to contentment in its counterfeits--hard work, apathy or cynicism, and asceticism.

My Best Version

Though I have true grit, determination, and a good work ethic, if I do not have contentment, in the end I am left only with sweat and a clenched fist.

And though I have a realistic view of the world, expecting little, but have no contentment, I have only bitter emptiness.

And though I humble and abase myself, requiring little, refusing to care, without contentment I cannot grow or enjoy the little I have.

Contentment puts up with a lot and still shares, does not envy others’ good, does not pride itself on being satisfied with a little;

Doesn’t push its way into good fortune or grumble or suspect its neighbors;

Does not feel glee in another’s house fire but in his neighbors’ prizes and raises and prize roses.

Contentment satisfies. Realism, asceticism, even hard work leave emptiness.

For these are slender, futile, pale.

But when the rich fullness comes, these ghosts will flee.

When I started my adulthood, I worked hard, cultivated realism, disciplined myself to do with less. But in the Spirit I see there is so much to enjoy!

For now we feel privation, a tinge of envy, the frustration of a fallen world, but then we will know feasting, fullness, all in all.

And even now in our hearts grow faith, hope, love—and contentment is to rejoice in all of these.

© Cindy Marsch

I highly recommend this kind of exercise! I came up with some other terms that could be profitably defined on this model: mercy, courage, kindness, honor, care, loyalty, faithfulness, patriotism, selflessness (see Lewis on "unselfishness"), justice, cleanliness, purity, honesty, gentleness, self control, piety, trustworthiness, neatness, punctuality, fitness, health, moderation, passion, creativity, consistency, calm, energy, quietness, spunk, liveliness, wit, humor, cleverness, and intelligence. I thought of them in this order, and I'm sure I could go on!

If you're interested in a course of such exercises, stay tuned to my web site!

Elements of Good Fiction

It's been a while since I've posted--must be summer! I have been working on writing myself, though--more later on that.

This morning I read a useful piece I want to park here for myself and others, on the elements of good fiction. The author cites several classic books to make his point, and I like that. Darin Strauss, in PowellsBooks.blog, writes "Notes on Narrative," including the following little blurb:

Theme is the trickiest thing to think about, because it can lead to theme-mongering, or preaching. The beauty of fiction lies not in argument but "in the unconscious self-revelation of people, in the sight of them floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about, with no visible shore, in their own lives. In art you become familiar with due process," Saul Bellow writes in Ravelstein. "You can't simply write people off or send them to hell." The mistake, as James Wood puts it, is to assume you are too smart for storybooks. Don't, in other words, use fiction to win an argument or to advance a political idea. That's what essays are for.


Monday, June 30, 2008

Can We Do Better?

I think one of the best uses of history is to help us look at ourselves in comparison. Consider this self-characterization by an Athenian citizen in ancient days:

We love beauty with simplicity, and we love the pursuit of knowledge without effeminacy. We employ wealth properly, for use rather than for noisy display, and we do not consider poverty to be a disgrace but do regard it as shameful for someone not to seek to escape poverty through labor. We citizens of Athens care for both our own domestic concerns and for the affairs of state; those of us engaged in business are not lacking in understanding of public matters. For we alone consider those who avoid engagement in public affairs not as "uninvolved" but as useless. And we, as we judge and reflect carefully on matters, do not consider words to be a hindrance to actions. Rather, the real hindrance to action is to enter into whatever must be done without taking forewarning through discussion.

--"Pericles Extols the Virtues of Athenian Culture. From the funeral oration of Pericles, as reported in Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.40, trans. by Duane Garrett." From my Archaeological Study Bible, commentary on the sidebar to Acts 17-18.

[Apollos] vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. --Acts 18:28

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I have been reminded in the last week or so of the value of correspondence-- thank-you notes to heirlooms:
  • David is graduating from high school, and I'm nagging in advance to keep him on top of the thank-you notes he needs to write for all the generous gifts he is getting. Writing a good thank-you note is a sign that one has successfully arrived at adulthood, I think.
  • My folks brought us a bunch of furniture and mementos last week, as they're downsizing, and among the items was a note I wrote my grandmother when I was David's age--mentioning two old boyfriends. With so many years behind me, and yet a different man my husband for the last 22 years, I can be pleased and amused at these old references, and this snapshot of my teenage self.
  • My mom carefully packed many family items for us to have here in our own home, and with them she wrote a lot of notes about their history. I will keep these notes for passing things on further in the future, to our own children.
  • My father-in-law lost my mother-in-law three years ago, and as I was cleaning in preparation for his arrival for our graduation party, I came across a stack of condolence cards our local friends sent us at the time. I sat my father-in-law down with them, so he could see that those who didn't even know her participated in our grief at the time. I think it meant a lot to him to look through those "strange" cards.
  • College-age-daughter Abby started a new job yesterday, and at the end of her shift she found a card in her locker, from her manager: "Abigail, Great job on your first day. You really hit the ground running! Keep up the great work! I can tell you will be a perfect fit here at Ann Taylor!" What a great ending to a first day of work!
  • To wind up with David again, we gave him a family heirloom for graduation--a gold pocket watch from my maternal grandfather's family, from over 100 years ago. I had to ask about the people represented by the initials inside, but that little correspondence has a story, too, conveying the relationship, the gift, the connection with us so long after: "C.C. to P.C." Those were David's great-great-grandparents, and I know very little about them. I think they died before I was born. But their little correspondence endures in a gold pocket watch this young man is now carrying in his own pocket.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Lesson in Rhetoric

Our culture surrounds us with rhetoric, and The Story of Stuff is full of it! A charming cartoon, with an earnest narrator and a lot of truth, this twenty-minute sermon contains all manner of material for students of logic and rhetoric. The site includes a transcript for those who would like to really dig in with research--I think a student of Modernity could do a valuable series of research papers and rhetorical analysis papers based on this presentation through the course of a whole school year!

If that's too much with everything else on your plate, just enjoy it. If you're suspicious of some of the claims, good for you--consider how the presentation is steering you to agree. If you are filled with satisfying joy that at last the truth is out, good for you--but consider how the presentation is steering you to congratulate yourself for holding a proper opinion. There's something for everybody! :-)

Thanks to Get Rich Slowly for the link.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Novel Start

As soon as I posted this morning about not having time to write, I saw Abby's post on Facebook (now on Xanga). She makes me realize how much writing is a lifestyle, and I'm doing it all along! :-)

"Why Do I Still Have This Thing?"
A note from a homeschooling day...

How to Write That Novel (And Why I Do Not Yet "Write")

Because I teach writing people are often interested in knowing what I have "written." Because I teach writing online and homeschool four children (oops--make that two now, with the second just now graduated!), a task I have now been embarked on for fifteen years (during which two of them were born), and because before that I had babies and before that a Job and before that was a student myself, I simply have not had the time. So I read and I jot down occasional Ideas for that One Day when I will Write.

When that Day comes, I hope to follow my own version of The Lonely Novelist's Five-Point Productivity Plan. If you read through the plan and consider how it might work with a houseful of children being children and also being students, and with a teaching-of-writing business going on as well, you can understand why I am not There yet.

PS Thanks, Honey, for earning a living that allows me this much freedom from a regular Job!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Summer Reading Challenge

I may be impulsive, but I'm going to take the challenge. Will you?

If I can do half of these this summer I will be happy, but I want to do half in each category, because half overall would probably result in my reading all the fun ones and few of the tougher ones. :-)

I'll report here whenever I finish one. Please comment if you want to warn me away or urge me on. :-)

Devotional, etc.
The Dead Sea Scrolls: After Forty Years
Shanks et al.I have been enjoying my new Archaeological Study Bible and wanted to peruse this title. FINISHED 6/12 (Interesting but poorly written/transcribed).

Pursuing Holiness in the Lord
Jonathan Edwards
I've dipped into this one in the past but want to give it a real go.

Signs of the Apostles
Walter Chantry
I want to see his Reformed perspective on Pentecostalism

History-related, Prep for our New School Year (Medieval focus)

The Silver Chalice
Thomas B. Costain
I love his editing of collections of short stories, and I need to find the Peggy Noonan intro in this edition that is not in my own. I want to get in the mood for our study of the early/medieval church, and I didn't realize this was such a popular novel! Abandoned about 1/3 through, when things popped up that just couldn't be right--the apostles commissioning a sculptured case for the True Grail, e.g.?

The Thousand and One Nights

I have always meant to read these...

Year of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks
One of my Paperback Swap titles, about a plague year Finished early October. Good, but implausible ending.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Barbara Tuchman
It's about time I read this one...I've had it about for years

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love
Dava Sobel
I got this mostly for dh, and I wearied of it at first, but I want to give it another try

The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself
Daniel J. Boorstin

I got to hear Boorstin speak way back in the days when I was teaching at Auburn, and I like the concept of this big sweep through eminent "discoverers" including Herodotus and Freud, with Columbus in between. Finished early July. Good one, though I confess I skimmed over some of the later entries.

Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace
Joseph M. Williams
I got partway through this at one time and want to consider it to use with clients.
The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay
Scott F. Crider
I think this might be good for my more advanced students.

The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing
Gregory L. Roper
I have begun this one and want to finish it! I created a one-semester course out of the first half and I'm beginning on the second. :-)

Paperback Swap Fun Finds

Life and Death in Shanghai
Nien Cheng
I am reading this now and am fascinated and appalled and wiser for it. COMPLETED 6/8. Worth it.

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog
Boris Akunin
I've really enjoyed his Fandorin titles, and this is a new heroine. Finished July--lots of fun.

The Mind of the South
W.J. Cash
I want to understand myself better. :-)

Quite a Year for Plums
Bailey White

Because she understands me and people I know. :-) Finished August. The people are all alike! Tedious, unfortunately, but this Tallahassee girl enjoyed the recognizable local color.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Progymnasmata: Anecdote from Shakespeare

In my course Great Books Writing Workshop: Christendom the students are writing essays about Shakespeare's Henry V this month. This student, J.D., chose to do the Progymnasmata exercise "Anecdote Amplification," which has a particular structure prescribed for it. (Explore the topic at my web site.) J. does a nice job with a very small side note in the play, and I present this essay as an example of what a clean, clear little essay can look like. Enjoy!

(Posted as-is, without correction, and I wish it had a title. Titles are great.)

In the midst of an army camp sat a young boy. With the impending
doom of a battle of unfair numbers, he makes a speech about his pick-
pocketing companions saying: "They would have me as familiar with
men's pockets as their gloves or their handkerchiefs: which makes
much against my manhood, if I should take from another's pocket to
put into mine; for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave
them, and seek some better service: their villainy goes against my
weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up."

Although a nameless character in Shakespeare's King Henry V, Boy
shows a maturity beyond his age when he seeks a more ethical group
of people to surround himself with. Even as a young boy, Boy
recognized that bad company corrupts good morals and sought to
separate himself from such "bad company". Unlike most young people
who give in to pressure, Boy saw that it was wrong to pick people's
pockets and as any good person stopped serving his masters before he
gave into temptation.

Children often give in to pressure, whether from adults or other
kids. This is considered a part of growing up, but although we will
fall into the trap of peer pressure Boy shows that we do not have
to. One way to keep from giving in is to surround ourselves with
good company. The saying "one bad apple ruins the whole barrel" is
very true. If we surround ourselves with bad people we are likely to
make bad decisions, however if we hang around good people we are
likely to make good decisions. Many times, but not all the time, the
downfall of morally good people is caused by the bad influences of
others. At work a coworker may talk someone into lying about the
number of hours they worked, at school a child may be talked into
cheating on a test, it happens many times.

A really good friend of mine goes to a public school. Although she
is still tempted to do stuff, she eliminates lots of temptations by
choosing her friends wisely. She doesn't hang around with people she
knows are not going to help her be a good Christian. By doing this
she doesn't have to deal with her friends constantly nagging her to
do stuff that she knows is wrong. Another really good friend has
made a similar choice. She chooses to not make some acquaintances
she has her best friends because she knows that it would not
necessarily be the best thing for her.

Although Boy was just a boy, he knew that when it came to making
moral choices it was best to have moral influences. Just a Boy did
not want to go about "pocketing up wrongs" with his companions, we
should "cast up" our bad influences for better companions.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

College Paper Angst

My dear daughter Abby is having trouble with a whirlwind humanities course done in two six-day weeks to be the equivalent of a full semester course, complete with a twelve-page paper. Her lament is on Facebook, inaccessible unless you're already her friend, so I pass on her added lament that the required terminology makes scanning difficult, and I'll just copy it here for you:

"The Paper Blues"
(To the tune of "I Need a Hero")

Where have all the good quotes gone
And how to use CMS?
Where's that scholarly article
To make this paper the best?
Isn't there a Principled-Pluralist creed?
Late at night I toss and turn and dream of what I need


I need a paper.
I'm holding out for a paper 'til the end of the night.
Argument's gotta be strong
And it's gotta be fast
And it's gotta be fresh from the fight.
I need a paper.
I'm holding out for a paper 'til the morning light
It's gotta be sure
And it's gotta be soon
And my argument's gotta be larger than life.

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
The perfect source is reaching back for me.
Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat
It's gonna take a peer-review'd to sweep me off my feet


Up where the mountains meet the heavens above
Wherever Dr. Kemeny the papers does grade
I would swear that somehow there's an 'A'
To be made

Through the wind and the chill and the rain
And the storm and the flood
I can feel its approach
Like fire in my blood.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Exemplary Paper on Augustine

I got a very nice paper yesterday from Lydia Murdy, 10th grade, and got her permission to share it here. Note that she makes good use of the chronological progression of his life story, showing how his faith developed over time--she uses each episode to comment on the characteristics of the kind of belief he had at each time. Enjoy! (Posted as it was originally received.)

Augustine: A Restored Soul
1,128 words

Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most important man in Western Civilization and his books the most valuable. They have been read countless times in the past 1,600 years, and each reader gleans important truths from them every time he reads them. One of the most poignant books is Confessions where Augustine recounts the struggles he suffered before finding peace in Jesus Christ. Augustine’s story is not a tale of triumph after triumph, as we might expect from so great a man, but instead trial after trial. Augustine had many objections to the Christian faith that needed to be overcome before he was saved. To read about and understand this struggle is comforting to Christians because we can see how God took a man just as sinful and weak as us and made him into a pious giant in the Christian faith.

This great man, when he first read the Scriptures as a pagan searching for truth, thought them course because of their simple style. He had started his search for truth when he read in Cicero’s Hortensius that man should look for truth no matter where it might be found. But though Cicero’s words pushed him onto the path of questioning that would eventually lead him to God, Cicero’s grand and masterful style also hindered him. The Bible, compared to Cicero’s work, seemed lowly and simple, so Augustine despised it and sought truth among other pagan works of philosophy. But as the years passed and his search became more desperate, he came under the teaching of Ambrose in Milan, and he reevaluated the Scriptures. He saw the simplicity of the Scriptures as their beauty, for hidden beneath the ordinary surface are the precious jewels of the mysteries of God’s love and his intricate plan for our salvation.

Augustine’s previous beliefs in Manichaeism, a Gnostic heresy, also led to many objections to Christianity. As a Manichaean, Augustine imagined God as a vast physical being that permeated the whole of his creation. But taking that premise to its conclusion, God’s residence in any place was limited by its size. Because God was physical, a smaller part of him would reside in a room and a larger in the sky. But Augustine eventually forsook the ideas of the Manichaeans in Milan and turned to the books of the Platonists who showed him that God is a spiritual being. His presence is not defined by the matter he created. As much of him can be contained in a nutshell as can be contained in the whole universe. God could even reside in a human being. Thus, with the Platonists, God mercifully crushed one more obstacle in Augustine’s path.

The more Augustine heard, the more convinced he became of the error of the Manichaean beliefs he had been following. But this did not cause him to accept immediately the doctrines of Christianity. He was like a man who, having been under the hands of a bad doctor, was not ready to entrust himself to a good one. (VI, 4) Augustine objected to the habit of Christians of believing many doctrines without having proof or without completely understanding the proof. They trusted faith greatly. But after a time Augustine realized that it was not only the Christians who relied greatly on faith, but also himself and everyone around him. He believed the Battle of Marathon took place simply because it was recorded in Herodotus, not because he had fought in the battle himself. He also took for granted the existence of many towns and countries that he had never actually seen himself; he just had faith in the words of his friends that these places existed. Augustine realized that he believed facts daily simply because of the faith he had in friends or books and that if he didn’t have this faith he would have to live a life of complete cynicism. Augustine could no longer rail against the Christians for their faith in many unproven things because he himself lived a life of faith.

All of the aforementioned obstacles Augustine faced because of his personal background and previous Manichaean beliefs. But the last obstacle is one we all face. Augustine knew only the shadowy joys of his life of sin, and he feared the pain of giving them up. One by one many boulders had been thrust from his path, but this final great boulder still remained. With all his questions answered, Augustine wanted desperately the pure Christian life, but it meant losing the sinful life he knew so well. He saw the beautiful image of chastity and purity beckoning to him from peaceful green meadows of faith, but he also desired the cheap sensual pleasure he had enjoyed for so long. Many of us, I am sure, know this kind of pain. We know that health, wholeness, and happiness wait for us with Jesus Christ, but the nearness of our own sin and its familiarity restrain us. We and Augustine are like a drug addict who knows that an addiction free life is better that the broken hallucinations of happiness given by a drug, but he is too scared of the pain of losing the hallucinations to choose the better life. Augustine dealt with this feeling for a long time until finally he came to a pit of despair thinking never would he have the full joy that he truly desired. Finally, at the command from a child singing in a game, “Tolle, lege,” “take it up; read it,” he picked up Paul’s letter to the Romans and read chapter 13, verses 13 and 14: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This was the final push for Augustine, and he took a headlong plunge into the dark cavern of faith, not caring anymore if it hurt to give up his sin. But he found the cavern to be an entrance to glorious, holy, cleansing, healing light and a home of everlasting peace with Jesus Christ.

This is the pain and the suffering Augustine went through. This is the questioning that tore his soul into shreds before it was made whole in Jesus Christ. Augustine, the great man of Western Civilization, was made of a lump of clay just like us and struggled just as we do. So, let us remember Augustine when we want to give up and hold on to the illusions of our sin. Let us remember that the peace, joy, and love that Augustine received resolved every question and answered every desire that Augustine ever had before he was saved.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tom Wolfe Interview

My husband Glenn shared with me at lunch today a delightful interview of Tom Wolfe by Peter Robinson, in the program "Uncommon Knowledge." This link will take you to the first of five installments, with literate discussion of science, philosophy, and writing, mostly writing. Note that there is a bit of explicit sexual reference ala Freud.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Discovering Classics

When I was in graduate school I heard of a game played by grad students at parties: "Confess a classic you have not read, and if you are the only one in the group who has not read it, you get a point." That's humbling and interesting and fun. Paperback Swap (see link way down below) has enabled me to get some of these things I know I have meant to read all along but haven't yet. Yesterday I started Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I am only a few pages in, but I am transported by the language. At first the dialect is off-putting, but Hurston makes it oh so poetic, and I am entranced. So much depth of thought in even the gossip of the idlers on the porch...

It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Theme of Death in British Literature

In commemoration of final exams at Grove City College this week, and in honor of my eldest, finishing her freshman year there, I want to present her opening paragraph from a take-home exam question for a British literature course. Abby is tracing the theme of death through these poems, beginning with "Ozymandias," as you will see hinted at in this nice paragraph.

Way to go, Abs! :-)

Death is a great leveler: It takes a brilliant theologian and a trucker and lays them gently side by side in a quiet cemetery. It tenderly pries a man’s grand artifices of arrogance and conceit from his cold fingers, steals his monuments to himself from him, and shifts them together deep in the sands of a desert. In the end, no matter how hard a man tries to leave lasting mementoes of his existence for future generations, death takes him, the only man who had a personal interest in his affairs.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What is an "A" Paper?

I have on the "Client Comments" page of my website the following testimony:

"Thanks for your evaluation of T's paper. Once again, you reinforced (sometimes in the exact words I had used) what I thought of his paper. You really are wonderful! ;-)" [And regarding another student in that family, whose paper is among those in Noteworthy Papers from 2001-2002 Students ...] "I must tell you that your evaluation (a grade of 'A') was met by leaps of joy (literally) and whoops of 'Wow! Wow!' Such is the esteem with which your opinion is held around here. :-) "
The "A" student is now in a difficult humanities discipline in graduate school and has shown in his academic work over the years that he is truly a gifted student, and a diligent one as well. The mother is a dear long-distance friend of mine who teaches writing, too, and I would love to have my children in her classes.

All of that is to say, I do not give A's easily, and even the ones I do give are almost always A-minus if it is early in the year, because there is ALWAYS something that can be improved. To me an A paper is one that does everything it was supposed to do (a B paper) with additional style and depth and excellence that just lifts my heart as I read it. If I can be surprised or delighted by something in the paper, and that is consistently integrated into the whole, that paper might come to an A grade, even with a couple of serious grammatical errors! (Well, maybe an A-minus in that case.) My husband testifies that at Clemson University about 1980 a very strict code required that any paper with one major error (comma splice, s-v disagreement, runon) could earn no higher than a B-minus, and two of those errors resulted in a failing grade. I'm not quite that strict.

But for those who aspire to an A, consider it is with me a badge of high honor indeed. The A-plus paper is one I would have been thrilled to have written myself, and I have one or two of those each year, too.

I really cannot say it better than Jack Lynch does in "Getting an A on an English Paper."