Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Whence This Quote?

I'm reading a book right now with this fun line:

"Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole."

Can you identify it?  I'll reveal the source later. Hint: the copyright is 1937.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Discouragement Remedied

Thanks to Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute, an educational enterprise, for the article "Freshman Comp, Then and Now."

R.V. Young describes freshman composition as a course begun after WWII when college professors realized students had simply not been taught to write, nor to think, in high school. He started teaching freshman comp as a young professor in the early 70's, and he describes a rigorous course with about twice the number of papers we required at FSU and Auburn University and Tallahassee Community College a decade or so later.

What he describes as discouraging 21st Century practice was certainly in the wind at FSU when I began teaching--lots of student peer review, an emphasis on social topics rather than literature. But we still required a lot of writing and the writing required a lot of evaluating. I learned to meet my students at the level of writing they presented, then call them up to better thought, smoother expression, more delightful presentation. At Auburn there was a distinct difference, a throwback to Young's earlier experience--we wrote almost exclusively in response to literature and essays from nice anthologies, with the terms of composition arranged according to the genre to be written about. But those stock freshman comp essays--"I Stand Here Ironing," "I Want a Wife," and an extract from Malcolm X's autobiography--were part of the already-P.C. essay anthology. (By the way, the Malcolm X piece is great, very inspiring, about old-fashioned self-education.)

Composition as a remedial activity in mid-Century gave way to writing laboratories as remedial preparation for composition, and the writing laboratory I taught in at Los Positas College in Livermore, California in the early 1990's was designed so that students could earn partial credit and take TWO terms to get through the material. Tuition was so cheap--$50-$80 for the course for the student, but representing much more in state subsidies--that the college gained additional revenue for those "unable" to complete the work in one term. It was not too much work. But in two or three classes I taught at LPC I had only one student who really was on track to finish in one semester--she faded away in the last weeks, feeling a need to give her attention elsewhere because she could come back to this one-credit course and complete it the following term.

So much for the discouragement.

The encouraging part is that I'm currently teaching Composition II for the Veritas Press Scholars Academy, using Lucile Payne's The Lively Art of Writing, essentially unchanged since Ms. Payne published it in 1965.  This little book has a definite modern composition flavor, but modern in a 1960's sense. The essentials R.V. Young describes from his experience as the right way to teach composition--those essentials are there in Payne's work and will be in the writing our students do this year. Chris Finnegan and I are working together to enrich the course even further with the essential activity (we believe) of examining and imitating master writers, including, in our first class meetings, Francis Bacon, Janie Cheaney, and Washington Irving (as presented by Francis Donnelly in a century-old writing text). And most of these students will be using their writing skills in their Omnibus courses, where they engage with the Great Books.

So these secondary students will, with the secondary students I have taught over the years through Writing Assessment Services, learn writing the way those post-WWII professors would have wanted it taught--so that they will have no need of freshman composition, except perhaps as a means to reinforce their skills . . . and to encourage their weary composition instructors.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Grammar Funnies

Here are some grammar funnies I want to save:

The Writer's Den:  "Grammar," quoting a piece in Physics Review Letters, of all things, in 1979! Ancient history! (And the year I went to college.)

My favorites:

12. Don't use commas, which are not necessary.
18. As far as incomplete constructions, they are wrong.
20. In my opinion, I think that an author when he is writing should definitely not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he does not really need in order to put his message across.
21. Use parallel construction not only to be concise but also clarify.
22. It behooves us all to avoid archaic expressions.
23. Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be weeded out.
26. Last but not least, lay off cliches.
HT: Todd Harris

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Writing Like Mary Shelley

Yesterday I discovered that I write like Daniel DeFoe and a couple of other folks, at least . . .

Today my recent high school graduate daughter Betsy tried the test for herself, using an assignment she wrote for me this year for our local home school study center. The class used the Veritas Press Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present assignment based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus .  One writing assignment calls for students to write in the voice of one character urging Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the monster, to "do the right thing" to save a young girl about to be executed for a murder she did not commit.

Betsy did a nice job on this assignment, writing as Victor's fiancee Elizabeth in this opening paragraph:

Oh Victor, you know it is right to save Justine at all costs, and otherwise your conscience may never give you rest again. How dark will your days be! how brooding your nights! How shadowed shall our life together be with such a cloud overspreading it! If you speak up, your conscience will be as clear as it can be, and even if others mock you, I will believe you, I will do my best to support you in your most insupportable hours. Is not assurance of my love some help? If you should succeed the people will be aware of the beast and full of zeal to destroy him. If he should be caught, what relief to us all; if not, at least they will be warned of the danger. Dear, sweet, beloved Justine will be safe, the town will be safe, you will be safe. I will be safe.

When she plugged in this essay the little program gave her great gratification: she writes like Mary Shelley! :-)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Write Like . . .

Who do you write like?

I write like
Daniel Defoe
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Here's the passage upon which that judgment is based:


Why do we persist, so many through the generations, in straining our souls’ eyes and our flesh to discern a touch from those beyond death? Why a séance, a gasp at a breeze? Why do we imagine that a long-departed loved one--one we perhaps have rosier memories of than do those who knew him better-- cares for us more than do those here with us now? We are all so beleaguered by this world, so buffeted and strained with the business of living, that we haven’t time or capacity to be so all-focused on another, or to believe that anyone else can be so focused on us, not in this world. So we remember the tenderest moments, the closest care, the happiest days with those no longer enduring the storm with us, and we imagine that they have the attention to pay us, the longing to relieve us of our troubles, if only in our confidence.

But how blind we are, such short-sighted children, to reach for those just rescued from our shipwreck, those still trembling on the deck, wrapped in scratchy blankets, clutching tin cups of steaming coffee, having their faces dried by ministering hands. The same strength that has borne them up to safety, to solidity from our wobbly, leaky boat, is even now capably reaching for us, in fact has already grasped us, even before we know it. We are insensible, blinded by tears and rain, numb to the strong arms gathering us in. We look beyond those rescuing arms with feeble longing for those no stronger than ourselves, only rescued. They know they have nothing to offer us that is needful, all their best intentions swallowed up in His greater love.

Inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: A Novel, the excerpt quoted here.

Cindy Marsch

July 3, 2009

I tried analyzing another passage, a post I made here called "The Mercy of Moonlight," and the judgment was this:

I write like
Margaret Atwood
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Then I tried a blog post, "Web Writing," just to see what might happen. I'm Margaret Atwood again.

So what about a really academic kind of thing, a paper on Middle English translation I wrote in a grad school class? Here's the verdict:

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Well, then.

Want to try? Use one of the links in one of the boxes above.

New Offerings at Writing Assessment Services

I've just been working on my website for Writing Assessment Services and have some new things to announce:

Online course areas at combine previous courses to give you more flexibility.
  • Great Books Writing Workshop has over thirty assignments to choose from, from antiquity to modernity.
  • Progymnasmata Tutorials include all levels for more choices, plus all three of my workbooks.
  • Apprenticeship Writing Workshop has both levels together.
  • All of these courses include robust files of evaluated student samples of the work and discussion forums for students and parents to ask questions and share their work.
New Resource Membership gives you access to all of the course materials and forum discussion and evaluated student papers, but with a low cost because I am not providing evaluations.

My Composition 2 course with Veritas Press Scholars Academy online still has a few seats left in one section--enroll soon!

Please stop by Writing Assessment Services today and see how I can help as you plan your new school year!

Humor and History

I was going to post this to Facebook, but then I realized I'd have people responding who just don't "get it." So I'm going to post this here, where I can warn you in an instructive sort of way that this is a humorous blog entry that makes great use of the irony of reality. If you scroll through the comments (skipping the one with the bad words) to the one by a German who doesn't "get it," you'll see the problem--humor relies on a shared frame of reference, and it relies a LOT on very subtle language cues, which the poor German guy realizes he's missing.

Here's an excerpt from the original:

I'm not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named "Enigma", because the writers couldn't spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means "Man of Steel" in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman "Man of Steel" and the Frenchman "de Gaulle", whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

And here's the "Stuff," by Scott (Squid314) via Joe Carter of First Thoughts.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Father's Day Cartoon Card

A fun Father's Day card from my artist-daughter Betsy to her physicist-father Glenn. I just had to share it somewhere! (Click on the image to see it decently.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writing Rules from C.S. Lewis

Thanks to Tammy and back to Jennifer for this link:

8 Writing Tips from C.S. Lewis

My favorite? Write only about things that interest you. If you have no interests, you won't ever be a writer.

As the teacher of students who may not be interested in what they're assigned, I would add that we can MAKE interesting most of the things we need to write about. I think that's part of the idea behind William Zinsser's Writing to Learn, which I keep wanting to read.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gorgeous Website of Art in Willa Cather's Works

If you've ever read Death Comes for the Archbishop, you can just see how the opening scene comes from the painting above. Very cool.

Now I'm excited about this website that collects a number of works related to Cather's books! Thanks so much to my friend Lyn in NC for posting this.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Graduation Address: Train Up a Child

My third child and second daughter, Betsy, entertained us with this little speech at her high school graduation celebration on Saturday. She is bound for Union University this fall, on a Provost's Scholarship to study art.

Train up a Child
Graduation speech of Elisabeth Grace Marsch
June 5, 2010

Being a teenage girl AND a homeschooler, it seems appropriate for me to quote Pride and Prejudice:

``It is amazing to me,'' said Bingley, ``how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.''
``All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?''
``Yes all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.’’

Isn’t it also true that every graduate, whether from high school or college, seems worthy of the utmost praise? I think the real reason for this is that graduations are not for the sake of the graduates. They are meant to honour the parents and teachers; hence the excusability, even propriety, of the shameless displays of academic achievement commonly seen at gatherings such as this one. Conveniently for me, all of my parents and teachers are economically contained in two people, which means I have fewer people to thank in this speech. What luck!

So please, see any and all of my accomplishments in the light of the faithful work of my father and mother. “’Mid toil and tribulation” my parents have worked diligently to put food on my back and clothes in my mouth and give me a good education, and they deserve praise for that.

In a homeschool study class which my mom taught this past year we studied some excellent literature, and in reading the book Frankenstein I came across this passage in which the infamous scientist describes his parents and childhood:

“I was their plaything and their idol, and something better--. . . it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me.”

It is always distressing when people act like their lives are perfect and their homes untouched by sorrow, because it strikes such a hollow note. Considering the tragic end Dr. Frankenstein met with, apparently a perfect childhood doesn’t have the best results either. My family is not perfect; my life has not been “one train of enjoyment to me;” but God has filled my life with more riches, physical and spiritual, than most people can boast. My sister and brothers are fun and wise and loving (though the boys probably won’t admit to that last one). My parents have lovingly devoted their wisdom and experience and knowledge to teaching me, and I’m glad to say that they have also disciplined my siblings and me faithfully, which is something that takes courage to do. Accordingly our homeschool motto is, “The floggings shall continue until morale improves.”

I can trust God to take care of me over the next four years and I know that many of y’all will pray for me as I get ready to leave. And I can trust my family to pray for me, to encourage me, and to instruct me faithfully for many years to come.

Thank you all very much for coming to my graduation party. My parents feel bad that I’m going so far away, but I would like to end by reminding them of the infamous misquotation of the Bible, “Train up a child and away she goes.”

Graduation Address: The Audacity of Homeschooling

My husband, Glenn Marsch, Professor of Physics at Grove City College, delivered the following speech on Saturday at the graduation celebration we had for our third child and second daughter, Betsy. Her own brief speech follows in another post.

The Audacity of Homeschooling
Principal’s Reflections to Celebrate the Graduation of
Elisabeth Grace Marsch
5th June 2010


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…oops, wrong occasion and wrong speech. At least this is a better occasion, even if the speech won’t be as good as Mark Antony’s (or, as the case may be, Will Shakespeare’s).

People always worry about something. The historian and journalist Paul Johnson has written that people all have a worry space in their psyche, and that if one worry is eliminated, then they’ll insert some other angst in their consciousness.

On the other hand, there are real things to be fearful of. I think you could argue that there are real worries today, with an economy in the tank, an insolvent federal government, and a global war against the terrorists that seems as if it will never come to an end. And that doesn’t even include the usual ailments of sickness and alienation that people often have; we live in this mortal coil but for a while, though this veil of tears.

Wow, this isn’t very encouraging so far, is it? But hold on! In this celebration of the graduation of Betsy Marsch, I want to emphasize that she represents something audacious. And this audacity is manifested in at least four ways.

First, the audacity of raising children. We rejoiced when Betsy came into the world seventeen years ago, and we have continued to give thanks to God for her presence in this world ever since. In her birth, we did not just add another mouth to feed, but rather, God brought another eternal soul into existence. For, as C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, there is no such thing as a mere mortal; we are created to be immortal.

Over the years, quite a few people have looked askance at us because of our retinue of four children, and many have not held back their distaste at us for our audacity (they might think of it as our irresponsibility and recklessness) of having four children.

But Betsy is a resource. Those who know her know she is resourceful, and creative. She is not just another mouth to feed and a drain on our planet, but an eternal soul who creates and who, if allowed to prosper, will make more than she could ever consume.

The late economist Julian Simon realized that if people were left to be free, they didn’t just devour resources, but rather created them. Indeed, to Simon, the human mind is the planet’s greatest resource; as he called it, the ultimate resource. He was an orthodox Jew, and I believe he recognized the truth that we are made imago Dei, in the image of God. And as God creates, so do we.

So he made a bet with Paul Ehrlich, who with his wife Anne wrote an environmental manifesto titled The Population Bomb, in which he predicted that in a few decades, there would be global famines and the prices of commodities would skyrocket. Choose five commodities, said Simon to Ehrlich, and I will bet you that in a decade they will be cheaper, not more expensive. Because humans will find better ways to find and manufacture these commodities, which happened to be metals.

But around the developed world, most people have all the amenities of life, and yet still aren’t having children; birth rates are well below replacement level. Over the years, I have heard many reasons why couples didn’t want to have children. Perhaps it is due to the guilt of adding to the environmental degradation of the planet, or perhaps because life is too hard and they won’t want to bring children in to the world to suffer. Or perhaps it is rank hedonism; children ARE after all inconvenient; ironically, no one knows that more than homeschoolers, who must expend much spiritual blood and real treasure to homeschool.

Secondly, the audacity of classical learning. Even the best of the typical schools of America lack focus on the things that matter most—they don’t think very hard about ethics, except that they’d rather not have Christian ones.

Schools pretty much are utilitarian about their purpose. If they can teach students basic skills, they’re doing pretty well. While there is nothing at fault about teaching good job skills, that can’t be the only reason for a school’s existence. For if we do not teach the whole child, we cannot translate good skill sets to good citizenship. We have, to the best of our very limited ability, been God’s proxies to teach Betsy to be the best person she can be. And that means we want her to excel academically and spiritually; so she can truly be liberally taught, in the best sense of that word.

Then there is the issue of the meaning of it all. Why read Dante and Virgil, or Jane Austen for that matter, in a utilitarian age? And why should we bother amidst the sturm und drang of a fear-riddled world, in which there are wars and rumors of wars? In his sermon Learning in War Time, C.S. Lewis again defended higher learning in a period of existential struggle, the outbreak of World War Two.

Quote: Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the Nineteenth Century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies.

Now I don’t wish to equate our present struggles with the serious calamity of World War Two, but it is obvious from any news report that we live in a dangerous world. And it has never been so important to teach our children well, for they must learn how to negotiate well the swirling eddies and ravaging currents of our culture and the world around us. It is my contention that classical Christian learning best accomplishes this.

Thirdly (and you knew this was coming) the audacity of hope. The source of this quote should be pretty obvious to you, and while I am not a proponent of President Obama’s politics, I understand that he and Mrs. Obama are excellent parents, and I would like to believe that whatever our differences in political philosophy, they would appreciate what I am going to say here.

A culture of hope is not always a given; going though this vale of tears can extract hope from the most bubbly of optimists – and I am not a bubbly optimist, as anyone who knows me can attest. For example, in Greek myth, it was Hephaestos (or as the Latins called him, Vulcan), who created Pandora at the behest of the other Olympian gods. But while beautiful, she was not designed to be a fount of happiness to Man, but rather a curse. When she opened a little box that she had, all the evils of the world poured out, and became a curse to man. But there was one thing left that was good, and that was Hope. Except - that many ancient Greek commentators thought that even this was an evil, because hope is not really a good thing, and is merely self-delusion. It was not in the myth of the ancient Greeks and Romans to have the kind of hope that the Apostle enjoins us to possess.

The world is uncertain, but we should still rejoice in the graduation of our children. Martin Luther said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” By analogy, our children are these apple trees, our tokens that God is sovereign in a troubled world. Even better – that for all its shams, this is still God’s world and effectively a good world.

Finally, the audacity of excellence. Most of us who know Betsy know that she is a highly accomplished student, and she is a National Merit Scholar. She graduated valedictorian of her class. By any standard, Betsy has excelled in her studies. Her mother and I recognize that the most important thing is godliness, not achievements, yet pursuit of excellence is critical. Let’s consider the idea of excellence.

On the one hand, some evangelicals reject this kind of excellence, thinking it not to be spiritual (CS Lewis hated the term “spiritual”) Far too few have godly ambition to attend college and professional school. But we are to be the preservatives in society; if Christians aren’t willing to do the tough intellectual work in society, then others will, to our culture’s detriment.

So, Betsy, be humble about the gifts God has given you – for you are only the stewards of those gifts – but at the same time, don’t apologize to those who wonder why you want to be an artist and excel at the highest levels in that profession.

On the other hand, also remember that most of us don’t necessarily accomplish all that we might want. There will be disappointments in life. I hope you will create art for the ages, and that it will be recognized as such. But there is a high probability that some who hate our Lord will not want you to excel and will try to erect insuperable barriers to prevent this, especially in an art world that has forgotten the concept of true beauty. But no matter where you end up, God is sovereign and you will do His will, wherever that is. God will smile and the angels will rejoice at the art you create. And that is enough.

Thank you for your attention, ladies and gentlemen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What HAVEN'T You Read Lately?

Tim Challies helps out: "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read"

"Non-reading is a genuine activity . . . a choice not to read particular works." Some of the books I haven't read speak to my values, my taste, my politics, my convictions, my fear. I won't list the ones coming to mind because I don't want to promote them. And perhaps because I don't want to be judged . . . or exposed.

I have heard of a grad-student game in which one player calls out the title of a famous/Great/"must-read" book he HASN'T read, and if everyone else in the room has read it, he gets a point. It's a kind of reverse snobbery. But I can imagine the silence in the room when the student admits he hasn't read . . . [insert iconic title here].

I keep a particular bookcase stocked with things I have received via - Book Club to Swap, Trade & Exchange Books for Free.

Sometimes I cannot even remember why I put a particular book on my Wish List, why I was interested in it many months before. Occasionally I list them back into the system without reading them in the first place. Every once in a while I'm delighted with one of these forgotten choices and thank my younger self for having ordered it. Too often I order something I SHOULD read and then can't quite bring myself to do so.

The books I haven't read say a lot about my busy-ness, my laziness, my fickleness, and my ignorance--how many real gems are waiting for me and I don't even know it?!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Writing About a Painting

One of my favorite assignments is a variation on "Description," in the Intermediate level of my Progymnasmata Tutorial series. I present it this way, after suggesting two other paintings (students are welcome to choose their own as well):
Now describe one of these paintings, or a character in the painting, in such a way as to illuminate the painting or the character so that a casual observer takes a second and third look. You may limit yourself to just the information given by the painting itself, or bring in things you know about Wycliffe, for instance, or about the history of the boat painting. Limit your work to under 300 words.

Today I enjoyed one student's response that I want to share with you. Kiernan Presler-Marshall, grade 8, chose the painting "The Polar Sea," by Caspar David Friedrich, reproduced above. His description makes excellent use of language in many ways, and though it could use another polish, it's worthy to post here as is:

Sheets of ice, sharp and cold as the executioner's ax, rise into the sky, stabbing for the heavens. With a grinding crunch, these two icy monsters collide, shattering with force and throwing slivers high into the air. The ice raises itself above its kingdom, stabbing like knives into the sky.

As far as the eye can see, the land is a freezing desert, windswept and empty. Nothing moves, but for the snow which blasts by like an icy sandstorm. The world is bathed in silence, save for the shrieking of the wind as it winds its way around the icy towers. With nothing to slow it, it speeds up incredibly, throwing snow to the sky and forcing everything to bow before it. The clouds above have been shredded into rags by the wind. They split to reveal the sun, though it does nothing to melt the wastes of ice. If anything, it makes them more forlorn, a place which not even the sun can warm. On the horizon, if that is what it is called in a place where distances have no meaning, mountains of ice rear from the wastes like primeval monsters, quickly frozen as they awoke from their slumber.

The ship, sturdy as it was, could not stand the force of the crushing ice, Becoming part of the ice sheet which was its doom. Splintered spars of wood litter the ice, silent grave markers for the men who once sailed the seas in the now deceased ship. The crew of the ship, once brave explorers, are now frozen into the ice which ended their journey. Together they will rest through the ages, waiting, always waiting.....

----277 words

Writing Contest--Education and Liberty

Win Prizes! Amaze your friends! Learn more here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pagan Gods and Leviathan

Thanks to Joe Carter of First Things, an intriguing book review about the nature of Jewish and of Christian thought as expressed in literature:

"Why There is No Jewish Narnia"

The part about Leviathan is amazing . . .

Has anyone read Lev Grossman's The Magicians?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Step Lively for New Classes!

As I announced last week, I am pleased to be teaching four sections of Composition 2 for Veritas Press Scholars Academy online for the 2010-2011 school year. I heard this morning that with only current students registering, all four sections are already over half full!

So if anyone is interested in registering, please be sure to be at the front of the line when registration opens on February 10!

Grateful . . .

Monday, February 1, 2010

A New Venture

I am pleased to announce that I am joining Veritas Press Scholars Academy for the 2010-2011 school year, teaching four sections of Composition 2, suitable for eighth graders and up, and using the following texts:

  • The Lively Art of Writing
  • The Elements of Style
  • Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

This class will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays for ninety minutes, at your choice of time, using audio, text chat, and a white board with Power Point slides. To learn more, visit my website at .

Friday, January 22, 2010

Words Without Words

A4 Paper Cut
is an amazing site that expands my ideas about messages and paper. See the artist's notes at the end . . .

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Interview With an Artist

It is cumbersome to track back from something wonderful to explain the way I got there in the first place. So let's start with the something wonderful, Refractions of Eternity: An Interview with Makoto Fujimura, a rare type--Presbyterian elder and renowned artist.*

My daughter is exploring her vocation in art as she chooses among colleges for further study, and Mr. Fujimura's recommendations helped steer us toward Gordon College and Union University; she's also considering our local Grove City College, where she would minor in art. It's an exciting time helping her think through the issues and opportunities, and the ideas expressed in this interview have application to writing as well. I've been reading Peter Ho Davies' Equal Love, a collection of short stories in which I find a "thread of grace" such as Fujimura mentions. Great stuff to think about.

*I got to the interview via Joe Carter's post on First Things, and he got it from Gene Veith, who was a professor to Stewart K. Lundy, the interviewer and owner of the blog Drunken Koudou. Whew.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Sentence Exercise--Modifying Phrases

My local high school students recently had an assignment adapted from Brooks Landon's Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft. Learn more from my post here.

In this particular assignment they were to use modifying phrases to create a sentence with this structure:

They sat down at the table, he _________,
his _________, his ________,
she _______,
her ________, her ________,
the table _________,
its __________, its __________,
the overall scene suggesting ____________.

The real danger of this sentence form, which some have discovered, is falling into the temptation to make independent clauses out of the modifying phrases, like this:

They sat down at the table, he pulled out the chair for her so she could sit down, his eyes marvelling at her black silk dress, his cheeks reddening with cmbarrassment realizing that he had missed a button, she buttoned the button for him, her cheeks were reddening with a warmth of love, her eyes glancing him over, the table set before them, its layout perfect, its craftwork without flaw, the overall scene suggests that they are in love.

I really like the little story created in this scene, but those verbs need to be changed to "pulling," "buttoning," "reddening" (without the "were"), and "suggesting." For the remaining samples, I've made small grammatical corrections.

This student was hungry, I think:

They sat down at the table, he cutting the turkey, his face in solemn concentration, his hands working back and forth thoughtfully, she patiently waiting for him to be done, her plate covered with stuffing, her napkin in her lap, the table weighed down with food, its highly polished surface covered with an elaborate tablecloth, its size a little big for the two people, the overall scene suggesting Thanksgiving dinner.

Here's a very different atmosphere with the same setup:

They sat down at the table, he with his feet crossed on its top, his hands laced behind his head, his gray eyes glaring at her, she angry as a wet cat, her arms crossed over her chest, her black eyes returning his daggers, the table seemingly unaware of the tension, this candlelit dinner fitting a romantic occasion, its rich settings contrasting the duo's shabby clothes, the overall scene suggesting an ill-matched couple's nightmare.

And this one uses the scene to suggest a whole story:

They sat down at the table, he grinning mischievously, his boyish face lit up, his blue eyes twinkling, she patiently serving him food, her tired face lined with care, her heart loving her little boy, the table almost bare, its chipped surface holding only two slices of bread and some cooked vegetables, its marred carvings indicating past wealth, the overall scene suggesting a recent war.

This exercise is an example of how creativity can work within the strictures of formulaic writing, the structure exercising students' grammatical skills and resourcefulness. These sentences might not translate well into the context of a full paragraph or story, but each provides good material from which to work in editing to a better result. It is much easier to start with something than to start with nothing.

A Definition: Creativity

Student Andrew Manning has recently created for my Apprenticeship Writing Workshop a nice definition of Creativity, which I post below.

I created my own definition using the same model, Sojourner Truth's "An't I a Woman?" See my piece and the assignment details here.

It is certain that in today’s fallen world creativity is greatly admired. It is generally celebrated in the artwork of modern artists who grab any passing thought and put it on canvas. They are considered “creative” for their splashes of paint and bold strokes of the brush which politely skip over meaning and evoke emotional responses from the viewers. But is that the essence of creativity?

Some say that creativity is free, easy, and merry; that it soars through the clear skies with nothing to clasp it and bring it down. They say that it touches ideas and then dances on with as much reliability as the wind. I’ve tried to integrate these ideas into my own artwork. I’ve tried to chase after my own fantasies. I’ve tried to abandon reality completely. I’ve tried to become enveloped with giddy illusions. I expected a change in my works and assuredly it did come, but I find no real beauty in them now. All I find is confused ideas, so unclear and distant that they are not even distinguishable from one another. And am I not creative?

Others say that creativity is “getting in touch” with one’s inner self, and unleashing it. We all possess a fantastically creative side but it is found within the deep recesses of one’s being. I have searched. Nearly every possible aspect of my soul have I brought into the light and examined. When confronted with a blank piece of paper I have closed my eyes and sat in the quiet, seeking, searching, probing within. I did not find it. And am I not creative?

Still others say creativity encompasses not only the good, but also the evil, the unproductive and oft destructive. They view dark and morbid intent as a subject of creativity, a thing to dwell in and be moved by. The good, the right, the true; they are forsaken for the pursuit of the wicked, the disparaging, and even the indolent. I also have dipped my fingers in that foul water to test it. What I felt was not the cool refreshing creativity as they called it, but a vile mere that tried to suck me in. I withdrew my hand. And am I not creative?

Even after surfing the wave of fantasies and dreams, and “getting in touch” with my inner self, and languidly waiting for creativity to show up at my door, I found it eluded me. So then, what is creativity and where does it hide? But first: why does creativity exist at all? Is not all our creativity a reflection of God’s creation which he made to be perfectly ordered, and perfectly good? Did not God give us our creativity? True creativity is found in Christ, the original creator, not in any other. Because our inconsequential creative efforts exist only as reflections of Christ’s perfect creativity, we can be creative only if we rightly create as he did: in truth, in beauty, and in goodness.

---Andrew Manning
---Grade 10