Thursday, April 17, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: William Shakespeare's Star Wars

Lately I’ve been enjoying a word I don’t often use or ponder: pastiche.

Isn’t that a great word? Try it out a time or two and let it roll around your tongue. It looks like it might be pistachio flavored, but in reality it’s rather pasty. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it comes to us from French and Italian, based on the late Latin pasta, meaning (no, not spaghetti) 'paste'.

This makes sense, because a pastiche is essentially a pasting together of styles. It is (to quote the dictionary again) “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period” or “an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces taken from various sources.” I like the notion of “a medley of pieces” – somehow when that combines with the notion of “paste,” I come up with a visual image of a mosaic.

The pastiche that has me thinking about all of this is William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope. This delightful book by Ian Doescher is a 169 page iambic pentameter riff on the original 1977 Star Wars film. Think of it as the Bard of Avon with a light saber in his hand, a rumble between imperial forces and William Shakespeare and George Lucas (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”), or a mosaic picture of Darth Vader made up of thousands of tiny words. Words that make up 3,076 lines, to be precise. The author counted them, and assures us in his afterword that this is about the average length of a Shakespearean play. 

When I stumbled onto this book on our library’s new book shelves, just the thought of it made me smile. Star Wars and Shakespeare seemed like a potentially happy marriage, and in Doescher’s hands it really becomes one.  His love of and familiarity with both worlds makes the dance a smooth delight, as though Luke, Leia, Han and our other beloved Star Wars characters have just been standing in the wings of the Globe theater, awaiting their cue.

It’s a wonderful read, from C-3PO’s opening line: “Now is the summer of our happiness/Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!” to the ominous prequel-setting ending: “There let our heroes rest free from attack,/Till darkness rise and Empire striketh back.” I think what made me happiest, as I sped through it, was the delightful way the old/new form brought freshness to content I’ve known by heart for years.

The Shakespearean cadences lend extra nobility to the already noble Rebel cause. Luke’s turning to the Rebel cause, in the wake of his Aunt and Uncle’s deaths, feels truly poignant. Han’s self-preserving, scoundrel self is particularly wonderful in Shakespearean mode. When Han appears to take the money and run, in the scene prior to the Alliance’s final attack run on the death star, I love Luke’s bitter play on words “Then take thou care now, Han, thou Solo act,/For certain ‘tis the part thou best dost play” which leads into an introspective soliloquy from Han (after Luke exits). “Without the inner compass of my soul,/How can I vainly hope to pilot life?” he asks, and adds “A smuggler’s heart doth keep calm time inside,/No matter sways a pirate’s peaceful pulse./But something stirs in me I ne’er have felt:/Is this a rebel’s heart I feel within?”

Obi-Wan gets the smallest makeover, but I think that’s probably because Alec Guinness delivered all his lines with Shakespearean gravitas to begin with. Darth Vader seems darker and more tragic. R2, whose beeps fall into iambic rhythm, gets asides (in English!) that help us understand his feisty droid soul. Leia gets a “sing hey and lack-a-day” lament song for Alderaan. In short, this is a brilliant bit of pastiche.

Creative Prompts and Exercises

  • Time for you own pastiching. (And yes, the Oxford dictionary says it can be used as a verb!) Try choosing content you know well – a story or a scene from a story – but writing it in a completely different form than the original. Borrow a well-known form or voice to do it. Here are some possibilities:

Borrow the Bard’s favorite poetic cadence, iambic pentameter (an iamb is an unstressed/stressed syllable pattern; just put five together for pentameter) to write a speech from the perspective of a favorite character. This could be a re-write of an already existing speech or a quiet soliloquy spoken at a time when the character doesn’t originally speak in the story (but you have a feeling you know what’s going on in their heart and mind).

Borrow Dr. Seuss’ simple sing-song cadence and love of nonsensical words and re-write a favorite scene from a novel, short story, or fairy-tale.

Borrow a classical fairy-tale form (read Grimm, Perrault, Andersen stories for inspiration) and re-tell a non fairy-tale, perhaps a contemporary, modern story, in that mode.

Choose any writer whose style you find distinctive and enjoyable to emulate and give this exercise a whirl. Hemingway’s short, jabbing sentences; Tolkien’s meandering yet purposeful world-building prose; Bronte’s gothic or weather-drenched atmosphere making; Lewis’ kind-uncle story-telling narrator voice in Narnia – choose one of these or another writing voice you know and love well, and try telling a completely different story through it. Feel free to borrow liberally from your source materials – familiar words, phrases, story moments, plot devices. They won’t mind. (At one point, Doescher has Luke hold up a stormtrooper’s helmet and exclaim “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,/Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life/From thee…”)

Doescher paired Star Wars and Shakespeare because, despite their vast differences, he saw similarities in them (especially in the way Star Wars utilized “archetypal characters and relationships”). You may want to make a similar choice – maybe a modern character you love has always seemed ready to walk into the pages of a Dickens novel – or you may want to try unusual pairings that don’t seem to have anything in common at first glance. Who knows? You might discover connections between them or new nuances in character. At the very least, you’ll have fun!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tax Day...and Mary Oliver's "Dog Songs"

The beautiful book find of yesterday: Mary Oliver's Dog Songs, just sitting there waiting for me on the new book shelves at our little library here in town. If it could have wagged its tail in friendly greeting, it would have.

I scooped it up happily and brought it home, but a very busy day (lots of work deadlines right now) meant that I didn't open it until late last night. It was past midnight, in fact, and I was bleary eyed from working but in need of winding down before sleep. I started at the beginning and smiled my way through several poems, but then flipped through at random, which is how I discovered "Percy Speaks While I Am Doing Taxes."

Knowing that in a few short hours I would be crawling out of the warm covers to do my local taxes before the deadline, I turned to the poem -- and laughed aloud. I love the picture Oliver paints of her patient dog waiting for her to finish this "essential" task so they can get on to the truly important business of taking a walk. I love that her own words feel like thoughts and the dog's speech gets the solidity of quotation marks.

Percy, I say, this has to be done. This is
essential. I'll be finished eventually.

"Keep me in your thoughts," he replies. "Just because
  I can't count to ten doesn't mean 
I don't remember yesterday, or anticipate today.
I'll give you ten more minutes," and he does. 
  Then shouts--who could resist--his
    favorite words: Let's go! 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Granola Bars. Really Good Ones.

Yes, granola bars. I don't often post recipes on my blog, but this one, originally posted at Smitten Kitchen (and which I've been meaning to try for a while) was a definite hit. For some reason, I was pretty sure that homemade granola bars would be hard to make and that I wouldn't make them well, and neither of those things turned out to be true.

These are in fact very yummy. I especially liked that I could throw together whatever I happened to have on hand to make the 2-3 cups of dry ingredients. One reason I wanted to make these now was that my sister recently sent us a little gift of dried fruit, and I thought it would be fun to use it to provide some variety in the bars. It worked beautifully. I cut up some of the dried apricots, pears, and even prunes (the sweet girl nixed the dates, as she doesn't like them much) and then threw in raisins we had on hand and also some dried cranberries and a few dried cherries. I added in some really good shredded coconut from Bob's Red Mill and we tossed in some good sesame seeds for good measure. Oh, and we had cashews on hand and I chopped those up and added them as well. Bob's Red Mill Oats were our base, and I pulsed some of them in the blender to make oat flour (which also worked great).

It suggests baking them for 20-30 minutes. I left them in closer to 30 minutes, not wanting to underbake, but I think 20 is probably a better idea. They may seem too soft at 20, but close to 30 (at least in my oven) made them a little too crunchy. Of course, even crunchy these are really, really good!

The sweet girl and I are already planning to try another batch with different combinations of things -- maybe peanut butter (which we didn't use this time around) and chocolate chips. Tonight's bars were only mildly sweet and the cranberries and sesame seeds gave them more of a tart/healthy feel than a decadent dessert one. Again, I like that this is a basic and very adaptable recipe.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Lenten Reading: Pondering St. Augustine

For part of my Lenten reading this year, I've been working my way through the devotional readings in Bread and Wine, published by Orbis Books. This is a richly diverse collection of readings from Christians of various traditions and across a number of years. It has a lot of my favorite writers in it (one of the reasons it caught my eye) but has also been introducing me to some writers I didn't know as well. It's also giving me lots of food for heart and mind from some of the classic writers of Christian devotion.

This was part of this morning's reading, from St. Augustine's Confessions:

"The Maker of man was made man, that the Ruler of the stars might suck at the breast; that the Bread might be hungered; the Fountain, thirst; the Light, sleep; the Way, be wearied by the journey; the Truth, be accused by false witnesses; the Judge of the living and dead, be judged by a mortal judge; the Chastener, be chastised with whips; the Vine, be crowned with thorns; the Foundation, be hung upon the tree; Strength, be made weak; Health, be wounded; life, die. To suffer these and suchlike things, undeserved things, that He might free the undeserving, for neither did He deserve any evil, who for our sakes endured so many evils, nor were we deserving of anything good, we who through Him received such good."

Amen and amen. I'm reminded afresh of how important the whole of Jesus' life is for us -- the incarnation, his earthly life, his passion, death and resurrection -- how the whole of that life catches us up and brings us into the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It also reminds me of another meditation by a much more recent Christian poet and ponderer, Michael Card. From his song "The Cross of Glory":

From the pages of the prophets
He stepped out into the world
And walked the earth in lowly majesty
For He had been creator
A creature now was He
Come to bear love's sacred mystery
He the Truth was called a liar
The only lover hated so
He was many times a martyr before He died
Forsaken by the Father
Despised by all the world
He alone was born to be the crucified
Upon the cross of Glory
His death was life to me
A sacrifice of love's most sacred mystery
And death rejoiced to hold Him
But soon He would be free
For love must always have the victory
Though no rhyme could ever tell it
And no words could ever say
And no chord is foul enough to sing the pain
Still we feel the burden
And suffer with your song
You love us so and yet you bid us sing

For love must always have the victory

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happy Spring! Annual Crocus Poem and HB to Robert Frost

Last night I was walking onto the seminary campus around twilight. Some of the trees there are in full bud, looking as though they might burst into bloom any day in spite of the still very cold temperatures. I was marveling over the buds and also a lovely birds' nest tucked into one of the branches, when snowflakes started to drift down. Clearly winter hasn't quite gotten the memo about letting spring really start...

But start it has, and I'm grateful. Spring means several things (besides wished for warmer temperatures), including my precious mom's birthday -- she turned 82 last week -- and my parents' anniversary. This year it  was their 60th, an amazing milestone that had our whole family celebrating and feeling baskets full of gratitude for days.

Today is my own birthday, and despite the continued cold temperatures and my ongoing cough, congestion, and plain old tiredness, the gratitude continues.

The sweet girl and I spotted the first crocuses of the year more than two weeks ago, but I didn't get around to writing my annual crocus poem until last week, and then I never had a chance to post it. I thought I would celebrate today by keeping up this tiny tradition:

Seventeen crocuses bright in the cold,
Their petals so purple, their yellow hearts bold.
Though winter decided to have one more fling,
It couldn’t quite stop the onrush of spring.

~EMP, 3/19/14

If you want to see some of the crocus poems from earlier years, click on the "crocus" tag below the post.

And don't forget to read some Robert Frost poems in honor of his birthday today too. He's a tad bit older than I am, born in 1874. I think he's looking pretty good for 140! 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: The Princess Bride

Our Netflix disc arrived damaged a couple of weeks ago, leaving us with a Saturday evening planned movie night and no movie. Too tired to get creative, we turned to our tried and true stash of films and decided to watch The Princess Bride.

Like many people, we’ve watched this 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner so many times that we can quote much of it by heart. If you’re a fan…well, go ahead…take a moment here to relive some of your favorite lines with relish. “Have fun storming the castle!” is one of my staples, though there are many others that pop up in our conversations (sometimes in ways that make sense and sometimes just randomly…)

Although we’ve watched it many times, it had been a while since we’d seen it, and I found myself watching it with more freshness than usual. In particular, I found myself intrigued to realize just how low-budget this endearing and enduring film looks, and how much the lack of “wow effects” of any sort doesn’t hurt its grand storytelling one bit. William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name, does a terrific job of getting to and sticking with the heart of the story. Yes, it’s brilliantly casted and acted with incredible panache and humor, but if the characters and plot hadn’t been drawn so well, I don’t think it would have become such a beloved classic.

Here are a few takeaways from The Princess Bride for us as storytellers.

1)      A great framing device goes a long way.

Think about how different this film would be if it had just been a straightforward narrative. If we had started with Buttercup and her Farm Boy, we would have entered right away into a fairy-tale world. Instead we start in the “here and now” of 1987, in a small boy’s room when the boy is home from school sick. His grandfather arrives to read him a story, one his father used to read to him and one he also read to the boy’s father when he was little. We can tell this story is golden gem for the grandfather, but the boy at first is resistant. We enter the story via his youthful skepticism and enjoy the chuckles that come from his initial resistance to the romantic elements in the tale. (The grandfather has promised him adventure, so why is there all this kissing?)

The film doesn’t just use this storytelling device at the beginning and end. Periodically, throughout the tale, we’re interrupted by the boy’s questions or exclamations. The action essentially freezes (or sometimes jumps ahead…a very useful transition tool!) while the grandfather responds to the boy’s reactions. So we’re never allowed to forget for a moment that we’re traversing the realm of story. We traverse it with the storyteller and story listener, falling as deeply and magically into the story as they do. I think this is as close as a movie has ever come to replicating the magic of falling into a book.

2)      It can be important to know what your characters want.

This is one of the first rules of good storytelling, and one that teachers tell their writing students over and over. I can still hear variations of it in the voice of one of my literature professors in college! But we really see it in action here. Buttercup and Westley want nothing more than to be together (and believe that nothing can stop true love!) but there are plenty of obstacles, often caused by things that the antagonists want, like starting a war with Guilder.

My favorite instance of knowing just what a character wants, however, comes via Inigo Montoya. Inigo never lets us forget his quest: a six-fingered man killed his father when he was eleven, and he has spent his life training as a swordsman so that when he eventually catches up with this villain, he will be able to defeat him. After first declaring, of course: “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” With a set-up like that, we know we’re bound to see a six-fingered man before long, bound to get the scene where the two of them finally fight, and bound to hear Inigo utter that line he’s spent his life rehearsing. Our anticipation builds because of the set-up. And the pay-off, when we finally get it, is terrific.

3)      Sometimes it’s smart to play against type.

Sometimes a character seems utterly predictable because of what he or she looks like or appears to represent. On second glance, we learn that there is much more to the character than meets the eye – and that, in fact, a part of his or her personality seems to be directly opposite of our expectations. The supporting character Fezzik is a perfect example here. An enormous giant, he’s originally hired by Vizzini (actually working for Prince Humperdinck) to help kidnap the princess. He’s clearly valued by Vizzini for his giant size and brute strength, and we initially expect him to be thuggish.

It turns out that Fezzik is gentle and kind. He hates hurting anyone and doesn’t think it’s “sportsman-like” to take unfair advantage in a fight. He also has a love for rhyming games, a game we see Inigo, his good friend, encourage him in (one of the many reasons we come to love Inigo). All of these elements make Fezzik endearing, but especially so because they seem to play against our initial impression and the expectations of other characters.

Creative Prompts and Exercises

·        Take a story you know well, either one you’ve written or an old tale you could easily re-tell, and create a framing device for it. Is the story being shared with a child? Could the story be an important memory passed on from one generation to the next? Is someone telling the story at an important occasion (a wedding, a funeral, a reunion) a setting that will have more meaning for us at the end when we understand its significance more fully because of the story?

·        Create a story with at least three characters who know exactly what they want. Make one character on a quest of some sort. Make one character want something that will potentially block the first character from getting what he or she wants. Create another character whose goal is to help the first character achieve their goal (thinking through carefully why it’s so important for that character to help the first one).

·        Create a character profile for a “stock” character who looks predictable. This could be a hero, jock, beautiful princess, giant, bookish poet, or frail and elderly woman. The idea is to give the character certain traits that we expect that kind of person to have. Make them look predictable, and then have them do, say, or be a certain way that plays completely against that stock type.

·        Just for fun…if you’re a fan of The Princess Bride, try writing a “missing scene.” What was going through Westley’s head on the day the Dread Pirate Roberts first threatened to kill him? How did Humperdinck choose Buttercup to wed? What was life like for Inigo the day after he saw his father die? How did Vizzini meet up with Fezzik and Inigo? The possibilities are endless. Remember, it’s okay to play in someone else’s fictional universe, and it can give you good practice in writing dialogue and actions for characters whose quirks and motivations you already understand.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Another New Feature: Storyteller's Workshop

Last week I launched a new feature here on the blog. Marmee's Library will be my semi-regular reviews of children's literature, tailored to be especially helpful for teachers and parents.

This coming week I'm launching another new feature. I'll be calling these posts Storyteller's Workshop. Each post will celebrate good storytelling, and will feature a discussion of a story (book, film, or otherwise). We'll look at some elements in the story that help make it come alive for readers or viewers. I love talking about what makes a story work well! In addition to reflections, each post will include creative prompts or exercises which I hope will be helpful for writers of all ages.

Stay tuned for the first Storyteller's Workshop post tomorrow!