When I was on my lunch break at work, I was reading Winnie-the-Pooh, the original adventures by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, at my desk and a co-worker came up to me. “What’s that?” he said. “I’m a kid at heart,” I said sheepishly as I pulled out Winnie-the-Pooh.
“No way!” he said. “I love it! You never stop growing up!”
It was my biggest reading compliment of the day. I had read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Gertrude Stein’s Paris France, and now Winnie-the-Pooh after craving something more delightful than modern fiction. I was blessed by all the cute and wonderful sayings I saw in Pooh Bear’s world, and below is one of my favorite quotes which I should make into a poster and put on my bedroom wall:
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.
Now that I have a Pooh Bear quote to live by, I can wake up and have something to look forward to every day, like a good hearty breakfast (preferably with sausage and a muffin) or a coffee date with my favorite person in the whole wide world. Or I could be thinking “Grand Thoughts to [myself] about Nothing,” as A. A. Milne says about Pooh Bear when Christopher Robin goes off to sleep.
Maybe I should think of Grand Thoughts about Nothing? I suppose they’ll help me get to sleep sooner than I already do. Good Night, or Good Morning readers, and have a Grand Day.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….
-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
When you introduce a book, you can’t simply give an imagery description of the town, or a bland description of the character’s physique. Sometimes you wait to say who the character is or how the character looks until after you say what the character does.
Here in the introduction of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I am struck by the short paragraph which tells readers why the old man is the center of this story. Look at the following passage, which is the rest of the introduction, to see what I mean:
It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
Although I omitted sections for brevity, I included the most important phrase—“the flag of permanent defeat”—which sets the story’s tone and shows the old man’s perpetual misfortune. My favorite lines in the next few pages involve dialogue between the old man and the boy, when they reminisce about the time they first met and how important the boy is to the man:
“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” [said the boy].
“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”
“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. …”
“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”
“I remember everything from when we first went together.”
The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.
“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”
When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novella, he deserved it well. We now know who the old man is by seeing him with our eyes and understanding him with our minds. That is the importance of style when introducing characters.
It’s my senior year, and I’m finally realizing the true characteristics of an English major. We’re tough, strong, and self-conscious about our grammar. We love books, Oxford commas, and bubble gum shaped like Shakespearean books. But most of all, we love that we can geek over little things together, small things like correcting our classmates’ grammar or editing a romance novel we got for homework.
I admit it: We’re geeks to the extreme core.
If you’re anything like us—or worse, if you’re an English major at all—you’ll notice that you’ll find some predilections very common in your daily or semester routines. And if you abide by these characteristics, I’m very sorry to say that you are a true English major; there’s no going back.
You memorize every famous line by Shakespeare and apply Hamlet’s soliloquy to your daily life: “To sleep or not to sleep; that is the question…” you say during finals week, for instance.
You love endnotes because they look cute, and you use them just for fun.
By your sophomore year, you’re writing 10 pages on two stanzas of poetry, and you actually enjoy it.
You have erasers or bubble gum shaped like your favorite classical books, like Canterbury Tales or Midsummer Night’s Dream.
You know Colin Firth only as Mr. Darcy.
You carry three bibles with you: Associated Press (AP), Chicago Manual of Style and MLA.
You don’t love your Chicago Manual until you carry it with you everywhere, even in the kitchen.
You get the greatest thrill from editing commas in a proofing project, especially if it’s a romance novel.
You live in the library’s basement, and you know all the librarians by name.
You feel you have no purpose until your next big paper; you actually cry when your senior project is over.
Fridays are the saddest days because there’s no school until Monday.
You get goosebumps from reading your favorite novels, and when you return your library books, you feel like you’re parting with old friends.
Hanging out with English nerds makes me realize not only the geekiness of my life, like the way I geek over Shakespeare books in the form of bubble gum, but also the severe fact that I’ll never escape these traits in my whole life.
Let’s face it: we’re either born English majors, or we’re morphed into being English majors. We live three to four years at college, get acquainted with our professors, and sooner than we know it, we’re drawn into studying literary criticism, analyzing poems for pentameter breaks, and when we go home we’re automatically correcting our siblings’ composition papers—just because we can.
We can’t change who we are, but even if we can, we realize we find greater joy in stressing over pentameters and Milton’s Paradise Lost than we would ever have over anything else. We love what we do, and it comes from the long hours we’ve spent together, the repeated assignments we’ve shared in freshman composition or introductory courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer. And finally when we get published in our university’s literary magazine, we feel the same thrill of ecstasy and relief.
Only by living out these qualities do we finally realize the true depth of being an English major. Coming all this way to a university makes me appreciate my field even more, and I relish every moment of it.
So you think you want to be an English scholar? You love fantasy, you smell books when no one looks and you kind of like Shakespeare but don’t really know why. Join the club. We’ve got a bunch of people who’d love to assimilate—I mean, welcome you into our coterie. And if you’re not really sure it’s the right fit for you, it’s no sweat at all. Just follow this pattern, and you’ll be thinking, talking and eating like an English major.
Freshman year: It all starts at the English department barbecue. You mingle with the professors and talk about English-y stuff. Your professor happens to have a collection of Shakespearean quotes made entirely of magnets, and you geek over the Shakespeare mug your mother just bought you from Stratford-on-Avon. Next, you start to think like a poet and compose a mental poem about hot dog mustard dripping down your professor’s sleeves.
Now it’s time for the test. You’ve taken your introductory class and figure out the many ways how to not make sense when analyzing literature. You read Shakespeare’s sonnet about his wife’s bad breath and realize that there’s more than three ways to look at it. But if you have the faintest clue what psychoanalytic critics are saying, you’re onto your next step in becoming an English scholar.
Sophomore year: You’re introduced to more obscure literature. The building blocks of your freshman year are becoming cemented in your brain, and you start to read things like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” things that don’t seem normal in daily life. But you don’t start becoming an English scholar until you learn Middle English. It’s a combination of Norse and German, spoken with a Scottish accent. It sounds brilliant, especially when your fellow English majors have no clue what you’re saying.
Junior year: You start to notice things. You prefer to watch “Dead Poets Society” over “The Hunger Games.” You quote Jane Austen’s infamous first line from “Pride & Prejudice” in daily conversation. You start to get crazy over Colin Firth as Darcy. And if someone—especially an English major—hasn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” you seriously judge them.
Senior year: Things start to get a little weird. You start to see things like “homoeroticism in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’” or the “political sexuality of Ichabod Crane.” You obsess over things like iambic pentameters and fuss over trochees or dactyls. But if you’re a true English scholar, you’ll know for certain whether Robert Frost’s poetry is actually blank verse or free verse. But when you start to see “The Psychological Ruthlessness of Peter Rabbit,” then you know you’ve gone too far. There’s no return for you now. You’ve now officially become an English scholar.
But don’t say we didn’t warn you. Sure, it seems glamorous—the books, the fame, the Shakespeare—but all in all, it’s really a bunch of people who think they’re smarter than they really are.
I have only recently entered the realm of social media, and while I have been raised on English literature and lengthy novels, I have found a new love in the language of journalism and social media. My diction is now vitalized with action-packed verbs, and I enunciate exactly what I mean in 600 words or fewer, whereas before I exhausted my sentences with multi-syllabic words. And though my diction is much simpler, I have not sloughed in my writing, but rather have gained an appreciation for a condensed version of the English language.
But I am miffed whenever I hear discussions about social media eroding our language, especially through Facebook and texting. One of the main critics of this discussion is Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, who says that we now read newspapers on a fourth-grade level. When once we knew about 20,000 words in our English language, perhaps from the peak of our college days, we now use only 2,000 a week, even though a million other words in our language lie waiting for us to use them. As I compare her statistics to the length of our sentences and the precision of our vocabulary, particularly in journalism, I agree that she’s right. And yet I do not find social media to impede our use of the English language. If anything, it has taught me to pack a punch in my words.
From when I first arrived at my university, I’ve been taught to sharpen my diction and tighten my syntax. In the student newspaper, my paragraphs shortened from five sentences down to three or one. It was the length that mattered, my professors said. Anything longer would lose my readers. As I became Feature Editor, I truly learned the importance of brevity. In fact, as I was writing headlines and photo captions, I learned it’s not the body of the article that people first read, but rather the headlines and captions that give readers the gist of what they want to know.
As I’ve shortened my own sentences, my academic diction has been replaced by what McEntyre might call a fourth-grade level of vocabulary, yet I have by no means degraded my journalistic writing, only altered my prose to reflect our natural rhythm of speech. I’ve noticed that in daily conversation, we often never speak more than ten or fifteen syllables in one breath, and only in our academic writing do we extend our breaths to about twenty syllables with words such as demonstrative, pedagogical, and constructionism.
These are the words most readers would dismiss, and although I have no problem with shortening my words, I remember McEntyre’s critique and see how we have unwittingly altered our diction to match the increased pace of our lives. As we’ve moved from walking on lanes to speeding on highways, we’re constantly being distracted by various forms of social media. Matt Richtel, a New York Times journalist, says that in general, we’ve cut our attention span because of our addiction to a chemical called dopamine, which emits adrenaline every time we receive a text message or other digital notification (“Digital Overload”). It’s like we’re drawn to the excitement of getting a message—like opening a present, something just for us—that propels us to check our phones or log onto Facebook nearly every hour every day.
Even though critics denounce this technology for weakening our prose, I see that it’s a matter of choice and discipline whether we choose to browse Facebook or pore through a book. Our digitalized culture is not necessarily a bad thing, but merely a reflection of our times. It’s a matter of habit regarding what we choose to write and how we choose to write it. We ourselves cause the laziness when texting, not the technology. We only excuse ourselves by saying that Twitter restricts our messages to 140 characters or fewer. But to get back on track to reading longer prose, we can train ourselves, if we choose, to spend a few hours on books or read one novel after the next. I, for one, choose to continue on social media, because I see here the prospects of establishing my presence as a writer and making myself a more vivid writer.
My vocation in writing novels is to reflect God’s hope in young adult literature. When I see His creativity in the Bible and know I am endowed with the same creativity, I realize that I can create stories that give meaning and life to my readers, yet my field has become increasingly secular, and most Christian literature is criticized for being too hopeful and optimistic.
In my study of literature at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, I have observed that Western literature has become more gruesome and depressing after the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries because of historical, societal, and economical events such as the World Wars and the Great Depression. Christian theology has been replaced with secular philosophies such as humanism and Darwinism, and in the previous century, when Americans and Western powers threw off God like a mantle, the Western culture became hollow as authors and laymen denied that God exists.
Christian literature has attempted to remedy this secular idolization, yet much of Christian literature has been given bad criticism for being too optimistic, promising that God’s blessings are guaranteed even though the world suffers a great deal. Despite this criticism, I believe that Christian literature is the answer to remedying our society’s literary depravity, because true Christian writers reveal aspects of God that answer or inspire certain readers who may be lost or who need encouragement.
When I compare my literature to postmodern literature, I see a stark difference: My characters expect hope in their lives. Though they do not always succeed in their goals, they expect the best to happen, knowing that their lives will end in the best way possible for them. Sometimes they appear as John Bunyan’s characters in The Pilgrim’s Progress, quoting Scripture and referencing God, or as C. S. Lewis’ heroes in The Chronicles of Narnia, referring to God not by saying His name, but by becoming allusions to Jesus’ resurrection like Aslan on the Stone Table. Although they do not always reference God, they exhibit how daily Christians cope with daily life, whether in the fantasy settings where animals talk, or in historical settings where Americans in the Revolutionary War would pray to God with Bibles in their hands.
Secular writers, on the other hand, do not portray this kind of hope because they do not house the living God in their spirits. One of the most famous examples is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which shows how America had become morally depraved in the 1920s as a result of the replacement of God with material possessions. I have seen no mention of God in these pieces of literature, aside from daily profanity and the characters’ questioning Christianity as a religion.
The strongest aspect of God that distinguishes Christian from secular literature is hope, but I realize that hope does not automatically mean a happy ending, for by a “happy ending,” I mean the type of ending that guarantees the characters’ desires. Hope is the promise that whatever will happen to the character will be for the character’s best. Sometimes hope does not mean a happy ending, but even if there is sadness, that sadness should not douse the heart, for if hope prevails in the end, the reader shall respond accordingly. Proverbs says that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life” (13:12). It is hope, not necessarily happiness, that should conclude a story, because hope is the factor that distinguishes Christian literature from secular literature and reminds readers that God is present in the story.
Within her collection of essays entitled Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor addresses the issue of reflecting joy in American literature, claiming that the writer is apt to show the “darkest view” of his country when talking about spiritual values. Regardless of how positive some aspects of his culture may be (for instance, the unparalleled prosperity of America), he will focus on the most “glaring…distortions” because this is what he knows and believes to be true in life. In O’Connor’s words, “The storyteller is concerned with what is.” She believes that the writer, especially the Christian writer, should employ his sense of mystery, to exercise his sense of “moral judgment,” and to convey what he believes to be reality.
I agree with O’Connor in that the writer should convey with what he believes to be true, yet I hope that writers will edify their readers without revealing the basest degrees of life. Fiction should reveal life’s mysteries, yet not to the point of depressing their readers. Instead, fiction should leave the reader with a sense of edification, ease, or enjoyment. That is what I also hope to attain in my fiction as I continue to write stories for children and adults alike.