Writing and the Human Face

This summer, as I was kneeling among a thousand other pairs of knees in a chapel nestled into the heart of a monastic community in the rolling hills of Eastern France, I gazed on the faces of each of the monks as they glided into prayer. Their white robes billowed, covering everything but their faces. Even the tips of their fingers were swallowed in the robes. Their wrinkles seemed to be etched deeper, their ears larger, their eyes so much more vivid, as if I was looking into a body of water for the first time: the deep green lake, the hazel mountain stream, the blue-green oasis of Caribbean water.

There truly is no end to the poetry residing within the art of the human face. Olivier Clément, a French theologian, once said: “Contemplation of the human face introduces us to a drama, in the light of our origins, then the night and waiting for an eternal sun. Every face, so worn as it might be, almost destroyed… as long as we see it with the eyes of the heart, it remains unique, unrepeatable, escapes any repetition.”

It was then I wanted to link this brilliant uniqueness to words. For it to become a challenge to writers anywhere: to portray the impossibility of repetition within a human face. In one of the brothers’ workshops at the monastic community, Taizé, he focused on the human face, showing slide after slide of human faces captured by ten of the top photographers in the last century. For anyone wanting something fresh to write about, something that pulls the poetry out of you, look up these photographers and write about the stories their faces tell.

Here are just a few: Dorothea Lange, a US photographer. She was a photographer during the Great Depression that I’m convinced captured the heart of people more than any other human could. Within this photo, “Migrant Mother,” how many images, stories, and emotions can be described? 

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Or take photographer Lalage Snow, for instance. He did a series of photos of several different people, mainly soldiers and some military nurses, that took place before, during, and after the war. 

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French photographer and solider for the French army, Marc Garanger, was required to take pictures of the  Algerian villagers for their new ID cards. Olivier Laurent, in the British Journal of Photography, wrote that “in less than a year later, Garanger’s images of shamed and angry Algerian women would become a symbol of French oppression over its Northern African colony.” 

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So, to all writers experiencing writer’s block or needing something fresh, you have a world of photography at hand. It’s a great tool for writing because it is often disconnected from our own memories, and the emotional and weighty personal baggage doesn’t weigh down the poem or story. Here are some other photographers: Marcel Imsand (Switzerland), Jean Dieuzaide (France), Josef Koudelka (Czech Republic), Roman Opalka (Polish-French), and Benoit Lange (Switzerland). Find images, faces, social situations that speak to you. Then start writing.

“…Sometimes the eyes are not only the vision of light but a donation. In the undefined prisons of this world, the face is a breach, it constitutes a gap of transcendence.” –Olivia Clément 

Sweet Potato Pie and I Shut My Mouth: The Narrative Craft of Country Music.

As a writer, I often find myself delving into other mediums of art for inspiration, longing to improve my craft by taking cues from the masters of forms of media outside my own. Literature and film have always been close friends, swapping plots and characters freely, but often I find country music just as inspiring and insightful as some of my favorite books when crafting a story’s rhythm, imagery, tone, and setting. Listed are four songs with exceptionally good narratives and characters in which writers could take some cues.

  1. “Paradise”—John Prine

    Country music doesn’t get more literary than John Prine. For over thirty years now, Prine, a past Poet Laureate and Grammy winner, has been creating characters that have a vividness to rival some of Faulkner’s, but his most essential cut will always be “Paradise” from his first album. The narrator of the story, assumedly Prine, tells of taking trips as a child to his parents’ hometown, a place “beside the green river…where the air smells like snakes.” Reflecting on and longing for the places of youth has a long tradition in American literature, including in To Kill and Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, and “Paradise” taps into the same sentiment with the lines: “When I die, I’ll let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam, and I’ll be half way to heaven with paradise waiting, just five miles away from where ever I am.” “Paradise” is undeniably American in both theme and imagery, and is a song in which Prine secures himself as a master of words.

  2. “Bob”—Drive-By Truckers

    Creative writing professors often advise their students that good stories put the conflict in the beginning, and I can think of few better example than when “Bob” starts: “Bob goes to church every Sunday, every Sunday that the fish aren’t biting. Bob never has to get dinner with the preacher because Bob never bothered getting married.” Few stories and fewer songs start that compellingly. “Bob” fleshes out its protagonist so clearly that it’s almost intimidating how well and concisely it’s done. So much of a character is fleshed out by a simple line like “He likes to drink a beer or two every now and again, he always had more dogs than he ever had friends.” “Bob” is pure literary elegance.

  3. “Cold Water”—Tom Waits

    Ok, ok, ok. I know Tom Waits isn’t exactly a country artist, but is liberal use of slide guitar, Appalachian junkyard banjos, double bass, and tales of heartbreak and longing make him an honorary member in my personal Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and The Carter Family. But no matter what genre of music is brave of enough to call Waits its own, the scenes of degradation and waste in “Cold Water” make it feel like a companion piece to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttrree, as all deal with squatters and ramblers struggling to stay afloat amongst urban decay. It’s also hard to top lines like: “I look forty-seven but I’m twenty-four. They’ve shooed me away from here every time before, but I’m watching TV in the window of a furniture store.”

  4. “Greenville”—Lucinda Williams

    Lucinda Williams is to country music what Flannery O’Connor is to the short story. Both womens’ work is so powerful and wonderfully jarring that it’s hard to imagine a time without them, as their influence on their respective mediums is so profound. Much like O’Connor’s work, “Greenville” is small tragedy coursing with both dark comic undertones and naked emotionalism. There are few better lines in contemporary country music than, “You drink hard liquor, come on strong, loose your temper whenever someone looks at you wrong.”

Gender Bending and Shakespeare

In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of attention given to possible homoerotic and non-binary gender themes and characters in the works of William Shakespeare. Sonnet 20 is considered by many scholars and spectators to be the most palpable example of these themes in Shakespearean sonnets:

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

At first glance it might appear that this sonnet was written about a woman, but that is definitely not the case. The second line makes this very clear, when the individual is referred to as the “master-mistress of my passion”. Once the revelation has been made that this sonnet is indeed about a male, the first line takes on a new meaning; this male has a “woman’s face”; that is to say he is likely very lovely and effeminate. Shakespeare then goes on to describe this man as being more desirable than a woman is, and then obviously is described once more as being a male, “A man in his hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling”. As this sonnet goes on, it gets more and more interesting: Shakespeare is in essence writing that this man was originally made a woman, until nature literally “prick’d” him out; that is to say, endowed him with a penis, thus causing the narrator (presumably a male as well, given the conflict and lamenting tone present in this sonnet) to say that nature has defeated him by an “addition”, “by adding one thing to my purpose nothing”. It is also stated that he was pricked out for women’s pleasure, i.e. given a penis in order to naturally please a woman (and not a man, furthering conflict), and this pleasure is the “treasure” mentioned in the last line. The homoerotic implications and gender bending in this sonnet are quite obvious when the sonnet is re-read with close attention to detail, and not taken at face value.

Cliches, Tropes, and Overused Ideas, Oh My!

You know them, you hate them, you’ve used them. Just a few things to avoid to improve your writing and give you new ideas.

Overly Used Adverbs
I quickly and intelligently typed this creatively thought out blog and hurriedly posted it neatly on the nicely put together and beautifully designed web site.
Boy Meets Girl
Never heard that one before. Wait, yes, yes we have. In every chick flick and in books like those by Nicholas Sparks. This is a common idea and while entertaining, it is hard to do in a new and refreshing way. Find a new idea that can present a conflict and interest your audience. Just because everyone can relate to this does not mean it should be a go to topic.
Unrequited Love
Shakespeare’s been there and done that, as have many others. Don’t be one of them. This is an instant source of conflict so many turn to it as a story idea. I’d rather read a story about two people who are happily in love but have another great source of conflict. Be creative.
Feisty Female
Why so feisty? Many protagonists,not just female, are given strong and independent personalities. In life people are not always this way and it is important to give your characters realistic traits.
The Big Misunderstanding
It’s not what it looks like! Movies and tv shows are known for doing this more than books but it is still common. This is when the entire plot is changed by a misunderstanding or missed opportunity that can often be fixed easily. If the misunderstanding is so trivial it can be fixed with a phone call or text, find a deeper conflict.
Mean Girls
Girls are mean. No, they are not all blonde or cheerleaders, nor do they need to be in every story. This is common in teen fiction but the idea of the mean girl is seen frequently. There are frequently bad guys in stories but get creative with who yours are. Throw the story for a twist and make it someone no one expected.
Dead Parent
Parents do die. Perhaps not as frequently in life as in literature. Cinderella, Jane Eyre, and Wizard Of Oz are a few examples where the main characters parents are missing. This is an instant source of conflict or drama and can add depth to your story. It has been done many times though so you should possibly look for something new.

This is nowhere near all of the cliches that are seen frequently in literature. Here are some websites to give you a better idea of how not to use cliches, and a more comprehensive list of them:

Today’s Top News Stories

Child Becomes Youngest University Student, Throws Nut Into A Cup

LUANDA, ANGOLA—Although there has been much controversy with the diminished quality of the American education system, history was made in Luanda, Angola Thursday when 14-year-old Djimon Chumbra officially became the youngest student to be admitted to The University of Luanda, the country’s most prestigious and only university. Kandeh Bumkella spoke on behalf of the university’s acceptance committee when he explained that Chumbra passed the entrance exam with “flying colors” when she exemplified extraordinary skill at throwing a nut into a cup. She was also asked to take on the task of slitting a goat’s throat, releasing the blood into a gourd, and mixing it with the goat’s milk. Chumbra is looking forward to broadening her horizons and would like to someday be a successful accountant. Chumbra is excited about her first courses at The University of Luanda: An Introduction to Snare Building, The Fundamentals of Basket Weaving, Foods and Other Things That Look Nice But That You Will Never Get To Try, and Tactics of Avoiding Guerrilla Warfare 101.

Study Shows That Drinking Gasoline Will Not Prolong Life

CHICAGO—An official statement was released by Dr. Dimitri Nomochov Tuesday morning in Chicago in which he stated “we’re pretty much almost positive that gasoline has no benefit in prolonging human life and it’s probably not a great idea to drink it.” The statement follows after a period of ten years doing extensive research by Nomochov and his team at the American Institute of Experimental Research. Nomochov states that the team’s most recent experiment in which they paid several homeless Chicagoans to drink numerous cups of gasoline over a course of several days was the most revealing because several of the subjects became overcome with nausea and eventually unresponsive. When asked if they were one hundred percent certain of their find, Nomochov revealed that the team can no longer afford to carry on with the study since they spent most of their grant money on Mentos and Diet Coke.

Get Out of the Writing Rut: Writing Exercise

Have you ever wanted to write something, but as soon as you sit down inspiration simply will not come? Don’t fret. This is common for many writers, but to skip any future afternoons spent staring at the wall begging a muse to bestow you with a stroke of creative genius, I have included a writing exercise that I have used over the years to get out of a writing rut.

First, get four pieces of paper that are all different colors. If you do not have this take four different colored pens or markers and color the back of each sheet a different color.

Then take one of the sheets and cut it into four sections. On one section create a character including name and personality. On another section come up with a setting (a rural town in the middle of May, etc). On the third section write out a plot. On the final section write a specific mood you want the story to convey (happy, sad, mysterious, etc). Do this with the other three sheets, coming up with different characters, settings, plots, and moods each time.

Now take all the characters and put them in a hat, shoebox, anything that you can mix them up and choose one at random (No peeking!). Do this for the settings, plots, and moods, but be sure to put each section in a different box. Once you have chosen your four slips of paper make sure each piece of paper is a different color or has a different color dot.

You should have four story elements. Your challenge is to use these to come up with a story. Don’t be scared if they don’t make sense together, that’s the fun part.

Happy writing!

On cover letters

I’ve just read this article by Michael Nye, the editor of The Missouri Review, about writing cover letters to literary magazines. While we here at the Sequoya Review don’t read cover letters (since we are such a small staff and know all of you anyway, we do it blind), if you want to submit to almost any other magazine a cover letter is nigh-required.

Nye’s best advice is this: “Short and sweet is really the way to go here.” I tend to agree, whether you’re talking about your past publications, figuring out a subject line, mentioning a previous meeting with the staff, or whatever. Don’t talk about the submission—it’ll speak for itself, good or bad. It’s really pretty simple but apparently a lot of people overthink it, so don’t sweat! If your writing is good, it’ll get published. Simple as that.