Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Henrik Ibsen: Master of Muttonchops

You have to admire a man who tries out a wild hairstyle in his youth...

And then full-on commits to it throughout old-age.

Bless you, Henrik Ibsen. Bless you and your magnificent muttonchops!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I Guess It's That Time of Year

Yes, it's essay grading season, once again. All weekend long I have been keeping my nose to the proverbial grindstone, grading as many papers as my little brain can handle. But deep down, what i really want to do is this...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

My Favorite Russian: Anton Chekhov

What I love most about the work of Anton Chekhov is that two people can read the same Chekhov story, and one reader may burst into tears while the other giggles uncontrollably. He mixes playfulness and sorrow so well, it's hard to tell how to interpret his plays and stories, and that's part of the fun.

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov grew up in the Russian town of Taganrog. He spent much of his childhood quietly sitting in his father's fledgling grocery store. He watched the customers and listened to their gossip, their hopes, and their complaints. Early on, he learned to observe the everyday lives of humans. His ability to listen would become one of his most valuable skills as a storyteller.

(He was the third child out of six...) 

Despite economic hardship, Chekhov was a talented student. In 1879, he left Taganrog to attend medical school in Moscow. At this time, he felt the pressure of being the head of the household. His father was no longer earning a living. Chekhov needed a way to make money without abandoning school. Writing stories provided a solution.

Chekhov the Playwright: 

In 1896 The Seagull received a disastrous response on opening night. The audience actually booed during the first act. Fortunately, innovative directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danechenko believed in Chekhov's work.

Their new approach to drama invigorated audiences. The Moscow Art Theatre restaged The Seagull and created a triumphant crowd-pleaser. Soon after, the Moscow Art Theatre, led by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danechenko, produced the rest of Chekhov's masterpieces: Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

Happy Valentine's Day -- Love, Anton!

The Russian storyteller played with themes of romance and marriage, but throughout most of his life he did not take love seriously.

He had occasional affairs, but he did not fall in love until he met Olga Knipper, an up-and-coming Russian actress. They were very discreetly married in 1901.

Olga not only starred in Chekhov's plays, she also deeply understood them. More than anyone in Chekhov's circle, she interpreted the subtle meanings within the plays. For example, Stanislavski thought The Cherry Orchard was a "tragedy of Russian life." Olga instead knew that Chekhov intended it to be a "gay comedy," one that almost touched upon farce.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Leo & Fyodor

Most portraits you see of Leo Tolstoy portray his "old man" phase...

But check him out when he was in his early twenties!!!

This is perhaps the most famous painting of Fyodor Dostoyevsky...

Here's a sketch depicting his younger days... 


Monday, February 5, 2018

A World Building Exercise

The world is exactly the same except... (insert your own difference and run with it...)

Here are some examples:

The world is exactly the same except 4th place and lower in the Olympics results in death.

The world is exactly the same except everyone is blind.

The world is exactly the same except Thomas the Tank engine is real and he's angry!

The world is exactly the same except the entire planet is a golf course.

The world is exactly the same except no clocks or calendars (or recorded time).

The world is exactly the same except every U.S. citizen must serve two years as a postal employee.

The world is exactly the same except fish can talk and they are as intelligent as human 4 year olds.

The world is exactly the same except aliens have arrived and they are obsessed with soccer.

The world is exactly the same except the older you get the less you can hear/understand music.

The world is exactly the same except single-celled organism will obey you if asked politely.

The world is exactly the same except nobody ever touches the ground.

The world is exactly the same except colleges accept students based upon physical appearance.

The world is exactly the same except your ghost inhabits the object nearest your corpse.

The world is exactly the same except humans are terribly afraid of flowers.

The world is exactly the same except mosquito bites give you temporary amnesia.

The world is exactly the same except you can only visit one place outside of your hometown -- once in your life on a two week free vacation.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Sensitive Side of Stephen King

Horrible, horrible things happen in the stories of Stephen King. His penchant for terror is renown. Whether within a tale of the supernatural...

(The Shining

...or a more realistic psychological thriller...


Stephen King knows how to scare us. That's the fun part about his work. But there's something more meaningful to be discovered below the surface. Despite the pain and gore that permeates much of his plot-lines, Stephen King has a very moral center in almost all of his stories. You can tell he wants good to triumph over evil, even if that's not always what happens at the end. 

Lots of casual readers might not know that beyond the horror novels, and their hit-and-miss movie adaptations, Stephen King has created several works which are deeply personal and surprisingly inspirational. I wouldn't say they are exactly heart-warming or kid-friendly... but they are remarkably different from the horror stories which have made King a household name since the late 1970s. Here are a few examples of King's softer side:

Stand By Me (Based on King's novella The Body)

It's the quintessential coming-of-age story (or a Bildungsroman if you wanna get all German about it.) Four friends in a backwoods town go on a quest to find a dead body. Along the way, our protagonist, Gordy, contemplates his past (the loss of his brother), his present (emotionally detached parents), and his future (aspirations of becoming a writer mixed with fears of losing his best friend). 

The kids are often rude and crude, but they can also be sensitive, wise, and philosophical. This was released in the late 80s and my high school teacher complained that "12-year old boys aren't that emotionally complex." But my feeling is that 12-year old boys often do their best to hide their emotional complexity, and King taps into this beautifully. 

Now the film and the short novel have significant differences, and some aspects of the book offer more depth. However, I think this is one of those rare cases in which the film is equal in artistic merit. (To explain why, I would have to devote a whole post...) Both the book and the film have exquisite moments, including one of my favorite scenes: 


The Eyes of the Dragon:

This is a good old fashioned fantasy novel. Even though there are a few mature moments as well as some violent deaths, it's something that you could read to most kids, and they probably wouldn't have nightmares. In fact, I think the Stand By Me gang would be all over this book.

It seems that Stephen King was sending this book out into the world to see if his readers would appreciate books that didn't fall under the horror category. According to the internet, fans were disappointed. This was at the height of his popular when his readers were greedy for the next scare-fest novel, and many grumbled when they snatched up this delightful book.

Faithful (co-authored by Stewart O'Nan):

Stephen King is a die-hard Boston Red Sox Fan. Lots of his characters seem to share that sentiment.
The most apparent example of this is his novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon -- in which a young girl gets lost in the woods and tries to survive, all the while channeling her favorite Red Sox pitcher. But this story still fits in the typical world of thrills and chills. There's also a baseball novella called Blockade Billy. It's a good old fashioned yarn... but things get dark, so I'm not putting on this list either.  Here's the book I wanna talk about... 

Not a single zombie cat, serial killer, or clown-demon to be found.  Faithful falls into the non-fiction category as it is mainly comprised of King and O'Nan corresponding as their dream comes true and the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series, thus ending the long standing Curse of the Bambino.  


This is an epic time-travel drama, really one of his most vivid and satisfying novels. It's about a guy from the 2010s who is shown a portal into the past (which of course is in the pantry of a burger joint) and travels into the late 1950s. He journeys into the past with an enormous task: to stop the assassination of JFK.

Now, as the they plot suggests, there are splashes of violence in this book, but at its core is not a Doctor Who styled rescue mission. It's a love story. And out main character falls in love while he's in the middle of his five year mission. Will he choose love over duty?  Can he stop a national tragedy and get the girl? 

Oh, and there's lots of swing dancing. What's not to love about swing dancing? 

The Shawshank Redemption:

This is a prison drama, so there are plenty of grizzly details that almost prevent me from placing this in this blog post. However, the original novella is short and sweet and the terrible events (specifically Andy Dufresne being raped by fellow inmates) is mercifully vague. King doesn't usually go with vague, so ultimately I think Shawshank falls in this category of his more sensitive / dramatic works. 

The film is EVEN BETTER than the book -- a rare thing indeed! Screenwriter / director Frank Darabont masterfully takes the best aspects of the novella and expands on them in wonderful ways. The characters are more developed, the multiple wardens are condensed into a single villainous warden, and the subplot of Brooks leaving his prison home is both heartbreaking and beautiful. Also, the film solidifies Morgan Freeman's place in history as the best narrator of the 20th Century. 

Just watch this scene as a reminder of humanity's capacity for hope and transcendence. 

On Writing -- A Memoir of the Craft:

This is part autobiographical reflection and part masterclass on the art of telling stories. It's concise, profound, funny, and perhaps best of all inspiring to anyone who dreams of becoming an author of any genre.

I remember this book was released not long after King had been severely injured. He got hit by a van while walking down a country road. In the painful aftermath, he wondered if he would ever be able to write again. Thank the Gods of Fiction, it wasn't long until King worked through his injuries and his writer's block and began creating some of his most ambitious works of his career -- not the least of which was the conclusion of the Dark Tower series.

The finale of On Writing gives us a first person account of the accident, as well as the road back to recover, and the return to creativity. If you want to learn from someone who loves & lives the art of storytelling, read this book.

Other Useful Blog Links for Creative Writing Students:

Sailing Through the So-What Factor

Wade's Poetic Terms

Guide to Poetic Devices (AKA Actual Poetic Terms)

Join "Word Count Wednesday" -- Here's a Sample