Great Lines

Writers of all kinds yearn for the blissful experience of writing a great line, a line that will reach readers, a line that will be remembered. Readers often have favorite lines from literature, lines they can quote from memory. Here’s a story about the gods that created “great lines in literature.”

The two gods had been hanging about, not doing much of anything. There had been some desultory conversation, then a look in on the human world where things, as might be expected, were going to hell in a handbasket. Nothing new. They had played a few hands of cards but soon lost interest and threw them down on the table.

“What are some of our greatest creations?”

“Hmmm. Our greatest creations?” The older of the two gods considered. “I’m rather fond of our creation of ‘the great line in a work of literature.’”

books and writing utensils.

“Yes! Bro! Wasn’t that fun? There were so many details to work out. It’s not easy to create something that both inspires and confounds. It was rather brilliant of you to add in the point about misquoting great lines. What was the ratio you used?”

“Three out of ten. Three out of ten humans who attempt to quote a great line from literature will misquote it. And one of those three misquoted lines will carry with it an unintentionally humorous or erotic interpretation.”

The younger god grinned in appreciation. “Nice touch.”

“Your contributions deserve accolades as well,” the older god continued. “Very clever to add in the bit about quoting accurately but misusing the line in a totally inappropriate way. A lot of pols and celebrities embarrass themselves royally doing that.”

“Do you think we got a little cruel with our invention?” The younger god took a sip from his wine. “When we directed the muses to put our brainchild to use, they added a few tricks of their own, like giving great lines to writers whose works will never see the light of day. Or giving great lines to writers then having editors delete them.”

“Yes. And I suspect muses might be even more cruel than gods. Maybe because they’ve spent eons giving great lines to male writers who then take all the credit, only giving lip service to the muse that actually planted the line in their brain in the first place. Muses seem to have a better relationship with women writers. I suspect women writers and muses understand each other.”

Painting of the muses.

“But it’s a beautiful creation, isn’t it? Look at Shakespeare: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. And Dostoevsky: If there is no god, everything is permitted. And Dickens:  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ….

“Don’t forget Melville. Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. That’s a great line, you gotta admit.”

“A little bleak, perhaps.”

“Bleak lines are appropriate when you’re dealing with nature. No, let me amend that—when you’re dealing with humans thinking they are the masters of nature.”

“So true. But balancing the bleak lines are the ones that express joy or optimism or strength. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.

“Ah, Maya Angelou. That one kind of sticks with you, doesn’t it? Do you know this one? He did not belong with himself any more.

“Jack London, right? ‘To Build a Fire.’”

“Yes. Always been one of my favorites. Great lines needn’t be elaborate or lengthy. Think Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.

The older of the two gods picked up the cards again, studied them briefly, then tossed them back on the table. “I like lines that exhibit self-awareness and show how humans screw things up.”

“Here’s one you’ll appreciate then, a classic from the 1920s, a follow up to the Great War, handed out to Fitzgerald who shared it with the world: They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

“Ouch. Lines like that make me really glad I’m not human.” He paused to reflect. “You know, now that there’s another pandemic, there are bound to be some great lines written.”

“That’s so. But remember when we put in that provision messing around with the element of time? Some great lines will be written long before they are needed or understood or appreciated. Some lines will be written at the moment of utmost urgency, when they could make a difference, but will be ignored nonetheless. Here’s a prime example.”

He started to recite, but his companion chimed in. He, too, knew the line: “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

“Edgar Allan Poe. ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ Do you know when that was written?”

“Of course I know when it was written. I keep track of our creations—well, I try to, anyway, with authors I love. That story was written in 1842. Before this pandemic. Before the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I loved the 1964 Vincent Price movie adaptation. A total mash-up, but loads of fun. I took human form for a day, so I could watch it in a real movie theater holding a bucket of popcorn.”

The older god shook his head reflectively. “I haven’t taken human form since the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park. There were a lot of writers there: Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray. Charles Dickens, too, of course. The muses complained about all the extra work they were doing handing out great lines, and there were rumblings of a strike to earn time-and-a-half, but nothing came of it.”

Painting of the Crystal Palace Exhibition Hall.

“Is that when the muses bequeathed that Dickens line?”

“No, it was a few years later. The muses were in a good mood that day. The line they gave him was the most glorious run-on. Let me see if I can remember the whole thing.”

He cleared his throat and began: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Photograph of Charles Dickens.

“That’s a good one, all right,” the younger god said.

“He was gifted that line in 1859. Could have been yesterday.”

From somewhere outside, they heard a gentle tintinnabulation – the signal that supper was ready.

They looked at each other with complete understanding. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

“Did you know the original was slightly different?” the younger god asked. “We gave it to Donne differently but it got changed in 1936. Long story. But I’ll fill you in later. Let’s eat.”

What are some of your favorite lines from literature? I’ll bet you can quote them by heart. If you’re a writer, go back and reread some of your best lines. I’ll bet you know exactly where they are.

Writing advice from writers

What do writers say about the process of writing? What advice can we find from novelists, poets, and writers of narrative history? Here are a few voices with something to say:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London

If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I’d type a little faster. Isaac Asimov

You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down. Ray Bradbury

My youngest child asked me the other day, “Mummy, if you had to choose between us and writing, what would you choose?” And I said, “Well I would choose you but I would be very, very grumpy.” J.K. Rowling

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little – or not at all in some cases – should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write. Simple as that. Stephen King

Nothing turns out quite in the way that you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll. Agatha Christie

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. Robert Frost

I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being—what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other. Maya Angelou

The revision for me is the exciting part; it’s the part that I can’t wait for—getting the whole dumb thing done so that I can do the real work, which is making it better and better and better. Toni Morrison

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…. Michael Crichton

I write to understand as much as to be understood. Elie Wiesel

I think all writers should take a drawing or painting class to learn how to paint with words. As Charles Dickens said, ‘Make me see.’ I try to make you see what’s happening and smell it and hear it. I want you to know what they had for dinner. I want you to know how long it took to walk from where to where. David McCullough

Telling stories is so important…Stories keep people alive. Doris Kearns Goodwin

Similes and Stereoscopes

My most recent dive into history started with an attempt to find the right simile to use in my novel. I wanted to describe an episode of double-vision that hits my main character. (She doesn’t yet realize that double vision is a symptom indicating she’s developed the ability to travel through time.) This is what I came up with:

It was an odd feeling, like peering through a View-Master and discovering the cardboard reel was bent and stuck between two pictures. She had owned a View-Master in her childhood and remembered those out-of-kilter images: the Statue of Liberty listing to one side, Mount Rushmore with a few extra shadowy faces superimposed on the originals.

View-Master stereoscopic viewers and reels
View-Masters and reels

I figured everyone would understand this comparison because everyone, at some point in time, has looked into a View-Master and marveled at a 3-D scene. So I was satisfied with my simile, but found myself curious about this toy I remembered from my childhood. I decided to learn more.

Just in case there is someone who doesn’t know about View-Masters, let’s start with the basics. A View-Master is a type of stereoscope. A stereoscope is a viewer that allows someone to look at a pair of stereo pictures and see them as a single three-dimensional image. Stereo pictures are left-eye and right-eye views—views at slightly different angles—of the same object or scene.

Early Holmes style stereoscope
Holmes stereoscope

The first stereoscopes were invented in the early nineteenth century. Because photography was still in its infancy, these early stereoscopes showed drawings, not photographic scenes. By mid-century, things had changed—both with stereoscopes and the pictures they showed. David Brewster, a British scientist and inventor, developed a hand-held stereoscope that used lenses to merge the two pictures. And the pictures were photographs—not drawings—thus adding an additional layer of reality. Brewster exhibited his viewer in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria became a big fan, and interest in stereoscopes spread rapidly.

In the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes (the father of the man who would become a Supreme Court Justice) invented an inexpensive stereoscopic viewer and photographers began producing stereoscope cards of famous people, majestic natural wonders, and faraway lands. Soon companies in Europe and the United States offered thousands of stereograph “views” to the thousands of families that kept a stereoscope in the parlor for entertainment and education. During the Civil War, Mathew Brady, known as the father of photo journalism, exhibited stereo views taken at the Battle of Antietam.

Eighty-eight years after London’s Great Exhibition, the View-Master stereoscope premiered at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The View-Master differed from older stereoscopes by replacing stereograph cards with round cardboard reels each holding 7 small pairs of Kodachrome color film images. The View-Master was first marketed as an educational aide, then as a way to view tourist sights.

Vintage ad showing whole family enjoying View-Master stereo pictures
Vintage ad for View-Master pictures

Another transformation occurred in the 1950s when View-Master partnered with Disney and began offering reels featuring Disney characters and scenes from the newly-opened Disneyland theme park. In subsequent decades 3-D viewers would continue to find a place both on the toy shelf and in the classroom.

The View-Master, the Holmes stereoscope, and several other types of 3-D viewers are still available along with hundreds and hundreds of reels on almost any topic. Some companies offer kits to build your own stereoscope or will make reels based on your own photographs. In addition, there are many books showcasing vintage stereo images.

Of course, the real magic of stereoscopes is what happens in the brain. The stereoscope presents the two slightly different views. The brain merges them into a fascinating three-dimensional picture.

Early Morning Editing

I had a lovely start to the morning. What made it so? My partner/best friend/true love/lawfully-wedded companion knew I was going to spend the day editing so made BLTs for breakfast. Let me say that again, in case it didn’t sink in. He made BLTs. For breakfast.

BLT on a plate served for breakfast to author Bette Bono

I am now ready to dive back into the editing comments from my wonderful publisher, All Things That Matter Press. I am actually looking forward to the hours ahead wrestling with concepts such as the serial comma, introductory adverbial phrases, phrasal adjectives, supplementary or parenthetical dependent clauses, parentheses and em dashes, suspension points versus ellipses, and aesthetic considerations regarding punctuation and font (yes, this is a real thing) as addressed in the Chicago Manual of Style. Life is good.

I know. Some of you are laughing. Some of you are rolling your eyes. But I am pretty much serious about this. Language is a structure. A structure as ingenious and baffling and complicated as the most advanced computer or telescope or rocket ship to Mars. It is also a structure that grows and changes, modified through time by millions and millions of users.

Should rules about language be simpler? What artist or craftsperson would choose simpler tools or fewer options? Would a painter opt for fewer colors? Would a photographer elect to use a primitive camera? Would any person devoted to a creative enterprise willingly accept less precision? I think not. But enough philosophy. Back to work.

The history of the Chicago Manual of Style—a history dating back to 1891—is on their website at https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/help-tools/about.html.

Our Carnegie Libraries

History is all around us. You can find it in your own city or small town. One place to start is the library. Maybe it’s a library that began with a grant from Andrew Carnegie.

Generally I’m a kitchen table writer. I love working at home and have the house to myself during my most productive hours, about 9 am to 3 pm. But our 1940s-era cape lacks central air, so when the heat and humidity become unbearable I head to one of the Norwalk libraries.

The Tudor-style Carnegie Library in Norwalk, Connecticut.
The main branch of the Norwalk Public Library in Norwalk, Connecticut

Libraries play a huge role in the life of a writer, and not just for AC. It’s wonderful for research, reading groups, author talks, writers’ conferences, and books. Loads and loads of books. And librarians. No matter how odd your question, they treat you like you’re Indiana Jones heading out on an amazing quest.

Carnegie Library in South Norwalk, Connecticut showing lamp post and front entrance steps.
The South Norwalk branch of the Norwalk Public Library

Norwalk, Connecticut, is one of the few cities to have two Carnegie Libraries. The reason is that until 1913, Norwalk and South Norwalk were separate cities. There are over 1,600 Carnegie libraries in the United States. A Carnegie library is one built with the financial support of the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie was one of the richest men in the country, and gave away about 90 percent of his fortune. He funded the construction of Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, and gave donations to advance teaching and world peace. His life was not without controversy, especially when it came to unions and workers’ rights. But such good has come from those libraries.

The South Norwalk Library began in 1878 as a reading room holding 500 donated books. By 1885 sufficient funds had been raised to construct a building at 108 Washington Street. That building is still there—it houses a salon now. Norwalk’s first library was organized in 1879 with about 100 books and a rented room near the intersection of Wall and Main Streets. For both libraries, the reading rooms were open to residents, but to take out a book you had to pay a $2.00 membership fee.

The Carnegie library in Norwalk, CT, as it appeared in the early 1900s

Norwalk applied for a Carnegie grant in 1901 and received $20,000 after promising continued municipal support and a building lot. The lot was donated by a local businessman, the Tudor-style building was completed in 1902, and the new library opened in 1903.

The Carnegie library in South Norwalk, CT

In 1908, South Norwalk also received a $20,000 Carnegie grant and completed construction on its Greek Revival building in 1913. Carnegie libraries were constructed in many architectural styles, but often featured lamp posts representing enlightenment and a set of steps at the entrance representing advancement by learning.

Although the cities of Norwalk and South Norwalk merged in 1913, the libraries were not united under municipal administration until the 1970s. Norwalk also has two smaller independent neighborhood libraries: The East Norwalk Library opened in 1913 and the Rowayton Library in 1915.

Plaque on Norwalk Connecticut library indicating it was presented to the people of Norwalk in 1902 by Andrew Carnegie.
1902 plaque commemorating the opening of Norwalk’s Carnegie library

You can find an article on Norwalk’s library history at http://ct-norwalklibrary.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/65/Norwalk-Public-Library-History?bidId= . A list of all the Carnegie libraries in the U.S. can be found at ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Carnegie_libraries_in_the_United_States . The PBS American Experience site offers a concise biography of Andrew Carnegie at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/carnegie-biography/

Bethesda Terrace and The Angel of the Waters

It happened one day in Central Park. I felt as if I had walked into my book …

The magical Angel of the Waters fountain at Bethesda Terrace in New York's Central Park. A scene in The Better Angels takes place at the fountain.

Some of the scenes in The Better Angels are set in New York City. Recently I felt the need to revisit those Big Apple sites to recheck the accuracy of my descriptions. The first place I had to see was Bethesda Terrace.

Aggie May, the main character, is a time traveler, so of course I had her visit the terrace. It was designed by Calvert Vaux who wanted all of time—day and night, all the seasons—represented there. The sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould brought Vaux’s vision to life.

So look at the sculptures lining the stairs, and this is what you’ll find: A rooster and sunrise symbolize the morning. An owl and bat represent the night—along with an open book and a lantern to read by. Tulips and a bird’s nest bring us into spring, roses and an ear of corn into summer. A witch and pumpkin take us into fall. Are the pine cones for winter? What I love about these sculptures is that they are visual puzzles: whimsical and head-scratching and mysterious and beautiful. The Central Park Conservancy says the terrace is “rich with complex iconography,” and they are completely right.

And then there is the statue, the Angel of the Waters, that represents healing. She was created by Emma Stebbins, the first woman commissioned to do a public sculpture in New York City. Vaux wanted the statue to suggest “both earnestly and playfully the idea of that central spirit of ‘Love’ that is forever active, and forever bringing nature, science, art, summer and winter, youth and age, day and night, into harmonious accord.”

The Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. In the book The Better Angels, the main character visits the terrace.

I spent hours at the Terrace. I saw a couple getting married, a man singing, and groups of children in matching t-shirts. And all the time I was partly present, and partly in my story. I looked at the carvings on the stairway and knew what my character Aggie felt about them. I knew which stairway she walked down as she approached the fountain, who she would encounter under the archway, and what they would say to each other. I had walked into my own story …

My son Andrew, a writer himself, says when you write about a place, then go there, you discover you have developed a connection—“an intimate relationship”—with the space. That’s what I feel about Bethesda Terrace.

You can read more about Bethesda Terrace by checking out this fine article by the Central Park Conservancy. http://www.centralparknyc.org/about/blog/calvert-vaux-bethesda-terrace.html

Seniors. Superheroes. Not mutually exclusive.

What if the person acquiring an amazing new ability was not a teenager born on Krypton? Was not a young man bitten by a radioactive spider? What if the person was a sixty-something retiree? A sixty-something female retiree?

Before I began my writing career, I was a teacher. Many of my students loved books about teenagers becoming superheroes, vampires, and mythical characters. Then one day I asked, “What if the person gaining an amazing new ability was old?” And wow, what interesting ideas emerged! Those ideas helped inspire my novel The Better Angels.

Old New York City subway poster encouraging people to offer seats to seniors. The poster reads "Suppose you were old?"
Saw this at an exhibit of old New York City subway posters in Grand Central Terminal.

Every now and then you can find an older protagonist in a comic book or graphic novel, but usually the character acquired superpowers as a young person, then must confront the limits imposed by aging. I was interested in different types of characters: ones who only developed their superpower (in my book it is the ability to time travel) as they grew old.

So instead of a superhero/coming-of-age story, it would be … dramatic pause here … and an abrupt stop. I wasn’t sure what it would be. There really isn’t a name for a narrative form that deals with fictional characters changing as they grow old. Coming-of-age stories follow the move from childhood toward adulthood. What do we call stories about the move from middle-age to old age? Yes, such a story could be a tall tale, or an epic, or a parable, or a fantasy. But those terms do not specifically address the unique issues faced by older characters.

Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City.
Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City. I wonder how many attendees were over 50? 60? 70?

Were such stories out there? I hoped so. But I couldn’t find much. I admit that my research was not exhaustive. (Basically, I googled.) I did locate articles about superheroes that had been “allowed” to age and the dilemma faced by comic book writers and illustrators when decades-old characters never developed wrinkles or gray hair. I found almost nothing on characters that didn’t even get their powers until they were over 50, or 60, or 70 …

Poster which reads The Most Important Thing in Life is to Be Yourself - Unless You Can Be Batman. Always Be Batman.
Great poster I saw in a shop. Yes, always be Batman, even if you’re a senior.

Certainly many retirees feel they are beginning a new life when they leave the regular workaday world. And some sixty-somethings face the same issues as twenty-somethings: where to live and who to live with, what to do, who to love, what kind of family or community to create. This seemed like fertile ground for a story—a story about older adults that are diverse individuals, not solely caretakers of grandchildren and compilers of bucket lists.

And so it began. I decided to create and explore a world in which seniors—so often marginalized or subjected to unflattering portrayals—experience the wonder of new ability, the possibility of new love, and the need to face danger and break rules.

Lincoln, The Better Angels, and Word Choice

The title of my book The Better Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861.

At the time of the inauguration, seven southern states had already seceded. Within weeks shots were fired at Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War. The last paragraph of Lincoln’s address, a plea to preserve the union, is as follows:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

William Seward, who would become secretary of state, had suggested that the last line refer to the “guardian angel of the Union,” but Lincoln decided on “better angels of our nature.” The historian Ronald C. White Jr., in an opinion piece for NPR, says Seward’s term was impersonal. Lincoln’s brilliant revision made the plea “deeply personal.”

White is correct. Lincoln’s appeal is to each individual listener. He pleads for each person to act–to join the chorus of the union. The speech would have had a different, and lesser, impact if it simply referenced hope for aid from a guardian angel. It is a reminder that history is not just a listing of famous people and events. History confronts and envelops all of us. We are all participants.

White’s opinion piece was written in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the first inaugural address. It can be found at https://www.npr.org/2011/03/04/134162178/150-years-later-lincolns-words-still-resonate