Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Becoming a Writer: Nikos Kazantzakis: Zorba the Greek

Zorba the GreekImage via Wikipedia
The Greek novelist, poet, and thinker Nikos Kazantzakis, (Crete, 1883 – 1957), lived half of his life in Germany, the USSR, and France, traveling widely throughout Europe, Japan, and Communist China.
First he gained notoriety as a poet only in 1938 with his vast philosophical epic The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1958); a poem that takes up Ulysses’ story where Homer leaves off. Initially he was influenced by the works of Nietzsche and Bergson, but later he immersed himself in Marxism, Buddhism, and Christianity. In 1945 he was appointed Greece’s Minister of Education

Only after he was sixty years old, did he set off to write fiction. His first novel was Zorba the Greek (1946), became a popular bestseller. In this novel Kazantzakis puts into play his assimilation of the Bergsonian idea of the elan vital, revealing such abstract force in the antics and exuberance of the character Zorba. Told in the first-person by a sensitive businessman who comes to Crete to run a mine, the narrator is mesmerized by the inventiveness, fortitude, and attitude towards life of a noble savage that was Zorba.
In addition, the narrator waxes lyrical about the goodness of communism:
And I made romantic plans—if the extraction of ignite was successful—to organize a sort of community in which everything should be shares, where we should eat the same food together and wear the same clothes, like brothers. I created in my mind a new religious order, the leaven of a new life …
Second in popularity is Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ (1955)—a controversial work. The Catholic Church was horrified by him, and the Orthodox Church expelled him.

What helped maintain Kazantzakis fame as a novelist were the films produced in Hollywood of the two novels mentioned.  

To become a writer I write every day. Since English is my second language, when I write articles I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers.

When writing a novel or short stories I consult Toolbox for Writers

Friday, January 14, 2011

Becoming a Writer: Willa Cather, a Brief Bio

Cover of "My Antonia (Signet Classic)"Cover of My Antonia (Signet Classic)Willa Cather (1873-1947) lived most of his adult life in or near New York City, but used memories of her early years on the plains of Nebraska as the source of her literary work. Her first popular success came with her novel My Antonia (1918), based on her childhood in the plains semiautobiographical fashion. My Antonia (1918), generally considered her finest novel, is based on a successful city lawyer's reflections on his prairie boyhood and his love for Antonia Shimerda, a warm, vibrant Bohemian girl. People and nature are seen as two protagonists in a dark cosmic drama, with love of pasture and landscape coming alive in her prose.

Willa Cather was born in Winchester, Va., but at the age of 9 moved to Nebraska, where her father had bought a farm. The stark grandeur of the prairie and her first-hand knowledge of the life of the Bohemian and Scandinavian immigrants supplied her with both the material and peculiar manner of expression for her novels.
Although she was educated largely by her mother, her knowledge of English literature and Latin was sufficient for her to do just fine at the University of Nebraska. Leaving the prairie for the first time in 1900, she moved to Pittsburgh and found employment as editor, drama critic, and high school teacher.

In her last years Cather devoted himself to literary criticism. Under Forty (1936) contains an eloquent expression of her philosophy of writing. In her later novels she explored the experiences of other early settlers in America, two of the best of these are Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931).

As the years go by, more books and articles that dwell on Cather’s sexuality are appearing. One in particular documents her relationship with a beloved friend Louise Pound. And after her affair with Pound ended, she picked up with Isabelle McClung, and later with Edith Lewis. Yet there’s no public record that she admitted to being a lesbian.

Cather never married. She died on April 24, 1947, in New York City.

To become a writer I write every day. Since English is my second language, when I write articles I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers.

When writing a novel or short stories I consult Toolbox for Writers

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Change Your Life

How to Write an Essay: The College Admission Essay (Sentence Openers)

West College Princeton University, Princeton, ...Image via Wikipedia
When a child advances to the 11th grade, not only the child, but also the parents begin to feel the pressure of gaining admission to the college of their choice. ‘Their’ is the operative word here because parents must evaluate the college in light of their own resources. So, anxiety time sets in big time.

While it can be exciting to gather materials and research colleges, it can also be downright sobering and daunting to realize that the admission process is a complicated process. Yet, one that has to be mastered by both parents and children. What about costs? Oh, yes! If you are planning to visit campuses, you must allocate portion of your budget for that. But before we talk about that part of the process, all concerned must first deal with the most serious of all steps of the process—the personal essay that must accompany the application.

All other components —SAT, ACT scores, volunteer work, recommendations, etc.— while important aren’t as tough as the composition of that personal essay.

Na├»ve students and parents often think that writing that essay is like writing an e-mail. Or that by having the English teacher correct it, and by re-writing, revising, honing, and polishing the essay during the year, that is all that is needed—they’re in for great disappointment.

Admission officers, admission committee members, alumni volunteers, and others involved in reviewing applications rely heavily on these personal essays. No college has the same process, but in general, the essay is the only tool that yields a glimpse into the applicants’ inner lives, their perspective on life, their attitudes, their motivation, ethics, politics, and love or dislike of community. So do not for a second underestimate its value. That is why elite colleges assign a great value to it, with some admission officers admitting —off the record of course— that scores and GPAs are but picayune adjuncts, feeble complements to the personal essay.

And it only makes sense. Just think of an admission officer receiving ten thousand applications for 600 spots. How do you separate the wheat from chaff? Furthermore, most of the applicants have superior GPAs, glowing recommendations, and stellar extracurricular records.

What separates the wheat from the chaff is the personal essay.

Those students who attach well written essays, with serious personalized content, and with a voice that is distinctly theirs and not the voice of a paid essay coach, or even less—that of parents, they —the children— have a fighting chance. Teenagers must sound like teenagers and that is what the admission agents look for: a personal voice. A touching anecdote written with sincerity and in the teenager’s voice will probably propel the application to the top of the heap.

Having participated in the admission process as a volunteer, I once read an essay that not only brought tears to my eyes, but also taught me about the problem of euthanasia. The applicant communicated —in plain, unpretentious, monosyllabic words—  his juvenile turmoil, the anger, and the resentment he felt when his parents put his dog to sleep. If I remember correctly, his concluding paragraph was what caught my eye: “At that point in my life,” he wrote, “all I could think of was that life really sucks.” Adding later, “ … now I feel differently, and your pre-med undergrad program will help me become a medical doctor, for now I revere life and want to make a difference.”

Now, only a teenager can use the word ‘sucks’ and not be self-conscious or offensive about it. Little details about an applicant’s outlook on life can be more telling than saccharine recommendations, engorged extra-curricular activities, or even off the charts GPAs.
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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Becoming a Writer: Virgil's The Aeneid

LaocoonImage by elisemarie via Flickr
Virgil (70 – 19 B.C.E.) was no Roman but a Gaul, since he was born near Mantua, situated in what was then called Cisalpine Gaul. Spending a great deal of his time in both Rome and his farm in Mantua, he dedicated his life to studying and writing. The great Maecenas, minister of the Emperor Augustus, was his patron, as he was that of Virgil's friend, the poet Horace.

The Aeneid

Having spent a lifetime composing the Aeneid and being the perfectionist he was, he ordered that the poem be burnt. This was prevented, though, by emperor Augustus who saw great value in it. Virgil started the literature of nationalism. The Aeneid was written with a deliberate pur­pose: to dramatize, through the revision of legend, the glory and destiny of the Roman Empire. In composinig the Aeneid, Virgil felt he was writing a form of a sacred book.


The epic poem begins on the high seas with Juno stirring up a storm to keep Aeneas and the Trojans from their fated home of Italy, but Neptune stops the storm and they wash up, splitting into two groups on the shore of Africa near Carthage. Venus, Aeneas' mother helps her son into the city of Carthage where he is reunited with his companions. Venus sends Cupid to Dido so that she will fall in love with Aeneas.
Aeneas tells Dido the story of the fall of Troy, how the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left a man behind to urge the Trojans to bring it inside the city. Once inside the city walls, the Greek army snuck out of the horse and began to sack the city. Witnessing the death of many Trojans, he rushed back to his house and took his son and father with him leaving his wife behind him. Later, his wife’s ghost tells him to go to Italy. In Crete, the statues of their ancestors came alive. They went to the island of the Harpies and were given a dire prophecy. Finally they arrived at an island ruled by a Trojan who prophesied for them the many things to come: where they would find their new home and how to get there. Aeneas' father dies when they stop in Sicily.
Dido is love struck by the Trojan hero. Jupiter has Aeneas ordered to leave for Italy, and when Dido finds out that he is leaving, she goes crazy, killing herself.
They return to Sicily and have funeral games for Aeneas' father. There is a galley race, a foot race, a boxing match and an archery contest. Juno inspires the Trojan women to set the ships on fire. Jupiter puts out the fire with rain but four ships are lost, causing Aeneas to leave many of the women and the old men in Sicily. Aeneas meets the Sibyl who instructs him how to get to the underworld. They descend together and Aeneas meets many people he knew, including the unhappy Dido, but she doesn't talk to him. He also finds his father and is told the future of his descendants as they look on the souls waiting for a second chance at life. Aeneas returns to the upper world, and sails to the mouth of the Tiber River; there he meets the local leader Latinus. Jealousies, conflicts, and misunderstandings cause a war among the factions and against Aeneas. Sailing upstream, Evander seeks help from King Evander and his son Pallas. They welcome him and offer their help. Evander admits, however, that he can't give them too much help so he sends them further upstream to a tribe of Tuscans who have a grudge against some of the Latins.
While Aeneas is away, the Latins attack his camp, besieging them within their walls. The Latins rest for the night. In the morning, Turnus tries to have the ships burned but they turn into nymphs. Aeneas gets the help of the Tuscans and is sailing back to the mouth of the river when one of the nymphs tells him that his camp is besieged. He rushes back and they enter battle. Many men are killed and Pallas falls at the hand of Turnus. Juno takes Turnus away from the battle to protect him. Aeneas rages and then holds a funeral for Pallas.
The Latins want to end the war, but Turnus decides he cannot bear to give up Lavinia. They attack the city and the warrior-virgin Camilla gains glory by fighting them off. Many Trojans die before she is killed. The next day Turnus offers himself in a one-on-one match to end the battle. When the match comes, however, Juno has Turnus' nymph sister inspire the men to break the truce. There is another great battle and Aeneas is wounded. His mother eventually heals his wound. He returns to battle and fights, pushing ever closer to the walls of the city. Turnus overcomes his sister and calls for the match. He is no match for Aeneas. When he asks Aeneas for mercy, the Trojan considers, but he sees his friend Pallas' belt on Turnus and kills him in a blind rage.

Virgil’s Intent and Purpose

By calling the hero Aeneas "pious," he meant to make the hero worthy of the gods and thereby an undisputable founder of Roman supremacy. In Book VI, we read how the spirit of Anchises shows forth to his son the credo of the glo­rious future of Rome: "Romans, these are your arts: to bear dominion over the nations, to impose peace, to spare the con­quered and subdue the proud,"
Because of the nationalist impulse in Virgil's mind, scholars and critics tend to diminish his poem, attaching little importance to it, denigrating it and classifying it as a political tract. The fact remains the Aeneid today is a magnificent work of literary art.
Its story is part Western Civilization. Although we may not have read Virgil, nonetheless the names and deeds of the characters he created have become part of many languages: the unhappy Dido, the death of Laocoon, the Harpies, the Trojan Horse, the fiery Turnus, etc.

To become a writer I write every day. Since English is my second language, when I write articles I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers.

When I write fiction I consult Toolbox for Writers