In March, 2020, I gave members of my Creative Writing Workshop the following task:
Pick an author whose work you admire or enjoy. Find a passage from that author–fiction, non-fiction, or poetry is fine–that you think is particularly good. What makes this passage engaging, interesting, or special (in terms of the writing)?
I’ve received the following responses to date:
In answer to the March challenge, I went back and looked at an early chapter of North and South by John Jakes, the writer who got me interested in historical fiction.
“Corporal Owens, United States Army. Provost of the post.” “We are new plebes—” George began. “No, sir!” “What’s that?” “You are a thing, sir. To be a plebe you must survive the entrance examinations. Until then both of you are lower than plebes. You are things. Remember that and comport yourselves accordingly.” That didn’t set well with George. “Everything ranked and pigeon-holed, is that it?” With a sniff, Owens said, “Precisely, sir. The Academy puts great faith in rankings. Even the branches of the Army are ranked. The engineers are the elite. The acme. That is why cadets with the highest class standing become engineers. The lowest become dragoons. Remember that and comport yourselves accordingly.”
What a damn lout, Orry thought. He didn’t like Owens. As it turned out, few cadets did. Owens indicated the cart. “Place your luggage in there, take that path to the top, and report to the adjutant’s office.” George asked where it was, but Owens ignored him. The two newcomers trudged up a winding path to the Plain, a flat, treeless field that looked depressingly dusty and hot. Orry was feeling homesick. He tried to overcome that by recalling why he was here. The Academy gave him his best chance to get what he had wanted ever since he was small: a career as a soldier. If George felt forlorn, he hid it well. While Orry studied the various stone buildings on the far edge of the Plain, George concentrated on a smaller frame structure immediately to their left; more specifically, on several visitors chatting and observing the Plain from the building’s shaded veranda. “Girls,” George remarked unnecessarily. “That must be the hotel. Wonder if I can buy cigars there.” “Cadets don’t smoke. It’s a rule.” George shrugged. “I’ll get around it.”
This is one of many places where Jakes grounds the reader in a place in such a way that you can see some place, or some way of doing things, that hasn’t existed in years. It also tells us volumes about serious Orry who wants the West Point life more than anything, and George, who is there for the education and generally is out to enjoy life.
If you can’t tell, I love John Jakes!
Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley has always been my favorite poem. And the goblins’ll get you if you don’t watch out! As an extra curricular activity at John Stricker middle school, I directed a ten minute interpretation of this poem which won top honors.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m 32 years old, twice-divorced and, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a nice person and I have a lot of friends. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. …
… killing someone feels odd to me and I haven’t quite sorted it through. I’ve already given a statement to the police, which I initialed page by page and then signed. I filled out a similar report for the office files.
I have selected this introductory paragraph from Sue Grafton’s novel A is for Alibi because of how expertly Ms. Grafton draws us into the life of her star and main character, Kinsey Millhone.
I have selected this introductory paragraph from Sue Graftons’ novel A is for Alibi, because of how expertly Ms. Grafton draws us into the life of her star & main character- Kinsey Millhone.
I was loaned this book a couple years after it was published in the early 1980’s. I was reluctant to read it because mysteries weren’t something I enjoyed. I had committed myself to read just enough to let my friend know it wasn’t my cup of tea.
After reading the introduction I was hooked. This type of strong, independent female character with a touch of quirkiness wasn’t often seen in contemporary fiction, and I wanted to know more about the character and her life, and of course who she killed and why.
In this series, Ms. Grafton drew me in with her interesting character, but it was an equal pull from her finely crafted mysteries that kept calling me back for the next book in her alphabet series.
I was so sorry and sad that she died before finishing the alphabet.
This series had a big impact on my taste in reading and in my own struggle to create interesting characters.
It won’t surprise anyone that I picked Ray Bradbury for my entry in this assignment, but choosing one passage was quite a chore. I selected one from his short story “The Rocket Man,” which you’ll find in The Illustrated Man. The story is told by the son of a man who works in space. His job carries him into the depths of the solar system for long periods of time. When he returns, he throws himself into family life with his wife and son, but inexorably the call of space pulls on him, and he returns to work. His work is dangerous, of course, and eventually word comes that he’s been killed. The story concludes thus:
The message came the next day.
The messenger gave it to me and I read it standing on the porch. The sun was setting. Mom stood in the screen door behind me, watching me fold the message and put it in my pocket.
“Mom,” I said.
“Don’t tell me anything I don’t already know,” she said.
She didn’t cry.
Well, it wasn’t Mars, and it wasn’t Venus, and it wasn’t Jupiter or Saturn that killed him. We wouldn’t have to think of him every time Jupiter or Saturn or Mars lit up the evening sky.
This was different.
His ship had fallen into the sun.
And the sun was big and fiery and merciless, and it was always in the sky and you couldn’t get away from it.
So for a long time after my father died my mother slept through the days and wouldn’t go out. We had breakfast at midnight and lunch at three in the morning, and dinner at the cold dim hour of 6 AM. We went to all-night shows and went to bed at sunrise.
And, for a long while, the only days we ever went out to walk were the days when it was raining and there was no sun.
Although not the most poetic of Bradbury’s passages–indeed, it is very spare, very simple–he captures in stark terms the essence of loss by turning the sun, normally a symbol of life and joy, into a symbol for death and grief.