Believing in language

Elie Wiesel "Open Heart"In your final hours, what words would you share with the world?

I’ve recently finished an inspiring life reflection by an Auschwitz survivor and remarkable human being. Elie Wiesel’s “Open Heart” shares his thoughts after 82 years, penned after facing his own mortality a la emergency open heart surgery. An author of more than 50 books, Wiesel has lived an impressive life in all regards. He’s been awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary knighthood of the British Empire, and Nobel Peace Prize. While digesting the intimate thoughts of what matters most to him, I was struck by these words in Chapter 25:

I still believe in man, in spite of man. I still believe in language, even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind. I continue to cling to words, because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension, rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal; to wound or console.

Like Wiesel, I too believe in language. Granted, I’m bias, but I see words as the shining communication medium to articulate human experiences beyond our own selves. Some may say music, dance, or art are their preferred method, but for me, words are the true “instruments of comprehension.” Why? When I consider it, words live at the heart of many of my most meaningful life moments: My prayers, uttered to a listening God; the quiet realizations I’ve written in journals during the past 20 years; notes and letters from people I love; the special words spoken at my wedding ceremony; and my whispered, teary welcome to my first baby.

Clinging to words suits my soul. You too?

Pioneer Day: Can you imagine leaving books behind?

C.C.A. Christensen painting

Every year on July 24, Utah celebrates a state-wide holiday: Pioneer Day. The celebration of parades, fireworks, and rodeos honors the state’s settlers, Mormon pioneers, who first entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. After leaving the comforts of their sturdy homes and trekking for months through unknown lands, those pioneers must have felt such relief to finally see the “right place” to settle their homes.

Now what does this have to do with writing? Recently I read a journal entry of one of my own pioneer ancestor,  Danish-born American folk artist, C.C.A. Christensen. He wrote the following in 1856 when coming through Iowa City:

At the campground we encountered our first trials, in that we had to give up books. . . . We were only allowed to take fifteen pounds in weight for each person who was to travel with the handcarts, and that included our tinware for eating, bedding, and any clothing we did not wish to carry ourselves. . . .”

“Our train consisted of between thirty and forty handcarts. Each of these had an average of five person. . . . It was usually necessary for small children to ride in the handcart which the father, mother, and older brothers and sisters of the family pulled. . . .”

These people didn’t have tablets, iPhones, and TV to entertain them. They had no days off, no air conditioning, or comfortable cars. Theirs was a reality of daily challenges, one of back-breaking work, with their faith alone to motivate them. Books were their connection to anything beyond the trails and trials before them. Giving up books must have felt like leaving behind good friends.

I’m glad to live with modern comforts. And grateful to Christensen, who painted the pioneers on the plains, leaving behind first-hand illustrations. He said, “History will preserve much, but art alone can make the narration of the suffering of the Saints comprehensible for the following generation.”

Image: A detail from the “Mormon Panorama” series, as described here.

 

The pleasurable act of reading

Why I read

 

Know that thrilling feeling when you meet someone by happenstance and the two of you instantly connect? That’s how I feel about a book I started this week.

As part of my pre-baby nesting rush, I asked a dear friend to take me on a library run a couple weeks ago (thanks, Priscilla!) Knowing I’d have hours of feeding time ahead, I ambitiously brought home an armful of books, hoping for potential “friends” to keep me company. Granted, I’m going at it slower than I’d like (already had to renew library reservations), but I’m so glad Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (2014) caught my eye in the “Popular” section.

The book’s theme (writing about reading) complements this blog’s intentions of “writing about writing.”  She’s endeared herself to me, this author, knowing just how to phrase poignant feelings I have about reading, words, and literature. A few share-worthy gems from her introduction:

Reading has, at any rate, the virtue of being one-to-one. It’s just you and the book, enclosed within a private space; it some ways that means it’s just you, alone with an inert object you are temporarily bringing to life. (p. 6)

Isn’t that lovely? It’s true, reading is such an intimate act. Yet, there’s also a sense of conversational partnership between the reader and the writer. I also love this:

Reading literature is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different. It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as to the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else’s past. This may be disheartening, but it can also be strangely consoling at times. (p. 6)

I completely agree. Reading (and writing) allows one to transport through time and space, experiencing another’s thoughts. Lesser’s words on revisiting books mirror my recent assertion that “books are friends to be revisited again and again,” with the beautiful analogy:

Even the second or third or tenth time you read it, a book can surprise you, and to discover a new writer you love is like discovering a whole new country. (p. 4)

A whole planet of reading awaits. For now, I’m content keeping track of my when-I-can-get-them moments with books on my new Goodreads account, admiring the tiny sleeping beauty in my arms.

Please share: What are your suggestions on authors and books you love?

 

7 things I want to teach my daughter about books

7 things I want to teach my daughter about booksHere I sit, belly ripe and heart full, ready to welcome my first baby. At 39 weeks along, she’ll be making her world debut very soon. As I told my husband recently about this coming babe, I believe if there’s one thing we can do to grant her a head-start on living life fully, it’s teaching her to love reading. Here’s an open letter to our daughter; my take on why books matter so very much.

Dear little one,

We are so excited to meet you! We’re here to help you learn and grow, and feel honored for the privilege of being your parents and love you already. As your mama, I will teach you to educate yourself, explore the world, and become familiar with the thoughts and lessons of those who have come before you. Thanks to my sweet auntie who hosted a book baby shower for you, and many people who love you, we have a little library prepared for your earliest days. Here are seven things I’ve learned about books:

1. Books are friends to revisit again and again.

From the picture books of your childhood to the chapter books you’ll read later on, books can feel like friends. C.S. Lewis wrote, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once…” and “Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.” When you go back to books from yesteryear, you read from a different perspective. Some of my very favorites, like The Princess Bride, I reread every year.

2. Books allow you to visit new places without ever leaving the room.

See the world! From Winnie the Pooh’s sweetly simple Hundred Acre Wood to the intergalactic space visions of Ender’s Game, there are many places your mind can go when reading. Your imagination has the power to paint mental pictures that feel more real than watching movies.

3. Books feed your mind. Choose to fill it with the good and uplifting.

In one of my all-time favorite speeches, Douglas Callister said, “If we know the books located at the bedside, we know much about the man.” This is true. He added an important thought from President David O. McKay: “With companions, so with books. We may choose those which will make us better, more intelligent, more appreciative of the good and beautiful in the world, or we may choose the trashy, the vulgar, the obscene, which will make us feel as though we’ve been ‘wallowing in the mire.'”

4. Don’t waste your time with books you don’t like.

In addition to choosing good books, explore what interests you. Berenstein Bears books? Good call. Books on ancient Aztecs? Cool. Books on how to make finger puppets? Right on. I’ll warn you now there may be school-assigned books in the future you don’t prefer. But when selecting your own reading material, never feel you have to finish a book if it becomes drudgery to read. Life’s too short! There are too many hundreds of thousands of fascinating books out there to waste time with books you don’t like. As Wendy Lesser said in her book Why I Read, “there is nothing shameful about giving up a book in the middle: that is the exercise of taste.”

5. It’s OK to write (and even color) in books you love.

Make sure you own it, though. We never write in library books, k? When I say this, I’m thinking about all the scriptures I’ve highlighted, and non-fiction books I refer back to again and again. Some words merit highlighting so you can find them again later. Plus, adding your own thoughts and drawings gives you a snapshot later of who you were when you first read them.

6. Books are a tangible manifestation of knowledge.

While the Internet is a source of limitless information, there’s something about physically turning a page that can’t be replaced. Of course, make use of computers and whatever other wiFi-driven inventions that will arise in your lifetime, but also keep books close at hand. Especially books like journals, which let you touch the written word. I’ve written decades of  journals with the intention of sharing them with you someday, when you’re ready.

7. You can write your own stories!

When you’ve learned how to write words, you’re never too young to write your own stories. As I shared before , when I was six I crayon-illustrated and wrote my first books on copy paper, and created library cards for my family to “check out” my growing collection. You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to, but I’ll be giving you notebooks and journals to capture your own stories.

I can hardly wait for our adventures together to begin.

Love always,

Your mama

My beautiful daughter

 

Addendum

February 6, 2014: I must add, our lovely daughter made her world debut the day after this post. She’s a Groundhog Day girl, and meeting her has filled places in my heart I didn’t know existed. I’ve already read a couple books to her, and so have her grandparents. Welcome, little one!

Q & A with Scott McKain + win a signed copy of his new book “Create Distinction”

Last year I heard distinction expert Scott McKain give a keynote address. His vivacious and mesmerizing presentation hooked me into fandom. You see, Scott not only gives sound advice for business and life – he’s the living example of it. Besides being a best-selling author and well-known speaker, he sets himself apart by truly caring about people. I love that. You’ll soon see why I respect Scott so much: He’s as distinct as they come. And lucky you, he’s giving away a signed copy of his brand new book. Read on to see how you can win it!

Q. Congrats on your book, Create Distinscott mckainction (2013) launched this month in nationwide airport bookstores, from LAX to JFK. What’s it like seeing your own idea become a tangible reality?

Thank you! You’ve really touched upon the most gratifying — and surreal — aspects of being an author. When I’m speaking, I love the instantaneous response of the audience, yet wonder if there is any tangible impact. When I see the book on a shelf in the bookstore, or see someone reading the book on a plane, I’m thrilled because there is a sense of both accomplishment and completion. At the same time, it does seem quite extraordinary that something beginning as thoughts jotted on a legal pad in Starbucks can become a tangible product — one I’m fortunate that some people find of value.

Q. You’ve written three Amazon.com No. 1 business bestsellers – what makes the latest book stand out from your others?

This is the first time I’ve followed up on a previous book. “Create Distinction” is an expanded and updated version of my previous book, “Collapse of Distinction.” I wanted to do this for a couple of reasons; first, after the original was named to the “Top Ten Business Books of the Year” list by the Miami Herald and other major newspapers, I felt the previous publisher — and this author — didn’t quite do enough to maximize its potential in the marketplace. A “re-launch” would give the material the opportunity to find a wider audience.

However, I also wanted to validate the points of the earlier book by showing how the distinctive organizations I mentioned had performed since the original work. Any author can create a theory of how a business should approach the marketplace, or how customers should be served. The critical question I hear from corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, however, is, “Will this work in the real world?” “Create Distinction” provided me the opportunity to deliver the evidence that the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Q. In addition to being a celebrated author, you’re an energetic storyteller. I know, having experienced your powerful keynote speech in 2012. Which do you believe creates more distinction and why: writing or speaking?

The best answer is not new or original to me, however, it’s the best one: The magic is in the mix.

We all are aware of speakers with a compelling presentation style who have nothing of significance to say — they’re all style and no substance. On the other hand, there are authors who have deep content, but their presentation style doesn’t create audience engagement.

In today’s media-centric culture, it’s not about the “or” — it’s about “and.” The most distinctive content providers will be able to both write powerful stories and deliver compelling presentations. That’s a level to which I aspire.

Q. You learned a lot about pleasing customers when working at your parent’s small town grocery store as a kid. Back then, did you ever imagine yourself being an international expert on distinction?

NO! It never crossed my mind in Crothersville, Indiana that I would ever become an “international” anything! While I don’t like referring to myself as “lucky” — because that seems to imply mere random circumstance — I constantly see myself as extremely fortunate. I have been blessed with extraordinary mentors and colleagues, and have been encouraged by my family and friends to travel the “road not taken.” And, as the classic Frost poem proclaims, for me, too, it has made all the difference.

Q. Getting theoretical here, but if everyone avoided stifling sameness, would anyone be distinct?

It’s a great question. And, unfortunately, because of all the cliches we hear as kids, I don’t think we are in danger of it occurring. We are warned against standing out and attracting attention — and we have such a strong desire to “fit in” with our peers — that I believe we are predisposed to similarity.

Theoretically, yes, you’re right — if everyone was distinctive, then it would be common to do so. For some reason, that reminds me of the scene in Monty Python’s classic film, “Life of Brian,” where the throng is awaiting any words from the man they erroneously presume is holy. In his irritation to get them to stop following him, Brian shouts, “You are ALL individuals.” And, they respond in unison, “Yes! We are all individuals!”

My point is that uniformity and conformity have become so common, the sameness is — as you suggest — stifling. While it probably wouldn’t work for us ALL to become unique, my research and experience has taught me that YOUR business will profit and YOUR career will benefit if you create distinction.

create distinction

  WIN your own SIGNED COPY of “Create Distinction!”

To enter, “Like” this post and answer one of these questions in the comments:  What makes you distinct? OR Why does creating distinction matter? I’ll pick the most distinct answer as the winner! Be sure to comment soon – I’ll announce the winner Friday, April 5, 2013.

Connect with Scott McKain

See his site: createdistinction.com

Send him a tweet: @scottmckain

Check out his blog: mckainviewpoint.com

 

Can't get enough of 'The Princess Bride'

Can’t get enough of ‘The Princess Bride’

 

It just so happens August 12 marks two monumental events. First, the author of “The Princess Bride” was born this day in 1931. Happy birthday to American novelist, playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman, the man who introduced us to Wesley and Buttercup’s unquenchable love that can’t be stopped by death, Inigo Montoya’s vengeance for the seven-fingered man, and the fearsome Cliffs of Insanity.

Goldman’s book feels like an old friend to me. In the four times I’ve read it, twice I’ve whizzed through the 398 pages in a day. The high adventure and true love are that good. Perhaps you’ve read the book? I’m ready to bet you’ve seen the 1987 movie – and can quote it on cue. Am I right? Here’s a sampling you may know by heart:

Westley: As you wish.

Inigo Montoya: My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Vizinni: Inconcievable.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Miracle Max: Get back, witch.
Valerie: I’m not a witch, I’m your wife. But after what you just said, I’m not even sure I want to be that any more.

What the Movie’s Missing from the Book

First, the whole title of the book is “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The Princess Bride” and the book you’d buy on Amazon or find at the library  is the “good parts version” abridged by William Goldman. Did you know it’s (kinda) an abridgement?

You see, two stories happen while you’re in Guilder and Florin; Goldman shares the history of the Florinese author Morgenstern (which he so wittily makes up) and you also get glimpses into Goldman’s real life (or at least what he shares in his asides about his famous shrink wife and fat kid in drawn-out parentheses. Goldman must be the best in the world at it…don’t they have a Nobel Prize for things like that? I mean, not just anybody can make the parantheses be an art form, but he does. We really ought to petition the Nobel committee…You’ve just read my feeble attempt to mirror the great Goldman’s asides.) Goldman never fails to make me laugh out loud.

The book reveals the history of the characters, like young Inigo Montoya training for years to became the world’s greatest swordsman and defend his father’s honor. We see Fezzik the Giant, the gargantuan dim-wit who would rhyme all day (hey) if his parents didn’t make him wrestle for money. And although there have been “five great kisses since 1642 B.C., when Saul and Delilah Korn’s inadvertent discovery swept across civilization” Westley and Buttercup’s first kiss “left them all behind” (p. 55).

Making it Personal with Princess Buttercup

Forgive me for a sappy personal moment here, but I have ties to the story. Here’s a quote that summarizes the second monumental event in history on August 12, at least for me:

The Priest: Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togethew today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam. And wove, twue wove…

It’s Goldman’s birthday today, and also my husband and my wedding anniversary! (Did the stars align when we chose our date, or what?) Reading through the novel for my fourth time as a young wife, my jaw dropped when I read Westley’s explanation to Buttercup about the Dread Pirate Roberts on Page 184:

“‘What I am about to tell you I have never said before and you must guard it closely.’ I of course said I would. ‘I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts,’ he said, ‘my name is Ryan. I inherited this ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts just as you will inherit it from me.’ “

You guessed it: My husband’s name is Ryan. Crazy huh? It was only fitting we dressed up as Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts and Buttercup for Halloween.

William Goldman, thanks for sharing “The Princess Bride” with the world. And happy anniversary to my wove, twue wove.

And you, reader friend, I wanna hear it: What’s your favorite part/quote of “The Princess Bride,” either book or movie?