Friday, June 26, 2009

Acclaimed author Don Coldsmith dies
By Patrick Kelley (Emporia Gazette)
Friday, June 26, 2009

Western author Don Coldsmith of Emporia died Thursday, June 25, at the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan. He had suffered a stroke last week.

Coldsmith, who was 83, parlayed the chance find of a relic on the prairie into a series of 29 novels about the Native Americans of the Great Plains before the coming of the Europeans. The Spanish Bit Saga was popular with American readers and was translated into other languages. He was a past president of the Western Writers of America and in 1990 won the organization’s Golden Spur award for his novel “The Changing Wind.” In 2003, the group named him recipient of its Owen Wister Award.

Jim Hoy, fellow writer, lecturer and teacher at Emporia State University, said Coldsmith had a talent for connecting to his readers, even when writing about unfamiliar cultures.
“As a writer, he was just a really good storyteller,” Hoy said. “He had a real knack for universalizing …”

Coldsmith was born Feb. 28, 1926, in Iola, the son of a Methodist minister. After graduation from high school in Coffeyville, he joined the U.S. Army in 1944 and served as a combat medic in the Pacific Theater. After the war, he was assigned to the occupation troops in Japan, where he provided medical care for accused Japanese war criminals, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
After his discharge from the Army, he attended and graduated from Baker University in Baldwin City, then was hired as youth director at a YMCA in Topeka, where he helped to integrate the YMCA swimming pool, the first in the state to be integrated.

He then went to medical school at the University of Kansas, where he received his medical degree in 1958. He practiced family medicine in Emporia until 1988, when he closed his practice and became a full-time writer, working in longhand for transcription. Besides his many novels, Coldsmith also wrote a weekly newspaper column, “Horsin’ Around,” and many magazine articles. He was a popular lecturer on the subject of the West and its history.

He and his wife, Edna, maintained a small ranch on the outskirts of Emporia, and for a time raised appaloosa horses.

In 1986, Coldsmith established the Tallgrass Writers Workshop at Emporia State University to bring aspiring writers together with experienced writers, editors and agents. The 24th workshop begins at the university on Friday.

Survivors include his wife.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My interpretation of “Love Among the Ruins” (Robert Browning)

by Tom Mach
©2009 by Tom Mach

I’ve always believed that poetry is a very special type of writing that forces readers to throw themselves into the poem and personalize it against their own attitudes, backgrounds, experiences, and prejudices. That’s why it’s not surprising to learn you can hand an identical poem to five poetry “experts” and come back with five different interpretations.

I’ve always enjoyed the poetry of 19th century British writers. One that from time to time has been somewhat enigmatic to me has been Robert Browning. Some of his thoughts are so obscure that it was rumored that even Mr. Browning, when asked about one of his poems, could not recall what it meant. A particular poem that has stayed with me ever since high school (eons ago) was a Browning poem called “Love Among the Ruins.” An artist named Edward Burne-Jones actually did a painting based on this poem, and it’s shown up there on this blog.

Here’s Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins”—

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Half asleep
Tinkle homeward thor’ the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince
Ages since
Held his cour in gathered councils, wielding far
Pear or War.
Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

When I first read this poem I fell in love with cadence and the delightful juxtaposition of words, such as “blood that freezes, blood that burns” or “for whole centuries of folly, noise and sin! Shut them in.” But as I read it over and over, pictures flashed through my mind—not necessarily Robert Browning’s pictures, but my own. Let’s take a few examples:

“Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles, Miles and Miles.”
I visualize those evenings on a Hawaiian beach where your can almost see the curvature of the earth as the golden sun’s smile begins to sink into the Pacific.

“Where our sheep half asleep tinkle homeward through the twilight.”
Instead of sheep, I visualize cattle on a Kansas landscape. The cattle have finished grazing and stand still, almost statuesque-like. Perhaps they are already half-asleep.

“Was the site once of a city grat and gay (So they say) of our country’s very capital.”
I’m thinking about Washington, DC Will our nation’s capital someday sit in ruins because of the evil in the world that would like us destroyed?

“Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns! Earth returns”
Freezing blood reminds me of people who have become cold and heartless while blood hat burns reminds me of riots where people will kill each other to force their will on others. Hopefully, though Earth will return to sanity.

--Anyway, those are my thoughts. As I say, everyone interprets poetry differently. That’s why it is such a terrific medium of communication.

Monday, June 15, 2009

It’s not Showing, It’s not Telling, It’s Internalizing

by Tom Mach
© 2009 by Tom Mach

I can’t help but wonder whether television and movies as well as the emphasis of technology-based communications over face-to-face communications made us less sensitive to interpreting the emotions of others. TV, for instance, does all the work for us in terms of letting us actually see an angry criminal or a despondent mother. We don’t have to use our brain to take written words for the true feelings of these characters, have them regenerated into our brains, and internalize those emotions. Our eyes just take in what they see on TV and we are instantly told what the character’s emotions are. No brain-internalizing.

To a small extent, we do a smidgen of “internalizing” when we use technology to communicate. That is, if we send someone an email, or a text message, or “tweet” someone we are send words and expecting the recipient to translate those words into thoughts. However, these are generally short bursts of words (Twitter limits “tweets” to 140 characters), and the sender often makes no effort to show the reader the true scope and flavor of his or her feelings. A tweet might say something like this:

It’s insane the way the government spends our hard-earned tax money on those pork projects. It makes me furious. Something ought to be done.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t “grab” us—unless we can dredge up our own experiences in this topic and superimpose them on that statement. The sentence, though expressed as an opinion, is translated to the brain as “fact” but we don’t get as emotionally involved as if we were presented with a person whom we learn to care about and who had been involved with a similar situation. For instance we can describe a woman released from prison who found a job but because of the high tax burden coupled with her other expenses, was harassed by the IRS and ultimately found guilty of non-payment of taxes. She is sent back to prison, and—no longer able to rejoin her husband who recently filed for divorce—she reads that the government spent a large sum of money studying the sex life of a hamster. The injustice of it all is like a slap in the face If we add more information about this woman—her history, her appearance, her young children, and the injustices she had faced in her past—we find that the simple 40-character comment on Twitter now carries a lot more meaning.

One of the points that writing workshop leaders like to stress in the importance of “showing” and not “telling.” While that’s true, I would go a step further, and make two other points: (1) it is not possible to always “show” in a novel, and (2) when we do “show” we should strive, wherever possible, to influence the reader to internalize a character’s emotions. With regard to the first point, there are times a novelist must “tell” a situation to give the story proper pacing. “Showing” every single situation would dramatically increase the size of the novel and make reading quite ponderous. Take any novel and you’ll find this is true. A character has his shoes shined at the airport and then rushes to the gate. The novelist doesn’t get into a thorough description of the shoeshine person and his emotions (unless these are crucial to the plot). Why would that be necessary? It would bore the reader, lose continuity of the story, and slow down the plot. Concerning the second point, if we’re attempting to show the jealousy a wife has over her husband’s secret lover, we’ll be getting into two powerful emotions—anger and betrayal. We can show these emotions by way of dialogue (a nasty conversation between the wife and his lover), by internal dialogue (the wife bringing into her mind other episodes of her husband infidelity and how she responded to them), or by describing in vivid detail her reactions (the wife throwing all his clothes out the window, flattening the car tires of her husband’s lover, etc.).

Sometimes we have to show but can’t expect the reader to internalize a character’s feelings. For instance, we could show the horror of a cat being cruelly tortured by being fried in a microwave. Or, we can show the majestic beauty of a forest by visualizing the way the redwoods climb through the mist, the dampness of the morning air, and the scampering of squirrels hunting for food—all the while comparing the majesty of the forest with the quiet humility of a country church.

One difficulty I have always had in describing how a person feels is by describing their facial ticks. But since that would require a lengthy discussion, I’ll leave that for next time.