Monday, January 18, 2016

Writing a Fictional Plot Based on a True Story: Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge

I recently read Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. I enjoyed the play, and was about to put the volume back on my bookshelf when I noticed that the author had written an introduction. I’m usually not much for introductions. Cut to the chase, skip the previews—I want to get to the plot as soon as possible. But Arthur Miller’s preface fascinated me.

Miller tells how he came upon the idea for A View from the Bridge, a tragedy about a longshoreman named Eddie Carbone that takes place in the working class neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn:

I had known the story of A View from the Bridge for a long time. A water-front worker who had known Eddie’s prototype told it to me. I had never thought to make a play of it because it was too complete, there was nothing I could add. And then a time came when its very completeness became appealing. It suddenly seemed to me that I ought to deliver it onto the stage as fact…

Miller describes how he tried in the original Broadway production to create exactly the story that the dockworker had told him—no frills, just the unfolding of the final calamity. 

Ben Shawn's poster for the 1965 revival of A View from the Bridge
I think most writers would respond similarly to hearing a great story, seemingly ready made. Why tamper with something so good, so perfect? In the first New York production of A View from the Bridge, Miller followed that logic. The stage was stripped of scenery, a minimal cast of actors wore little makeup. The result was not a success.

The play came into its own when it was revived a year later in London. Oddly, this happened despite, or maybe because, the naturalism possible in New York could not be achieved in the Shakespearean milieu of the U.K. stage. As Miller puts it, “the British actors could not reproduce the Brooklyn argot and had to create one that was never heard on heaven or earth.”

Removed from the roots of the original story, Miller had more freedom to elaborate on it, to develop the characters. He particularly fleshed out the role of Beatrice, Eddie Carbone’s wife. One of the most poignant aspects of the revised script is that Beatrice attempts in vain to deflect Eddie’s overly possessive behavior toward Catherine, his attractive, adopted niece. It is that tragic flaw in Eddie that leads to his downfall. With the new additions to the script, the London version was a hit, running for two years and going on to an extended run in Paris.

In the U.K. production, Miller did the first thing a writer has to do in transforming a true story—he falsified it. In writing fiction from real life, a writer has to mold it, to make it bend into a tale that works from standpoint of the audience/reader.

But Miller didn’t stop there. When a writer adapts a story that s/he hears, the temptation is lift it directly and not to meddle with it, like a fragile diorama. Miller recounts the moment when he decided to make this story into a play: “It existed apart from me and seemed not to express anything within me.” But that was the impulse that produced the failed version. Toward the end of the play’s run on Broadway, Miller realized his personal and emotional stake in the characters:

It was only during the latter part of its run in New York that, while watching a performance one afternoon, I saw my own involvement in this story. Quite suddenly the play seemed to be “mine” and not merely a story I had heard. The revisions subsequently made were in part the result of that new awareness.


Even though A View from the Bridge is about the family of an immigrant longshoreman Miller never knew, the playwright had to claim all the emotions of the story as his own before he could write them compellingly. There had to be some reason that he chose that particular tale, and he eventually discovered what it was. It’s like waking from a dream—once we realize that all the characters are aspects of ourselves, the story starts to come into focus.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka
Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pathos: What It Is, and How Writers Evoke It

Pathos is one of the emotions that writers most frequently evoke in their work. The noun pathos comes from ancient Greek and from the verb πάσχειν, or pas-thein, which means “to suffer.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines pathos as, “A quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness…”

Essentially pathos is a personal suffering, a solitary emotion,, which is what makes it so poignant. Ironically, it is that individual, interior quality of pathos that allows us to empathize with it, since we all have experienced moments of pathos.

Unlike other emotions, such as love, hate, anger, outrage, friendship, etc., pathos only requires one person to create its story. Because it mostly involves the fate of an individual, pathos might be the easiest emotion to invoke, so it’s a good place to start for a beginning writer.

One of the most classic examples of pathos for me is this poem by the great haiku writer, Hattori Ransetsu (1654–1707).

Hattori Ransetsu
Here is the haiku:

The childless woman,
How tender she is
To the dolls!

translated by R.H. Blyth

In this poem Ransetsu tells the story of one person’s life in fewer than twenty syllables. The woman, who is perhaps a shopkeeper, is arranging dolls, stroking their hair, neatening their clothes. Her tenderness toward them shows the reader the love she would have given her children, if she had had them. This one scene, which the poet depicts with a few quick brushstrokes, gives us an entire narrative. This is not a woman who has voluntarily chosen to forego having children. The pathos comes from the sense of loss, the absence of the life that this woman would have enjoyed as a mother, and the poignancy of her showing that love to a lifeless doll.

Even though pathos does not require many characters to trigger it, it is still a tricky emotion. The danger in attempting to evoke pathos is sentimentality. Imagine, for example, if Ransetsu had written instead:

That poor, lonely, childless woman—
Isn’t it terribly sad how she tenderly strokes
and soothes the dolls!

If Ransetsu had written this overblown version, we would recoil from the writer’s blatant appeal to our sympathy. It’s the restraint that Ransetsu exercises in understating the emotion that allows the reader to experience the feeling.


That’s something to keep in mind in trying to create pathos. Pathos is like mercury. It’s fluid. Unpredictable. It arrives with a sudden flash of light. Trying to force it to appear just doesn’t work. The writer has to create an authentic situation, and allow the pathos to flow into it, and once it does—snap the lid shut so it stays.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka
Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Editing by Rewriting from Scratch

When we edit, most of us tend to tinker. We substitute a word or phrase here, we prune a word or two there. We don’t make major changes in any draft. Essentially, we like our own words (who doesn’t?) and we want to keep as many of them as we can. We do that even when we know that a poem or work of fiction or nonfiction that we’ve written isn’t working.

But is tinkering always the best method of fixing something? Many times, when we alter just a little here and there, we are missing an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of a particular draft. It often takes a flawed draft to give us the clue to what our idea really requires. Sometimes the idea needs not what we wrote in our first attempt, or even the fifth attempt. In some cases, we’ve just got to start over.

That may feel like failure. It isn’t. It’s important to see the early drafts of a work of writing not as emeralds, but as tentative experiments, attempts. It’s difficult to do that, since our writings are often as close as we get to our innermost thoughts and deepest insights. But insights usually don’t arrive fully tailored. Sometimes we can’t just sew on a button, we have to begin with a whole new pattern.

I love the example of this sort of editing that I learned about from Professor David Thorburn, who taught the course I took on the modern British novel at Yale around 1973. If I’m not misquoting Professor Thorburn (and my apologies if I am!), D.H. Lawrence wrote his masterpiece, Women in Love, eight separate times. 

D.H. Lawrence
I don’t mean that Lawrence edited the same manuscript eight times. No, he started all over from Chapter One eight different times. That doesn’t mean he kept nothing from the earlier drafts. No doubt there were sections that worked in the very first version. But each time Lawrence began to write from the beginning with no preconceptions about how the book would progress or turn out—or so I like to think.

I’ve recently been trying out a similar method of editing with my own poems. I find this particularly useful for poetry in a lyric form. If one version doesn’t work, it often is self-defeating to edit that version, since any error ripples through the entire form of the poem. It’s better to start fresh, with new rhymes, for instance, or new repeating elements, possibly snatched from an earlier draft, but reused in a different context.

I recently attempted to write a villanelle for the first time. In a villanelle, the poet has to include two lines that are flexible and resonant enough to appear four times each in the poem. 

For instance, take Dylan Thomas’s iconic villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” 

Dylan Thomas
In that poem, the two famous refrains are:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Imagine if Thomas had initially selected as a refrain not one of those lines, but a different line in the poem, say the second line, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”?  It might put too much emphasis on the idea of burning or raving to mention them four times. With four uses of the word “burn,” the poem would have a much more religious undertone, since it would evoke burning in hell. The word “rave” occurring in four places might make give the poem too hysterical a note. If those were not the foci Thomas wanted, the current line 2 would not have worked as a refrain. It would have served his purposes better to start over with a different refrain and rewrite the whole poem, rather than to try to tweak that line in some minor way.

There’s another reason we prefer to tinker rather than to rebuild from the ground up—tinkering is a lot less work. But ultimately, several pieces of flawed work that produce nothing usable are much less productive than a lot of work that results in writing worth sending out into the world.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka
Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Influence of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

I just finished listening to the audiobook of William Faulkner’s celebrated novel Absalom, Absalom! The book has had a major influence on world literature, but, ironically, not in Faulkner’s home country, the U.S.A.

William Faulkner
In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner creates a complex plot structure that is one of the novel’s most unusual features. That meandering architecture does have its antecedents—Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier springs to mind.

The tales of the various narrators in Absalom, Absalom! are filtered through the voice of Quentin Compson, a Harvard undergraduate from the rural Mississippi town of Jefferson, where most of the book’s action takes place. Quentin tells the story in 1910 to his roommate, Shreve, though the timeframe of the story is mostly mid-19th century.

But the plot is not a linear progression through history. Instead, the story unfolds in temporal loops that keep circling back to certain key events, revealing with each telling another part of what occurred in a particular episode. As the loops around a certain incident accumulate, the reader is able to assemble a more complete picture of that event. These loops are like the twists of a cord, or the frills at the edge of a doily, moving forward, but never in a straight line.

At one point in the novel, Faulker beautifully describes the worldview that underlies his highly original method of storytelling:

“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm…”

In other words, each event in a story resonates with every other event, whether we realize the connections or not, just as the characters in the novel seem to repeat the same actions from generation to generation. Thomas Sutpen, the Southern, self-made partriarch who is the dominant figure in the novel, marries two women without divorcing the first. The son that he never acknowledged from his first marriage similarly attempts bigamy, but…well, I won’t reveal what happens for those who haven’t read the novel. It’s like a cycle of Greek tragedies on a Southern plantation, and then some.

Absalom, Absalom! has been described as “Southern Gothic” but I don’t think there’s a lot of the Gothic in Faulkner’s book. To me, “Gothic” implies the presence of otherworldly beings and phenomena, and the characters of Absalom, Absalom! are very much of this world. What could be more material than Thomas Sutpen’s relentless, Balzacian energy to procreate and to build and rebuild his plantation? I would describe Faulkner’s novel as Southern baroque, since it has the ornateness, grandeur, and sensuality of a baroque basilica.

The style of the novel also has a leisurely, baroque flow. Here’s a passage from the opening paragraphs that gives a flavor of the book’s style, which makes it such a pleasure to hear certain sections of the novel read out loud in a Mississippi drawl:

“Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house.”

OK, there are some otherworldly beings there, I’ll give you that.

The novel’s baroque diction and plot were a tremendous influence on several of the greatest South American magical realist writers, particularly in novels such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Autumn of the Patriarch. I would add Mario Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral (which you should read if you haven’t—fantastic book!), and Manuel Puig’s wonderful saga, Heartbreak Tango.

It’s curious to me that so few writers of Faulkner’s own country have emulated either his style or his plot structure. He is one of the few North Americans to win the Nobel Prize for literature, isn’t he?

Maybe part of the problem is that Faulkner is a complicated case when it comes to race and gender, and who wants to touch complexity in this day and age? Faulkner probably thought of himself as an enlightened person when it came to those issues, at least in the context of the time when Absalom, Absalom! was published, which was 1936. And in some ways Faulkner was enlightened. There is a character in the novel who nails himself into his own attic and starves to death rather than be drafted into the Confederate army during the Civil War. The book discusses relationships between the races. Those were certainly taboo subjects for a white Southern writer to depict at that time. Despite those moments in the book, Faulkner could be faulted over and over for his obsessive use of the “n” word and his stereotypical description of African Americans. The women characters in the novel are paper dolls. For those of us still living with the legacy of the history Faulkner describes in Absalom, Absalom!, the book is a grab bag as a role model for other writers.


Or is it that Faulkner’s baroque, Southern sensibility is not in tune with the WYSIWIG culture of Puritan America? Who has time for a sentence that goes on for the better part of a page in a world where stock market trades are logged by the millionth of a second? I experienced this firsthand when I was listening to the audiobook of Absalom, Absalom! on the way to work. I would arrive at the parking lot at my office and I couldn’t shut off the narrative till the actor reading the book had come to a stopping point, so I would sit in my car for a couple of minutes while the time ticked away making me later and later for work, and I paused in my Toyota Corolla listening to Faulkner’s sazerac-infused prose, waiting for that beautiful river of a sentence to finally reach its delta.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka
Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Friday, October 2, 2015

Huck Finn Revisited

I first read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in secondary school. At the time, the book hadn’t yet generated the volume of controversy that it has provoked in recent decades. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a regular on the American Library Association’s list of books most frequently banned in schools because of its attitudes on race. Ironically, the book was originally banned not long after it was published in 1884 by those who found its attitudes toward race and religion too radical and progressive. Still, I'm sympathetic to those parents who don’t think the novel is suitable as a textbook for their children.



Listening to the audiobook recently, my reactions to Twain’s disputed classic were varied. I found myself laughing out loud at certain passages, but seriously troubled by some of his portrayals of black characters, especially Jim.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Twain’s portrayal of Tom Sawyer’s gullible Aunt Sally, and Sister Hotchkiss’s hilarious speech mannerisms:

“You may well say it, Brer Hightower!  It's jist as I was a-sayin’ to Brer Phelps, his own self.  S’e, what do you think of it, Sister Hotchkiss, s’e? Think o’ what, Brer Phelps, s’I?  Think o’ that bed-leg sawed off that a way, s’e?  think of it, s’I?  I lay it never sawed itself off, s’I—somebody sawed it, s’I; that’s my opinion, take it or leave it, it mayn’t be no 'count, s’I, but sich as ‘t is, it’s my opinion, s’I, ‘n’ if any body k’n start a better one, s’I, let him do it, s’I, that's all.”

Twain’s comical shortening of the phrases “says I” and “says he” does justice to the way that American slang can accordion long phrases into monosyllables. I was sitting on the 24 Divisadero bus in San Francisco not long ago, and one of the passengers was inadvertently delivering what amounted to a Mark Twain monologue to a friend sitting next to him. The passenger finished every sentence with, “Nohmsayn,” which I swear he pronounced as one syllable, even though the meaning was eight syllables long: “Do you know what I am saying?” His speech reminded me so much of Twain's Aunt Sally character.

In recording American idioms with loving authenticity, Twain was both poking fun of, and paying homage to, the speech of the common individual. He was honoring equality and democracy at a time when writers were generally expected to parrot the king’s English.

Twain’s vision of democracy versus royalty also emerges in the book’s characterizations. Two of the most unlikeable characters in the book are the shyster vagabonds who call themselves the King and the Duke and pretend to be descended from royalty. From the point of view of Jim and Huck, they are just like royalty in their lazy and parasitic way of life.

But not everything in Twain’s book is democratic. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain mocks superstitious African Americans who are easily taken in, but the whites in the book don’t come across much better. Even so, there is an oddness to the gullibility of Jim and the other blacks Twain paints in the book. Huck seems to be able to fool black people at will into thinking that something they have just witnessed with their own eyes never happened. That willingness of the black characters to believe something contrary to their own senses doesn’t feel either funny or realistic to me.


So I would hesitate to give The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn either a simple thumbs up or a thumbs down. I don’t know that I personally would teach it to young people because of the stereotypes and the incessant use of the “n” word. I can understand parents being upset by those features of the book and not wanting their children to read it at a young age. But other aspects of the book are terrific. And it is laugh-out-loud funny in a great many places. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a book that I would be quick to judge in either a positive or a negative way. It’s a much more nuanced case, in my opinion.

So, what is the takeaway for writers, here? Even though Twain's book was farsighted for its time, it feels antiquated in many ways now. It's not enough for writers to be just a few years ahead of public opinion. Writers need to have the vision to imagine their work being read a hundred years or more in the future, and to conceive their own mission as an artist with the enlightened eyes (one can only hope!) of the next century.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka
Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8, Part 9

Monday, September 21, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 9: The Dialectic of Praise and Lament

Now I’d like to turn to another aspect of praise and lament: the unexpected links between these two seeming opposites. We saw in Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” that there is a connection between praise and lament. One learns to praise well by describing in detail the pains of life. I would like to take this even farther and say there is a dialectic of praise and lament.  

Like the ode, the dialectical method originated in ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle developed a form of dialectic, but this method of reasoning was brought to fruition in nineteenth century German philosophy, particularly in the work of G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel argued that the more an idea or moment in history became truly itself, the more it starts to bend toward its opposite. Eventually, from this conflict or contrast of opposites, a new synthesis is born.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I think there is a dialectic of praise and lament, because in all these poems we’ve discussed there are elements of both. Lament suggests praise, because if we feel the loss of something acutely enough to mourn its passing, then we are implicitly praising it. If it is worthy of being lamented, it’s worthy of being praised.

The other side of this equation is a little harder to see, but I think it makes equal sense. If something is being praised, there is a grain of lament in it, since nothing lasts forever or can be completely possessed. The more we value something and praise its virtues, the more we are setting ourselves up for lamenting it now or in the future.

To illustrate this, I’d like to focus on the final psalm of the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 150. Here is the King James Bible version of the psalm:

Psalm 150

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his Sanctuarie: Praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mightie actes: Praise him according to his excellent greatnesse.
Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: Prayse him with the Psalterie and Harpe.
Praise him with the timbrell and dance: praise him with stringed instruments, and Organes.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath, praise the Lord. Praise yee the Lord.

That’s about as straightforward an example of praise without lament as you can get in the Psalms. When it’s sung in English, there is usually only performed with rejoicing and hallelujahs. By the way, “hallelujah” means “praise God.”

Listen to how this psalm sounds in Hebrew, though.


If you’d never heard that piece of music before, would you think it was a hymn of praise, or a lament? It’s not that clear. It's a hymn of praise, but with a mournful tone. 

I think the closer you get to the roots of these two traditions, praise and lament, the more their roots are entangled with each other. If we are aware of that dialectic, whether we’re engaged in praise or lament, we can allow the opposite to add salt to our praises or honey to our laments, as the recipe demands.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka