Riddles

Riddles are an important feature of my Gabriel Finley novels.

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Each book has over thirty of them. My hero bonds with a raven by answering a riddle, riddles get him out of danger, and riddles enable him to defeat the villain.

The reason that children are so fond of riddles is obvious: they’re fun, silly, clever, and sometimes devilishly simple. They’re also a pleasant diversion from linear thinking. The puns and metaphors in riddles give young minds a break from conventional classroom work. I must stress, however, that that nothing in a classroom should be conventional. Children aren’t conventional; they all think differently and most teachers realize this.

I think of riddles as treats, as candy for the brain. Riddles empower children. Confounding a sibling, friend, and—most importantly—an adult, is a great power.

Teachers and librarians at my author visits know that riddles are a prominent focus of my presentations, which always end with riddles. Nothing can reduce this author to a gape-mouthed idiot faster than thirty children asking him riddles. Nothing pleases students more. Riddles rule!

Images and text copyright © by George Hagen 2018

 

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So Many Words . . .

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My ten lb dictionary serves as a door stop, an extra step on the ladder, a weight for gluing things, and a handy tool for flattening out wet crumpled mail. These days, I search for most definitions online. I still keep the real item handy, however, to remind me of the extraordinary variety of the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary boasts more than 171,000 words.

This is an astounding number. It is estimated that most Americans use less than 20,000. I feel an occasional pang of remorse about my lack of range, and I go looking through its pages for words that might come in handy. What surprises me is how many words we have for the same things, or words with subtle differences.

This is why I begin my author visits by talking about the English language. It is a rich hodge-podge of words drawn from the many languages of visitors (and invaders) to England’s shores. Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons & Jutes—Vikings, Romans, Normans; they have all left words in our language that are commonly used today. Then, add on words gathered by the English during the colonial period.

Several days of the week, for example, come from the Vikings. Wednesday  (Wodensday), Thursday (Thor’s day) and Friday (Freya’s day). The Norman invasion introduced French words for many things, most commonly for food (mutton, veal, beef, salad, and soup, to name a few). The Roman invasion brought Latin words like exit, senator, alias, antique, villa, and picture. And it’s not as though we ever have enough.

The OED added idiocracy, nothingburger, butterbeer, Kubrickian, Spielbergian and Tarantinoesque to its September 2018 list. Each month brings hundreds of new words and meanings for old ones.

I’m very fond of workhorse words, those with multiple meanings. The word run, one of my favorites, has dozens of meanings both as a verb and a noun. Applied to an engine, a nose, an athlete, a candidate, a chicken, or a ski location, it means something entirely different. Shakespeare made ample use of workhorse words, too. Consider Mercutio’s mordant joke after being wounded in Romeo & Juliet. “Ask me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” he says.

Do we have too many words? Let me turn that around to you. Would a painter say we have too many colors or too many mediums? A composer protest that we have too many notes or instruments? The rich variety of our language gives spice, beauty, and countless possibilities to discourse. Anyone who uses words in fresh and inventive ways wants a rich palette.

So, go out and use them!

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

How To Begin.

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I’m talking about writing. How does one begin without an idea?

I hear this question from students all the time and I understand. Although I’ve been writing for forty years, I begin many days without an idea. A bare page is formidable. It taunts. It teases. It can send you running from a keyboard. Here’s how I begin: I commit to writing three pages. No matter what.

Other writers have told me that they write in order to find out what they’re thinking. The process of expressing oneself brings out dormant thoughts. I’ve written several books, and in the early stage, I start each day not knowing exactly what was going to happen when I sat down to write, but by the end of those three pages (sometimes it’s four or five if I’ve had a good day) I’ve found something. You will too.

How does it happen?

It’s like running. You start off slow (perhaps even awkwardly) but as you gain speed, your limbs start working together. The brain seems to do the same thing; it rallies your thoughts. Ideas start to appear; maybe you don’t like the first few, but then something useful comes—something you can work with.

On rare occasions I have a great idea from the start. Most often, however, I write the best version of a half-baked idea, knowing tomorrow will bring improvements.

This is the other thing about the brain. It works overnight. The next day, it provides fresh perspective, new ideas, and I’m off and running.

So, begin. Write anything. Three pages. Just three.

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

Our Special Gift

What makes us different from all other species?

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When I was a boy, I recall being told that humans had the biggest brains, which made them the most intelligent creatures. Another sign of our exceptionalism was sentience, being able to perceive or feel, to have consciousness.

Scientists cite plenty of evidence that mammals, birds, and even octopuses exhibit a conscious state, so we’re not alone as sentient beings. Intellect is manifested in countless ways among other species. Communities of elephants, whales, and dolphins reveal complicated exchanges and a remarkable grasp of complex ideas and emotions. Ravens, rodents, macaques, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and sea otters have been observed fashioning and using tools.

I hear your retort. Human beings have an advanced technical facility, an ability to make things, transform their environment, and study themselves. It’s clear they’re a prominent (and dominant) life form.

Yes, we’ve certainly made our mark on the earth. We’ve also made a mess of it. Some would argue that the very way we’ve engineered the destruction of a sustainable environment proves that we’re a foolish and careless species; which gives us no right to pat ourselves on the back for intelligence or sentience, for that matter.

However, I’d like to raise a special gift we have.

I’m talking about telling stories. We employ them to explain ourselves; to entertain, get a laugh, draw tears; to show empathy; find common ground; make excuses; sow peace and turn enemies to friends. The question, “How was your day?” is an invitation to tell a story. When a friend says, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me,” it’s the beginning of a tale that promises to put you in her shoes, or evoke his envy, invite congratulations, or provoke a smile. The phrase that begins, “something like that happened to me, once . . .” offers shared experience, community and comfort. Stories are our currency as social beings. The stories we tell each day not only teach, they cure loneliness, end solitude, forgive and absolve guilt, and make a cold, unfriendly world warmer.

This is not to say that stories are all good. Wars have been started with stories, but peace has also been maintained with them. I cannot think of anything else that changes people as easily and simply. Stories provide that most valuable of qualities: hope. We can right wrongs with them, solve big mistakes, change minds and stir people to action. Perhaps we can even engineer our own salvation on this planet.

That’s an extraordinary thing for mere words to do.

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

 

Ancient Super-Heroes

During my school visits I encourage students to imagine living thousands of years ago, and I ask the question, “Do you think children long ago had super heroes?”

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This usually draws a blank from the assembly. So I mention the myths. Every ancient culture had myths and heroes to go with them. Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Mayan and Greek, just to name a few. The Greek heroes are perhaps most familiar to American children: Hercules, Perseus, and Jason. Now comes the glimmer of recognition, the eureka! moment, because these timeless stories have been made popular again by authors like Rick Riordan. They are every bit as exciting, and probably more interesting than the parade of Marvel characters kids see in movie theaters and on their home screens.

To be frank, I find most of these movies dull and repetitive. More attention is paid to the special effects than to the characters and one comes away feeling hammered by their bombast and fuzzy about the hero.

Oh yeah, you say? What’s so special about the Greek myths? First, these tales have lasted the test of time, passed down at the fireside for thousands of years. Second, their characters are vivid and their adventures compel them to change—a fundamental law of a good story.

Hot-headed Hercules, the strongest man in Thebes, takes on the twelve labors to do penance for murdering his own family; shrewd Odysseus takes his sweet time returning home from war, then has to win over his wife; and Perseus, naively sets off to slay Medusa and bring her head to his step-father as a wedding gift, but discovers that the man is his mother’s captor. These are stories of sly cunning, wordplay, stealth and daring. Often these heroes are in crises of their own making and they have extraordinary psychological depth.

I think there’s a third, critical benefit for kids reading the Greek myths. They convey a sense of story; that is, an awareness of what constitutes a satisfying ending. This is a very hard thing to explain—especially to young minds in abstract terms. You know it when you read it. And you can only know it by reading good stories. An effective tale is not merely a series of events, but a series of conflicts that progress to a moment of resolution, which might be ironic, empowering, or a simple affirmation.

I will probably tinker with that definition for years, but the point is obvious if you read the story of how Theseus navigated the labyrinth and conquered the Minotaur. Edith Hamilton’s version in Mythology is a short, ironic tale of a cunning hero who is changed tragically by his quest.

 

Text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen