~Words Matter~
Rosalind Foley
Novelist                                                                                                                              Screenplay Writer 
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~Words Matter~

Women Writing

by Rosalind Foley on 04/09/15

Alex Trebek likes to ask contestants on "Jeopardy" about unusual hobbies or things they collect. The only things I've ever consciously collected are pictures of women writing, framed prints of paintings. They are on display in my office, these sisters of the word.

The majority were painted by Dutch and Flemish artists. One, I think, is Italian, another, French,  and one, British. My favorite is by the only American, Mary Cassatt. Called "The Letter", it shows the model in the act of licking an envelope to enclose what she's written. It's the most colorful of the bunch, and reflects the sort of calligraphic Japanese influence on Impressionists of the late 19th century.

Nearly all my collection came from postcard racks in museum gift shops. The Cassatt was my sister's note paper. That original painting hangs in the Boston Art Museum. Lucky Boston.

But what, I wonder, are my ladies writing? Are they taking care of business, arranging a rendezvous, or simply inviting an aunt to tea? Surely the young girl with her hair so tightly scraped back in a bun is intent on her studies. You can almost hear her earlier cries of protest at her mother's brushing.

In that first one of the two paintings of the woman in yellow, I imagine her posting the day's expenses in a ledger. In the second. a servant girl stands at a discreet distance, waiting to go to the market with the grocery list. The ever practical Dutch.

The one I think of as The Italian Painting stars an aristocratic beauty wearing pink taffeta trimmed with fur. She lifts a languorous arm and extends a note to a shy young girl who seems hesitant to take it. Why?

Finally, sorrow sits like a spotlight on a stooped old woman writing. She is flanked by two young women huddled in concern. The woman has been widowed, I think, and is in  haste to get the news to her soldier son.

It pleases me to concoct stories for these long ago writers. I am glad to have their company as I write.



Where Reading Takes Us

by Rosalind Foley on 03/27/15

We compulsive readers will read anything in sight, a habit that can use up a considerable amount of time.

What caught my eye while I was flipping through a catalogue recently was a small statue of Saint Jerome, early translator of the Bible into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. Jerome, it's said, left city life for the desert in order to seek holiness through self-denial. A compulsive reader himself, he found it hard to give up his beloved books and took them along. Some religious people understood this weakness and named him the patron saint of book lovers and libraries, anyway.

Legend has it that a lion with a thorn in its paw approached Jerome in the desert. By removing the animal's source of pain, Jerome earned the lion's gratitude. The beast watched over the saint and his books thereafter.

The catalogue's ad writer claims that's why libraries like the famous one in New York City are guarded by lions. Naturally, I had to look around the internet to see if I could validate that theory. No luck there, but I did make some discoveries. The iconic New York lions were designed by one man, Edward Clark Potter, then carved by an immigrant Italian family of master carvers. (These are the same folks, incidentally, who did the actual carving of Daniel Chester Frank's monumental Lincoln Memorial)

Originally, New York's lions were called Leo Astor and Leo Lennox after the men who financed them. During the Great Depression, however, Mayor LaGuardia renamed them Patience and Fortitude. This all seems a bit of a stretch, but make of it what you will.

In any event, writers have much need of patience and fortitude, and who knows, it might not hurt to call on St. Jerome once in a while.

The Puzzle

by Rosalind Foley on 03/05/15

A long time ago I brought something across the street to the home of a little boy who often played with my children. His mother was gracious and welcoming, proudly showing me around her home. Their house was tidy and almost antiseptically clean, but something I couldn't place about it at the time seemed strange. The experience left me with a mental hangnail. Only later did I realize what was missing. Nowhere in any room had I seen a book, a newspaper or a magazine. It was as if the printing press has never been invented.

* * * * *

One of my granddaughters is reading the Ray Bradbury classic, Fahrenheiht 451. I hope she gets a chance to see the movie, too. Do you suppose Bradbury imagined when he was writing his books that people would be reading them on an e-reader?

* * * * *

My mother was fond of saying, "You're only poor when you don't know where your next book is coming from." (She also said I shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition.)

The Art of Language

by Rosalind Foley on 02/26/15

People from other countries claim that, like the atonal Asian languages, English is very hard to learn. I will concede that French and Spanish may be more melodious, and German, more precise, but I'm thankful to have been born in an English speaking family in love with words.

Beginning in infancy we grow our vocabularies from many sources; the speech heard in our homes, radios and television sets, and later, words overheard in public, in schools, in theatres. We assimilate words without even knowing we are storing them. Then, once we can read and write, the doors are thrown open to expressing ourselves and being understood. Amazing, isn't it? Most of us don't consciously root around in our vocabularies for words to impress, but what a satisfaction it is to have available the just right word for what we want to describe or express.

Language itself grows, labeling the new, defining what we see or know of our world. We invent slang, find new usages for old expressions. My granddaughter, when she was at Loyola of Chicago was hired to tutor a young Middle Eastern doctor. His schoolbook English was adequate,  and medical terminology was not a problem. What he needed was help with understanding American idioms.

Proving that ideas can come from anywhere at all, the above thoughts began their journey last week while I was bringing in the emptied robotic trash cans from the street. How, I wondered, would you teach someone from overseas the difference between refuse the noun and refuse the verb?


by Rosalind Foley on 02/16/15

In our critique group we speak of whether something in a piece works for us or doesn't. By 'working' we mean it has all those elements which make for a smooth read; the words flow, the characters are consistent and the dialogue rings true.

Two novels I've read recently, one contemporary, one historical, left me wondering how on earth they'd made it through the editorial gauntlet.

I don't know why I bothered with the contemporary. None of its brittle, petty characters was particularly likable, and the plot was about as deep as a snowflake. Hey, it was Christmastime. I was taken in by the pretty jacket cover.

The historical was well researched on an era that interested me, and I enjoyed that part. The trouble I had was with the way the author told the story through first one character, then another, then another...The effect was like watching a tennis match. Mixed doubles. Writers are advised to avoid multiple points of view. It's distracting. So is uncharacteristic dialogue, as when two 19th Century British aristocrats drop their 'g's comin' and goin' like American southerners.

I regret wasting time on the first novel. At least I learned from the second.