A.A. Milne and titles

milne As time goes by the meaning of everyday words can change. Let’s take the word branding as an example. According to its etymology this word originates way back to the Old English when it was defined as: burning, a burning piece of wood or torch. However, to the 21st century ear a brand ( used as a noun) is the idea or image marketed to a particular service or product. Branding (used as a verb) is equated with a marketing strategy of creating a name or symbol that identifies that product from others. If the branding is successful then the consumer identifies and differentiates your product, hopefully, in a favorable light.

So why all this blogging about branding and brand…well let’s think about the author…how he or she consciously or unconsciously uses branding…. I would have to say the initial “impression” we wish our readers find appealing or attractive is established first by way of the title. After all, that is really the first thing that sets off a piece from another. Considerable time is spent trying to come up with that perfect title, the one that defines your story with just enough of a subtle nudge to get someone interested. If however you are already a household-name author, such as Stephen King, you have already established your “brand” and c’est la vie…you will not lie awake at night trying to come up with that wit or metaphor embedded in your title that literally screams off the shelf or wows the reader.

So, today I bring back A.A. Milne …yes, the same guy who wrote Winnie –the- Poo…but let me remind you that he has many other titles under his belt…who has written a clever piece that will give you a smile or a nod of “yes, I get it” regarding titles. Here is a sampling of his essay “Labels” neatly extracted from his book titled, “Not that it Matters.”

bookshelf blk and white

The Labels

“….I have been reading the titles of the books. That is not so good (or bad) as reading the books themselves, but it enables me to say that I have heard of such and such a novel, and in some cases it does give me a slight clue to what goes on inside.

I should imagine that the best part of writing a novel was the choosing a title. My idea of a title is that it should be something which reflects the spirit of your work and gives the hesitating purchaser some indication of what he is asked to buy. To call your book Ethnan Frame or Esther Grant or John Temple or John Merridew (I quote from the index) is to help the reader not at all. All it tells him is that one of the characters inside will be called John or Esther—a matter, probably, of indifference to him…

But if you don’t call your book Phyllis or John Temple or Mrs. Elmsley, what—I hear you asking—are you to call it? Well, you might call it Kapak, as I see somebody has done. The beauty of Kapak as a title is that if you come into the shop by the back entrance, and so approach the book from the wrong end, it is still Kapak. A title which looks the same from either end is of immense advantage to an author…

Another mystery title is The Man with Thicker Beard, which probably means something. It is like Kapak in this, that it reads equally well backwards; but it is not so subtle. Still, we should probably be lured on to buy it. On the other hand, A Welsh Nightingale and a Would-be Suffragette is just the sort of book to which we would not be tempted by the title. It is bad enough to have to say to the shopman, “Have you A Welsh Nightingale and a Would-be Suffragette?” but if we forgot the title, as we probably should, and had to ask at random for a would-be nightingale and a Welsh suffragette, or a wood nightingale and a Welsh rabbit, or the Welsh suffragette’s night in gaol, we should soon begin to wish that we had decided on some quite simple book such as Greed, Earth, or Jonah.

And this is why a French title is always such a mistake. Authors must remember that their readers have not only to order the book, in many cases, verbally, but also to recommend it to their friends. So I think Mr. Oliver Onions made a mistake when he called his collection of short stories Pot au Feu. It is a good title, but it is the sort of title to which the person to whom you are recommending the book always answers, “What?” And when people say “What?” in reply to your best Parisian accent, the only thing possible for you is to change the subject altogether. But it is quite time that we came to some sort of decision as to what makes the perfect title. Kapak will attract buyers, as I have said, though to some it may not seem quite fair. Excellent from a commercial point of view, it does not satisfy the conditions we laid down at first. The title, we agreed, must reflect the spirit of the book. In one sense Five Gallons of Gasolene does this, but of course nobody could ask for that in a book-shop…”

Esteemed thinker: A.A. Milne

a.a. milne There are a multitude of experts in the world, and I use that term loosely, who are relied upon to tell others what they like. For example; the interior designer tells the home owner what they like, the stock broker tells the buyer what stocks they like; the advertiser tells the consumer what products they like, and so goes the list. Writers are not immune to this phenomenon for reviewers will relay to the public what they, the reader, will like. So one has to wonder, what makes an ideal author? What are the criteria to which one would find a favorable light cast upon their continence…no, let’s have it cast upon their work.

Is the ideal author one that is the designator for the disenfranchised, the author that dares write what others only think… the author that delights the reader with whimsical stories… or the writer that retells the tales of yore?

So for today’s blog, after we ponder the question, I give you a moment to pause with the thoughts from our esteemed thinker: A.A. Milne (1882-1956). Our London born author is best known (thanks to Walt Disney productions) for his classic work Winnie-the-Poo… But please toss this aside for a moment ; for though the charming tales claimed him international notoriety and success, his career began as the assistant editor of Punch , a British humor magazine; he was a prolific writer, gaining recognition as a novelist, poet, short story and play writer, and essayist. Now, I give you Alan Alexander Milne aka A.A. Milne and a bit of wit from his essay, The Ideal Author

“Samuel Butler* made a habit (and urged it upon every young writer) of carrying a notebook about with him. The most profitable ideas, he felt, do not come from much seeking, but rise unbidden in the mind, and if they are not put down at once on paper, they may be lost forever. But with a notebook in the pocket you are safe; no thought is too fleeting to escape you. Thus, if an inspiration for a five-thousand word story comes suddenly to you during the dessert, you murmur an apology to your neighbour, whip out your pocket-book, and jot down a few rough notes….

If I do not follow Butler’s advice myself, it is not because I get no brilliant inspirations away from my inkpot, nor because, having had the inspirations, I am capable of retaining them until I get back to my inkpot again, but simply because I should never have the notebook and the pencil in the right pockets. But though I do not imitate him, I can admire his wisdom, even while making fun of it. Yet I am sure it was unwise of him to take the public into his confidence. The public prefers to think that an author does not require these earthly aids to composition. It will never quite reconcile itself to the fact that an author is following a profession— a profession by means of which he pays the rent and settles the weekly bills. No doubt the public wants its favourite writers to go on living, but not in the sordid way that its barrister and banker friends live. It would prefer to feel that manna dropped on them from Heaven, and that the ravens erected them a residence; but, having regretfully to reject this theory, it likes to keep up the pretence that the thousand pounds that an author received for his last story came as something of a surprise to him—being, in fact, really more of a coincidence than a reward.

For this reason a layman will never hesitate to ask of an author a free contribution for some local publication.. But the same man would be horrified at the idea of asking a Harley Street surgeon (perhaps even more closely connected with him) to remove his adenoids for nothing. To ask for this (he would feel) would be almost as bad as to ask a gift of ten guineas (or whatever the fee is), whereas to ask a writer for an article is like asking a friend to decant your port for you—a delicate compliment to his particular talent…”

*Samuel Butler was an English Victorian writer.

Frances Benjamin Johnston and portraits

Johnston 3 It is remarkable to think that there are very few things in the tangible world and even non-tangible world that are not or cannot be photographed. And though it seems today that everyone has access to a camera, thanks to technology making it conceivably accessible, there was a time where this was not the case. Painted portraits were the fashion and it was not uncommon to commission an artist to paint a portrait of yourself or family members… all for posterity, of course.

And then we had the introduction to the camera in 1839 where sitting for a portrait in a photography studio became the “vogue” thing to do. However, unbeknownst to many today, sitting before the camera was quite unlike what we are used to; but rather an often unpleasant experience. If you ever wondered why the folks back in the “old days” were seemingly less smiley and donning a most stern expression, it could be because they had to hold a pose for what we would consider terminable! In the inception, exposure time for photographic plates could be at long as 20 minutes…sometimes longer. To get a clear image those being photographed had to sit very still…often in the sun! It wasn’t until the 1890s when process photography became available and easy to handle thanks to Eastman Kodak (1888); who began selling hand-held cameras… whereby picture taking was now in the hands of those who could purchase one.

So, I bring back for today’s blog our esteemed thinker: Frances Benjamin Johnston. Her artistic eye and inginuity opened the world of photography up for many women to become entrepreneurs. Her advice, lectures, and creative endeavors are still worthy to take pause in the 21st century. So especially for you portrait photographers, here is a bit of advice from Ms. Johnston. Andrew Carnegie_johnston Portrait of Andrew Carnagie

Sitters Before the Camera
“As to the actual work under a skylight, only a few general hints may be given, as here each must “work out her own salvation.” Do not attempt to pose people, or to strain our sitters into uncomfortable or awkward position, in order to obtain picturesque effects. Watch them, and help them into poses that are natural and graceful. Study their individuality striving to keep the likeness, and yet endeavoring to show them at their best. Avoid emphasizing the peculiarities of a face either by lighting or pose; look for curves rather than angles for straight lines, and try to make the interest in the picture center upon what is most effective in your sitter. The one rule of lighting is never to have more than a single source of light. Many portraits, otherwise good, are rendered very inartistic by being lighted for several different directions…”

men portrait_Johnston Portrait of a few gents last portrait of mckinley_johnston Last portrait of President Mckinley

Esteemed thinker: Frances Benjamin Johnston

johnston 4 I find black and white photography exceptionally aesthetic; for the tones and hues are not described just by their names, but are far reaching…crossing into spectrums that range from dark to light…tipping the scale of extremes that include graying nights to snowy days. Composition and subjects rely on form, strong lines, the distinction of dark and light that are so simply beautiful they need not a rainbow of colors to define image.

And so it was for our early photographers who were the masters of this craft. I find work in what some contemporaries may interpret as slow and cumbersome as invigorating; the darkroom for me was where magic took place, where you could manipulate a picture not through digital technology, but rather with time and your hands. .. where you would hold your breath as a picture slowly came alive floating in a vat of slippery liquid. And then like a dripping handkerchief, hang it up to dry…

Today’s blog I bring you Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864- 1952) a most remarkable woman who gained prominence as a great photographer during a time when women had few rights and men dominated the field. She studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris and at the Art Students League, Washington, DC. In 1894 she opened a photography studio and gained international recognition through her photographs of presidents, portraits of the elite, and her work as a photojournalist and architectural photographer.

Mammoth cave
(Mammoth Cave)

In celebration of her artistic prowess, I bring you today an excerpt from “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera” by Frances Benjamin Johnston, in Ladies Home Journal dated 1897. Let us reflect on the advice of our esteemed thinker.

“When Distinction and Originality are Aimed at:
To those ambitious to do studio portraiture I should say, study art first and photography afterward , if you aim at distinction and originality. Not that a comprehensive technical training is unnecessary, for, on the contrary a photographer needs to understand his tools as thoroughly as a painter does the handling of his colors and brushes. Technical excellence, however, should not be the criterion where picturesque effect in concerned. In truth, to my mind, the first precept of artistic photography is, “Learn early the immense difference between the photography that is merely a photograph, and that which is also picture… ”

Ray Bradbury and writing

details Writing is not something you have to do, but rather something that stirs and courses about so- much- so that you have a yearning to release it… much like a firefly in a jar buzzing around, hitting the sides…all lit up flitting up and down… so pretty to look at but we know it must be set free. Writing is not something you talk about doing but rather you just do because it feels right.

And as a writer one is an observer… taking note of this or that… things that are ordinary, but presented in an often unordinary way. And then you store them up and at the right time, they (these observations) are liberated not unlike our firefly. Perhaps this is how we feed our imaginations.

And so today I bring back our Esteemed Thinker: Ray Bradbury during his early years as a young writer (1938). Let us take a few moments to admire his youthful intuition as an observer….

“I am not the keen plotter of life. That will come later, too, I hope. But instead I love the small description, the things we all notice, but never notice, the things, the minute from and the beauty of things that are stored in the subconscious and only conjured forth infrequently in life. These things must I write about.”

Esteemed thinker: Ray Bradbury

ray Bradbury There is something very daunting when you enter a library; we are absorbed by the immediate sense of quiet, the cerebral, and an appreciation of timelessness. For those who are readers, writers, and book lovers, it is analogous to a child being let loose in a toy store…where one may choose not one but often as many as 20 items for free. The only caveat is that you must return them. But alas, that seems quite fair.

The library for me is a wonderland; however it is a place that I worry about. Once frequented, many are passed up, some say out-dated…and for others an inconvenient way to find a book. Nevertheless, those of you who have not visited one in awhile drop by and window shop…meander around the shelves … it is like a stroll along the beach where footsteps were forever left behind, only here there are books.

In today’s blog I invite you to revisit the library with the esteemed thinker: Ray Bradbury, (1920-2012) an American writer especially renowned for his work in the genre of science fiction. Bradbury’s career as an author started when he was a child and spanned for over 70 years. His reputation was clenched with his collection of books in 1950 titled under The Martian Chronicles.

Now, let us steal a moment for one of our iconic writers of the 20th century; here are his words from the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011)… enjoy his unique analogy …

“The library was the great watering place where animals, large and small, came from the night to drink and smile at each other across the green-glass-shadowed glades between the book-mountains. So here you were gamboling on spring nights like lambs, lolling like warm trout in winy springs on summer nights, racing the curled mice-leaves on autumn nights, always to the same Monday place, the same Monday building. You ran, you dawdled, you flew, but you got there. And there was always that special moment when, at the big doors, you paused before you opened them out and went in among all those lives, in among all those whispers of old voices so high an so quiet it would take a dog, trotting between the stacks, to hear them. And trot you did.”

Esteemed thinker: John Muir

muir I am enamored by the seasons in the same way a child discovers the tide; I embrace its mysterious changes like the youngster who scampers in and out, learning that the water goes to- and- fro without ever taking time to rest. For me each new blossom, each tree that sheds its leaves, each bulb that springs up with a flower more lovely than the next is complete wonderment. And so, I enjoy spying upon Mother Nature’s children as if they were my own rather than being a surrogate; taking moments to photograph her family. (I dare share with you a roadside field that decided to flaunt its summer beauty.)

wildflowers

Today’s blog reflects upon the words of the esteemed thinker: John Muir (1838-1914), one of the earliest preservationist in the United States. He was a naturalist, writer, conservationist, and founder of the Sierra Club. John Muir is noted as the Father of the National Park Service, convincing the U.S. government to protect Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier as national parks through his writing. John Muir’s words came from his lifetime work as a wilderness explorer, and his unyielding desire to maintain a natural environment that would not be exploited; still a rallying cry for all who wish to preserve our world.

So, I take you out of your hectic world into a day with John Muir and his observation of trees; feast upon this vivid excerpt from Steep Trails.

“No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with the sugar pine. In most coniferous trees there is a sameness of form and expression which at length becomes wearisome to most people who travel far in the woods. But the sugar pines are as free from conventional forms as any of the oaks. No two are so much alike as to hide their individuality from any observer. Every tree is appreciated as a study in itself and proclaims in no uncertain terms the surpassing grandeur of the species. The branches, mostly near the summit, are sometimes nearly forty feet long, feathered richly all around with short, leafy branchlets, and tasseled with cones a foot and a half long. And when these superb arms are outspread, radiating in every direction, an immense crownlike mass is formed which, poised on the noble shaft and filled with sunshine, is one of the grandest forest objects conceivable. But though so wild and unconventional when full-grown, the sugar pine is a remarkably regular tree in youth, a strict follower of coniferous fashions, slim, erect, tapering, symmetrical, every branch in place. At the age of fifty or sixty years this shy, fashionable form begins to give way. Special branches are thrust out away from the general outlines of the trees and bent down with cones. Henceforth it becomes more and more original and independent in style, pushes boldly aloft into the winds and sunshine, growing ever more stately and beautiful, a joy and inspiration to every beholder…”