"Wrestling with God" book with Barbara Falconer Newhall

Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith

"Any seeker of any faith will be blessed to read the words of this fine author and observer."

Publishers Weekly, starred review

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I Decided to Stop Bad-Mouthing Donald Trump. But Will I?

I'm going to stop bad-mouthing Donald Trump. Even though my world feels like this crashed car awaiting body work at a shop in San Francisco. Photo by Barbara Newhall

I’m going to stop bad-mouthing Donald Trump. Even though right now my world feels like this wreck of a car, which I spotted in San Francisco on election day. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Last Tuesday night, as poll results poured in and it became clearer and clearer who was going to be the next president of the United States, I made a decision. I decided to stop bad-mouthing Donald Trump. I would give him a chance. I’d keep an open mind.

I decided to do the same for his supporters. Millions of Americans have let the world know, loud and clear, that they think both Democrats and Republicans [Read more…]


Which Way America? Compassion With Francis? Or Vitriol With Trump?

The cover of Donald Trump book, "Think Big and Kick Ass."

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Pope Francis has arrived on our shores just in the nick of time. In time maybe to put to shame folks like the spitwad-throwing, invective-spewing Donald Trump . . . and usher them quietly from the public eye.

Cover of Pope Francis' book, "Open Mind, Faithful Heart." With a picture of the pope.

The two men couldn’t be more different. And I’m not talking about their politics or their theology. I’m talking about the way they respect (Francis) or disrespect (Donald) their fellow human beings.

Some examples:

Donald on Lindsey Graham: “A total lightweight. Here’s a guy — in the private sector he couldn’t get a job. Believe me. Couldn’t get a job.”

Francis: “Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.”

Donald on Sen. John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who [Read more…]


The (Two-Year-Old) Rhetorician at Our House

Two-year-old girl enjoys her bottle in her crib with blankies. Photo by BF Newhall

The rhetorician in 1985 with crib, blankies and bottle. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

What’s rhetoric? I’ve always thought of it as the high-flown, idealistic and/or manipulative language of politics.  But really, it’s something we human beings do all the time. My daughter Christina, for example, discovered the art of rhetoric right around the time she was being weaned from baby bottle to plastic cup. [Read more…]


The Rhetorician in the White House — Or, How I Learned to Love the Passive Voice

barack obama at  pyramids during 2009 cairo visit.

President Obama during his 2009 visit to Cairo.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

The passive voice gets a bad rap — it’s weak, it’s vague, it’s passive. But in the hands of a skilled rhetorician like President Obama, a neatly turned passive sentence is just what our ever-shrinking world needs right now. [Read more…]


What’s Rhetoric? Let My Two-Year-Old Enlighten You

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

What’s rhetoric? I’ve always thought of it as the high-flown, idealistic and/or manipulative language of politics.  But really, it’s something we human beings use all the time.
"I want milk and I don't want it in a cup."  c 1985 B.F. Newhall

“I want milk and I don’t want it in a cup” Photo by BF Newhall

My daughter Christina, for example, discovered the art of rhetoric right around the time she was being weaned from baby bottle to plastic cup.

She’d follow me into the kitchen and say solemnly, “I want milk and I don’t want it in a cup.”

Her heartrending  – but unspoken – plea was, “Please, Mommy, I want my bottle.”

I’d cave in, of course, and produce the desired bottle. How’d she do that?

Michael D.C. Drout, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, tells exactly what went down in that  mother-daughter exchange in his Modern Scholar lecture series, “A Way with Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion.”

This is not a book, btw. It’s one of those recorded college lecture series on CD. And it’s a terrific resource for writers — packed with ideas for creative as well as discursive writing. 

Professor Drout defines rhetoric very simply as “the art of using words to change the social world.” In his lectures he talks about the trusty five-part essay of freshman English classes – and why it’s still something to pay attention to. He also outlines how to write a classic medieval sermon, in case you’re working on one of those.

modern-scholar-rhetoric-lectures-Drout-Wheaton-CollegeBut the handiest creative writing tip from I’ve gleaned in listening to Prof. Drout is the distinction rhetoricians make between locutionary statements, illocutionary statements and perlocutionary effect.

The locutionary statement is what is actually said. “We’ve run out of granola,” I might say to my husband Jon, who does the grocery shopping at our house.

The – unstated – illocutionary statement here is my wish that Jon buy some granola the next time he goes to the supermarket.

The perlocutionary effect is something quite different. If Jon does indeed restock our granola supply by the time I’m ready to pour myself another bowl, then my illocutionary statement has had the persuasive effect that I intended.

Being aware of these distinctions can help writers put some subtext into the dialogue they create. For example:

The mother says out loud, “You’re just like your father. He never wanted to take me to the neighborhood barbecue either.” (Locutionary statement.)

The mother really means (among other things), “I want to go to the neighborhood barbecue, and I want you to take me.” (Illocutionary statement.)

How the son responds to the illocutionary statement can say a lot about his character. Does he let his mother guilt him into taking her to the barbecue? (Which is what she seems to want.) Does he bristle at her whiney, manipulative ways and storm out of the room? (Which is maybe what she really wants.) Or does he perceive her illocutionary statement as a sad ploy and take her to the barbecue anyway? (Which may be what she truly desires in her heart of hearts.) (Perlocutionary act.)

An illocutionary statement can serve all sorts of writerly purposes. Showing a character as manipulative is one. Showing how a two-year-old human being can outwit a fully grown adult of the species is another.

You can read more about rhetoric in J.L. Austin’s book, How to Do Things with Words, Harvard University Press, 2005.

Or you can go straight to the first rhetorician: Aristotle and his The Art of Rhetoric, trans. J.H. Freese. Harvard University Press, 1926.

The Modern Scholar lecture series on CD are too pricey for my pocketbook – around $100 for Prof. Drout’s thoughts on rhetoric. I borrow the Modern Scholar lectures from my public library. These – usually well chosen –  lecturers keep me company on long walks. A really good series, like this one, works off a lotta granola.


The rhetorician at 26 months.  c 1985 B.F. Newhall

The rhetorician at 26 months. Photo by B.F. Newhall

Have you caught any of your characters — or family members — making provocative illocutionary statements lately? You can share them by clicking on “Post a comment” below.