And to All a Good Night

young boy in Santa hat

“Ever since I was young, I hoped I would some day be a jolly fat man.”

Mrs. Claus looked up from the book she was reading, holding a small glass of brandy. “I think you should write a memoir,” she said to her husband.

Santa turned to look at her, still leaning over the drawing he was doing of a new design for a toy rocket. “Do what?” he said. “What did you say?”

“I think you should write a memoir. They’re quite the fad these days, and you’ve done a lot of interesting things.”

He turned back to his drawing. “I don’t have the imagination to be a writer.”

“That was in the old days,” she said. “You don’t need imagination to be a writer anymore. People just write about themselves.”

He waved a hand in her direction and huffed, but that evening as he was getting ready for bed, he thought I have done a lot of interesting things. Like the first summer out of college, before he grew the beard, he had led whitewater rafting trips. That experience had been useful in getting accustomed to the terror of bouncing in a sleigh through the air, behind half wild reindeer.

The next afternoon he sat down with a pad of paper and began making notes. If he did try writing a memoir, what should he include? And he wasn’t definitely saying he was going to, this was just . . . what about the time he was ten years old and rode a horse at camp? A horse is not a reindeer, but he was good at it, and didn’t that show something about the path to the future? He started writing the incident down until he had a half page, then read it over and thought This is just about the horse and he tore the page out and balled it up, tossing it toward the trashcan the elves had made.

He thought about beginning with a kind of introduction to his life. “I was a chubby child, which was a problem in school, as you might imagine. My nickname for years was Doughboy, when it wasn’t something worse. I don’t regret the donuts, though.”

He stopped and sighed, looked at the paper with combined perplexity and irritation. That was not an interesting way to start a book, so he began again. “I came to the North Pole when I was twenty-six, and at first I thought I’d do this job a few years, then move on to someplace warmer. I had always thought about studying meteorology, although my major in college was hospitality, but I was always deeply interested in weather. I could see myself as the weatherman on some small TV station. I mean I’ve got the jolly part down, and once I learned how to talk about clouds and snow and all, I could have done that. I don’t think I’d have a beard if I was a weatherman, though. It was the cold weather up here that made me go for so long without shaving.”

That paragraph seemed like a good start, so he went to the kitchen for a snack and didn’t come back to the memoir for a week.

When he did return to what he had done, he was surprised to see that what he had written previously seemed completely stupid. How did that happen? It was good when he wrote it. Maybe he should make a list of interesting things that had happened in his life, things he could use. He began:

  • training reindeer, which are actually rather stupid animals but stubborn, and they’re afraid of flying
  • the elves wanting to have several different craft beers in the commissary, as if it’s easy to do that where we are, but try telling them anything they don’t want to hear
  • one Christmas Eve a woman met me in her living room wearing a thin gown—I could clearly see what was there, if you know what I mean—and she started singing “Santa baby, I want a yacht and really that’s not a lot. Been an angel all year. Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.” I was, like, already down the chimney, standing in her living room, wondering how quickly I could get out of there. I mean, a yacht? You want a yo-yo or a doll that pees, I’m your guy.

After making the list, he felt a little tired. He looked down at the pad of paper and said to himself, “Writing is a lot harder than I thought. I think I’ll go take a nap.”


Thank you for reading this blog. Be well, Merry Christmas, and have a donut.

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Words, Palabras, Geiriau, Слова, Mots, Зборови, Kelimeler, Orð*

Obscene Greek pottery

Greek warrior celebrating the Battle of Marathon

For nigh on six years I have been meticulously crafting this amazing blog—every week!—most of the time almost doing what I said I would do, focusing on writing and literature, as well as language and rhetoric. The very concept of this blog depends on the fact that long, long ago human beings who probably had more hair than us began making up words.

Words are mysterious to me, as they’re only sounds made mostly with the mouth, and by social accord we agree that certain sounds will mean certain things, like “shivviness” means…actually, I don’t know what that means. The system is a lot less perfect than we sometimes think, and we argue a good bit over what words are “supposed” to mean.

I like knowing where words come from, how they change, and how we use them. Here’s an interesting example. The word “marathon” comes from the name of a Greek town, and a marathon as a long-distance run was named for a historical incident associated with that town. At Marathon, about 2,500 years ago, the Greeks fought a battle against a huge number of Persians and unexpectedly won.

The Greek winners thought people in the city of Athens would assume they had lost, and that when the Persian navy sailed around to Athens, the Athenians would surrender. In that age of pre-internet, pre-radio, pre-telegraph (pre-almost everything, really), how could the soldiers in Marathon tell the Athenians they had won? One guy took off running, and ran twenty-six miles to Athens, which is why the modern marathon race is around twenty-six miles long. According to the story, the guy who ran—I mean, I hate this—but the story is, after he announced the victory, he dropped dead.

A long run requires great endurance, and sometime in the 20th century, someone took the word “marathon” and arbitrarily cut it in half, using “-athon” to mean endurance, which had nothing to do with the original meaning as the name of a town. Thus was created the word “telethon” for a TV show asking people to call in on the telephone and pledge money for charity. The endurance idea came from the fact that the show lasted for hours, but no one dropped dead (so far as I know).

Much later the ending “–athon” changed meaning again, because of the TV show, and came to mean “collecting for charity”, and I’ve seen things like a “can-a-thon” collecting canned food. It’s crazy, what happens with words, and cool as hell.

In addition to words being interesting just for themselves, it’s tremendously fun as a writer to put them together to do things. Sometimes using words might involve a rather plain language to convey ideas, or at other times the words might be used more for their own sake to create striking phrases. In that case we can get into things like metaphors, where a word or combination of words represent something very different—and yet similar in some way.

Metaphors are incredibly common, a basic aspect of how our brains work, but most metaphors have become so common we don’t recognize them anymore (rivers and bottles do not have actual “mouths” nor do clocks have actual “faces” or “hands”). The most interesting metaphors are new ones. Last week on a day of unpleasant cold wind, I said to someone at work that it was as if the air was full of tiny wild dogs, and she liked that description.

Even though not everyone feels the fascination for language that I do, humans inherently like playing with language, and almost everyone does it. Puns are common, and even if you moan about how unclever a pun is, it’s nevertheless a form of language play. Even very young children play with words as soon as they’re able, because this is such a common human activity.

Let’s end with a word play joke: A drunk walks into a bar with jumper cables around his neck. The bartender says, “You can stay but don’t try to start anything.”

And don’t you try to start anything, either. Next week will be the last entry in the Write or Take a Nap? blog before I go on a break, a hiatus, that is, a respite, a recess, to rise blinking from the dusty desk and go out into the sunlight. Maybe I can find a pub that’s open.

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* The title says “words” in these languages: English, Spanish, Welsh, Russian, French, Macedonian, Turkish, Icelandic.

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Colors and Courtyards: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel craft shopNow that I’ve been to Mexico, I’m pretty sure it’s where colors were invented. Or if not, then the Mexicans have perfected the invention. It seemed during our trip as though colors were everywhere, so that it becomes almost impossible to describe the ubiquity and chromatic richness that wraps around you in Mexico. Visual aesthetics were so different from what I’m accustomed to, and so much better than the dreary white and pastel emptiness that taints life in American residences. During our bus ride north out of Mexico City, we saw houses painted in bright colors of turquoise, yellow, pink, and purple.

We arrived Saturday afternoon in San Miguel de Allende, a small to medium-sized town in a valley. Buildings in San Miguel seemed to be mostly painted in a kind of rusty red or deep yellow. We arrived without realizing it on a holiday weekend, for Independence Day, which is November 16, so the little town was packed with people eating ice cream and listening to mariachi bands. Even with the small square in front of the church full of people, San Miguel was a relief after the intensity of Mexico City.

School children in costumes

Independence Day parade

It seems appropriate to me that San Miguel de Allende is a city of art, with art schools and filled with art galleries. I cannot speak for other Mexican towns, but San Miguel could surely inspire art, a colored town set in a valley and flowing up the adjacent hillside, with great views of the town below, with saffron and flame-colored houses everywhere, and with a tradition that includes bright-colored clothing (we saw dancers from a children’s parade for Independence Day), with contemporary practices such as the colorful decoration of skulls for the Day of the Dead, and with a long history that includes art (such as Atotonilco church nearby, declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico because of the painted ceiling).

San Miguel de Allende is about four and a half hours northwest of Mexico City by bus, set in a semi-arid landscape. Outside of town is El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden, centered around a small dammed lake. On the hillsides rising above the lake is a landscape of enormous cacti, a place that seemed as rich and alive as walking through a northern forest, but mostly made of fat succulents. The AirBnB apartment where we stayed had a balcony looking down on a tiny beautiful yard, and covering the patio were pots of succulents of such diversity and beauty that I thought This is simply a world I don’t know about.

Flower pot with a succulent

On the balcony, where we sat with coffee every morning

Our main goal in San Miguel was to relax, to do nothing we didn’t feel moved to do. With six days in a small town, in spite of sometimes walking for several miles each day (which we don’t mind at all), we did relax, beginning our first evening with a concert from a jazz festival. Later we went to an art school where we were free to wander around, even watch the artists at work. We browsed through a gallery there, went into a weaving studio full of looms, and sat in the huge courtyard where an orange tree full of oranges had dropped fruit on the ground.

Of course we did things you might predict from where you’re sitting: we went to restaurants (and had Thanksgiving dinner there, which I started with another glass of mezcal), we browsed for hours past the stunning abundance of folk art and crafts hidden in small shops and down alleys full of colored cloth and flashing silver, and we sat in the pleasant square near the church eating cups of papaya or mango, watching people and an occasional street dog walk by. One of those people was the hat man, selling hats stacked on his head, with so many that the stack of hats above him was as tall as he was.

To some extent, the first view of San Miguel de Allende could be misleading, as it looks a bit like an old-fashioned little Mexican town, radiating its colors out to the universe, and with every narrow street in the center of town made of cobblestones. If you get a glimpse through the gates in those colored walls, however, you see that life is taking place in open courtyards that may be beautifully decorated, more than you could imagine in the little cobbled street. I came away with the feeling that so much of the wonder of San Miguel probably remained hidden.

Red house in San Miguel

A fairly typical street scene in San Miguel

Thanksgiving morning, we were woken at 6:00 a.m. by incredibly loud fireworks to celebrate St. Cecilia’s day. Afterward, I sat out on the patio outside our bedroom, drinking coffee and making some notes. Here is what I wrote: “A rooster is crowing somewhere here in the neighborhood, competing with the noise of cars and trucks on the highway up the hillside. A few minutes ago, a truck drove up our narrow cobbled street with loud music, playing so loud that it seemed to be intended as a public service. And now I’m hearing notes from a trumpet down the street. Beside me here on the balcony in a large clay pot is a huge jade plant, the largest I’ve ever seen, blooming with tiny white flowers. Beyond the balcony railing and rising above the high walls around the yard is a bergamot tree, heavy with round green fruit.”

I’m waiting for the time when I go back to Mexico.

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Food and Spirit: Mexico City

[Last weekend I returned from a week in Mexico, and for this week and next, I am going to alter the literary/writing topic of this blog, to write about being there.]

Mexico City street food

An extremely popular street food in Mexico City, cut off in small slices for tacos

The capital of Mexico has a population of a billion people—or if you’re into technical math and actual facts, a population of 20 million, and people in Mexico City drive like polite maniacs. They pull suddenly in front of one another, closely follow the car in front, and push into a line of cars that is already tightly packed. Nevertheless, I never saw Mexico City drivers grow angry or behave aggressively. They drive the way they do because they feel they have to (unlike where I live in Atlanta, where psychotic aggressive driving is normal).

In Mexico City, we found multiple streets devoted to particular types of commerce, such as home goods, plumbing, clothing, or music. Our apartment was close to a music street, and when we walked down that street in the morning to get breakfast (like the tamales I had one morning), the street was very quiet, somewhat deserted, all the shops closed with pulldown metal doors. In the evening, however, that same street was a cacophony of sound and lights and activity. At 9:00 at night, every business was open, selling electric pianos, huge speakers, sound systems, and other instruments, with small bright lights arranged to rotate and flash out the door, as thought the street itself were a stage. In front of a few stores, young women in tight short were paid to stand on the street and dance to the loud music, presumably to draw in customers. Customers who then might—who knows?—buy a guitar or something.

Compared to anything I’ve ever experienced, there was a tremendous amount of activity on the streets in Mexico City, and if you want food, it’s everywhere. This was the first country I’ve ever been to with such ubiquitous availability of food on the street. The city has many restaurants, but in addition, every place we went there were sidewalk stalls selling food, some stalls even with seats for customers to sit and eat tacos and fruit and cactus bulbs and beans. In addition to the stalls, the city must have thousands of tiny establishments the size of large closets, operating from inside a building but with a small counter opening onto the street. You walk up, you buy a taco or cup of fruit, you walk on.

Many different kinds of food are available, and in particular the people in Mexico City seem to like meat and meat and a little more meat. One morning we were walking around looking for a store where we could buy bus tickets and we passed food stands getting ready for later in the day. One place in particular had an enormous vat of boiling water, from which a man was pulling out pieces of meat that I believe were not yet entirely cooked. He was placing what came out of the water on a huge platter—snout, heart, piece after piece, as though a whole pig had been cut up and put in that vat. The scene was like something from Dante’s inferno of street cuisine.

We were three nights in Mexico City, and every night we ate in a restaurant that we loved. The first place, a small cafe recommended by our AirBnB host, had a motto painted on the front: “Aquí es un lugar de respeto y paz” Here is a place of respect and peace. While we were waiting for food, our waitress came by with a stack of books and drawings, which the cafe was selling to customers. If you bought a book, you got a free drink. I bought a book of poetry in Spanish and had my first delightful glass of mezcal, a specialty of the region of Oaxaca (tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is also a different drink).

Another night we ate at an elegant place called La Opera, founded more than a hundred years ago by some Frenchmen. There I had grilled octopus in a spicy sauce, and I continued my exploration of tortilla soup, a delicious dish that most restaurants seem to carry. Our final night in Mexico, we went out with a friend to a gastropub-ish place for some damn good food, including something I went to Mexico hoping to try, chapulines, a type of tiny toasted grasshopper (also a specialty of Oaxaca). Take a small corn tortilla, add cubes of white cheese, guacamole, a pile of chapulines, and salsa—ah, baby, now that’s a Mexican taco. I also had another glass of mezcal, so it was Oaxaca night in my neighborhood.

Diego Rivera mural

Part of a Diego Rivera mural, of Indians dyeing cloth

We stayed in the center of the city, the Centro Histórico, and the very center is a huge open square called the Zócalo, lined on one side by the long high wall of the National Palace. Despite the enormous size of the palace, it is built like other residences under Spanish influence, with an inner courtyard, though in this case with a Really Big Courtyard. Facing the courtyard, some of the walls contain murals by the painter Diego Rivera, showing Indians living before the Spanish came, then crushed by the Spanish, then rising again in revolution.

Near the Zócalo stand the remains of a former high pyramid, the Templo Mayor, that was the center of the city when it was the Aztec capital, a city built on an island in a lake (a lake that is long gone). Thus the Aztecs, then the Spanish, and now the Mexicans have considered this spot to be the center of their society, as though the center of Mexico City is one of those places on the planet where an invisible power flows through the earth.

Another display of power was the enormous cathedral on the Zócalo. Construction on the church began in 1573, deliberately placing it in the old Aztec sacred space, the same way Catholic churches in Europe were built on top of Greek temples, to replace the old ways. Sometimes, however, the old ways do not disappear just because the conqueror builds a church. Although the Mexican people are very Catholic (the Spanish did win that one), we saw ceremonies right beside the cathedral where people were lining up for a traditional healer to perform a limpia (a spiritual cleansing).

Spiritual cleansing ceremony

Limpia ceremony near the Zócalo

The limpia involved the petitioner holding a large bunch of basil while the person performing the limpia held a smoking container, blowing smoke around the person receiving the cleansing. Thus an ancient spiritual ritual was performed next to the largest church in the country.

After a day and a half in Mexico City, we took the bus north to San Miguel de Allende, and next week I will write about that fascinating little town of art and history.

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Oh, I Just Threw Something Together

Decorative swords

Deadly art

The following three things have something important in common: haiku poetry, ballroom dancing, and the carved figures on the front of old ships. Of course I don’t have to tell a sophisticated person like you what they share, but other people might not know. These are all forms of art.

Given the stupendous possible variety in artistic expression (let’s go ahead and throw in painting wall murals, weaving lace, performing rap lyrics, and raking sand in a Japanese garden), we might feel provoked—even though we really do know better—to quietly query ourselves “What is this art thing?”

In a very basic way, whatever a person’s motivation might be, art consists in shaping the physical world. Right? You have to use something to make art, even if it’s just using the sounds you can make or the motion of your own body. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that almost every object human beings have ever touched has been turned into a form of art by someone. Even swords, which are basically long pieces of sharp metal used to kill someone, have been made into art.

If we talk about acquiring skill in art, what can “skill” mean amid such inconceivable variety? I would describe skill in art as having increasing control over the medium, over that part of the world the artist is using. Heightened skill then leads to an increasing ability (1) to make the medium come closer to what exists in the artist’s imagination, (2) to work the medium in more subtle ways, and (3) to express the art with greater consistency.

Suppose, however, an artist does not have great skill, whatever the reason (lack of talent, or lack of opportunity to perfect the talent, or just lack of desire to perfect the talent). Is it possible for both the artist and the audience to be satisfied by art that shows little skill?

I think it is possible. The audience might have an emotional connection to the artist. One of my colleagues at work, for instance, has filled his office with drawings done by his young children. As a very different example, the audience might take pleasure from something unexpected and different. The painter Grandma Moses painted very popular images of old-fashioned rural life in a simplified style, or consider the fame and acclaim gained by Jackson Pollock, who would fling paint onto canvases—I mean seriously, people, he just flung paint.

In general, however, we admire those artists who work hard to learn to control their medium and have more control over the effects, even if we also like people whose art seems less controlled and polished (like early Joe Cocker).

If we consider artistic skill in writing, we could begin with basic control of the medium: (1) knowing the mechanics of written language, in particular spelling and punctuation, and (2) having a strong command over the grammar of the standard version of the language. But as I used to tell my students, knowing the mechanics of writings brings you up to zero. Then you can begin to get people to listen to what you have to say.

The true craft of fiction writing requires skills that become hard to describe, such as having a sense of dramatic flow in a story, knowing how to transition in a satisfying way between parts, or knowing how to make a character seem real.

I’m a huge admirer of craft in art, every kind of art. Craft alone is not enough, but for me, neither is raw, undeveloped talent enough. Being too talented, in fact, might make the artist lazy, and I’m not interested in lazy artists. When talent, whatever that is, comes together with a willingness to work and learn the craft, then amazing things can happen, like Artemesia Gentileschi, Fred Astaire, or Alexander Pushkin.

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Thinking a World Into Existence

Colored leaf arrangement

Colored leaves arranged by Andy Goldsworthy

Picture yourself, if you will, as having no physical existence, just a cloud (although a cloud is physical—so not a cloud) of thoughts floating in space (although “floating” is also physical, but anyway). You might think of your mind this way, as a kind of entity, something we can’t really describe, like a disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space.

I’m not going to pursue this blog entry into the philosophical view that our physical existence is actually an illusion. Oh, no sir, we exist, alright. It’s our minds that I have questions about. And yet something tenaciously continues to insist “I’m here. I’m here.” OK, fine, but it’s spooky. Let’s consider what these minds can do.

Have you ever known a child who didn’t draw, or play with dolls, or use objects to create an imaginary world? “This is the doctor, and she lives on the boat with her duck, but sometimes she uses the rocket ship to go places.” These activities of children just sounds normal, right? It’s what humans do. Every human is creative.

Nevertheless, in the societies that we’ve constructed, we have managed to devise a world in which some people think they are not creative. All humans create, even if they do not write novels or symphonies or bake cakes that look like movie stars. It is a basic aspect of being human.

In my discussion here, what is creativity? You may not write a novel, but you’ve spent your life telling yourself stories, imagining things that you wish would happen (and I don’t just mean, you know, stuff you don’t want to tell anybody). Your mind pictures something that does not completely exist in the physical world, and the thing you think of exists in your disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space (your mind). That’s creativity, the same idea that every religion attributes to whatever gods they worship, from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god to Hindu Brahman to ancient Egyptian Ra. From thought comes existence.

Yet there is a difference among people, or there appears to be, in the intensity with which they pursue creativity. If creativity allows us to escape the prison of physical life, maybe some people have a greater desire to escape. In other instances, creativity is probably not about escape, but about expression. Something inside has to get out, I just gotta dance!

I feel it myself, the compulsion to make something appear where nothing was. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes, to look at the blankness of a page and wonder what should be there. It’s interesting to ponder, since creativity is basic to human thinking, why someone chooses a particular way of creating over another way. I feel driven to write, and another person feels driven to build birdhouses.

The first answer that comes to my mind is that it’s because we discover we’re good at something. I would love to be a musician, for instance, but I think I’m not good at it, so I don’t pursue it. And yet I’ve known some craaaaaapy writers, who really loved to write. So maybe we’re drawn to particular forms of creativity for mysterious reasons, like so much of life. It’s a mystery, like our minds.

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I Pretend to Know That

bowl of herbsA couple of weeks ago, I had intended to drive to a state park in the North Georgia mountains, where a national herbal medicine conference was being held. I didn’t specifically want to attend the conference, but I did want to see what was happening, to get a feel for it and make some notes. It turns out I did not go, but I’ve talked to someone who did.

The reason for the herbal medicine interest is that I have a character in the novel I’m currently writing who is in the process of becoming a herbal healer, which I know almost nothing about. Because I have a strong interest in character development, I try to have characters familiar with a wide variety of topics, like real people, so my characters will necessarily know things that I don’t know.

I’m not going to become seriously knowledgeable about every possible thing familiar to my characters. What I write, in effect, is an illusion (assuming it works). If character development is done well, and I’ve read people who do it well, it really does seem that the characters know many different subjects.

If you are a writer, unless you strictly follow the idiotic advice to “write what you know”, a great deal of research may be needed. I was recently reading about the movie director Mira Nair, who made the movie “Mississippi Masala” and how she went to Uganda to do research for the movie. That kind of thing is far beyond my resources, but I still do a lot of research.

If you’re a clumsy writer (and it’s easy to be clumsy, as I know from experience), you can take what you’ve learned about some topic and drop it in clumps into your novel. Even if you put quotation marks around it, however, and present it as the character speaking, that block of information doesn’t even come close to creating a real character.

People don’t usually go around giving lectures on what they know. Most of the time, as they move through daily life, what they know about topic X comes out in more subtle ways. To be realistic, what you must to do is show repeated, more subtle references, as in these examples.

  • Someone who is a good cook might be standing in line at the supermarket, looking at a recipe in a magazine, thinking I wouldn’t put tarragon in that.
  • Someone who is a basketball fan may look at a calendar for a different reason, but notice they’ve marked a date to meet a friend to watch a playoff game.
  • Someone who trains dogs could be in their basement looking for something when they happen to see an old [insert dog training implement—do research].

In the novel I’m currently writing, in addition to the character who will become a herbal healer, I have a visual artist, a painter. Attempting to show the knowledge of these two characters requires both research and attention to details within the writing.

  • The artist: I knew there is such a thing as complementary colors, something a trained artist would presumably know, but I didn’t know what they are, so I looked up a color wheel (several, in fact, as I prefer to verify what I’m finding).
  • The artist: He is looking at an object, thinking about what colors he might use to capture that look, using [name colors of paint—do research]
  • The herbal healer: I met someone who knows herbal medicine, so I asked if I could interview her, which I did once for a couple of hours over lunch. I made notes, and I followed up on information she gave me.
  • The herbal healer: My character is at a friend’s house and notices a pot of flowers in the room, then learns that the flowers are a herbal plant she’s just been reading about.

Doing the things I’m describing above is a LOT of work. That’s what good writing is.

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