Monthly Archives: November 2011

Holy Tongue

Book with Ethiopian religious textWhence hast thou come to sit before thy computer?

Most English speakers will recognize the dialect I’ve used there as an older form of English, creating a strange effect in using it to refer to a computer. In fact, most English speakers recognize that I’ve used the same language as the King James Bible, published in 1611 (and also the dialect used by Shakespeare, who died 1615).

There are even modern writings or translations that use this dialect, or some imitation of it, in creating religious texts. Here is an example from Bahai religious writings, listed online as the 2002 edition: “O thou who treadest the path of justice and beholdest the countenance of mercy!”

The sentence is harder to read than it would be if it used normal modern English, so why make people stumble clumsily through a more difficult language? Because, for people who absorbed the older dialect of English as the language of the Bible, that language “sounds religious”. And for some people, adding that religious feeling to a piece of writing becomes more important than making sure people can understand it.

A far more extreme example exists in Islam with the Arabic language. Although the Quran has been translated into many languages, there are people who claim that since the Quran was given to Mohammad in Arabic (by now, ancient Arabic), that language is the only true version. Such an argument has been influential, and throughout the world there are people who learn to read the sounds of the Arabic letters, and who thus “read” the Quran, without understanding the words.

In a previous blog I talked about the fact that human beings are superstitious about language, believing in many cases that words have a kind of magical power, as in curses, blessings, or magical spells. Perhaps it’s that unconscious belief in the magic of language that causes us to attach religious significance to a particular language. After all, if the words of a single phrase can carry supernatural power, how much more powerful is an entire language devoted to religion?

With both the King James Bible and the Quran, the language has acquired a religious aura because it was used to write a religious text. I find this especially interesting, that writing can give a language special power. It’s certainly not just these two cases were we find this. Far from it. There is an example from the ancient Egyptians, who had three methods of writing. The oldest form, and the only one most people know about, was hieroglyphics. Over the course of two thousand years, both the language and the writing system changed, but for the most serious religious writing, such as carvings on a temple wall, the Egyptians continued to use hieroglyphics, in spite of the fact that this had become an antiquated method of writing.

By the way, the ancient language of the pharaohs still exists. It has changed a great deal, no one speaks it in daily life, and it’s written in Greek letters, but it’s a direct descendent. It’s now the language of the Coptic Christian church in Egypt. A holy language.

Other religious languages (all connected with writing) are:

  • Geez—Ethiopian Christian church
  • Sanscrit—Hindu texts
  • Hebrew—ancient Jewish texts
  • Koine (early Greek)—Greek churches
  • Old Church Slavonic (basically early Bulgarian)—Russian Bible
  • Pali—Buddhist texts

If you want to see a longer list, check the Wikipedia article on sacred languages.

One of the more interesting cases of a religious language involves Latin. The fact that it has religious significance is illustrated by an article from the New York Times just yesterday. English-speaking Catholics throughout the world are now having to get used to new words for the mass, as a new translation has been made from Latin.

How seriously the Catholic church has regarded the use of Latin was illustrated in 1535, when William Tyndale was killed for translating parts of the Bible into English. What makes this story more interesting is not just another case of a religion butchering people who disagree with it. What is interesting is that the Latin Bible was not the original, but was itself a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek.

Human nature being what it is, we’re probably not done. Maybe someone somewhere is standing in line at McDonalds using a language that will someday be holy.


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Amish Grace

Several Amish straw hatsThis would be a story of sweet grace, if ony it were true. Alas, a moment of sublimity is once more lost to the world through being only imaginary.

I’ve alluded a couple of times here in the blog that the area where I live has Amish families nearby. They aren’t in State College at all, of course, as they live on farms, but you can drive only about thirty minutes in various directions and be surrounded by Amish settlement. Across one of the nearby ridges is a rather wide, long valley, with another ridge running parallel to it across the way. The area between the ridges has been named, in a great stroke of descriptive nomenclature, Big Valley. It’s very much an Amish area, and when you drive the main road down the valley, you have to be careful for coming over a hill and finding a horse and carriage in front of you.

Having a restricted use of modern technology, or close-knit social structures, does not prevent the Amish from being very engaged with modern economic life. As an example, many construction projects around here are busy with bearded men in wide-brimmed straw hats.

One of the wonderful things about this area is the agricultural richness, and in State College we have four different open-air farmers markets in the summer and fall. One of those markets is run entirely by one Amish family, who set up in the parking lot of a shopping center. For several months of the year, the family is out early in the morning putting up a large white cover, like an open-sided tent, before setting out their wares on tables underneath. At the end of the day they take it all down, and for the next two days it’s just a parking lot for the bank, the drugstore, and the liquor store.

I’ve watched the same family operate this market for years, and since several young people are involved, I’ve also watched them grow older. Even the children work hard, putting out more tomatoes or melons, setting out jars of pickles or baked goods, and getting more plastic bags to hold the produce (I’ve thought several times of how ironic it is that an Amish market is so dependent on plastic bags).

The males, even down to the youngest boys, all wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts, no matter how hot it is, and they all wear the straw hats, with small sizes for the little boys. The females have long dresses and on their heads are scarves or little bonnets, and all the clothing is in either dark or very muted colors.

This market suddenly appears sometime in late spring or early summer, and then it runs for quite a while, until the end of November, whatever the weather. This past week I stopped in to see what they still had, root vegetables, perhaps, or some hardy greens like the collards that I love. It was a pretty, sunny day, so there were people shopping. In the summer there will be a long line moving down the length of the tent, and the line will almost always include middle-aged women speaking Russian, from the fairly large Russian community in town.

On the day that I went this week, it was not so crowded, but there were still about ten people shopping when I arrived. I was looking at a bin of parsnips when the Amish girl behind the bin, who must be about 19 by now, began singing. I’d never heard anyone sing there before, so it was a surprise, though she wasn’t singing very loud. I was also pleased because her song, in English (which struck me a little, as the Amish have their own language) is one I used to sing in church, “Amazing Grace”. In a moment she grew louder, and the young man in his 20s, who I think is her brother, took up the song with her.

Other shoppers around me stopped to listen to the singing, and people were smiling to hear it. Then it grew more surprising still, as the older woman who always seems much in charge also joined the song, and after her the heavy-set man with a face full of long white whiskers added his deep bass. For several minutes all of this Amish family ceased what what they had been doing, to stand and sing “Amazing Grace” with the astonished and delighted customers listening.

The last verse of the song has always been my favorite, maybe for its somewhat supernatural, poetic wording: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.” When the family reached this verse, they all moved out from behind the tables and bins and cash register, walking up to customers and hugging us, and when the song ended, they said “Happy Thanksgiving” in their Amish-accented English.

I was so moved and emotional after this that I couldn’t continue with something as common as making a purchase, so I left. I got no food for the body, but the soul was fed.

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Done at the City of Washington

Wild turkeyThere are many wild turkeys in central Pennsylvania. I’ve seen them in flocks in fields, a couple of times one has flown low across the road, and more than once I’ve been in a car that had to break while one or two of these forest dwellers strutted regally across the road.

Wild turkeys look nothing like the genetically distorted birds who fill our Thanksgiving tables, birds that have lost their survival skills in favor of yumminess. Some people don’t have turkey for Thanksgiving, a type of diet they must have learned at Communist Youth Camp, as far as most Americans are concerned. Along with roasted (or sometimes deep-fried) turkey, several carbohydrate menu items are required to avoid suspicion of anti-American activity: mashed potatoes, stuffing or dressing, and sweet potatoes, graced with small marshmallows.

Personally, I don’t think you can have too many carbohydrates, but I also love vegetables, which often seem to be treated at Thanksgiving as optional bits of table color. This evening when I go to a friend’s house for dinner, I will take two dishes, one of collards cooked in a Brazilian style, sauteed with garlic, and a second dish of roasted turnips flavored with ginger, cumin, and thyme.

Maybe you think that Thanksgiving happens every year because it’s an American tradition and it’s just what we do. And you’re right if you think so. Nevertheless, one of our traditions, which most people are probably not even aware of, is that the president officially declares Thanksgiving every year, as if it would not otherwise happen.

Since Lincoln began this tradition on October 3, 1863, every president has declared Thanksgiving every year. The history of Thanksgiving is outside my scope here, but I want to look at the first proclamation by Lincoln, actually written by Secretary of State William Seward. (If you are interested, you can read the proclamation that Barack Obama put out a week ago, the official declaration of Thanksgiving for 2011).

Notice the date of Lincoln’s proclamation. You can see that it was in the middle of the Civil War, but you’d need to be more of a specialist to know that it occurred exactly three months after the battle of Gettysburg, not so far from where I’m sitting here in Pennsylvania. So in the middle of a terrible war, possibly the first modern industrial war, just after a massive battle with enormous losses on both sides, Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving.

His purpose in proclaiming Thanksgiving, which had long been a New England tradition (i.e. Pilgrims and all), was to try one more way to unite the country, and of course we know that an important reason to Lincoln in conducting the war was to preserve the Union. If people were to accept the idea of Thanksgiving and actually celebrate it on the Thursday in question, the proclamation would have to find rhetorical appeals that would connect with the audience.

Given the cataclysmic nature of the war, there would have been little credibility if the proclamation did not mention it, and it does so frequently. It begins more positively, however, and the first sentence reads “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” The second sentence alludes to the “ever watchful providence of Almighty God”. It is not until the third sentence that we find the phrase “a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity”. References to the war include the phrases “in the theater of military conflict”, “the advancing armies and navies of the Union” (notice that they are advancing), and “notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield”.

There is probably a more indirect reference to the war in a phrase that says God is “dealing with us in anger for our sins”. This phrase is part of  a consistent pattern throughout the proclamation. Many members of the audience would have felt a reverence for religion, and the proclamation is replete with such references that would have connected with the audience, reading at times as if it were a religious document, starting with the second sentence I mentioned above.

The very concept of the proclamation, in fact, at least as it is written, is not about simply being thankful, but about giving thanks to God. Some of the religious phrases include “the gracious gifts of the Most High God”, “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in Heaven”, “the Almighty Hand”, and “the Divine purposes”.

In addition to connecting with the audience’s concern for the war and reflecting their religious belief, a third type of rhetorical appeal in the proclamation consists of statements as to what to be thankful for. The first sentence begins such an appeal, with “fruitful fields and healthful skies”. Among other blessings for which Americans were asked to be grateful in 1863 were interesting recognitions of historical circumstances, such as the fact that “the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements”. The proclamation also states that “the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly”.

The last sentence of the proclamation, basically giving the date, established two rhetorical practices followed by the proclamations made by later presidents. The sentence begins “Done at the city of Washington”, a wording that was used with only a few exceptions until Lyndon Johnson was president, and it has not been used since.

The other, more meaningful, rhetorical practice, is probably a reflection of Lincoln’s concern with saving the Union. The last sentence not only gives the date of the proclamation, but it ends with stating how many years the United States has existed: “and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.” Every proclamation since then has continued that practice.


Done at the village of Boalsburg, in the year of our residence the fifth.

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Meandering Streams and Poems

A bench beside a tree and stream

The bench where I sat to write

Despite the extent of our current dysfame, State College is not a big town. Only a few miles from the center of town, completely surrounded by highways and development, there is a small marsh, unknown even to some longtime residents. Two hills rise above the marsh. At the top of one is the hospital, or medical center as it’s now called. On the other hill stands the circular cathedral, or football stadium.

Running through the marsh is a boardwalk, and when you are on it you mostly see tall grasses, short shrubby trees, wandering streams, and birds. On Saturday, a sunny warmish afternoon, I decided to go to the marsh as a fitting place to write a poem. I had thought of writing a love poem, but I was concerned that if I only write love poetry, I will end up sounding like a schoolboy rhyming “moon” with “June”: heartfelt emotion pouring drivel down the page.

So I pushed myself to go outside the Ain’t You My Baby school of poetry. I sat on a bench by the stream, where a plethora of ducks seemed mostly content, and I waited for inspiration to come along. The poem below was entirely written while sitting on the bench, though I made a few changes after I got home.

Tattered Clumps of Grasses

Placid as a Sunday morning without children
a stream flows,
shimmering in the autumn sun.
Green-headed ducks,
full of knowing,
are on the water.
Their brown-headed mates,
knowing even more,
paddle about quietly
or take care of business on the bank.
A tree that has seen the distant ancestors of these ducks
arches over land and water,
strangely graceful,
like an elephant stepping carefully around flowerbeds.
Branches hang low toward the stream.
From one bending bough,
two feet above the water,
hang tattered clumps of grasses
wrapped around the bark.

On a day when the sky was heavy as angry eyes of God,
when water fell like a lake dropped off a cliff,
this peaceful stream must have raged.

No wonder we call life a river.
There are days
like this one,
of sunny peace and tranquil ducks,
when we would swear our whole life has been worth it
just for that moment.
But then the waters rise,
everything in sight thrashes into madness,
and there is not one square inch of the world around us
that is worth having.

On a day of shimmering sun
and quiet water
there is a small reminder
of the turbulence that has been here,
a reminder
that it will return.

Perhaps as well,
in times of wild inundation,
we might see a small reminder
of the bright and peaceful days,
a reminder
that they too will come back.

Stream through the marsh

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With Rigorous Application and Faith

Old post officeDoes cold weather make people hungrier? Does it make them poorer? This afternoon at the Food Bank we had an unusually large number of people coming in. I’ve known Fridays when we would serve 20-25 familes in three hours. Today we had almost 60, and I worked nearly an extra hour to get food out to everyone’s car. The director told me that about half of these people were new coming in. I did recognize some familiar faces, though, including the morose Nazi, who always makes a point of wearing an item from his collection of white-power T shirts. He must hate having to stand patiently with people who are inferior to him when he comes to the Food Bank to get free food.

I was given a new mental framework this week that I think will be helpful. I am not unemployed—I am starting a new business, and of course new businesses do not make money at first. That would explain why I’m so busy so much of the time. And certainly there is truth to this. In addition to what I do sitting here in the apartment, I’ve been out to four meetings this week, no five, trying to make things happen. I made a presentation to about 25 people at a volunteer fire department about why they need for me to create a website for them (result unknown). I also met with a woman from the local newspaper who decided that instead of having me writing a health column for them, I might be an occasional reporter on health and science articles (which “pays” in a sense, though a low sense).

The best meeting this week was with a couple of people who are part of a consortium that creates large websites. They were looking for a writer to fill out the talents of their small group, and perhaps I’m it. I don’t know how much work this will result in, but it sounded good, and I felt very enthused when I left there. So we’ll see.

It is perhaps from a general feeling of positive energy this week that I was able to overcome the inertia of horror and repulsion to again try to market my writing, which I haven’t done in several months. In spite of computer problems this week that have been severe at times, I printed a story and cover letter and got the story off to a magazine. Submitting to magazines is something I’ve done several hundred times over the years, so I know the routine. I also, after months of delay, again contacted literary agents. Only two. But that’s 200% more than in the last six months. Or something percent. When I need to do math I turn religious and ask for help.

It is a very meticulous business, contacting literary agents. For one thing, it is unnerving to know that while they are merely human beings like the rest of us, checking their Facebook accounts and taking the dog for a walk, they also sit like serious deities on Mount Parnassus, occasionally reaching down to pluck a scribbling, anxious mortal up to be judged for sales potential.

Contacting agents is furthermore a meticulous affair in knowing that one must Do Exactly What They Say. If an agent wants only snail mail, don’t try to slip something in by email, lest ye be judged a halfwit. If they only want a synopsis, don’t send chapters And be interesting, damn it, and compelling. Plus spell everything correctly.

If you know what you are doing, you will check what you are doing, by consulting the agent’s website—recognizing that incredibly, it is not unknown for some to have no site. By checking the site, you can make sure you aren’t addressing a letter to someone who no longer works there, you can verify exactly what they are asking for and how they want it sent, and you can see that you are not sending a synopsis on a novel about a man and his daughter traveling in the past to an agent who prefers to only market Christian romance novels.

There are, as I see it, three components that may be sent to an agent. First is a letter addressed to the agency and to an actual person when possible. Second is a synopsis of the novel. Both of these things must be perfectly written, with a cold eye to professionalism and business, yet generating a heartbreaking desire to read the book, and there are many people who will give you contradicting advice on how to do this. Follow that advice.

The third component, which must be included or not included according to instruction, is a sample chapter, or three sample chapters, or five pages, or ten pages, or nothing at all unless you are asked for it.

Thank God most agents now will accept submissions by email, which means you can sit at your computer in your underwear, if that’s what you wear, surrounded by empty beer bottles, and conduct yourself professionally. There are, however still quite a few agents who will not accept anything by email, and then you must print it, get an envelope, put it all together with a stamped, self-addressed envelope (called a SASE), make sure you include the SASE, make sure you sign the letter, make sure you have the right letter in the right envelope, and make sure you are sending what they ask for, then drive to the post office and stand in line behind the woman who isn’t sure if she needs insurance for her package, well no, or yes, maybe she should. And do they have any Christmas stamps?

Within the last year I read on some chat room a person complaining that literary agents ought to all join the 21st century and use email submissions. I can sort of understand, however, that agents are in what may still pass for a genteel profession. But let me step off my logical path here (you probably didn’t notice that I was on one) and say that literary agents are better than English professors in recognizing what century they are in. English professors mostly still live in the 19th century, if you disregard their excited application of oh-so-hip vocabulary colonizing the discursive space and paradigmatic nuances of academia.

I digressed. I have read of some writers telling of how they walked uphill in the snow to the post office to send mail to literary agents, relating their amazing tales of hardship in order to contact forty, count them, forty agents, before getting one and selling the novel. When I read that I think “Oh, so you didn’t have to try very hard.” By now I’ve used the process I’ve described above to contact, with one novel or another, at least 200 agents. Except for the sake of this blog I’ve simplified the process.

But I don’t give up. Once every six months, I’m contacting two agents. I just have that kind of steely diligence.

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The Woods Warn’t Thick

Dialect cartoonThis topic is so big I find my ideas marching multiple armies toward every visible horizon. Or maybe that’s just my incoherent way of thinking. Sometimes I have trouble telling the difference. I’m thinking about dialects, and rather than say all I want to say, I will try to stay focused on the use of dialect in literary writing.

First, however, it’s a very pertinent question to ask what is a dialect? Most educated English speakers have a notion that there is “proper” English, with the belief that everything else is dialect (as long as it is spoken by someone else). Or as one very nice definition expressed the difference between a language and dialect: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” The difference, in other words, is a question of power. We have an army, and therefore the way we speak is the proper way. Are you going to disagree with us?

For people who study languages, every version of a language is a dialect, including proper English, whatever you conceive that to be (and if you live in London, you conceive it differently than if you live in Chicago). If dialects interest you, English may be an especially interesting case. As the international language, and as the native language of at least a dozen countries—post colonialism, that is—English may have many dozens of dialects, depending on how you define a dialect.

And how might we? In fact, we probably cannot draw a clear distinction between linguistic practices so as to know that here is Proper A and there is Dialect B. There are a number of language characteristics that we can notice, though:

  • pronunciation
  • grammar
  • vocabulary
  • idioms
  • other linguistics practices (such as being very polite in certain situations)

When you mix these things together, you can get a remarkable amount of variety. In fact, listen to this story about people whose native language is English. Once my aunt, from the south and living in Alabama, was driving in a car in Alabama with a man and his wife who were both from Scotland. At one point the Scottish couple were talking just to one another, and afterward my aunt asked, “What language were yall speaking?” The surprised Scots replied, “English.”

As writers we sometimes have a desire to represent reality as closely as we can, especially in our depiction of people. We want our characters to seem real and to be individual, and it can make our writing more interesting to have diversity of people. So sometimes we decide to write in “dialect”, that is, a different dialect from Standard English. This is interesting, but there are two obvious problems. The first is that non-Standard English does not have defined ways of how to spell the words, so the writer must make up the spelling. The second problem is that if the writer closely imitates a dialect that is very far from standard spelling, many readers are likely to say, “What the hell are you doing? I can’t read this shit.”

Let’s look at a few examples. The most notable thing, immediately, is the weird spellings as the writers try to imitate pronunciation. Then we start to notice unusual vocabulary or idiomatic phrasing.

From Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neal Hurston)

(1) “Youse a mite too previous for dat.”

(2) “You’se jus’ sorter hypnotized, dat’s all.”

From Middlemarch (George Eliot)

(1) “Niver you mind what he’s done,” said Dagley, more fiercely, “it’s my business to speak, an’ not yourn. An’ I will speak, too. I’ll hev my say—supper or no.”

(2) “I’m no more drunk nor you are…”

From Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

(1) “You’d a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner, en gittn’ mos’ drownded, too; dat you would, honey.”

(2) “and give it to me and Buck” [“give” as past tense]

(3) “The woods warn’t thick, so I looked over my shoulder to dodge the bullet, and twice I seen Harney cover Buck …”

For most readers of this blog, some of the dialect features here are more obvious than others. The words (imitating sound) “youse”, “niver”, and “warn’t” may jump out at us, but do you notice the usage “twice I seen Harney” as non-Standard? That’s also dialect.

Because there are no rules for “dialect” writing, it is hard to be perfectly consistent. Look at the first word in the two examples above from Hurston. She is also inconsistent in how she renders certain sounds, but that’s a road we won’t drive down, ‘cause we ain’t got no need.

Literature would be less real, and maybe less fun, without dialect, but it’s tricky, and it definitely does increase difficulty. I can follow what Hurston did because her heavy black dialect is close enough to my own southern speech, but what do people in Scotland think when they read her?

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Is There Such a Thing as Good Writing?

Two people installing storm windowsSuppose I said that good writing does not exist, that everyone just likes different things. One or two readers among the thousands who wait for new entries on this blog will disagree. Why do you disagree, honey? What makes you think there is such a thing as good writing?

Did you read something you liked? A lot? A real lot? I might then say it was good writing only because you liked it. It’s all about you.

Did I say “you” in that last paragraph? I meant to say that it’s all about me. I’ve always had trouble with pronouns, which slowed me down considerably in second grade. I meant to say that what makes writing good is that I like it. That’s it. You can go to a bookstore or library while they still exist, and in either of them you will find multiple novels by Henry James. There are conferences where people who are impressed with their own intellectual capacity drink capaciously while speaking of Henry James with words that cost $5 apiece (like “capaciously”, but I found that one at the dollar store). In fact, I think Barnes and Noble bookstores, while they still exist, have an image of Henry James above the coffee shop. In other words, Henry James is a serious, highly respected writer. That is good writing.

Except in my house. I hate Henry James. I’m being serious here, and I’m old enough that I ain’t apologizing for it. You can mail me words that cost 15 cents apiece, and I still won’t like him. That is not good writing.

Now a novel with opera as a motif, plus young, poverty-stricken revolutionaries, with an international mix of characters, and with close attention to the phrasing of the language—that’s good writing. That’s very good writing. I’m referring to Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, but maybe you wouldn’t like it.

The problem with trying to have this kind of argument, even when it is done by sensible people instead of me, is that we can’t reasonably use a term indicating value judgment like “good” unless we agree on the definition. Here’s part of the problem: there are many many types of writing, with different purposes, and even if we could agree on definitions, what makes “good” writing changes with the purpose of the writing.

Let’s go more basic, and consider why writing even exists at all. It’s a lot of trouble. By God, I used to teach this shit, don’t get me started on trouble. Why do we bother? In fact, there are various reasons, but the most basic is to take ideas from one person’s head and put them in another person’s head. If a piece of writing does that, moves the ideas with sufficient clarity, is it “good writing” because it has achieved its purpose? Is that enough?

I could find a piece of technical writing that clearly conveys information, then show that writing to someone who says, “This isn’t good! My God, it’s about how to install storm windows!” I agree that it’s dull to read, though in January I like the way the story ends. But is the quality “interesting” always a characteristic of good writing no matter what the situation? (Of course if “interesting” is necessary, this raises a question as to how Henry James gets to have his own conferences.)

If the purpose of writing is to entertain, then yes indeed, being interesting certainly seems to be a logical part of the definition of goodness. And it’s certainly more fun when writing—of any sort—is interesting, so we like it better, but is writing “not good” if it isn’t interesting? In addition to entertainment, other purposes of writing might be communication (journalism, medical writing, technical writing), or enlightenment (philosophy, religion). All of these, and subgenres of these, will in practice have their own criteria of what is good.

In fact, there are some general qualities that we might want to apply to all writing:

  • clarity
  • conciseness
  • logical organization
  • sufficiency of detail
  • clear transitions and connections of ideas
  • mechanical correctness (punctuation, grammar, spelling)

These criteria might also be subsumed under the idea of effectiveness, which gets back to what the purpose of the writing is. These are not very interesting criteria, however. They are missing, for instance, “evoking a sense of God’s mercy” that would be necessary for some religious writings.

Literary writing has its own own set of vague criteria: good plot (but not always), strong character development (but not always), clever use of language (but not always), and so on. No matter what criteria we apply, someone will take a piece of writing and say “yes, it’s good” and some argumentative son-of-a-bitch living in central Pennsylvania will come along and say “no, it’s not”.

Should we vote? Or should we turn the decisions about good writing over to qualified professionals? That means Ann Patchett. It means Atul Gawande (a surgeon who is a very fine writer). And it means me.

As I already told you, it’s good because I like it, but you made a mistake and kept reading anyway.

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“What I Was Supposed To”

Penn State students at candlelight memorial

Penn State students at candlelight memorial

It’s a clear, very pretty fall day here in State College, Pennsylvania. Sitting at the moment in a cafe, looking out at the beautiful weather, it’s hard to believe the shitstorm that roared through this town all week.

From what I’ve seen on the internet and heard on the radio, there cannot be very many people in America who don’t know what happened here. This morning President Obama commented on it. The fact that the sex abuse scandal, and the palid response to it by people in power, has so shaken the university shows a problem with the very culture here. This is an enormous university, where good things and even remarkable good things have been done, with a history going back 150 years, and yet the university has allowed itself to build much of its identity around football.

A couple of those people with power who did almost nothing were the university president and football coach Joe Paterno. The Board of Trustees recognized that they needed to seriously clean house after learning that even though there was an eyewitness to a child being raped, not one person, all the way up to the university president, thought of calling the police. (Or we can be incredibly cynical and imagine that yes, they did think of it, and decided not to, because the rapist was so closely involved in the football program.)

So the president was fired. No one cared much. Then Coach Joe Paterno, often called “legendary”, was fired. In response, many Penn State students shamed themselves and shamed their school by taking angrily to the streets. Some went into riot mode and did damage. (And to give proper credit, last night thousands of students at last did the right thing, holding a candlelight ceremony to commemorate the sexual abuse victims.)

Given the general purpose of this blog, focusing on language or writing (most of the time), I want to look at some of the language surrounding Joe Paterno. If this were another school and Paterno were not involved, most of you would never have heard of this, the town would not have filled up with reporters, and we would not be talking about sex abuse of children. So maybe thank God Paterno was involved, because we need to talk about it.

Why would Penn State students tear down light poles after learning that Joe Paterno was fired? He really is in some sense “legendary” here, and to kids who are college age, the 84-year-old Paterno has been here since the earth first cooled and God laid the foundations of Penn State. Feelings of emotional connection are often expressed with special ways of naming. This is ubiquitous with general terms like “honey” or “dear”, and individual circumstances can lead to a special word for one person. This has happened with Paterno, who is frequently called JoePa (usually spelled that way, with no space). Although the “Pa” ending is the first syllable of his last name, it also happens to be an English colloquialism for father. Or as one of my dinner guests said last night of the students’ feelings toward Paterno, “He’s their grandfather.”

These attitudes of affection can be seen in other ways with language here in State College. Before football games, some students camp out to get first-row tickets, and their encampment is called “Paternoville”. It’s also possible to go to the local Dunkin Donuts here and buy reusable plastic coffee cups with a cartoon image of Paterno on the side and the phrase “We love our Joe”.

And let’s insert a statement from a student quoted online describing these feelings: “I hesitate to use the word ‘godlike,’ because it’s a little strong, but he really is a mythical figure around here.” Another person tried to streeeeetch a current political slogan and insert it where it really comes off as weird and incongruous, holding up a sign reading “Occupy McKee Street. We are the 99% that believes JoePa deserves to stay.”

Everyone wants to be both loved and admired. That’s just part of our humanity. But we can want it so much that we become deaf to what is unpleasant, such as admitting we failed a harsh responsibility, like reporting a friend to the police. This is what Paterno—and everyone else—obviously should have done with Jerry Sandusky, who was raping the child. I understand that it would be hard to turn a friend in, maybe I would fail too, but the difficulty does not diminish the moral obligation, especially given the heinous nature of the crime. It’s not as if Sandusky was merely stealing from the football fund.

What Paterno did, so far as we know, was report the incident to his boss and did nothing else. Speaking of how he handled the information on Sandusky, Paterno said, “…I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention…” Legally, he is right.

This statement also says everything about Joe Paterno’s astonishing deafness to his moral responsibility. While he reported the incident, in reality, Paterno had no boss. Several years ago the university president tried to fire him, and he just refused to go. Paterno had enormous power at the university, and he was famous for following up on how his players were doing in individual classes. And yet, when a child was raped in the facility he ran, he reported to his “boss” and then said, “I did what I was supposed to.”

This week when students rallied at Paterno’s house, he came out and made a statement, in part saying to a noisy crowd, “And as I said, I don’t know if you heard me or not, is, you know, the kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you.”

Do you cringe when you read this? “Say a prayer for them” sounds good, of course, but what about the phrase “victims or whatever they want to say”? Whatever they want to say? Does this sound like a phrase we might use to dismiss some nonsense we’re hearing? I doubt that’s how Paterno really intended to sound, but then it’s followed with a sentence that uses a softer term than we’d expect (“tough life”) and a vague phrase (“certain things”), as if he does not recognize that being raped as a child (“certain things”) can lead to permanent emotional scarring (“tough life”).

The statement I’m quoting from here actually ends in a way that makes Paterno look even more oblivious to the overall situation. Following the phrase “do certain things to you” he immediately went on to say to the crowd in front of his house: “But anyway, you’ve been great. You’ve been really great.”

And then…he shouted, “We are!” and the crowd replied, “Penn State!” He ended his statement with a pep rally.

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The Way It Is, November 9, 2011

Coin showing the Roman god JanusIt wasn’t an unusually dull day, the kind where I want to go stand blindfolded in traffic, bitch-slap a mother bear in front of her cubs, run for Congress, anything, as long as it isn’t sitting here job searching. I mean, today was normally dull, or wait…no, it was a little better than that. I drove downtown and located an address where I had an appointment with a woman who owns a small marketing agency, and who talked as if she would give me some writing work. It surely would have been an even better day if I had not gotten the day wrong. No one was in their offices. But next week, now that ought to be a good day, when I actually do have an appointment.

Since I have begun this bright epistle with the sort of ambivalent but not totally negative incident that passes for positive in my life, I’ll add two more incidents, similarly vague, somewhat encouraging, bringing light like flipping on the switch in a cheap motel room. I called a woman at the university press this morning, someone who works with journals, and she is happy to have more freelance copy editors. Later I called the president of the fire department of a small village nearby, after I noticed that they have no website. He invited me to come to a meeting one evening next week to make my case for creating a site for them. And the owner of a site that I’m already working on called today to tell me he approves of what I’ve done so far. So woohoo! Major advances today on the labor front.

Therefore, come to think of it, with so much excitement going on today, it’s a wonder I sat down at all. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the internet, looking at vacation sites in the south of France, trying to decide where to go when all that money starts rolling in. Plus I’ll go up to paying as much as $8 a bottle for wine, and $9 on holidays.

And as though it were whipped cream flavored with Napoleon brandy, topping off such a cake of a day, this evening I have the inexpressible, the irrepressible, the incompressible delight of—are you ready?—working on a novel. I pause to give you a moment to compose yourself, as waves of jealous longing roll over you. I know, I know, but we can’t all be weird loners sitting night after night staring at a computer screen, putting words where there were none before, for a reason that even God could not figure out.

The novel is still nameless, though I’ve begun running bad options through my mind. Because Benedict and Miramar are simultaneously traveling both east and west, I keep seeing an image of the Roman god Janus, who had two faces looking in opposite directions. It’s not as if that’s useful information. I figure if I use the name Janus anywhere in the title, people will look at it and say, “Whaaa?” and keep walking.

I’ve passed 110 pages and temporarily stopped forward progress. Though I’m enjoying extending the events of the book, the feeling has grown that what has already been written is calling me for attention. Those characters want some filling out, want to know who they are. Thus I’m revising, and I’m finding it so much more fun, filling in things that should have been filled in before, like background.

Here’s something I have learned: although Benedict works as a handyman, he went to college. Did he graduate? I don’t know. And where did he go to school? I don’t know that either. Let’s decide that right here, while writing the blog, and then it will go into the book. Unless it gets edited out, of course. My inclination is that he did graduate, because he’s a serious reader, with a bachelors of something not all that fruitful in terms of procuring an income. Humanities, in other words. So Benedict graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts. That’s the kind of major that says “I went to college, I’m smart enough, and I’m not trained to do anything.”

As to where he went to school, that’s harder. I think it would have been somewhere not too far from home (I don’t know why I think this, except that he had a bad relationship with his mother, though that isn’t much of a reason, is it?). And I don’t even know where he was born. I’ll say Vermont. I did a writing residency in Vermont a couple of years ago, so I’ll use that. Hmm, and there’s a college there too, in the village where I was at, Johnson State College, a small place up on the hill where the cell phone signal works, in case you need to call someone back in Pennsylvania.

This week I’ve also learned that Benedict had a girlfriend in college, that he read a Persian poet, and that he and his wife watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show together. And I need to get back in there and add that he attended Johnson State College.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Hey, Look, Punctuation!

Cartoon about punctuationI used to have a phrase that I would regularly repeat to my students in the first-year college writing class: “Writing is not about commas, it’s about ideas.” In saying that, I was trying to counteract the effect of bad beliefs the students had picked up, and the bad teachers who had helped inculcate those pernicious beliefs. I knew horrible college writing teachers who seemed almost indifferent to the ideas in a piece of writing, but who put enormous weight on whether all the mechanics were correct. In contrast, I would also sometimes tell students that you can pay someone to fix your punctuation (it’s called a copy editor—I was a copy editor for a hunting and fishing magazine), but you cannot pay someone to express your ideas.

Having said that, I add that having correct punctuation is extremely important. Let’s try an analogy here and see if it works. The purpose of driving a car is not to have working spark plugs, but without working spark plugs, you will not achieve the real purpose of getting somewhere. Punctuation is merely part of the mechanics that make the writing system work, but the more you get it wrong, the more the system breaks down. It’s also incredible but true that although everyone makes mistakes in punctuation, if anyone catches you in a mistake they begin to think “illiterate dumbass” and quit reading.

So punctuation is dreary. I know. I used to teach this shit. But get it wrong and see how far you get, illiterate dumbass.

If you’re a frequent and careful reader of this blog (I know you are, that was just a rhetorical question) then you will have noticed that I seem to use quotation marks “wrong”. Like that. Isn’t the period supposed to be inside the quotes? Yes, in American usage the period as well as the comma are always inside quotation marks. In Britain, however, the period and comma go either inside or outside, depending on what makes sense. Such a practice requires more thought, so naturally I’m not going to advocate it for widespread American use. In the sentence above I put the period outside the quotes because it ends the entire sentence, not just the one word in quotes.

This difference between American and British practice indicates something about punctuation. Like other aspects of language, punctuation is part of a social system, and thus it can change over time and in various places. Even in American practice, punctuation has changed over time. If you read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, you will find that commas appear far more frequently than in modern writing. This is because in Thoreau’s day commas had begun to be made in factories, so a box of commas was extremely cheap, and therefore they were in common use.

Raise your hand if for just a tenth of a second you were thinking “Really?” Actually, there were simply different social practices for punctuation, and also in Thoreau’s writing I’ve found weird combinations that I would never allow my students to use, as in this quoted bit: “and might still inspire a natural terror in its denizens; — now far behind his guide, barking like a canine bull toward some small squirrel…” What I would object to here is the semicolon followed, for no apparent reason in my opinion, with a dash.

The semicolon, by the way, is optional in your life. You are not required to use it, ever. Seriously. There is always a decent way to word a sentence so as to avoid the semicolon, though I don’t mind keeping it for emergencies when I run low on the normal punctuation bits. Like what if I was on a desert island and nearly out of periods?

Another form of punctuation that is never actually required is the exclamation point, with one exception. That exception is if you write for magazines sold in the checkout line at supermarkets. For supermarket magazines, every headline on the cover must end in an exclamation point. The practice was optional until October 2003, when Congress passed the  law unofficially called the Lindsay Gets New Tattoo Bill. Now these magazines look as if the editors are really excited! About almost everything!

In a recent blog post (recent meaning any possible time before now), I talked about my most hated form of punctuation, the apostrophe. Here I will expostulate on my personal favorite in terms of humorous potential, namely, the uninformed use of quotation marks to emphasize a word. Just for the record, in case you need this, quoting one word does not add emphasis. Italics add emphasis (see previous sentence). Quoting one word potentially adds irony, as in the following:

  • Home cooked meals just like “Mama” made.—Whoever it was cooking those meals, she made us call her Mama, or we didn’t get any food.
  • We sell “bread” cheap.—Whatever they’re actually selling, I don’t want it.

An interesting aspect of the fact that punctuation is actually a social practice is that it will continue to change, and if you pay attention, you can see it happening. It wasn’t so long ago that a combination like : – ) looked pretty stupid. I mean, it still looks pretty stupid, but now it means something. Much more interestingly, as new technology expands our range of options, we are just now on the edge of changes in which color will be incorporated into punctuation, as well as perhaps other possibilities. Who knows where we’ll go?

Sign with misused punctuation


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