Monthly Archives: August 2012

I Will Tell You What Is Right And What Is Wrong

Old man writing

What internet?

Ponder this sentence while I discourse on an unrelated topic, and we will come back to it: I ain’t gonna do nothing that will get me arrested.

While you contemplate that, I will tell you that this week while editing an article for a pharmacy research journal, I found the word “task” four times in one sentence, and the word didn’t always mean the same thing (as far as I could interpret it). Now granted, professional research articles are not supposed to sound like they were written by Shakespeare. Or by Shakespeare’s brother. Or his distant cousin Benny who doth lie about bootless with wine and wench.

But even among professionals who are not professional writers, pharmacists, let’s say, or civil engineers, or forest managers, some have a decent grasp of writing or else they work very hard at it. And some don’t. Of course I’ve seen worse, since I used to teach college writing, beyond which—in some instances—there is no worse. At the same time, I have seen 18-year-olds who not only wrote with elegance and grace, but also with clarity and interest.

And some professional writers…not so much. What I like about being an editor, as opposed to being a writing teacher, is that when I see errors, or clumsiness, or just plain dumb shit, I don’t need to figure out how to induce another person to improve it. I can just fix it.

As I was editing this week, I was thinking about the fact that things I do will eventually get printed, the journal will be distributed all over the country, and people will read it. So people from around the country could potentially notice something I’ve changed and consider it The Way You Are Supposed To Write.

From whence did I acquire this wondrous power? Most people believe there is such a thing as correct English. So who decides what that is? I don’t want to get long and complicated here with old stories about the King, who is dead anyway, but as recently as 50 years ago, it was largely people like me who decided, mostly writers, editors, and English teachers. Writers and especially editors could control what got printed, and English teachers could just stand right there in front of you and tell you that one way is wrong and another way is right.

So I’m a writer, I’m an editor at the moment, and I’ve been an English teacher. I’ve had and still have some of that influence, or even power. It’s not entirely arbitrary, however, that I have it. People like me have spent their lives paying attention to careful use of language. We’ve seen ugly and beautiful and noted what makes them that way. We’ve read clear text and confusing rambling, and we’ve sometimes analyzed how to make the muddy text clear. We’ve paid attention to the tools (grammar, punctuation, visual effects), so we know how to make it work.

Thus if I hear someone say “I ain’t gonna do nothing that will get me arrested”, do I consider this correct or incorrect? I know several things in this case: (1) the word “ain’t”—originally a contraction of am not—is widely considered to be nonstandard English, or even substandard or “bad” English, (2) because “ain’t” implies a negative, the word “nothing” adds a second negative, which standard English does not allow, and which many people are critical of, (3) although the spelling “gonna” reflects a common fast pronunciation of the phrase “going to”, using it in writing definitely indicates a casual colloquial sentence, not necessarily bad, but not formal either.

But I personally think the sentence is just fine, because it is best not to be arrested.

Maybe because I’m a writer and I love the richness and diversity of what a language can do, I’m generally tolerant of deviations, embroiderings, neologisms, and declarations of grammatical independence. Not always, but generally.

I said above that 50 years ago it was people like me who decide what is correct. Nowadays, we still try, but I wonder whether the ubiquity of…umm, alternative writing on the internet may shift that power to a wider range of people. Wot u think about that? i bet u the old fokes won’t like it LOL 🙂

But while you are on the internet helping to democratize our language, keep in mind that if you do get arrested, I ain’t gonna come down there and bail you out.


Filed under Language

Artists Like Me and Django

DC sculpture garden sculptures

“No! What else did he say?”
Conversations from the Sculpture Garden

This week I was chastised, justifiably, for things I’ve said in this blog that seemed to equate the word “rhetoric” with lying or misleading. I’m educated on this, and I know better. I know that rhetoric is the use of language to try to persuade, and there have been times when I’ve even argued that every word we use is rhetorical. That’s probably not true, but I still claim that most of what we say and write is an attempt to persuade, even if it’s just to persuade someone that we’re actually paying attention, or that we’re educated, or reasonable, or cool and fun.

But I don’t want to pursue that right now. Maybe later. It’s true that often we use language for nefarious purposes, and a great deal of language is spilled in buckets of lies, in tricky attempts to take advantage, or in convoluted wordscreens to hide the truth. But we also use language for many good purposes, to pursuade people to quit smoking, to support the opposition in Syria, or to come to an art festival. And that’s rhetoric too.

On the subject of goodness, let me say something good about Washington, DC. Down on the mall where the Smithsonian museums are, the art museum has created a garden of large outdoor sculptures, including an enormous tree, quite real looking, except that it is shiny silver. On Friday afternoons in the summer, people gather in the sculpture garden, some with blankets, some with food, some buying food, and many people, I noticed, buying popular plastic pitchers of sangria. People also sit around a large circular pool, most with their feet in the water.

They come there to listen to free live jazz. This afternoon I walked about 30 miles down the Mall (I might be mis-estimating the distance some) past the Washington Monument to get to the garden. I sat on a cloth bag I was carrying, and I joined that crowd to listen to Susan Jones play jazz violin, in the tradition of Django Reinhardt or Stephane Grappelli. It was beautiful to sit there under the trees near the circular pool and look at happy relaxed people and listen to the music, and to be one of those happy relaxed people.

The walking I did to get there was from near the Lincoln Memorial, as I am temporarily working up there. I work in an excessively huge building belonging to the American Pharmacists Association. Across the street from us is the State Department, across another street is the National Academy of Sciences. It’s a high power neighborhood, with uniformed guards to make the point.

My job is helping to edit a pharmacy journal. Two weeks to the day after I got to Washington, I got this job, and it’s supposed to last two months, but it will really last until they run out of work for me, which I fear could be sooner. At any rate, I am very happy to have the job, as it pays fairly well, it is more experience, and it will give me both a reference and local job experience. So far this week I’ve just been proofreading articles, though I think I may do other things as well. And I have to admit that I have a lot more respect for what pharmacists do from what I’ve read.

It’s a long-ass commute to get there from where I live: bus, train, train, walk eight blocks, about an hour and 20 minutes. But by God I’m working, and I don’t care. On Thursday after work, I didn’t come all the way home, but got off the train early to meet people at a cafe called Bread and Chocolate. On the website, after I was told about it, I have found that there are many groups that meet with a wide variety of interests, and you can just go. Built-in, automatic connections, at least theoretically. Last Saturday I went to meet a group of people who are interested in biotechnology, but that’s in the past, and I’m not writing about that.

The group I went to on Thursday is a creative writing group. On this particular day eight people showed up, which is rather substantial. Two people had brought chapters from novels they’re writing, so they read them to us aloud, not the best way to do it, really, but much cheaper and easier, and you can just do it on the spot, without distributing copies ahead of time. After the readings, those of us who were there had a chance to critique.

The ideal response of a writer to a critique is merely to listen, take in the information, and decide whether it is a useful response, or whether that critic just badly misunderstood, or is a crank, and can be ignored. And if the critique is useful, use it, and make changes. Most writers, however, cannot attain this ideal. Instead they want to respond, or even worse, argue that the person critiquing them is wrong. Most responses by the writer are fairly stupid, though. Not every person who reads the work is going to have the writer sitting there to explain what the writer meant. If the work gets published, it has to work on its own. And for that matter, no piece of writing can work for all readers, and some readers have to just be ignored, because they’re not the intended audience.

Next week I will take something to read, a chapter from Benedict and Miramar. I will read it—and I will read well, not too fast, and loud enough to be heard—and then I will just nod and say thank you for all comments, even the weird ones.

Sometimes, even the weird comments are useful.

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Filed under Writing While Living

Which Side of the Choir Do You Sit On?

The Roman senatee

Well, I sure didn’t vote for him.

Now that I live in one of the world capitals where language frequently rises to the level of howling Jupiter-size storms of bullshit, lies, and nonsense, it might be possible that I will pay more attention to rhetoric. Maybe. But I already pay a good bit of attention anyway, because I’m a Highly Qualified Professional at this sort of thing, and don’t you try this at home unless you want a spanking for that smart mouth.

And since we’ve got a presidential election going on, whooee!, stand back from the gates of rhetoric hell, because the bats are coming out. I hear people these days saying that there is much distortion and insufficient substance, and we have somehow (somehow) reached a new low in political discourse. The only thing I would disagree with is the “new low” part. It has always been low.

Politics is about power, and desire for power is a major motivating factor in human life. I could argue this point for those of you who disagree with this, but it would take longer than I want to spend here. In order to achieve a feeling of power, some people give up kicking their dogs and beating their children, and they go into politics instead, then cover up this low behavior by saying things about “helping the country”.

We wish politics was noble and logical, but it weren’t, it ain’t, and it won’t be, and it’s not just in America in 2012. Britain—a fairly well functioning democracy—has been famous for politicians going at one another’s throats. One of the most well-known exchanges was between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, two men who despised each other . Gladstone once said to Disraeli, “I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease”. Disraeli replied, “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress”.

There are plenty of other examples, or we can look at American history, such as the claims by his opposition that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist, and therefore not morally fit to be president. During the 1860 election, there were people who could taste the bile just from hearing Abraham Lincoln’s name.

The election we have going on now will probably be remembered as fairly routine from a rhetorical point of view. Both sides really really want power, and they’ll use whatever rhetoric will get them there, including some pretty shady things, like claiming that Romney was more or less personally responsible for a woman dying when she lost her health insurance, or saying that Obama is a socialist who doesn’t even understand our American system. Both of these claims are extreme, even stupid, but…fairly routine. Political rhetoric.

Yesterday Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his choice for Vice President, which is all over the news. Let’s look at the rhetoric from a couple of quotes out of this morning’s Washington Post. Commenting on Romney’s choice, Representative Steve Israel of New York said, “Congressman Ryan and Mitt Romney are a match made in millionaires’ heaven, but they’ll be a nightmare for seniors who’ve earned their Medicare benefits.”

This quote has several interesting approaches, beginning with the fact that the two halves of the sentence contain two contrasts, most strikingly comparing “heaven” with “nightmare”. It might have been stronger if he had said “hell”, but maybe “nightmare” makes an interesting variation. The other contrast is to say that heaven is for millionaires and a nightmare is for seniors, implying of course seniors who are not rich. These images fit into the description of Romney that Democrats have been using, that he is only for the rich at the expense of the rest of us.

Another rhetorical approach of this quote is the variation on “made in heaven” with the addition of the word “millionaires”. Adding that word fits the image that was wanted, plus it’s a bit clever (a heaven just for millionaires? so I can’t go?), and we also get some alliteration on the “m” with “match made in millionaires’ heaven”. Everyone loves alliteration. Just ask Dunkin’ Donuts.

Or ask Paul Ryan, the new nominee for Vice President, who said at a rally yesterday that Obama has led the country toward “debt, doubt, despair, and decline”. Pretty obvious use of intentional alliteration, which is a popular rhetorical approach. As further poetical elements, each word in the list ends (by sound) with a consonant, the first two words have one syllable, and the second two both begin with “de”. It flows well.

From a political rhetoric perspective, each of those nouns would also be hard to either prove or disprove (even debt, really, because of how complicated those things are). Whether these things are true depends on point of view. If you agree, as Ryan’s audience would have anyway, then yeah, that’s what Obama did.

One thing we can note about both examples I’ve given is that neither millionaires’ heaven nor debt, doubt, despair, and decline is intended to persuade anyone to agree with what is being said. As is usual in political rhetoric, there’s not a hell of a lot of logic going on. Both sides were talking to people who already agree. Rhetoric, however, is about persuasion, so what were they after?

Both sides were saying to their own people, “Get excited, work hard, help us win”. Or as the choir master says to the choir on occasion, “Sing louder”.


Filed under Language

We’re Having An Adventure!

Painting of angel writing

Did you spell my name right?

I’ve heard that somewhere, up in Heaven I mean, there’s a big book where a secretary angel is writing down everything about our lives, keeping a record of the good and bad. I guess it’s kind of double entry bookkeeping, with one column for good and one for bad, and the angel has to make a lot of tricky decisions about which column to use. Or depending on how you behave, maybe most of the book is one long list of sins, and there’s a short appendix in the back for the good things you’ve done.

It’s interesting that writing has entered our religious mythology. Before the invention of writing, people probably imagined that the gods just remembered what they did, or maybe that the gods didn’t even really care, because they were going to fuck you up anyway. The idea of writing became part of religion long ago. There are many painted wall images from ancient Egypt showing souls being judged, and nearby stands Thoth, the god of writing, holding a bit of papyrus and a pen, while the soul being judged stands thinking, “Damn, he’s writing this down. When did that start?”

For the record, if you’re keeping records, this is my first blog entry from Washington, DC. To be more technically correct, this is my first blog entry from Rockville, Maryland, northwest of Washington, on the red metro line. It has been an adventure to get here, but isn’t moving usually an adventure? Isn’t that what it says on the side of U-Haul trucks? To some extent moving really is an adventure, in the good woo-hoo! sense of excitement and stimulation. It is also, as you might imagine, an adventure in the darker, ironic sense of the word.

But I don’t want to write about the unpleasant things, though they exist. I arrived here five days ago, and already I’m feeling a bit settled in. I know where a good grocery store is, I know how to catch the bus to the metro, for an afternoon of fabulous free museums. I spent one afternoon at the National Gallery, deliberately going slowly, telling myself “I live here now. I can do this.”

I’m also settled enough that two nights ago I started looking at the novel I finished in early June, as it is time to revise. It’s been almost two months since I finished the book, long enough to let it sit and age, like a good wine, or at least like sauerkraut.

Lying beside me on the floor is a large stack of two copies of the book, which two readers over the past year read and commented on. As parts of the two copies came back from the readers in pieces over time, I threw it all together, so now I have a cluttered chaotic manuscript that I was trying to put in order. Creating order wasn’t fun, though, and I said to hell with it and just started reading from the beginning.

Here is a good plan for revising: Read the entire book through, to see what is there, and to see what I ideas I might get as I go through it. Then with that broader overview, go back and start revising.

Here is what I will actually do: Read some of the book, get tired of doing that, go back to the beginning and start making changes based on ideas I’ve had over the last two months, plus whatever occurs to me. Read some more, stop, make more changes, and lurch my way through the entire book revising like a halfwit with no real plan.

Some books that I’ve revised seemed to need changes as vast and forbidding as a Russian forest. With the last book I wrote, in the final revision I probably threw away a third of it and dropped two major characters. I don’t feel a need for such extensive change on this one, as the structure feels OK, at least so far.

The main thing it needs to increase reader interest (one hopes) is to work on the relationship between Benedict and Miramar. Psychological change in characters is one way to give a book a feeling of forward motion, which of course readers like. So my idea is to make the father/daughter relationship more rocky to start with, and increasingly draw them together as the book goes along.

Here’s an example of a possible change. The current version has two lines reading:

“We’ve got some history around here,” he said.
“There’s history everywhere,” she replied, rolling her eyes at him.

The rolling eyes in the current context is meant to be a kind of good-natured “Oh, don’t be silly.” With a change of tone, however, it can become something like this:

“There’s history everywhere,” she replied, rolling her eyes and looking at him with the exasperated superiority that is one of the basic facial expressions of a 15-year-old.

In other words, I might revise Miramar at the beginning to make her a little more normal. I don’t want to take that too far, though, because a real 15-year-old can be a snarling little monster, and there be no monsters in this book.

I still don’t have a name for the book. In the last two months, when I haven’t been writing, another novel has been coming to me, and I find ideas for a new book occurring spontaneously when I wake up at night. I haven’t even made a definite decision to write the next book, yet it already has a name, while the one that is finished is still nameless. I’ve tried being clever with a name and that didn’t seem to work, so I’m wondering about simple. What if I just called it Benedict and Miramar? What do you think of that?


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