Monthly Archives: January 2013

Not Enough Words in the World

tiny snowman on a rock

Made by hand, Saturday 26 January 2013

Back during the holidays while I was in Georgia, I was having dinner one night with a group of people, and on being told that I live in Washington, DC, a man said, “We’ll pray for you.” I responded, “You can if you want to, but you don’t have to. I like it there.”

There are many things I like about Washington, one of which is the proximity to history, a thing that interests me greatly. The President was inaugurated this week, and I decided that because it was so easy, being here and all, I’d go downtown and watch.

Upon reflection, joining about 800,000 people in a situation involving some of the most intense security on earth is not necessarily simple.

I did get as far as the Mall, where the Smithsonian museums are located, and where the massive crowd gathered, separated into sections with soldiers and police in between for the sake of crowd control. I was on the far end, near the Washington Monument, and we watched the giant TV (or “jumbotron” as it is so cutely known). That is, we watched the jumbotron until—at the moment the inauguration was starting—it turned into jumbo useless damn thing, and we could only see garbled aggravation. I left my section and managed to sneak past one line of soldiers to move up the Mall, but before I came to another jumbotron I came to more soldiers, and they weren’t letting anyone get by.

So that was that. I wasn’t going to see anything, and I headed home to get out of the cold. It may have been a lucky break. From what I read later, thousands of people converging on the Metro at once created an ambiance that was not conducive to serenity. By the time people were crowding down to the trains, however, I was serene myself, as I had gone on to the bookstore, where I was looking at a book on the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy. He’s a remarkable artist who uses materials found in nature, then photographs them: one two three four.

Looking at the photographs made me wish I could do things like that. I always feel that way looking at Goldsworthy. I get a feeling of wanting to create something with my hands, and to create something visual. Most of the time I’m creating with words. In the last month I’ve written a few poems, I’ve worked on the new novel, I finished the “play” part of a musical, wrote lyrics for a couple of songs, and I put a good bit of effort into these blog entries. (You’re scratching your head saying, “Wow, this is what it’s like when he’s trying?” I know, I know.)

I love words, of course. I’m captured before I know it when etymology flashes out at me like a quick glimpse of the past, with hints of ancient Rome or fur-wearing German tribes, or when words sing at me making music with the melody of alliteration.

And yet…I don’t know. Once in a while I want more. If I lived alone I might go back to working in paper mache. Years ago I made a few dragons, but I think I’d move in a new non-dragon direction. Anyway, I live in a house with other people and there’s no room for that kind of craft.

One possible benefit to creating something physical is being able to feel the creation process with the body. Good or bad, we live in this world in these bodies, and they need their satisfactions.

I also see another possibility motivating the desire to create something physical. This morning, by coincidence as I was thinking about this blog entry, the pastor of a Unitarian church I was at gave a sermon on creativity, and she referred to having experiences that leave us at a loss for words. When she said this, I began to consider that there are indeed things about being in the world, feelings we have, that words can’t express. And yet I want to express them, foolish as that may be.

Or maybe I just miss making mudpies. I was beginning to get good at that when I was a kid, until I got older and they made me stop.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

Distortions to Die For

tombstone“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” There’s the Second Amendment, 27 words.

The National Rifle Association, or NRA, loudly and repeatedly claims to support the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In reality, they have used a rhetorical trick, we have fallen for it, and we are dying because of it. If an honest discussion were held, the NRA would oppose the Second Amendment, which begins with a reference to “A well regulated militia”.

So far, they don’t need to oppose it, because they have been allowed to distort the debate and set the frame for discussions of gun control. They have established this frame so effectively that almost never are the real words and intention of the amendment addressed. Instead, every discussion about gun control begins with the foundation established by the NRA, as if the entire amendment simply reads “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.

That distortion needs to be challenged, and we should insist that discussions of gun control take place on the basis of what the entire Second Amendment actually says, not merely on the basis of that part which the NRA happens to like.

Now that we have had yet another mass killing in the United States (how many have you seen in your lifetime?), we are again talking about gun control. Most of the time, we only talk. We are stunned by the tragedy, we ask why? How could this happen? And then we do nothing.

It’s not that most people aren’t willing to at least try. According to a CNN poll from 2011, 94% of Americans favor background checks for purchases. What else does almost every person in America agree with to the level of 94%?

From the same poll, more than half of Americans (61%) favor a ban on extended ammunition clips, more than half (61%) favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons, and more than half (55%) want to limit gun purchases. If most people want more responsible controls over weapons, why do we still have so many gun deaths in this country? In part because the NRA has been allowed to distort the debate. And in fact, even the questions in this poll are based on the NRA’s framework, not on a full reading of the Amendment.

“A well regulated militia…”

The word “militia” can mean an organized group to which people officially belong, such as the National Guard. By historical use, however, it might also mean a more informal arrangement, in which armed men gather when necessary as an impromptu fighting unit. When we read about this kind of thing occurring in our own time—Congo or Somalia or Iraq—it sounds like lawlessness and anarchy, but let’s assume that we would find this acceptable in America. Perhaps the Second Amendment says we can have such “militias”.

Nevertheless, if we are going to truly discuss the Second Amendment as written, we must address the the phrase “well regulated”. Note the significance of both adverb and adjective. The Founding Fathers did not merely say “A militia, being necessary…” They specifically said a regulated militia, and moreover, a well regulated militia.

People who oppose gun control based on the Second Amendment have an obligation to talk about those words, or else admit that they don’t care what the amendment says. What kind of regulations are we talking about? And what does it mean to have a “well regulated” militia?

Any other discussion is openly dishonest—and that is exactly the discussion we have now.

It is past time that the extremists and fanatics stopped controlling this debate. The other 94% of the country has something to say. We want to know what the regulations are on the militia, and we are demanding an answer to this question.

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Filed under Language

“It Isn’t Possible to Teach Writing”

Fist over a commaOne of the professors I had when studying for the PhD, as I was getting a degree to be a writing teacher, made the statement that writing cannot be taught. Oftentimes, when I was teaching writing, I agreed with him.

But writing is such a remarkably complex invention that almost any statement about it is oversimplified. What is writing, for instance? Symbols to express thought, we might say. Is the expression 2 + 2 = 4 an example of writing? The symbols are read aloud as words, which sounds like writing, but they are limited as to what ideas they can express. What are the mathematical symbols for “I miss you”? Hmm, maybe 1 = 0.

If someone in ancient Egypt drew a picture of a duck and then pronounced it as their word for duck, was that writing? In fact, yes. Their writing system consisted partly (though not entirely) of pictures that were read as words.

Leaping lightly across the millenia to touch down in Washington in 2013, I’m considering not only what writing is, but how it is used. Both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, writing originated as a bureaucratic or business tool. Society collectively invented this tool as a way to keep records, not to write poetry. From the very beginning, writing was intended to be practical.

Try telling that to most American English departments and see how far you get. Even though most English departments are deeply indifferent to whether their students can use writing in a practical way, English teachers are correct that the tool has been used to produce sublime works of art. Humans inherently create with everything around them, even something as functional as neon tubes (one, two), so the writing tool was quickly adapted to creativity as well.

At its most basic, writing is using symbols to transfer an idea from one mind to another mind, most often with the intention of achieving some practical purpose. Most of us do not need to make art with neon tubes. We do not need to paint or make pots. We do not need to write poems. But if we live in the modern world (i.e. here now), then we do need to write some things.

Of course people are taught to write, as we all do it, but how well are they taught? And what should they be taught? The dismal situation in college English departments may be improving, at least in some places, but there are still far too many instances of teachers who literally teach students to write with formulas (like a math class). Did you take college writing? Remember the five-paragraph essay? How often have you used that stupid shit outside of an English class?

If we were willing to do it—a willingness I have serious doubts about—how would we teach people who work as accounts to write for their field? How do we teach biologists to write as biologists? I wonder how many schools can teach contractors to write a successful bid for a project. Yet every town in America has contractors, and they need to know how to do this.

The questions I’m asking here go to the heart of what writing is, of why it exists. There is no profession, no discipline, no person who could teach what is needed to successfully do every kind of writing. What must be done to make a good business proposal could make a terrible sermon. The best way to write a good advertisement could make a horrible TV script or medical report. It does not help to teach idiotic writing formulas, nor does it even help to teach meticulous spelling and grammar, if that’s all we teach.

I do believe, however, that there is something that can be taught to college freshmen or to high school students that will give them a foundation for learning more. They can be taught some basic ideas about rhetoric, some awareness of how language can be used in relation to an audience. Audience is everything, and the audience can be different with each piece of writing.Ancient Egyptian duck

But this is complicated to do, and so far no one has come up with a truly effective way to teach all kinds of writing. Most people learn to write the same way they learn about sex, by doing it.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

And the Word Was Good

Margarete-Bagshaw-Woman-Made-FireIn Washington, DC, a tremendous amount of creative thought takes place, but unfortunately none of it occurs in Congress. Or perhaps like striking a match in a cave, there are occasional flashes of innovation, cleverness, and creativity, but they are quickly lost in the black abyss of lawmaking.

Politicians aside, it is the inherent nature of human beings to create. If you consider our basic state upon entering the world, and our origin as a species, we arrived here naked and empty-handed in a world of nature. From that origin, we have created opera halls, helicopters, vaccines, and the all-important cabernet wine.

I think constantly, even obsessively, about creativity. I’m home again in Washington, DC, and one of my goals here is to surround myself, if I can, with other creative people, however that creativity may be expressed.

While I was in Georgia, I walked to an Italian restaurant with a friend who has been a serious fiction writer for years, never giving up, writing novel after novel, trying to publish them. I sat in a bar on New Year’s Eve with a friend who has such an intense passion for painting that he seems to feel all the rest of life is merely in the way (and he’s not the only painter I know who feels that way). I talked with my brother, a musician who feels a growing intensity in his desire to do something with music. I might also cite myself as a writer, walking through the days with the fire of wanting to see words say things that have never been said before.

Creating is human—cooks, gardeners, teachers, plumbers all have their own creation. Most creativity, however, is like Shaker furniture, both creative and functional at the same time. But I’m considering a type of creativity that has no immediately obvious function. We do not need novels or poems to be able to eat. Sculpture does not keep the rain off our heads.

Yet there are people like me or my friends or my brother, driven with intensity and focus  and even neglect of other needs to create things that—God knows—do not make money in most cases, and sometimes do not even garner much attention.

Nevertheless, if I can momentarily speak for this tribe trying to shape the world into new worlds, I can say that it is impossible to live without doing these things. My memory of writing goes back to third or fourth grade, when I began to play with short pieces. Next month I will be 60, so I’ve been doing this a long time.

About seven years ago, at a time when life was hard in many ways, I thought about how little success I had had as a writer (only 10 or 12 short stories published), and I concluded that I must have been mistaken in doing this. I decided that I had fooled myself in believing I was a writer, that I had hopelessly spent years pursuing a stupid dream.

So I quit writing. In my head, at that moment, it was truly over. I went on writerless for months, but what had formerly been the purpose of my life, the thing that moved me forward when everything else fell away, disappeared. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, but I was sure I was not a writer.

What I was wrong about was thinking I could stop. Whether writing brings me success or not, it gives me life. When I finally returned to writing, it was now with the clear recognition that this is not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do.

I have never been more engaged with writing than I am now, working on this blog, on a new novel, on an occasional poem, and on a musical with my brother. Because I’m a writer. And there is nothing on the earth that ever has been or ever will be that will stop me.

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Filed under Writing While Living