Monthly Archives: July 2014

“Culture”

stupidity cardYou’ll be shocked to learn the secret of how easily we can have wealth, photographs of underwear, and free coffee from Starbucks. OK, maybe not free coffee. In 21st century America, we have several motifs that show up in our popular culture like a bad case of acne. With a solid grasp of the scientific method, which I carefully avoided, I’ve categorized several of those motifs from a variety of internet websites.

It’s a Secret! And Nobody Knows Unless They’re on the Internet

This motif is extremely popular, both in pseudo-news articles and in advertisements for idiotic things no sane person would buy (like secret vegetables to raise your testosterone level). As any child can tell you, there is something titillating about being let in on a secret. Perhaps the revelation briefly makes us feel special, which is something we crave. With internet surfing, we can pretend to be special multiple times a day.

Think how special you’ll feel when you read an article titled “Warren Buffett Reveals How Anyone with $40 Could Become a Millionaire”. Man, all I gotta do is ask my Mom for $40… The word “reveal” has a very active life in the world of internet drivel. There is also a popular subgenre to this motif: “What U.S. Power Companies Don’t Want You to Know”. The clever reporters have discovered some secret and are letting it out, ha ha! The best example of this motif that I’ve found was “The truth about tilapia”. I wish I had made that one up, but it’s real. It seems that bland little fish is sneakier than we realized.

Everything You Want Is Easy

I understand that it’s basically a drag to have to go shopping, or go to school, or go to work, instead of lying on a big soft couch with a bag of potato chips. Things worth having take so much damn work. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were simple easy ways to get stuff?

Yes! Here’s a sample advertising headline from this motif: “Simple trick to learn Spanish”. Wow, a simple trick, and I thought it required actual study. ¡Qué sorpresa! The word “trick” seems to indicate that there is an easy way to do the thing in question, something you just didn’t realize. That idea of easiness is emphasized by adding the word “simple”. In fact, it’s so simple, why didn’t you figure this out before, dumbass? Here’s another “trick” headline: “Are you skipping the one beauty trick that can make you look a decade younger?” (Hmm, yes I am.) Less obvious, but still within this motif of getting things easily, are headlines like “14 things you should stop paying for now” and “Find the best savings accounts”.

Emotion as Deep as Elephant Dung

I thought about skipping this one, as it’s merely a description of human nature. I went ahead, however, as there seems to be a quantitative change from the past. While it used to be that a person had to wait for a public hanging or the birth of a royal baby to wallow in useless emotions, we can now do that on many popular websites (especially! the! Yahoo! homepage!).

This category is epitomized by a headline reading “Adorable! Pup Apologizes to Baby for Stealing Her Toy”. The writer in that case even went so far as to crudely tell the reader which emotion to feel. Openly telling the reader what to feel is not rare in internet headlines, perhaps a sign that our culture is groveling its way toward End Times. Here are headlines from three more articles whose only purpose is to make the reader feel an emotion—which emotion does not remotely matter: “Why These 5 Siblings Walk on All Fours and Can’t Stand Up”, “You OK, Sis? Why Those Three Words Can Save a Woman’s Life”, “Driver saves ducklings, receives $100 ticket”. (I’m just glad to know the baby ducks are OK.)

Can We Smell Your Baby?

No, I’m not talking about Prince George. After all, what American doesn’t want to lick the toes of British royalty? Nowadays when we look at our Congress, we’re sorry about that revolution thing, and can we come back?

No, I mean deep involvement in the lives of total strangers, and not just professional freaks like the Kardashians. Here is a real headline: “Whom do you think Selena should date?” Myself, I was going to vote for Justin Bieber, until I saw the headline “Justin Bieber poses for underwear shot”. He’s not good enough for her. As a variation on obsessing over celebrities (or as I should say, celebs), take the headline “Mom’s open letter to her teenage son”. This is obviously not news, and these people aren’t famous, but the hungry maw of the web now tries to fill the empty space by grubbing through the lives of normal people.

I want to see all these things combined into one perfect internet headline: “The secret of Justin Bieber’s adorable underwear, and how you can get a pair!” You know you would click on that.

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It’s So Easy!

young girl writing

I think I’ll write a book

Suppose that in spite of everything (like life and stuff), you wrote a book. Suppose that in spite of everything, you decided to publish it anyway. Increasingly here in the 21st century we hear about the benefits of self publishing, and occasionally phrases come through that seem to imply how simple this is. Anyone can do it.

And so anyone can. We are, at any rate, all free to make the choice to self publish. Naturally, we cannot all make that choice with traditional publishing (they might publish you, or they might shoot you on sight—I try to stay out of range). Regarding simplicity, however, complexity, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. In my own peasant-naive eyes, water is simple, horses are simple, DNA transcription is simple.

Self publishing, though—let’s consider a small illustration. A very popular publisher of ebooks is Smashwords, who I intend to use. They kindly provide a free guide on how to format a book for them, to turn it into an ebook. Within that document (of 117 pages) is a recommendation to configure the Normal style in Microsoft Word to create a special first line indent of 1/100th of an inch to trick Kindle apps and devices, so that they won’t automatically indent paragraphs.

What? Goddamnit, I don’t want to go back to college to learn how to publish a book. It’s bad enough to write one. In addition to technical issues, there is another question here. Suppose that in spite of everything, you wrote a book, didn’t edit it much, didn’t proofread very carefully, and since you had a buddy who knew a little bit of Photoshop, you got a not-so-bad cover for the book? Then self publishing might be easier. If you want a book of quality, however, there is more involved.

One of the advantages of going through a traditional publisher is that they provide many lovely services writers don’t think about when communing with the muses and being artists. Like cover design, proofreading, or deciding what size paper to print on. If you want that level of quality, unless you have skills and experience most writers don’t have, you have to hire people who do have those skills (though you still have to think about things). Because self publishing has become so common, many businesses have in fact arisen to supply those services.

When I began this process, I was told it might cost around $2,000 to self publish. I thought “I can’t possibly pay that much money, I don’t have it,” yet I decided to proceed as if somehow it would work out, though I could not see how. Thus I have proceeded, and in the meantime I got hired to a job with a good salary, so now I can afford to pay, but even before I found that job, I began paying people when I didn’t feel like I really could afford it.

Here are my own costs, though yours may be different:

(1) A content editor to give me comments ($500)—Finding someone who is worth hiring might be tricky, but I was satisfied, and I made changes based on the comments.

(2) A proofreader (a cheap one, at $200)—This could also be tricky, to find someone who is good.

(3) ISBN numbers ($300)—If you’re putting out church recipes or the story of your life only for your kids, maybe you don’t need this, but if you’re serious, then you do need it. Just one ISBN number is $250 from the bastards at Bowker, who sell them in the United States. I needed two (each version of a book must have one: ebook, print book), but you can get ten for $300. The numbers don’t expire, however, so now I have some for the next book.

(4) Book cover and formatting ($720)—Originally I wasn’t going to use a professional designer, but now I can. In addition, and thank you thank you thank you, I’m paying extra for them to format the book, so I don’t have to think about creating a special first line indent of 1/100th of an inch. They’re probably not doing that either, though.

(5) A new website (free, except for the cost of hosting the site)—This is only free because I can create my own website, but I think having a site is a necessary tool of a contemporary writer.

This week I got a first draft of the formatted novel to look over and I’ll send it back directly, indicating the changes that need to be made. One step closer. I’m having to push myself through this process in spite of a sense of anxiety, though. I’m concerned about somehow screwing it up and looking stupid and unprofessional. I’m moving ahead, though, in spite of that, just as I moved ahead when I thought I couldn’t afford it.

Soon, there will be a book available. In the meantime, fortunately, I have beer.

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Did You Say Something?

elderly coupleThe fact that I’m writing this means I’m not communicating with you.

A few days ago, I was sitting in the outdoor courtyard of a restaurant sharing a meal and bottle of wine with my daughter. We talk about a lot of things, her and me (you can leave a comment below about my horrific abuse of grammar), and sometimes hours go by while it seems that twenty minutes have passed.

As we sat over plates of fish and glasses of white wine, my daughter raised the idea of whether people really pay attention to other people when talking, whether we really notice the subtle cues that can give us more information. As a context for her idea, she is part of the generation that lives and dies by cell phones, and she brought up the difference between texting or talking on the phone, but her comment went broader.

She suggested that writing makes us lose the skill of truly paying attention to direct communication. That idea reminds me of Plato’s claim that according to Socrates, an Egyptian king said (notice how Plato sort of stands at a distance from the statement) that writing would make people lose the ability to remember things. They would just write things down and not even try to remember.

I thought my daughter’s idea was interesting, and I told her I was going to blog about it. She joked and gave me the first line I’ve used on this blog entry. It’s certainly true that a person speaking has an enormously greater range for communicating than someone writing. The voice can produce a remarkable diversity of sounds, and we’ve learned to recognize meaning from how words are said, not simply from the words themselves. Writing will never come close to this.

In addition to the sounds we make, we carry a summer garden of facial expressions, and we communicate quite a bit with the body itself. The way we sit, how we hold our shoulders or twist the body, these all express thoughts. Occcasionally when I’m in a crowd but have no one to talk to, I’ll start watching people’s hands. I try to imagine what a person could be saying to make them unconsciously jiggle one hand with the fingers slightly bent. What metaphors measure those movements? I also talk quite a bit with my hands, sometimes drawing pictures in the air like Monet when I speak.

To get all of these messages, of course, we have to pay attention. Is it possible that being able to put something into writing keeps us from concentrating on communication in person? I don’t think our ability to express our thoughts is necessarily decreased when we write. For me that’s true, but I’m a writer. I’m comfortable crafting with words, I like being able to take time to think, then revise, then polish.

However, communication is not just about expressing ourselves. Real communication is also—very much—about listening. Does my daughter have a point? I don’t know. I wasn’t listening. I was writing a note.

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Ain’t You Never Gonna Write Good?

grammar pigLet’s imagine that you’ve written a note about needing to take the car in for an oil change. Would it contain language like “yon carriage that doth dance upon globes of tropical nectar”? Would you sound like Shakespeare?

Right, probably not. For a functional note, such imaginative language is not needed, but even if it were, we couldn’t expect everyone to write like that. Maybe instead the note should have more of the feel of a modern, plain-language writer, like Hemingway. “The oil in the car needs changing. I’m the one who has to do those things. What will happen if it isn’t changed? We won’t find out.”

Do you think everyone should aim at writing the way well-known writers do? I think you’re yelling No. Nevertheless, here in the glorious future where we live, we’ve decided that every person on the earth should be able to read and write. It’s not that everyone can, but we think they should. That’s pretty damn radical, don’t you think?

As a person who spent twenty years teaching writing, I’ve thought muchly about how people write, and I’ve talked to people who’ve thought about this. Of course the fact that I spent twenty years teaching people how to write implies that I believe it can be done. Or…or maybe I was just a word whore and it was better than stocking shelves at Walmart, the other job I was qualified for.

Laying facetiousness aside (briefly), I know that the ability to convey your thoughts well in writing is an amazing power. And I truly wish everyone had that power. As long as they don’t get all uppity and start writing novels, because there’s enough competition as it is. But what I meant to say was that when we teach people to write, what do we mean by that? You should be able to write a note that clearly says the car needs to be taken in for an oil change, but we definitely have much more in mind.

How well should people be able to write? Can you work as an educated professional if you don’t write well? In spite of what your college professors tell you, I’ll declare that absolutely yes, you can, though whether you do may be a matter of luck. I’ve often been frustrated by the incoherent drivel that comes from computer programmers. Have you ever had a message come up on your screen that made you think “What the hell does that mean?” The computer didn’t say that. A human being typed those words in. I’ve sometimes considered whether computer programmers should be taught to write better, and I’ve concluded that actually, we should pass a law making it illegal for them to ever write anything.

Or browse through a different example. From my work for a pharmacy journal, I’ve edited articles in their natural state, a condition that the writer considered good enough to send off for professional publication. I’m sometimes reminded (more often than I should be) of the freshman composition students who I taught for twenty years.

Most of those students were eighteen years old, just out of high school, and many of them—to put it gently—wrote in such a way that you would never, ever, ever want to read it. Apparently, students just like those grew up and became pharmacists or pharmacy researchers. Now they write articles, and…how can I say this as softly as it deserves? Some of them are fucking horrible.

So in my experience people actually don’t necessarily need to write well to succeed. At least once in a while you can be pretty close to freshman English ignorant and still get published, and you get all the toys and cookies that come with publication. Or you could write software manuals. Or letters from insurance companies.

But to lay facetiousness aside again, though it doth cling to my fingers, is it reasonable to think that every person can become a truly good writer? Do we expect every person to be good in math? Do we think everyone should be creative and artistic? Should everyone be able to work on a car?

All I can do is write about working on a car, as long as I don’t use any actual details. And math? Jeez, I couldn’t even write about that.

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