Monthly Archives: January 2017

Believe Me, I’m Totally Honest

Woman thinking about a crazy person

They just send out another tweet.

If you’ll come to my house this weekend, I think we’ll have a good time. And if you’ll come to my house this weekend, I’ll give you a thousand dollars.

The first statement above is an example of rhetoric. The second is merely lying. While some people may not understand the difference between rhetoric and lying, it’s a difference as enormous as the one between ethyl and methyl alcohol. You don’t have to understand it for it to make you blind.

If I was late for work, and someone asked me whether I got there on time, I could say (1) Just a few minutes late, or (2) I was really trying to get here on time, and suddenly there was all this traffic. Both answers are trying to do something different. In answer (1) the phrase “just a few minutes” tries to diminish the amount of time. In answer (2) the phrase “all this traffic” combined with “suddenly” emphasizes the idea that some outside, uncontrollable force prevented me. With each answer, I want the listener to believe that (1) my lateness is not that important, or (2) I’m not really at fault.

Each of the answers above is basically “yes” I was late, so neither is a lie, yet the speaker also wants to persuade the listener of something. Choosing words to persuade someone is rhetoric. We are particularly aware of the use of rhetoric by our politicians. Yet all humans choose words this way, because we all want to persuade people to think certain things and to do certain things. Using rhetoric is a natural aspect of being human. Talk to any four-year-old if you’re not sure of this.

We may not like the rhetoric of politicians, but using it is, after all, human. Even a “plain spoken” politician is using their own kind of rhetoric: Look how straightforward my language is. That must mean it’s especially honest, and you can trust me even more.

Let’s take some examples of rhetoric from our contemporary politics. In the past year, we’ve begun to hear the phase “alt-right” to refer to particular attitudes. Alt-right is a fairly innocuous-sounding phrase, as if it might be merely a particular variation (or alternative) of rightwing, or conservative views. In reality, however, it refers to racism and white supremacy, which is not conservative, but choosing a new name to sound more innocent is a rhetorical act.

Another example of rhetoric that came up in the past week was when Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to President Trump, was asked about the White House claim of historically large crowds attending the inauguration. The claim was easily shown to be false, but instead of admitting what was obvious, Conway said the spokesman was using “alternative facts”. This phrase makes it sound as if the actual facts were not clear, as if, perhaps, there was disagreement over interpretation. In essence, however, Conway was using a nonsense phrase, because the reality about crowd size was so visible. She was not exactly lying, but she was clearly avoiding the truth.

These two examples, “alt-right” and Conway’s language, show why so many people hate rhetoric. It is often used to try to hide reality, to avoid admission of the truth, and so rhetoric begins to seem like a way of being dishonest. Perhaps we can say that a politician may do one of three things: tell the cold truth, use rhetoric to hide what is being said, or tell a lie. But maybe it’s not so simple.

Let’s look at two further examples, also from our current politics. Back during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that after 911, Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating on rooftops. Then people investigated, and this claim was shown to be very obviously wrong. There was no mixed evidence. It was not a case of some people said one thing, some said another. It was not a question of interpretation. It was just wrong, but Trump continued to say it.

Then in the past week, Trump has said that up “five million illegal votes” were cast, and that not a single one of those votes (which would have been cast in secret) went to him. No one—including Republican Secretaries of State—has supported the idea that millions of illegal votes were cast. It is just wrong, but Trump continues to say it.

When something has been shown conclusively to be false, one possibility is that the person who continues to repeat it may be mysteriously uninformed of what most people know. Another possibility is that the person might be an incredible liar who doesn’t care.

There is a third possibility. A person who continues to repeat what is known to be wrong might be mentally incapable of recognizing reality. Maybe Donald Trump is not lying, as people are saying. Perhaps he is either remarkably uninformed, or he is so unhinged from reality that he doesn’t know what is real, and he believes what he is saying.

Either way, lucky America.

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Five Hundred Miles From the Ocean

wine and cheese

Hey, you need a poet here

Three days in a row last week I went to poetry readings where I stood and read poems that I wrote all by myself, poems with mystery, pathos, and commas. Lots of commas. I think a profusion of pausing adds to the pathos.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that such a chain of readings will never happen to me again. For the only time ever, I read poetry in public three days in a row. That’s kind of like a world premiere, isn’t it? I mean, if a world premiere involved very, very few people, and those few spread out over several days. Plus one place had cats.

The highlight was day three, when I had the opportunity to spread my tiny wings and fly around the room chirping repeatedly. Once a month the Unitarian church in Atlanta (the big one with the circular meeting space) sponsors an event called Wine, Cheese, and Spoken Word, with a featured poet. This month, while other folks took care of the wine and cheese, I supplied the words as the featured poet.

I’ve known for quite a while that I was going to do the reading, so I had time to make necessary preparations, such as writing some poems. I knew this event would involve about a 20-minute reading, then a short open mic, then another 20-minute reading. Several weeks ago when I was thinking about this, around the time of the winter solstice, it occurred to me to use the solstice as an inspiration. So I decided that with two sets of reading, I’d do the first half as poems of darkness, and the second set as poems of light, moving from darkness to light, as if my poems were the solstice and I was, hmm, what would that make me, the earth tilting on its axis, I guess.

I was pretty pleased with that idea, and as it happens I have plenty of poems that lurk in the darker side of life as well others that celebrate the light. I like to have variety in my writing, or else I get bored doing it. When I’m doing a reading, I also think of it somewhat as putting on a show. It’s not just reading, it’s performing. (Whether or not I’m actually good as a performer would be another question entirely.) To enhance the performance—in my eyes—I wore a black shirt for the first half, then I changed to a white shirt for the second.

Speaking honestly—and I don’t plan to keep that up—I can say that I didn’t particularly look forward to doing the reading. I didn’t exactly mind it, I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous, and when I finally stood up in front of people, I actually loved it. And yet, strangely enough, I didn’t really want to do it. I don’t think I can explain that dichotomous psychological phenomenon.

I did have sense enough to use the event to push the two books I’ve put out, as much as I’m ever going to push anything. On the stairs I set up the posters of the two book covers, and I had a few copies of the books on a table for sale. It was my friend who organized the event, however, who suggested that I read a few pages from the short story collection, and after I had finished reading she stood up and promoted both books more than I would feel comfortable doing.

On the whole, it seemed like a decent night. I tried to read with a little bit of flair, and I sold a few books and signed a few books. At the end, no one offered to carry me around the room on their shoulders with tears of joy streaming down their faces, so . . . I don’t know. I guess people liked it well enough. And there was the black and white shirt change. Let’s not forget that.

I’ll end this by throwing in a verse from one of the darkness poems (called “The Cost of Music”):

Lucinda is deeply afraid of tidal waves,
the way they thunder in suddenly and nothing escapes.
Although she lives five hundred miles from the ocean,
she says not all waves are made of water.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Not Real Poetry

Being a Writer!

man pushing a boulder up a hill

The writing process

Because I took off a day here and there, or because of holidays, I haven’t gone to work (I mean the one where I get paid) five days in a row for the last month. Which is how it should be. This isn’t the Middle Ages, damn it, and we shouldn’t be working more than four days a week.

With all that lovely time off, I’m so dedicated to my writing craft that when I wasn’t sleeping, or thinking about sleeping, or eating, or staring out the window, I was assiduously working on the current novel. Man, I was like a serf with a pencil.

It was fortunate to have an opportunity to work for uninterrupted hours, as I had reached a point where the book I’m revising required analyzing what I have and how I want to move forward. I’m taking the current text, cutting it into random pieces, and rearranging them to tell a somewhat new story.

I’m also throwing away at least half of what is already written, so much of the second half of the book will be entirely new. Given this much change, there was a lot to think about. Most importantly, I wanted to think about the pacing of events. If a dramatic interaction between two characters is moving the action forward, but it ends before the book is over, what is the reason to keep reading?

Well, why don’t I just figure that out before I write the book for a change? So I worked on all this, and you’re probably bored just reading about it. Imagine doing it. It was exceeding tedious. If anyone tells you how much fun it is to write, how the writer just sits there throwing off sparks from inspiration, you can say to them, “Liar, liar, sings in the choir.”

I have the impression—maybe I’m wrong—that some people are natural story tellers and plots just pop into their head. I’m certainly not like that. It takes me tremendous effort and thought and rethinking and at least one nap and two snacks to work out a story. OK, more than one nap.

But at last I rolled that stone up the hill and shoved a log in front of it, so it stayed there, and I was able to get back to the “writing” part of the writing, the part that has some pleasure in it, using words, creating things. I’ll give a little sample below of what I did this week. This is a flashback scene in which the protagonist, who is mostly in her 70s during the book, visits her father’s grave and remembers being 14. The work below is still just a first draft, but I’ll show you anyway.


Eve looked at her father’s side of the grave and vague images of his funeral floated through her mind. She thought about their life above the hardware store, near the downtown square where she had just been driving, and she thought about the girl who she had been then, the serious girl who read so much, who studied hard, but who also liked to go to movies. Her father had always freely given her money to go to movies, and a memory of telling him about one of her favorite movies came to her as she stood in the cemetery.

They had just finished dinner, of pork chops, cornbread, and green beans. Richard Elfweather had taken one last small piece of cornbread to eat with sorghum syrup, as he liked to finish off a meal with something sweet. “Did you like the movie?” he asked.

“It was so funny!” Eve exclaimed. “You should go see it.” She had just been with Amy to see the new Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera.

“Maybe I will,” her father said. He always said that, but he never went to movies.

“You know who they are, don’t you? Harpo never says anything, he just blows a horn.”

“Then why isn’t he called Horno?”

Eve laughed and said, “He plays a harp, too. That’s why he’s Harpo.”

Eve stood a few more minutes looking at the grave, then went back to her car. She was going to go home and call Lucette, to see if she would come over in the evening. It would be good to see a friend.

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

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

glass of spilled milk

Just don’t cry

At some point (in time, as people say, to distinguish from those points not in time), someone was thinking of something very, very good. It was so good, so superlative, that describing just how good it was presented a challenge. Perhaps the unknown person thinking about this tried the phrase “very good” but that still meant merely good, albeit enhanced by the word “very”.

Maybe then they tried synonyms, and the thing in question was “great” or “wonderful,” which was better, but still, these are fairly common words, and the thing was SO GOOD that common words were not enough. At that point, real imagination kicked in, and metaphors were used: good as . . . hmm, good as what? Good as a friend’s handshake. Good as cold milk. Good as . . . ah! Good as gold!

Now we have to use our own imaginations to remember that at the time this phrase had never been used before. Gold is a metal, extremely valuable, highly valued, and shiny and beautiful. Good as gold? Wow, good as gold. What a clever idea.

And so it was a clever idea—the first time.

Since that time, however, Jezus! don’t ever say that again. That phrase is old as dirt now, and you wouldn’t want to be caught red-handed using such a worn-out cliché. Part of what makes clichés so attractive is that there was a time when they actually were fairly clever or imaginative. Another part of what makes them attractive is that they require almost no thought at all, they just fall forward into the open air of their own accord.

But why not use a cliché? Why do I attempt to lay down such a haughty law? Really, it depends. If you truly like it, go ahead and knock yourself out, but I’ll cite two reasons, and if they mean anything to you, then you decide.

Most broadly, I’ll cite human psychology. It’s paradoxical when you consider how much humans yearn for the past, cling to tradition, and hate to change, that we also love newness. What strange brains we have, but it’s true. Newness entertains us, lifts us for a moment out of the repetitious tedium that makes up our life so much of the time. Part of that newness comes from language, and if you can say things in a new way, you sound more interesting.

More to the point for this blog about writing, to present yourself as a serious writer with a good linguistic imagination, you can’t just drag out an old kettle of fish to make broth with too many cooks or . . . I’m getting lost here. In fact even for people who care about fresh, interesting language, the mind is full of clichés.

Original language in writing does not happen because you’re such a phenomenal genius that every word you write will sparkle like the diamonds on a king’s codpiece. No sir. You’ll have clichés, but if you’re a serious writer who is willing to work, as you revise and notice that kind of language, you’ll slow down, think, put your head in your hands, sigh, go get a drink of water, come back and think some more, and eventually come up with a fresh way of saying what you want. If you don’t try to avoid clichés, then frankly, you look like a lazy writer.

Writing this blog entry, I found a website that said not to use clichés in writing, and they gave a list of almost 700 of them (seriously)—which they said not to use. I wondered if the writer who takes advice from that website is supposed to memorize the list. I thought of a use for them, however, and I include a selection below:

  • let’s talk turkey
  • all your eggs in one basket
  • big cheese
  • bring home the bacon
  • fine kettle of fish
  • no use crying over spilled milk
  • red as a beet
  • spill the beans
  • easy as pie
  • icing on the cake

I think we have enough there to make a meal. We can eat our words.

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