Monthly Archives: July 2017

Put Things in Piles

girl with pile of paperI have a horror story about a college writing class (I’ll pause while you recover from shock). At a college where I taught writing, we had a professor who would give his first-year students a page of detailed instructions on how to write, literally telling them sentence-by-sentence how to write an essay. Naturally, this wild incompetent also used the 5-paragraph essay format.

What that tenured professor did not teach his students was how to work their way through the complicated, sometimes sloppy, process of examining a topic, generating ideas about it, and figuring out how to organize those ideas (i.e., the way we actually write out here in the real world).

Now, if you’re not a prisoner in a college English class, but you’re writing something for a rational reason, such as needing to say something, no one will be sitting there telling you what each sentence is supposed to do, or how many paragraphs you need to have. You’ll have to figure it out, considering the audience you’re writing for, which is what college students should be doing, so as to develop that useful skill.

And if you are not an incompetent writing teacher, one of the things you can teach in a writing class is basic concepts, such as taking your ideas and grouping them in various ways, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the writer’s thoughts and thus understand what is being said. The most basic way to group ideas is in paragraphs, or to use a metaphor I like at this moment, put the ideas in separate piles.

The paragraph was a great invention, because it’s so useful in letting us show those different piles of ideas. But if we step back from the metaphor a moment, we recognize a difficulty. These ain’t colored shells. We’re talking about ideas here, so there’s no clear and easy way of knowing what goes in which pile (in spite of appallingly stupid practices like the “5-paragraph essay”—and if you ever had to do that, on behalf of the entire English profession, I want to apologize to you).

So what does make a proper paragraph? In part, it depends on what you want to say, but in part (we don’t tell students this), it depends on the context. For a news article, the paragraphs should all be fairly short. For a serious report, maybe in business, medicine, or engineering, the paragraphs may sometimes be rather long. And if a paragraph fills more than a page, no matter what the context, it’s too long, because then you’re not seriously using paragraphs.

In addition to understanding how to use paragraphs, there is the question of how to show the reader when a paragraph begins. I know of three ways, though I’ve only seen two of them ever used. One way would be to start every paragraph with a special symbol, which could be anything ♣, as long as everyone knows what it is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done, however.

The way a paragraph is normally indicated, of course, is with emptiness. On paper, we always begin a paragraph with a tiny bit of blank space at the beginning. On screen, that’s rarely done, and instead we use an entire blank line between paragraphs. I’ve also seen people on paper use indentation and a blank line at the same time. Using both is redundant and over time will be way more expensive, to add all those extra blank lines on paper.

Last week at work I was looking at a manuscript I was supposed to edit. If you are not one of the lucky people who read this blog regularly, I’m a copy editor on a medical journal. So I looked at the manuscript, and while the authors had used paragraphs, they had some that went on rather long, followed by others that consisted of one sentence. At one point, I even addressed the authors out loud: “Do you know what a goddamn paragraph is?” I also addressed the authors with some other pertinent words that were needed at the time.

Then I realized that the authors of the article had brutishly done nothing to indicate where paragraphs started. They were using paragraphs, but if you ran your eye down the left margin, it was solid text. I thought Where on the entire planet Earth have you seen this done? What makes you think this is OK? Though I think I did see it done once, I believe in a French magazine. But it’s still incredibly stupid.

From working at the journal where I labor so avidly, I’ve come to understand that while most of our writers are as good as nonprofessional writers generally get, some of them are about as bad as the students I used to have in college writing classes. This is why we need copy editors willing to curse and cry over the trash and then fix it.

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Filed under How We Create Magic

I, Like, Speak Like, You Know

criticism of young peopleAbout a year ago, and I am not making this up, I was in a shop somewhere and someone said to me, “Are you a writer? You look like one.” They didn’t mean someone famous, because honestly, how many writers would anyone recognize? They just meant in general sort of way, and I thought Hmm, could it be because I have a look of tantalizing sophistication and my eyes express a quiet wisdom? Then I realized it was probably because I forgot to brush my hair, my shirt had stains on it, and I was looking around like “where am I?”

I’ll take either one, however. I claim my identity as a wordsmith, which has been hard come by. Wordsmithery is not a skill I was born with, of course. No baby comes into the world knowing how to spell “abstemiousness” or how to punctuate a dependent clause. It has been a slow slog learning all that stuff, yet here we are, the quintessence of an audacious linguophile. According to myself.

Back when I was applying my love of well-crafted language in the most ironic fashion possible (teaching college writing), a few times I had a student who said, “I write like I speak.” I’m not sure now whether such a student wanted to justify their style as authenticated by the speech learned at dear mama’s knee, or whether they were trying to explain why they were so goddamn awful.

In any case, they were mistaken. No one writes like they speak. They may be heavily influenced by day-to-day speech, so that they think “I would have” is supposed to be “I would of” but once the letters appear on the page (or screen, these days), it’s another world. Other than for literary purposes, or when very drunk, most writers are at least trying to adhere to what they consider “proper” writing.

Writing is extremely different from speaking, and I’m not even addressing the point that writing is as artificial as a business suit, a social invention. Speech, on the other hand, is natural in the sense that every person is born with that capacity. So when we write, no matter what we write, we are riding on a different kind of donkey from the one that bounces us down the road during a nice chat.

To take one quick example of the difference, a written sentence, with rare exceptions, must always have a subject and a verb. If it does not, we have a term for that—sentence fragment, i.e. only part of a sentence. I guarantee you the concept of a sentence fragment did not exist before the invention of writing. In speech, we absolutely don’t think about that.

The sentence fragment is an example of the difference between speaking and writing, but there are bigger differences than just sentence construction. Because writing can be edited, it is more logical and has far less repetition than speaking. In addition to all these edited differences, no writing is ever truly like speech anyway, because real speech sometimes sounds like this:

  • “well she was— let me tell you about her, I mean, if you, or anybody was asking…”
  • “uh, well, I’m, don’t know, yeah I don’t know about that, since we’re going…”

Speech is often full of incoherent noise and starts and stops and thinking. Only some college freshman essays are like that.

When fiction writers create dialogue, the question arises, or should arise, as to how to make the writing sound like someone is really talking. Inexperienced writers may not do this well, making their characters always speak in perfect edited sentences, which is, um, not like how people talk, you know?

The trick in fiction is to create the illusion of speech. You can’t really write exactly like people talk, as that would often be gobbledygook, and you want the dialogue to be understandable as well as carry the story forward. So as a fiction writer you learn some tricks to make the dialogue sound occasionally broken, interrupted, or paused for thought, but you always pay attention to how well the basic message is coming through.

So we’re like, uh, you know, and stuff.

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Family Values

Devil's Share whiskeyWhen I was a wee child, my tribe here in Georgia decreed that I would be raised as a proper member of the Southern Baptist tribe. I was taken—willingly at first, then with questions at the age of 13, then dragged with chains—to church. I can’t say they didn’t at least try. Someone even told me once that we shouldn’t dance. (As for drinking too much and illicit sex, those astonishing delights were yet to come.)

I began backing away from the Southern Baptist religion, eyes wide with appalled realization, more than fifty years ago. Still, the religion became part of my cultural background, and I willingly draw on it in my writing even now. As striking metaphors go, it’s a gift. This week, I got lazy and could not write a real blog entry, so I’m posting a religion poem I wrote a few weeks ago.

A Summer Evening Near Nacoochee

“I’m getting tired,” the Devil said.
“I just want to sit and drink.
People are lazy and wicked and dumb,
and they don’t need help from me.”

The sunlight poured like golden coins
through the leaves of magnolia trees,
where the Devil sat, too lazy to move.
For all he cared, Hell could freeze.

He opened a bottle of whiskey,
stretched his legs out on the porch.
“And who could think in this heat?” he said.
“It’s hot as a Roman torch.”

He smiled as he looked at the figure
approaching across the back yard.
“I knew you’d show up,” the Devil said.
“I can’t catch you off guard.”

“Just pour me a drink,” said Jesus,
sitting down in a wicker chair.
His face was shining with sweat.
A leather band tied back his hair.

They touched their glasses together,
then each took a heartfelt drink.
They both stared out at the pine trees.
Jesus reached for the bottle and winked.

“Been thinking about something,” he said.
“How would this work for you?
I think we ought to switch jobs.
We could both use something new.”

The Devil laughed and shook his head.
“I guess you’re already drunk.
Before I took that crew of yours,
I’d trade with a desert monk.

“And the way I see it, anyhow,
we already do the same,
but I get quiet benefits,
while you get a better name.”

Jesus sighed and nodded.
“Yeah, you got me there,” he said.
“Just thought I’d try the idea out,
bring it up, see where it led.”

The Devil shuddered, drank, and coughed.
“And it makes my blood run cold,
the idea of all those churches.
How fast would that get old?”

“Tell me about it,” Jesus said,
and he reached for the bottle again.
“In two thousand years I still don’t know
where they got that idea of sin.”

The sound of tree frogs increased
from up in the tall pine trees,
while the cousins passed the bottle,
and wished for a cooler breeze.

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Well, Hell

The band REM

Part of what we do here in Georgia

On America’s birthday, this past Tuesday, I went to a party where a woman referred to her American regional background, talking about her southern accent. Her husband, I think, said, “When a woman has a southern accent, people think it’s charming. When a man has a southern accent, they think he’s dumb.”

I think there’s something to that, even if it is overstated. There are times when people do find a certain charm in the sounds of southern accents, whether spoken by a man or a woman. But it is also definitely true that in other circumstances, for some people a southern accent symbolizes a lack of intelligence. The ironic fact is that only a fairly stupid person would truly think that, rather than judge the individual, but if you’ll spend the rest of the day looking, you’ll probably find a stupid person. They’re all over the place.

On the positive side, why is a southern accent admired? I’m also thinking of other accents that—at least in my experience—are sometimes thought of as elegant or charming. One of them is an upper-class British accent, and I’m also thinking of Italian. As I’m sitting here now, I wonder if part of the answer might be vowels. One of the obvious characteristics of a southern accent is the addition of extra vowels in comparison with standard American English. As an example, take a phrase a person down here in Georgia might say, perhaps to show mild surprise: “Well, hell”.

As I grew up speaking, the two words in that phrase would be pronounced not with a single vowel (sounding rather like “eh”), but with three vowels (a, y, u) blended together, something like “way-uhl, hay-uhl”. Since there are no rational people here in this room to stop me, I’ll propose a theory that human beings have a natural fondness for vowels. This partiality means that in general we will prefer the sound of a language (or dialect) with a good healthy sprinkling of vowels.

Who knows whether something like that could be true? An accent is simply pronunciation, but a dialect also involves vocabulary, grammar, and general ways of using language. Yet I suppose most people will not make these distinctions, so that someone might say, “He has a strong southern accent and says ‘yall’ all the time,” which has nothing to do with an accent. That’s a vocabulary term. I’ve spelled “yall”, by the way, as it will be spelled in the future, without that cursed apostrophe (and damn my phone for trying to add the apostrophe when I’m texting).

At that same party I was at on Tuesday, someone mentioned, with stern disapproval, the use of a very common verbal practice here in the south, what is called a “double modal”, such as this: “I might could be there after two o’clock on Sunday.” I’m going to guess that the use of such phrases as “might could”, “might would”, and “might should” is probably dying out, which I think would be a damn shame. I think it’s a beautiful way of speaking.

I’ve also heard native southerners condemn the double modal as being a kind of ignorant speech. This condemnation happens, though the speakers would deny it, because the attitude I mentioned above, that southern speech makes a person sound dumb, is—are you ready for this?—also believed by many southerners.

That’s weird, right? But it’s dead true. This little blog is not the place the try to explore the historical reasons that produced such a strange situation, in which people agree to condemn their own speech. And we are certainly not the only place on earth that combines extensive cultural richness with sulking neurotic insecurity (hey, Russia, I’m looking at you, buddy).

I hope we keep our southern accents. I say that even though I’ve lost most of my own, after acquiring too many college degrees and living almost everywhere you can live in America. My speech is most markedly filled with southern honey when I’m with people from back home, or when I drink as much as I should. I might should drink more, I guess, and then my words will sound like they come out of Jesus’ mouth when he’s home sitting on the porch.

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Matter and Antimatter

cartoon of a man at a deskAlternate Reality No. 1: Matter

Tuesday will serve as an example of how it is when I wake up most days. I opened my eyes, looking at the trees out the window, turned back the covers, sat up on the edge of the bed, and thought What am I going to do today? The first thing that came to mind was I’ll have Lily go to a conference.

I was thinking about a chapter in the novel I’m working on. I was not even truly awake yet, thinking about the book. That chapter was what I was going to do that day, and everything else in between (like going to work) was just the stuff I had to move out of the way to get to what mattered.

That’s how it is. I wake up thinking about writing, and I wait to get to it in the evenings. I feel enthused, not only about this book, but about the next book, which I’m already planning, and about the books I intend to write after that. In my life, I’ve never been more on fire to write.

Alternate Reality No. 2: Antimatter

An email came on Wednesday. A couple of months or so ago I went to a writers conference to try to sell a completed novel. Two literary agents and one editor agreed to look at a sample of the book, and if they like that, then they ask for more, and so on until—in some abstruse theory understood only by wizards and magicians—someone says “Yes, I’ll take your book”.

The Wednesday email said no. After decades of doing this, I should be used to rejection, right? How many times have I contacted a literary agent? Either in person or by mail, more than 150 times. How many times have I sent short stories to literary magazines? Three or four hundred times, as best I’ve counted (granted, twelve stories were published). How many times does that make being told “no”? It is still bad.

I’ve heard some of the magical stories, about a writer finding an agent after only thirty tries (presented as a story of “look how hard this was”), or about multiple agents offering to represent the same book. To me those stories are like science fiction or ancient mythology, absolutely divorced from any reality I know.

The difficulty of finding success isn’t just me, obviously. I am merely one of multitudes. By chance, I also read an article just last night about a writer who I recently discovered, Donal Ryan, who had a very successful book (The Spinning Heart) that won awards and gained quite a bit of attention. It seems that after this extremely successful book—far more than most books get—he found himself having to go back to his job with the civil service to be able to pay his bills.

Does It Matter?

I live in both of these worlds—enthusiastic passion to write, and empty voids of no recognition, so contradictory to one another, as though they cannot both exist. It is like matter and antimatter. Why don’t they just destroy each other? (That’s what physicists say would happen if they meet. Howdy, boom!) How is it possible to be excited with almost a religious ecstay to be writing, even while struggling with almost no result for decades. Not years, decades.

I suppose I’ve made it look like I’m asking rhetorical questions here, as to what keeps a person engaged and enthusiastic. Maybe it seems like I’ll answer that question, but I won’t, because I don’t know the answer. I do not know how this paradox can exist. I do, however, know that what does matter is living with a purpose. Otherwise, we are nothing more than collections of particles with unfulfillable desires—matter that does not matter.

For me, writing and creativity are that purpose, with fireworks.

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