Monthly Archives: June 2018

How Can I Read Your Book If I Don’t See Your Photograph?

fox sitting at a typewriter

I just really don’t want to write about hen houses.

Last Saturday I bought four Irish novels. I read one of them this week, a book that is very modern in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of narrative, so after a while it becomes so strange you just read it knowing that it will be strange, or you quit reading. When I went looking for Irish novels, however, what did I mean by “Irish”? Does Irish literature have to focus on small stone cottages set on green hillsides, with people who drink Guinness and say, “How’s your Da?”

It’s fairly common to describe literature, as I did, based on the writers (who they are, where they come from), rather than based on the writing itself. This can make for some strange classifications. The short Irish novel I just read, for instance mentions Irish place names and makes a few Irish cultural references, but in fact, with very few changes, the book could take place in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Is this an “Irish” novel or just a novel by an Irish writer. Or are they exactly the same thing?

Years ago I gave myself an ambitious goal of reading a novel from every country on the earth (I never came close). I thought I had Ireland covered at the time because I’d read Gulliver’s Travels, but someone pointed out that Jonathan Swift was actually Anglo-Irish (I note that Wikipedia also refers to him as Anglo-Irish). He was born in Dublin, mostly grew up in Dublin, went to college in Dublin, died in Dublin, and is buried there. But according to this point of view, he’s not exactly Irish.

Trying to define Irish literature is an example of a broader question of defining any kind of literary group. As one example, writers are routinely identified as belonging to particular countries. Here is the U.S., we also categorize writers based on groups that have traditionally lacked power. There’s a logic to this, as people in those groups can describe a reality and life that people in the power group would not know. Thus we talk about women writers, black writers, American-Indian writers, and so on.

How many writers like these labels? Probably almost none. Philip Roth, who just died and who repeatedly wrote books using Jewish characters, did not want to be known as a “Jewish” writer but as a good writer, regardless of his subject matter. And does being a member of one of these groups imply a certain type of subject matter? Did the black writer Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, write “black” literature? Was she not a real black writer?

From a literary point of view, what is Irish? Before I visited Limerick, Ireland, a woman who lives there recommended that I read Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, to get a feeling of Limerick, so I read it. There is even a museum to McCourt in the city of Limerick, yet he was born in New York and spent almost his entire life in America. Is he more Irish than Jonathan Swift, who lived all his life in Ireland?

The labels we use for writers and writing can sometimes be handy, because those labels might indicate cultural differences or ways of living, history, language, and so on. But as with so much, we can also use these labels in a stupid lazy way, as if a writer is supposed to write certain things based on country of origin, or skin color, or culture, and so on.

It’s no wonder writers don’t like the labels. As dictators around the world know, there are writers willing to go to prison rather be told what they are allowed to write.

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Filed under Book Talks, Writing While Living

Huh? What Did You Say?

statue of boy peeingDo you know we have a word in English that means “to piss at night”? Or rather, that would be a verb. I guess it just means “pissing at night”. A noun. I was quite surprised to find this word, which I did in the last week or so in one of the articles I was editing for the medical journal. The word is “nocturia”. Given the medical context, I suppose the more proper meaning is probably something like “getting up at night to urinate”.

Why is there a word like that? My theory is that it’s because men complain about having to do it. Maybe it’s not just men complaining, though when a man reaches a certain age, like…um, mine, that’s just how it is. In any case, it’s the complaining that created the word. I’m pretty sure there are no medical articles about people going to the doctor saying, “Doc, can you help me? I have to pee during the day.”

Down the hall on the right.

From editing that same article, I also discovered the word “alguria”, which means “painful urination”. OK, I see a need for that one, if you’ve been places you shouldn’t have been.

Cheerful words about urination aside, an interesting word I’ve learned on this job is “catastrophize”. I had never heard it before, but it’s actually fairly common in the articles I read. The word is used to mean a patient who takes whatever medical condition they have, focuses on it, and exaggerates how awful it is. Catastrophizing is actually considered to make some patients worse, like the opposite of the famous placebo effect that makes people get better even without treatment, just because they believe they’re getting treated. When a person is catastrophizing, they get worse because they believe it.

But of the grim medical words I’ve learned, the one I like best is “claudication”, with the meaning “pain in the legs from limited blood flow”. It comes from Latin claudicare meaning “to limp”. What makes this a cool word, however, is not its strangely narrow medical meaning. What makes it cool is that the word is connected, at least by Latin etymology, with the Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned in the years 41 to 54. The connection is that Claudius had a medical condition that made him limp, so we can see the connection in his name.

Since humans first grunted a loud exclamation, several hundred thousand years ago, meaning “danger”, we’ve done amazing things with the noises our mouths can make. First, we probably worked up some specialized danger exclamations meaning “tiger” or “snake” or “big hole”. Now look at the kind of subtle words we’ve got: carburetor, sautée, piddle, indubitably. It’s a plethora, a veritable surfeit, an expansive cornucopia of words.

We have far more words in English than anyone could ever come close to knowing, but many of them are technical words, like alguria. Then again, why not just say “painful urination”? Is that too clear? As a matter of fact, probably yes. I’ve read that as modern medicine developed, doctors wanted to set themselves off as professionals, and having a special language that only they could understand would help to do that. Given what I know of human nature, that explanation makes sense to me.

I have a special language that sets me off as a professional, too. I can’t tell you what it is, though, because if anyone else knew it, then it wouldn’t be special.

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Yes, But From Where…?

sculpture of man with his head in a wallA week ago, I saw a painting of a giant hand with a snow leopard standing on the palm (or perhaps it was a normal hand with a really tiny snow leopard). The painter was nearby, and when my girlfriend commented on the painting, he said the idea for it came from waking up in the Himalayas to find that a snow leopard had been walking around outside their tents.

Yet even if you woke up and stepped out of a tent on a chilly morning in the Himalayas to see footprints of a large cat, how would you go from that to the idea of such a painting?

For almost a week I didn’t write anything on the current novel, in large part because I was gone for several days last week to Charleston, South Carolina, to the Spoleto festival. When I don’t write for a while, I find that it takes more effort to get into the flow of it again, so one night this week I was looking at notes I had previously made. Puttering with the notes is less effort than actually creating a text, but it gives me the feeling I’m somehow working.

After a bit (I do this all the time), I thought, “Enough putzing around. Time to face that demanding void and write something.” I always approach the writing process with the idea that what I write doesn’t entirely matter, because it will be revised anyway, and no one has to see it. Just write something, I tell myself, even something stupid.

So I did. Slowly, I described my character in a yoga class, then on his way home he stopped to talk to neighbors and learned that the woman had made a banana pudding. Gradually, a piece of the world came out of nowhere. I often find that once a scene is written, though I will probably revise it, what is there begins to seem like a real place, with real events. I get a feeling as if I’ve gone from a demanding blank void, where there is nothing, to a place that truly exists. Everything ahead continues to be a void, but what has been written now exists for me as if it was always there.

Sometimes I wonder how this is possible. I know I wrote it, obviously, yet after it’s done, there’s a kind of magic about it, as if I merely uncovered what was simply hidden. Where do these creations come from?

It was in Charleston last week that I went to an art gallery and saw the leopard painting, and while we were there at Spoleto we also attended a modern dance performance by Dorrance Dance. The show was partially tap dance, but combined with very modern choreography, to make a performance that was fascinating and at times strange.

If you have an idea to write about a man talking to his neighbors about banana pudding, or you decide to paint a hand holding a snow leopard, or you want the legs to move in a certain way as the foot rhythmically taps the floor, where does all this come from? From about 30,000 years ago we have examples of both carved objects and wall paintings, so humans have been imagining and creating for a very long time. Even though I am one of the creators, even as I’m inside that process doing it, it still mystifies me.

I also think not only about where acts of creation come from, but why are we compelled by that demanding void to fill it?

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Exactly How to Write a Query Letter

Didgeridoo

Waiting for Elvis

If you’ve been wondering how to write a query letter to propose your book to literary agents, you can get books that talk about it, or you can find advice online, or you can even talk to literary agents at conferences. Or you could read this.

For those who are not actually interested in being published, or being taken seriously as a human being, or entirely avoiding jail time, I can help you out with my convenient guidelines—see below!—on how to write a query letter.

  1. You have two choices for how you begin the letter. One possibility is a formal, business-like approach, which will read thus: “Dear Sir or Madam or Whatever (who am I to judge?).” This shows your open-mindedness. The other option is to emphasize your friendly nature and show how easy it will be to work with you. Then you will take the informal approach and begin your letter thus: “Hey, babe.”
  2. At the beginning of your letter, it’s important to tell how many words are in your book. I’m not sure whether this includes the articles “a” and “the” but it definitely includes “an” because of the final consonant. Therefore, when you write your book, try to use as many nouns as possible that begin with a vowel, to increase the number of times you use the word “an” and increase your word count.
  3. Use several paragraphs in your query letter, as paragraphs tend to be popular, so the more the better. Make sure to end each paragraph with the phrase “We’re not done yet!”
  4. Say things about your book to make it sound interesting, even if you’re pretty sure it isn’t. In this context, saying things that are not true is not called “lying” but rather “verbal malfeasance”, which sounds so much better, and is therefore OK. Here are examples of interesting things you might include: (1) After dogs take over the world, human beings learn to carry sticks in their mouths, and it turns out they are much happier than before. (2) Elvis Presley is reborn in Australia, where he learns to play the didgeridoo. (3) A really stupid person is elected President, but it is hard to tell the difference.
  5. Just use your imagination when writing the query letter. That’s what being a writer is all about. Make sure you use plenty of exclamation points. They make your book sound more exciting!
  6. Mention the names of your characters, and give every character a middle initial. Most people have a middle initial, so giving them to your characters makes your characters seem more real. If your character is rich, the middle initial should be W. If they are foreign, it should be Z. If you happen to have a humorous character, then of course the middle initial will be J.
  7. It’s important to let the literary agent know that you did not hire someone to write your letter, so your last sentence should be “I wrote this entire letter by myself.”
  8. And very importantly, don’t forget that being a literary agent is a business. They are doing this to earn a living, so include a twenty dollar bill with every query letter you send out. Doing this will indicate your level of professionalism.

Good luck with your letter

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Comma Up to My Place

peanuts cartoon on commasIf you happen to be the kind of person, hopeless, that is, desperately deranged, who would go looking for the history of a punctuation mark, you can find that on Wikipedia. But rest your fingers, rest your heart. You don’t need to waste time thinking about actual facts when I can give you the secret history of the comma. What makes this secret is that I never wrote it down before. Or thought of it. That’s how secret it is.

As everyone knows, most commas these days come from South Korea, and with modern Korean production processes, commas have become very cheap. I buy large boxes of commas at Target, and the kind I buy come with free semicolons. As a writer, I have a use for semicolons, but if you happen to run across them, you can just throw semicolons in the trash. You don’t need those. If you need a few commas in a hurry, I’ve also seen them in packages of a dozen, for sale in service stations, usually near the beef jerky.

The comma was invented by a medieval monk in Portugal, who was copying manuscripts that he found dull (legend says they were love poems from one of the first popes), and the monk grew sleepy as he was writing. He continued to work in a drowsy state, but when he tried to make periods, his pen slipped a bit on the page. At first the other monks thought these marks were strangely written periods. They liked the way they looked, however, so that every time they came to one, they would pause to look at it. This is how the comma came to represent a pause in the sentence.

Commas became especially popular in Europe in the court of the French king Louis XIV, where commas were worn on the clothing of the courtiers, often decorated with jewels, so that a combination of a comma with an added pearl inadvertently invented the semicolon. The comma was so popular at this time that many illiterate people wanted to learn how to write, just to have words they could put on either side of the beloved comma.

One of the interesting offshoots of the comma in the 19th century was that it gave rise to a visual metaphor that meant “Shut up. Just shut up right now.” That message was conveyed by holding one finger out in front, then curving it downwards as if drawing a comma. The symbolic intent was “I’m inserting a pause here, and I’ll tell you when to continue, which will be never.” A number of duels were fought over that downward-curving finger, and quite a few writers lost their lives this way, as they were quick to insert an air comma, but less quick with pistols afterward.

In more recent history, back in 1986 a cargo ship full of commas sank in the Indian Ocean, and for the next year sentences all over the world were faster to read, though at the same time many of them were less clear for lack of punctuation. Toward the end of the 20th century, commas began to lose their popularity in the west just as they were gaining in popularity in Asia, particularly in Japan and Thailand. In some Buddhist sects, the curve of the comma came to be seen as implying part of a circle, so that every comma was thought to remind us that at any given moment, we are only part of the way through the circle of life.

And of course we all know about the recent upsurge in the popularity of commas because of pop bands who have named themselves after the comma: Commas and Whiskey, Red Comma Revolution, The Night Commas, and others.

And while I’m thinking of it,

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