Magical Words

surface of the sunIs this an English word: dkimbi?

I’m pretty sure it’s not. I don’t think any English word begins with those two consonants. It’s just a combination of sounds, a noise.

How about this one: stick?

Now that’s a word. Or a more interesting one: ribald. Words are so strange. Both stick and ribald are also combinations of sounds, but in both cases—if you know those words—the sounds bring a meaning to the mind. Every word in reality is just a noise, like “dkimbi,” but when we know them, they’re like magic spells that put thoughts and dreams in our heads.

And if we allow them to, the magical spells of words can take us places, so that inside our mind, where all our sensations are processed, we really are there. Assume, for instance, that you’ve never been to St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore you’ve never been to a little café called Жили-Были (which might be translated as something like “Once Upon a Time”). The café is on the main boulevard downtown, Nevsky Prospect, so crowded with people and with bridges across the Neva River. If you go into the café, you find a small space with tables where people already sit eating and talking. Obviously the Russian language is all around you, so pretend you speak it. Then you can walk up to the glass case containing dishes of salads and other items, looking to see what you want. “What is that one, with the white?” you can ask the young woman waiting on you. She has black hair cut short, three silver earrings in each ear, and a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on her arm. Seeing what you’re pointing at, she says, “Спаржа,” and since you know Russian, you think to yourself that you’ve never seen asparagus that looked like that. Then you order an apple tart and a coffee and sit down at a small table to look at your phone.

Finishing your apple tart, what if it were now possible to get on a bus, close your eyes for a few minutes, and when you open them to get off, you’re only one block away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland? If that happens, you can enter the enormous cathedral and stand in the wide nave looking down the aisle at the high ceiling, the pointed arches along the sides, and the distant altar. When you finally look down, you’re just as struck by how exotically the floor is decorated with patterns of colored stones. And at that moment, a tourist standing near you, someone with an American accent, says, “Wow, look at this floor!” It also occurs to you that you never before thought about the fact that there’s such a thing as an American accent, but it’s pretty obvious that woman in the red T-shirt and straw hat is an American. As you continue to look around, near the door where you entered, you find a grave in the floor and—holy moly!—it’s Jonathan Swift. Jonathan Swift is buried here? A few minutes later as you walk around, a choir begins to practice, and the sound of their voices in that stone space is ethereal. You sit down, unable to leave, listening to them.

There seems to be literally no limit to where we can go and what we can do with words. I was thinking of taking a stroll across the surface of the sun, because I just crazy love the sight of those vast mountains of fire that rise up higher than the Himalayas, then collapse again. And there’s that strange crackling feeling from so many atoms being disrupted by the incredible energy. But I need to go get another glass of wine. When I do go walk on the sun, you can come, too.

That’s what writers do.


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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

Maybe I Could Buy an Outline

woman writing

Should that be in chapter one or chapter two?

Think of how big Jupiter is. That’s how big the difference is between writing as a process of putting words on paper—you know, actual writing—and “writing” as a process of thinking and making notes and doing research, blah blah blah oy.

Obviously, you need both writing and thinking… Hmm, I say obviously, but I recall plenty of students who at least didn’t seem to understand that second part. Anyway, obviously you need both, and while the research and thinking can be interesting, actually writing is to enter into a world of creativity with words. That’s the Emily Dickinson world. I don’t think she was doing research, she was just being creative. That’s the part I like.

Perhaps in the past I’ve felt compelled to hit the page running before I was ready. Or rather,  no “perhaps” about it. I always did that. I wanted to write, I wanted to be writing, ah! ah! ah! I wanted to have words flowing. Thus I wrote mass quantities that I later threw away. Now maybe that’s just how it goes, and I’ll discover that no matter what I do, that’s how I write.

However, I’m trying, for a change, not to first write 100 pages in every possible direction except the one I’ll use. With the current book, Moonapple Pie, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want this book to do, and how to work out a plot to achieve that. This process involves having an outline of sorts, divided into probable chapters, with details on each chapter.

For the last few weeks, the time I’ve had for writing has been spent on the outline, which began, actually, as a table. In my job as a medical editor, I spend a great deal of time working with tables, so creating a table felt natural to me. The table rows showed my major characters, and the columns represented chapters. In this comfortable symmetrical context, each character had their own set of boxes, and they seemed to like that.

For what I wanted at this point in creating the novel, the rows and columns seemed like a useful approach, as I could quickly (and on one page) look across or up and down, to get a feeling for the overall flow of the book. I could see, for instance, where one chapter had several dramatic points and another chapter was fairly quiet. As an additional benefit, I had not written 100 pages to figure that out.

From the table arose the outline, which I’ve continued to add to. Maybe because I feel every one of my previous novels woke up one day asking for, demanding, vast revision (the bastards), I’m moving cautiously. I keep looking at the flow of the plot, at the movement of dramatic tension, and I’m still not sure it’s right. Just a few days ago I found some notes in my writing book that made me think, “Ah, my God, maybe I need to reconsider what I’ve done.”

I’m also looking at subplots and how they interact with the main plotline. I’m not sure, though, that it’s possible to really know how it will go until the writing happens, as things get discovered in the writing. In addition, one can do things with style and so on to make a book interesting, even in the parts of the book where no one is jumping out of a plane dressed as Elvis and holding a torch and a pistol.

My outlined chapters are also full of notes on the characters, so that I can see some character development. Thus one person goes for morning jogs, and another is so obsessed with painting that he won’t stop to eat, and another insists on cutting his own Christmas tree on his land. Plus the attempted firebombing, but that’s a plot point.

It would be more fun to be writing, but I’m still holding back and working out ideas. Part of the process.

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

This Is Not Rhetoric

angry little boyIs uninformed, emotional spewing of fleeting thoughts rhetoric?

The deliberate study of how to use language effectively, to my knowledge, has only been invented once, by the ancient Greeks. When the Romans began absorbing Greek culture and Greekifying themselves, they fell in love with rhetoric. The Romans thought of rhetoric more in terms of speaking than writing, and the ability to be a good orator was very important.

Rhetoric was important in the Roman republic, when elections were held, and the ability to be persuasive could be a factor in gaining office. One of the basic tenets of persuasion is convincing people that you have the truth, but later, in the empire beginning with Augustus, political power was concentrated in the ruler, and all “truth” came from the emperor. Truly free discussions about what was true were dangerous, so public rhetoric became less important.

I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, and my own definition is that rhetoric is the use of language to influence what someone is thinking and to persuade them to agree with what you want. From that point of view, even children use rhetoric, assiduously looking for every possible angle to convince their parents of things. In my definition (which I grant is broad), every person uses rhetoric, because we’re all after something, and using language is part of how to get it.

In analyzing political rhetoric, we can carefully examine what a politician is saying, to see, for instance, what underlying ideas they’re trying to connect with the audience on. Examining the words of a normal politician assumes that a certain amount of thought has gone into what is said, and analysis also assumes that some important things are not said (because politicians want to be elected and are careful).

What if a politician, however, seems to speak like a child, blurting out things that appear not to have been thought about at all? What if a politician also appears to have no foundational ideas that unify what is said, so that his or her speech makes no sense in any consistent way?

We can take a statement from President Trump and examine it in the way we would normally look at political rhetoric, but which statement to choose is like dipping a cup into the ocean. The vastness of this madness creates a problem with attempting to analyze the rhetoric of such a president. Is childish ranting the same as rhetoric?

Let’s look at a phrase Trump has made so common that dictators around the world have gleefully grabbed it with both hands: “fake news”. As we use the word “news” it means “something which has happened”. By implication, news also means something of interest (people went to the store today to buy food—something that did happen—but we don’t call that news).

The word “fake” means false, but the connotation is more than false, implying something that is not merely wrong, but is intended to be tricky, such as a fake designer handbag. For thousands of years things have been reported as news, later to be discovered as wrong. We already have a word for this—we call it a “mistake”, and most news organizations admit their mistakes and correct them. When Trump created the phrase “fake news” he did not mean that a news services had made a mistake. He meant they were trying to trick us with deliberately false information.

Such a phrase could be rhetorical, but what takes this discussion into dark authoritarian territory is that the President only uses the phrase “fake news” for reports that he just doesn’t like, even claiming “fake news” in support of ideas that are widely known to be false. It is difficult to believe that President Trump is actually so stupid or emotionally deranged as to believe things any rational person can see is false (such as the number of people in a photograph).

Thus it seems that he must be lying, and by now we’ve seen many examples of his breath-taking lying, such as claiming he did not call Africa “shithole countries” when other people standing there in the room have told us he did. Is lying the explanation for the “fake news” claims? And yet, incredibly, is it possible he believes what he is saying?

Stupid? Deranged? Lying?

Whatever the case may be, that is not rhetoric, and the emperor does not have the truth.

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Pins and Pens

painting of blue womanIf we stick you with a pin, you will cry out.

If we take away your friends, you will moan with loneliness.

Thoughts: impressions of sensory data, with abstraction and calculation using those data, all of which appears to take place in the brain.

Feelings: more of our animal nature, based on emotions, which definitely seem to take place in the brain.

If we experience both thoughts and feelings in the brain, which seems rather evidently true, another strange fact is also evidently true. If we stick you with a pin, you will make sounds and cry out. If we take away your friends, you will make other sounds, and moan with loneliness.

We might posit an imaginary world in which thoughts and feelings are experienced, inside the brain as now, and yet they stay there. In this imaginary world, there is no external indication of what is being thought or felt. This strange imaginary creature may think and feel many things, but from the outside, that creature is a quiet mystery from birth until death.

Obviously, not like humans. Things that we experience inside our brain must come out through the body. This exiting of thoughts and feelings necessarily requires movements of the body: eyes, mouth, tongue, muscles of the face and legs and arms. Thus we make sounds, thus we have facial expressions, we wave our arms in the air, we jump. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter exactly what we do, only that the body must move to release what is in the brain.

What I’ve just said is true, and anyone will have a hard time to question it. You might, however, question why the body must release our thoughts and feelings. I have thought about this quite a bit over the course of years, and it is an inscrutable puzzle for me. If we’re sad, why do we cry? Why not simply feel sad inside?

As evidence of how true it is that things must come out of the body, if for some reason we do not release thoughts and feelings, we will grow mentally ill and probably physically ill as well. People who have been prevented as children from expressing themselves (to an abusive degree) are emotionally damaged. There are types of therapy for both adults and children that consist of finding ways to encourage them to express themselves, such as art therapy for abused children. And of course, very many people are helped just by talking to a therapist.

In the complexity of human life, we have developed so many symbolic ways of expressing ourselves, that it is miraculous how many people are walking around holding in things that need to be set free. The options for letting it out is a long list—painting, dancing, playing music, cooking cakes, planting gardens, designing clothes, writing computer games.

But of them all, is there a more profound form of expression than writing? If you are dealing with a problem that is pulling you into the darkness, sitting and writing about it can sometimes bring light back into the room. Nothing is more quintessentially human than language, and using the symbolic sounds and shapes of language can let the heart fly like a bird.

I’ve often used writing, even in a fictional form, to deal with things. When the world felt like a hurricane made of knives, when love was only a distant word in a foreign language, when the simple fact of being born felt like a great mistake had been made, I could write, “The world stuck me with a pin, and I cried out.”

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Filed under Language, Writing While Living

It’s a Poem Because I Say It Is

woman talking about poetryRoses are red,
violets are blue,
anyway, bring me a beer.

I had a conversation with a literary friend this week, and that conversation turned in the direction of poetry. My friend raised a question that came out of something he had been reading, as to how poetry is defined. What is poetry?

I’ll come back to that question, but in addition my friend asked another question that I thought had an easy answer: “How does a poet ensure that the reader will get the point?” The obvious answer to me was that the poet doesn’t, because it’s impossible. No one can guarantee that the reader will get what the writer is after.

Nevertheless, there are things the writer can at least try, based on who the audience is intended to be. A capable writer, poet or otherwise, will try to address their audience. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I’ve run into plenty of writers who I didn’t feel were trying. Any adolescent poet can pour out anguish or giddy delight in a poem, with great feeling. Spilling your emotions in a hot wash across the page and calling it done, however, is not trying. You could say such a poem is honest, and so it is. A dog biting a cat is also honest, but it didn’t require much effort on the dog’s part.

As to how poetry is defined, it seems to me that in English, we mostly gave up traditional poetic structures in the twentieth century, by which I mean rhyme, repeated rhythms, or predefined structures, such as rhyming every other line. You can still find those techniques in English, but people who write poetry and believe they are sophisticated will sometimes look down their noses at these traditional structures.

From the little I know, I think that Walt Whitman did much to help set us on the path to throwing out the old ways of writing poetry. As we launched on into the twentieth century, more and more poets were writing in blank verse, without the traditional elements of rhyme and meter.

Let’s note something about how we relate to language. Repeated sounds tickle our ear. This might be repetition at the beginning of words (alliteration), in the middle of words (so-called internal rhyme), or at the end of words (traditional rhyming). Why this is so, I have no idea, but it’s obviously true. We use alliteration to name businesses  (Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme), we have a type of joke based on similarity of sound (puns), and if someone says something that rhymes, we pay special notice to it.

For thousands of years, poetry made use of this love of sound, combined with repeated rhythms, to create a sort of musical feeling in language, plus you had meaning. It was amazing. Then in the twentieth century, at least in English, we said, “Never mind, we don’t want to do that.”

So what is poetry? If the lines do not go all the way across the page, is that poetry? In the old days, we could define poetry as short lines, more specifically as lines that rhymed in certain ways, that had certain rhyme schemes, that used various patterns of stressed syllables, and so on. It might have been horrible poetry, but we knew it was poetry, and everyone could agree that it was poetry. It’s more difficult these days to define what poetry is. Most of the rules, at least for now, are gone. I can say what I think poetry is, and another person can disagree with me. Let it be so.

I say that language is extremely important in poetry, with a concern for using just the right word, with finding a phrase with the right sound and connotations. Some prose does this as well, but not all. All poetry, by contrast, is concerned with language. (I’m ignoring the fact that there is vast plenitude of shit poetry that does not do this.)

A second concern of poetry is using language to capture something that is difficult to express. The topic of a poem may be a great social subject, but most often poetry only reaches just beyond the fingertips of the poet. Going back as far as the ancient Greek poet Sappho (in contrast to Homer), poetry has tried to capture the ephemeral moments of an individual human being: I fell in love, I saw a spiderweb, I felt a cold wind on my face and thought of death, I saw the light on a lake and thought of God.

I’m thus proposing two things, and two isn’t that hard to remember. Poetry is very concerned with language (it is not merely a vehicle of communication), and poetry tries to use that language to say things that are difficult to say. I like the traditional structures myself, when done well, but I also note that these things can be done even without traditional poetic elements.

And thus I will wish you a tongue of silver that strives to be gold.

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Filed under Language, Not Real Poetry

I Am Resolved

new life old lifeSince the invention of speech, so long ago, human beings have been saying they would do something, but then never did. We have even formalized this into a ritual, as a new year begins, of pretending we will make changes in our life, with New Year’s Resolutions. I recently came across an old document with the resolutions of a number of famous people, and for public benefit, I offer them here.


My brother has a pet hippopotamus, and he struts around acting like he’s some kind of god. No one in the world should have a brother as irritating as mine, but no one could, I’m sure. He always says we’re co-rulers, but he’s just a stupid child, and I’m older than him. I keep thinking about what I can do to show I’m superior to him, and I’ve thought of it. Next year, I resolve to get a pet snake. Even a hippopotamus is afraid of snakes. Let my brother shake his little fist and run to Rome, for all I care.


In the last six months I’ve written more than forty songs for the beerhall singers, and I only get enough pfennig to buy a loaf of bread. I’m bored to the point of wishing I was deaf with writing songs where all the lyrics are “Hooray for loose women” or “Let’s drink more beer”. Next year, I resolve to get back to work on a symphony. If I can write just one symphony before I die, that would be a great achievement, I think.

Leonardo da Vinci

How many boards and canvases have I covered with pictures of women? Smiling women, half smiling women, women with baby Jesus. Nobody is paying attention, not even the Medici, and they even like that stupid Michelangelo. Next year, I resolve to stop messing around with this painting nonsense and learn something useful, like cooking. A cook can make a good living, plus it’s your job to try the dishes, so you get to eat all that great food. Maybe I could even make a name for myself as a cook.

Marie Curie

I’ve had enough of bartending, where drunks dumber than my cat think because I serve drinks maybe I’ll serve a little something extra in the back room. Besides, bartending here is dangerous work. At least once a week some intoxicated trash wants to start a fight with the entire place. Then I have to get down behind the bar until the glass stops breaking and they stop pounding on each other. Next year, I resolve to go back to school and study for a profession with no danger, like science. Radioactivity would be a nice safe thing to study. You can’t even see it, as if nothing is there.

Wilbur Wright

My brother keeps talking about “We’re going to fly, we’re going to fly” and sometimes I think I hate to break it to you, buddy. Pick up every possible object you can see and toss it in the air. What happens? It falls to earth (unless you toss a bird). Why would anyone think a human being can fly? We’re not angels. There’s no such thing as magic. But so far I haven’t had the nerve to tell my brother I’m done with this ridiculous idea. Next year, I resolve to stop this flying foolishness and learn how to build boats. That would be a useful skill. You can actually go somewhere in a boat.

Emily Dickinson

I am 800 pages into my novel, and I still have so much more to write. My brother and sister tell me that the book will be too long for anyone to read it, but I have so much to say, and even this novel feels inadequate to me. Lately I’ve been wondering whether I might be able to say what I want in a shorter form, and I tried a few short stories, one about a woman who goes to Boston with her minister father, and she finds a vase from Japan. It didn’t really grab me. But I’m going to see what else I can do. Next year, I resolve to try a little poetry and see if I can make anything of that. I’m not sure how much meaning you can get into a small poem, but we’ll see.


Filed under Really True Really

140 Characters Till Christmas

drunk Santa on floor

Where’s my cell phone?

Starting sometime in November, the bitter cracking cold of the North Pole reaches a point where it has gone as low as it will go, and in that frigid time, there are remarkable days when the wind disappears completely. Those are the days when the elves go outside and play volleyball to relax, divided into red and green teams.

During one such game, the head elf, Galston, who had been watching, came in to get warm. “Santa baby!” he said, “Where’s that special hot chocolate?” Galston gave a big wink to Santa.

“Get a cup off the counter,” Santa said, then poured from a thermos into the elf’s cup.

Galston took a drink, looked up at Santa, and said, “Somebody isn’t delivering gifts with the usual festive holiday spirit.”

Santa paused a moment, then said, “Oh, OK.” He reached into a cabinet, brought out a bottle of rum, and poured a shot into Galston’s cup.

“Now that’s Merry Christmas!” Galston said, and with some effort he climbed up onto a high stool, to sit at the counter opposite Santa Claus. He took another drink, and said, “With that game going on out there, the Easter Bunny put a hundred bucks on the red team.”

“He’s here?” Santa exclaimed. “I’m supposed to be told when special visitors come.”

“Naw, he’s not here. One of the tech elves has been tweeting every couple of minutes, so Easter Bun is following the game.”

Santa looked puzzled and said, “The elf is doing what?”

“Tweeting. You know, on Twitter.”

“What’s a twitter?” Santa asked. “Sounds like some kind of German candy.”

“Are you kidding?” said Galston. “You don’t know what Twitter is?”

Galston explained Twitter as best he could to Santa Claus, who seemed skeptical, until Galston pulled out his cell phone to illustrate. He showed Santa the Twitter home page and all the people and events that could be followed. Santa was amazed to see that from all over the world, everyone’s slightest thoughts, no matter how truly slight indeed, could be instantly shared with everyone on earth. Galston went on to show Santa how to sign up for an account, which he immediately did.

“Now you got it, Santa,” Galston said, taking a swig from his cup. “Anything you got to say, you can share it. I bet you could have a million followers in no time.”

Galston left and Santa thought But I already have millions of followers. Still, maybe it was different on Twitter. He wondered what his first chirp should be. Or no, Galston hadn’t called it a chirp. It was . . . some kind of bird noise. Oh, right, tweet. What should his first tweet be?

He typed: “Hey, I’m a bird, I’m tweeting!” He sent the tweet, laughing as he did it, shaking like a bowl full of jelly. He took another drink of special hot chocolate and thought he should do another. He started typing again: “Who wants to buy some raggedy ass reindeer who smell like wet dogs after they’ve been flying all night?”

“Ha ha ha!” Santa laughed. He poured more rum into his cup and began typing: “If not for me, what kind of Christmas would you have? Huh? What if I brought everybody a box of spiders?”

“Ha ha ha ha!” He poured more rum, then drank straight from the bottle. “You’ve all been BAD! Don’t even bother getting up Christmas morning, because I’m coming around to STEAL from you!”

Everything was hilarious now. Santa sat grinning, took another hit from the rum bottle, then typed: “I’ve seen your mamas at night, and let’s just say, reindeer butts ain’t the only thing that’s ugly!!!”

“And some of your daddies snore and fart so much at night I can’t even get the reindeer to land on the roof. Sad!!!!!”

“I’m the Christmas Daddy!!!! You’re all pathetic! No presents for not if me if. Cocoochyx” He slumped back in his chair, passed out.

The next morning when Santa woke up, his head was clanging like Christmas bells, and his wife was standing looking down at him frowning. “You happy?” she asked. “You get a Twitter account and all you can think to do with it is show your ass to the world? If you can crawl to the kitchen I’ll give you breakfast.”

Later that morning, Galston came by and said, “Maybe I should have explained something, but I thought it would be obvious. There’s three circumstances when you shouldn’t send out tweets. When you’re drunk, when you’re sleepy, and when you’re stupid.”

“Can you bring me some aspirin?” Santa said.

“Somebody needs to give up the tweeting,” Galston said.

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