This is the kind of writer I am

I’m not the only one who had dreams of writing “the great American novel.” Having a penchant for drawing also gave me dreams of writing the great American comic book, too (sort of like Dave Sim’s great Canadian comic book Cerebus). God knows I’ve had many false starts. Such works take commitment, though.

And, as the expression goes (which, oddly enough, I first heard in Throw Momma From the Train), “a writer writes always.” Or, as Dave Sim says, “everyone has about 1000 bad pages in them that they have to get out before they can be good,” and if you don’t believe him, just compare the artwork and stories from the first 25 issues of Cerebus to the next 25 issues.

Writers write. That’s what makes them so good—practice. How did I become good at drawing? Practice. Did I have some natural talent? Sure. But that’s not how I became good. And I know plenty of people without natural talent in drawing, who perservered and practiced and became amazing drawers. One of the most inspiring books I read about writing is Stephen King’s On Writing, which is part writer’s-advice-book and part autobiography. The one thing that really stuck with me about the book is that Stephen King, through all his trials and tribulations, rejections, and periods of poverty never questioned whether he should write or not. It didn’t matter to him whether the story he’d written was garbage or not, whether he and/or his wife liked the story he wrote. He just wrote. He felt the need to write. This is musician Sara Bareilles talking about her songs:

I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember. Some of them make me happy and some of them are shit, but all of them come because I can’t imagine what else to do with my head and the things that are in it besides write songs.

That is what it’s all about. You do it, and you do it. You don’t stop because you produce something bad. You just keep producing.

Much as I sometimes I enjoy fiction-writing or music-producing (singing/playing), I don’t feel that same drive to always write fiction or to always make music. I do have a ton of random non-fiction thoughts always swishing around in my brain, and I feel the need to spill them out onto a page and share them with the world. I think I’m a blogger. I think that’s it. I don’t have the coherency a traditional non-fiction hardcover book would demand of me. I do have a million thoughts on random issues, though, and I like to write them down. That’s what I do. I write. I write a ton of crap. In a blog. That’s what I do.


Say-nothing phrases can be fun

There’s a Sara Bareilles song called “Love on the Rocks” that begins

We met on a rainy evening in the summertime
Don’t think I need to tell you more

While some people get annoyed with such say-nothing phrases (another example is, “This person needs no introduction” before a usually lengthy introduction), I delight in them, particularly this one.

If she had said only We met on a rainy evening in the summertime, I would have mentally ingested the phrase as a statement of fact and not think any more on it. Since she goes on to say Don’t think I need to tell you more, I begin thinking about why she doesn’t need to tell me more. Then my imagination starts kicking into gear and I start examining the implications of meeting on a rainy evening in the summertime. I start wondering what kind of steamy meeting it might have been. Is it like those movies where the stars rush to each other in the pouring rain and kiss, pneumonia and hypothermia be damned?

Same deal with “This person needs no introduction.” Sure, you’re going to give her an introduction anyway, but that’s just bonus—she doesn’t really need an introduction. More importantly, the message (not needing an introduction) isn’t the point of the phrase so much as the metamessage (this person is important, and if you don’t know why, shame on you, but I’ll tell you anyway just in case you don’t know).

If you get irked by say-nothing phrases, I urge you to use your imagination. Imagine a world in which people don’t always say phrases and sentences to convey only the literal meaning of the words they’re saying. Say-nothings can be fun!


Don’t just link – write something!

The most annoying kind of blog post I’ve ever seen is the link without commentary. I know you’ve seen them before. It’s just a link to something interesting and nothing else. The worst is the link to just another blog post from someone else.

I understand you’re excited. I understand you want to share your excitement, but could you at least say something? Why is it interesting to you? What’s your take on the post or story?

Please. Offer. Something.

Education Writing

Efficient communication is a worthy goal

There are two instances in which I have had this jumbled-word paragraph brought to my attention:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

(The original source is here, but the server appears to be down right now.)

The first time was when I was still an English teacher. One of my students, after having gone through a rather rigorous unit on grammar thought it was amusing. When I shared it with my co-planning teacher, he said he’d rather have shards of glass stuck in his eyes than read papers written that way.

The second time was on the Ubuntu Forums, and a forum member thought a few of us (who occasionally correct others’ grammar or spelling when we just can’t take it any more) were being pedantic, so she or he saw fit to show us that spelling doesn’t really matter.

Here’s the thing, though: as my former colleague pointed out with his exaggeration about shards of glass, just because you can read something doesn’t mean you want to read it the way it’s presented.

After all, I can watch fuzzy black-and-white television on a four-inch screen while I constantly push the antennae around in futile attempts to get better reception, and still hear all the dialogue and understand what’s going on in the movie or television show I’m viewing. I can also listen to third-generation mix tapes that have had two decades of deterioration and still “hear” the music I’m listening to.

Nevertheless, I somehow still like clear pictures in HD on large screens that have digital surround sound and also still prefer to listen to CD-quality recordings of music. The same goes for language and communication. Grammar and spelling conventions and rules don’t exist just to make your life miserable—they actually are around because consensus gives meaning to words, phrases, syntax, and punctuation. If you follow the established guidelines, you don’t leave it up to your reader to make meaning of what you’ve said; you convey the meaning to your reader. Good writing is like an HD-quality movie or a CD-quality song.

That doesn’t mean we have to fly off the deep end and nitpick grammar points that don’t matter (split infinitives or misuse of the terms compose and comprise, for example), but it does mean we should strive to be understood most efficiently, with the fewest words, and with the least amount of work on the part of the reader.


Typos in official publications

I often find typos in books and newspapers. I understand that copy editors are human and can make mistakes. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle Letters to the Editor section goof is unforgivable, though. Whoever does the copy editing on that should get a firm scolding, some unpaid time off, or a firing. Yikes!

Or perhaps they’re wondering if his lightness and grace of movement that make a dancer appear buoyant can be popped. Doubt it.

Life Writing

My Misspellings and Misspeakings

I’ve always considered myself a good speller. Whatever that means.

I won the spelling bee in 4th grade, and I was bummed to have been eliminated in the pre-trials in 5th grade by the word necessary. The representative from our homeroom who did get necessary correct (after everyone else had already exhausted the other logical possible spellings of that word) lost in the finals on the word hexagon. Yes, she was a smart person in other ways, and she turned out in high school to be an excellent swimmer (far better an athlete than the runner I was). Still, I was quite resentful at the time (Hexagon? Hexagon?!).

I pride myself to this day on not using spellcheck in word processors or web browsers. I don’t want a program to automatically flag words as misspelled that I should know how to spell, but I will deliberately look up the spelling of certain words I’m not sure of. Disingenuous, for example, is one I can never remember the spelling of.

Of course, despite my bravado and hubris, I’m more or less an average speller when it comes to college-educated folk (that’s university-educated, for you readers outside the US). After watching Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee, I realized just how mediocre my spelling skills are. Those kids are spelling words I don’t know the meanings of—words I’ve never even heard of, words I would doubt are in the English language if they didn’t have dictionary entries.

But not only am I a mediocre speller for my demographic, ultimately; I am, in fact, deficient. I misspell constantly. In fact, I just wrote mispell just now and then corrected myself. That isn’t my usual kind of blunder, though. Usually, I don’t misspell the appropriate word so much as spell correctly a wholly inappropriate but vaguely similar-sounding word. For example, if I intend to write something like I like the way my cat smells after a bath, I might actually type I like the weight my cat smells after a bath.

From an English teacher’s perspective (I used to be one), this is a rather odd kind of spelling error. Most people who misspell do not substitute in correctly spelled wrong words; they use the right words and just spell them incorrectly. For example, you might see a phonetic speller spell imagine as emagen or spell segue as segway. Not being a learning specialist, I don’t know where this comes from, but in my unprofessional opinion I’d guess it stems from people not having read enough. The more you read, the more familiar you become with the way words look and are spelled, and (even if you don’t know the exact spelling of a word) you grow to recognize quite quickly if a word doesn’t look right.

In fact, if anything, people who read a lot have the opposite problem of those who do not read as much—the super-readers tend to have an extremely large vocabulary but not actually know how to pronounce all the words they know the meanings and spellings of. I had a friend in high school (one of the top-ranked students in our class who went to top Ivy League schools for undergraduate and graduate schools) who didn’t know until junior year that the word rebels is pronounced REbuls and not REEbuls. I myself have had that problem. I learned the words deny and renege from a comic book called Power Man and Iron Fist, but I thought they were pronounced DEnee (instead of deeNAI) and REnegeh (instead of reeNEG). If you watch the movie Trekkies, you’ll see one Star Trek-obsessed fan make this blunder several times during the documentary.

The acquisition and application of language is a fascinating thing, and I’ve loved writing about it. Now, let me go back and proofread this sucker…

Music I Like Writing

Like Depeche Mode, I just can’t get enough

So one day I was watching TV, and this Target commercial came on with a new rendition of the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye.” I liked the new rendition, so I Googled it and found out it was by a little-known artist called Sophia Shorai. She has a website and a MySpace page, but as far as I can tell, she has no store. I listened to all her samples, and I really like her music (even the non-jingle stuff). Where can I buy her CD? Nowhere. Bummer.

This past weekend, I happened to be listening to This American Life, which has a break-up theme. One segment about a woman—who is fascinated by break-up pop songs and decides to write her own break-up pop song, enlisting the help of Phil Collins and others—intrigues me. I love her narrative voice, her writing and speaking style, her whole way of thinking. It’s very reminiscent of Sarah Vowell (another regular on This American Life, apparently). I found out this new (to me, anyway) voice is named Starlee Kine and about all she has is a Wikipedia entry. Not much biography available. No pictures. No links to her books (she might be writing one now) or articles/essays/musings.

This isn’t how things are supposed to work. You’re supposed to get a taste of an artist (visual artist, musician, writer, actor, performer), search the web, and then purchase more of the artist’s works. You are satisfied as a consumer, and the artist feels rewarded psychologically (for being appreciated) and, at least a little, monetarily.

Well, at least it worked out for Sarah Vowell. I discovered her quirky charms on the extra features of The Incredibles and bought two of her books, checked out a couple of others from the library.

But sometimes… sometimes, artists just don’t let me get enough.


Present Tense in Fiction: aaaaaagggh!

It reads, “Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Arimathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of aaaaaagggh.”


…The Castle of aaaaaagggh.

What is that?

He must have died while carving it.

Oh, come on!

Well, that’s what it says.

Look, if he was dying, he wouldn’t bother to carve “aaaaaggh.” He’d just say it!

Well, that’s what’s carved in the rock!

Perhaps he was dictating.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Any reading of literature or watching of films involves a little suspension of disbelief. Even though you see who the author is (and the author is rarely the narrator) and that the book is fiction, you imagine or pretend, as you’re reading, that the book is “true” and that the narrator is, in fact, recounting events that happened. This literary contract I can live with… as long as the narrative recounts events as having happened in the past tense.

I have a hard time suspending disbelief when I try to imagine someone jumping off a building, being raped, or giving a speech while writing it down at the same time (“I leap off the roof. My heart is pounding as I reach for the ledge on the other side. My feet are tingling”). I can, however, easily imagine someone saying that it happened in the past (“I leapt off the roof. My heart was pounding as I reached for the ledge on the other side. My feet were tingling”). Aliens invading the earth? I can do that. A narrator knowing the innermost thoughts of all the characters involved in the plot? Sure, that I can buy. A villain giving a long speech while the hero finds a way to escape? No problem. Imagine that someone is carving the word aaaaaggh while saying it? Sorry.