Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Coolest Month

In honor of the beginning of April, National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to shelve the sequence of posts on dialogue for the moment and get you started on poetry. You wouldn’t want to feel left out.

You know something’s in trouble when it gets a month. National Poetry Month started in 1996, and, like all one-month dedications, it’s simultaneously a celebration and an awareness campaign. It’s no secret that people read less poetry than prose here in the US and in many other places, that, in fact, many people openly hate it. The reasons for this aversion are many and not really what I want to focus on in this post. Suffice it to say that one thing a poetry month can do for you is get you acquainted with poetry, so that, should your distaste come from unfamiliarity, you can discover a whole new kind of writing you can enjoy.

Sadly, most people know very little about poetry. As a kid, someone read you Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, and maybe some light funny or uplifting verse. You might have read “Jabberwocky” or maybe something by Ogden Nash. It was enjoyable, and as an adult you find yourself jamming to Lenny Kravitz, but you’ve never even thought of poetry since then, or only long enough to laugh at a dirty limerick your college roommate recited one drunken night. If so, you associate poetry with children and humor, and feel you’ve outgrown it. You turn to it only in the form of greeting cards on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.

Perhaps you were lucky enough to get a second round at school. Your education began with Shakespeare’s sonnets (you read a play or two, but you didn’t think of them as poetry) and went on to the Romantics. You read Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge (maybe). The Brownings. You found “How Do I Love Thee?” You heard a fly buzz when you died. Poetry ended with Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. The last poem you ever read was probably by Maya Angelou. If so, you associate poetry with rhyme, love, pain, and the past. You rather like it, but in a remote way, the way one likes hoopskirts and powdered wigs or any sort of costume that transports one to a different era. You are probably of the opinion that “no one writes good poetry anymore.” You might have taken a class in college where they made you read The Wasteland, and that did you in. You found it abstruse, distasteful, a chore to plod through. You didn’t “get it.” You would no more take another class on modern poetry than you would sign up for spa treatments at Guantánamo.

Poor you! You are, like, totally missing out. Poetryjust like proseis a vast smorgasbord of styles and topics only a tiny corner of which gets taught in schools. Most of it is geared toward adults, and there is just as much or more poetry written now than ever before, and in different styles. Contemporary poets continue to write in rhyme, or don’t; they write about love and pain, but also about pop culture and joy and the full gamut of human, animal, and cyborg emotion. There are poems about what happened yesterday, today, and tomorrow. There are easy poems that read almost like prose, and funky ones that challenge the way words can signify. There are short poems and long poems. There are poems you will love, and poems you will hate. You can’t really say you “hate poetry.” It’s sort of like saying you “hate food.” You may hate pickles, or melons, or squid, but certainly you love many more foods, pizza and pineapple and fluffy white rice.

So, now that everyone’s talking about poetry, do yourself a favor and figure out what’s going on. The good news is that things have changedyou’re already where you need to be, the Internet. There’s a lot of wonderful, free poetry to be read online, if you know where to look. Do stay away from amateur sites like, which will only confirm your worst suspicions about poetry by avalanching you with the unfiltered aches of every twelve-year-old girl with a keyboard and a router. Go to professional, controlled sites that upload via editorial review. Two excellent sites are and is great. It’s run by the Academy of American Poets, and it’s a comprehensive site where you can spend hourshell, yearsclicking from one poet/poem to another and another. They provide you with bios and other supplemental/explanatory material to enhance your reading of individual poems and help acquaint you not just with the poets but with schools, movements, and other matters concerning poetry. Of course you know they are running special Poetry Month events, so perhaps a good place to start would be here. is also awesome. It’s more direct, if you’re intimidated by the volume of a site like features a new poem every day, with information on the poet and the publisher. It’s a great way to figure out what hot new books you might like, or what journals publish the kind of poetry you enjoy. If you don’t like the poem one day, return the next and find a whole new one. If you like it, get the book or the journal, and find more.

Sadly, I don’t recommend a trip to your local library or bookstore as a first step. In my hood, what’s there is more of the same stuff you got in school, and little of it. You’ll find a collection of children’s verse, a collected verse of someone really, really dead (I often wonder why people seem to think being dead is a prerequisite to being a poet), and a book on friendship poems à la Hallmark all on the same tiny shelf covered with dust in the back of the store, and likely at “gift book” prices. Better to figure out what you like first online, and then go to a physical store if you prefer, although you’ll likely have to get a special order anyway once you’re there.

Then what?

Learn to read poetry. Most people don’t realize that reading poetry is different from reading prose, that even an avid prose reader needs to make certain adjustments. If you’re of the “I just don’t get it” school of thought, you probably read a poem just once. While it’s possible to “get the gist” of some poems on a first read, one does not read poetry for the gist! The joy, the art of poetry lies in its layers of meaning. One doesn’t simply read a poem, one experiences it. You’re supposed to mull it over, like an experience or memory. Think of it, if you prefer, like eating a piece of delicious cake. A first read is sort of like just having one bite; to truly savor your piece of cake, you’re going to want to eat the whole thing, from the tip to the frosting. Never scarf down a poem. It will cause indigestion.

How to Read a Poem, in 5 easy steps:

  1. Read it for the topic. Who is speaking? What is this poem about? What happens in it?
Not all poems have a “topic.” Narrative poems tell a story, and are therefore a bit easier to figure out at this level. But most poems have stuff in them, people and things engaged in actions. Identifying the basicswho, what, when, whereis a good beginning.

For the sake of elucidation, let’s use Anthony Hecht’s “A Hill,” published a couple of days ago at Poetry Daily. As you can see on a first read, this is a narrative poem. It tells a clear story: the speaker, whom we assume is Hecht, is in Italy walking with some friends when he has what he describes as a “vision.” Suddenly, all the clutter of the market scene in which he is currently located fades to a stark, empty hill. That’s enough for a first read.

  1. “Unpack” it. Take it bit by bit and understand how it means what it means. What is its meaning, its theme?
This is where most people give up. The second reading should be much slower than the first. You should go stanza by stanza, line by line, even word by word if necessary. I had the rare pleasure of being in a workshop with Maxine Kumin. It was she who taught me the idea of “unpacking.” A poem is like a suitcase; it has everything you need inside, but you must open it, unfold the things inside it, and hang them up before you can use them.

In Hecht’s poem, the first stanza is very cluttered, full of things to look at. In particular, these lines create a vivid picture of movement and confusion:

A small navy of carts. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
                        In sharp contrast, the lines describing his “vision” are stark, empty, and very quiet:

The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
In the last stanza, he is relieved when the “vision” breaks and he is “restored / To the sunlight and [his] friends.” He reveals that, although he did not recognize it at the time, the hill of his vision is a memory of a hill in Poughkeepsie where he used to stand alone as a boy in winter. We can surmise, then, that the adult Hecht has largely forgotten the loneliness and fear, the emptiness of this childhood moment, symbolizedvery traditionallyby winter. In the midst of the color and confusion of his new life abroad, in sunlight, surrounded by friends, the forgotten loneliness of his past makes a sudden appearance, and it is so painful that he doesn’t even pause to think about it, until ten years later, whenboth moments overhe realizes the meaning of his vision. The poem, therefore, is a kind of meditation on fatehow could that boy, alone and afraid on that hill in winter, have ever guessed that one day he’d be in Italy, surrounded by friends, and light, and noise? What fear and sorrow could he have avoided had he known? The poem also questions the nature of happiness, how even in the midst of it the painful past can intrude, how, in a way, we never leave our lonely hills behind no matter how far we travel. Both sorrow and happiness are transitory in this poemone day you’re a lonely boy on a hill in Poughkeepsie, and another you’re a famous poet in Italy. There’s more going on herethe fact that what triggers the vision are “books, coins, old maps, / Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints” also speaks to the theme of time and value, but I think I’ve made my point about what more you can get from a second reading.

  1. Look for form. How many stanzas? How many lines per stanza? What kind of lines does the poem have (short, long, end-stopped, enjambed)? Is there a rhyme scheme? Read the poem aloud to better hear its sound effects.
This poem has three stanzas, dictated by content. The first contains the cluttered scene in Italy and the description of the vision; the last the revelation that the vision is a childhood memory. The lines are regular but not metered, and there’s no rhyme or fancy linguistic acrobatics.

  1. What is the function of the form? Does it make you read the poem in a particular way? What is the relationship of the form to the content?
The poem’s form is conversational and content-driven, which kind of suits the mood“hey, I was walking, and this funny thing happened.” The one strong use of form is the short middle stanzait makes you pause and think, stay on the lonely, cold hill for a little while. That pause is crucial to feeling the same way Hecht doesalone, kind of afraid, unable, for a moment, to figure out what’s going on.

  1. React to it. How does it make you feel? What does it make you think? What parts of it elicit such responses from you?
This last part of reading a poem is highly personal, but I’ll give it a shot. For one thing, it makes me feel rather sad and afraid, while at the same time hopeful, in a way. It’s not a love poem, which a lot of people have trouble with. So used to Mother Goose and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the strictly casual reader of poetry is often turned off by a poem that neither makes you laugh nor sigh romantically. Most poetry is pretty serious, however, and this is a pretty serious poem. I don’t really want to think about my cold hills, or have them come up on me suddenly in the middle of shopping, but there’s a value to this confrontation with life’s instability, and I sure appreciate being able to experience it vicariously through Hecht instead of in the middle of Dadeland Mall. I’m particularly chilled by how the vision starts, the “clear fretwork of shadows / From huge umbrellas [that] littered the pavement” like the beginning of Creature Feature or something. The possible gunshot the boy Hecht hears is also more than scary, and I can “totally relate,” as my students would say, to that feeling of two moments collapsing into each other like this. Maybe next time I’m on a cold hill feeling lonely, I’ll think of shopping in Italy.

By far the saddest of the uninitiated has to be she or he who would like to write poetry, but yet is little acquainted with it, who thinks that poetry is poetry simply because it rhymes, or who thinks that poetry can only be about love or passionate emotions. For some reason, although there are few readers of poetry, there are many, many people who want to write it. If you’re one of them, your first step has to be to stop playing around and get seriousstudy living poets who are publishing now, and learn to appreciate poetry on an adult, well-read level. Ironically, poetry is extremely suited to today’s culture. It doesn’t require the hours to read a novel does, or even the near two you devote to a film. It’s instant gratification, and we love that. This silly way of thinking of poetry as child’s play or as something only few people can do, like touching the tip of your nose with your tongue, is ridiculous. This month, while you’re stuck inside waiting for the Easter Bunny, take out your old copy of The Wasteland and figure out what all the fuss about April is about.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dialogue Basics, Part II: Hold the Cheese, Please

“I love you. You set my soul on fire. It is not just a little sparkit is a flame, a big, roaring flame. Ah, I can feel it now.”

Gotta love it when Tom says these words in the 1946 Tom and Jerry episode, “Solid Serenade,” all the while failing to notice he is declaring his love to Spike, who has taken the place on the balcony of the beautiful white cat Tom is attempting to woo. That was back in the good ole days when cartoons were violent, when cats where cats and mice were mice.

To deliver such dialogue in anything other than a satirical context, however, is bad writing. Bad dialogue is kinda like a rotten smell in the refrigerator; you may not be able to identify it right away, but you’ll know it when you sniff it. It’ll make you scrunch up your nose and squint. It’ll make you gag.

So much depends on context. A great line of dialogue transposed to a different piece can become odious. Dialogue has to fit the tone of the piece, of the moment, the personality of the speaker. Nevertheless, there are a few general markers of bad dialogue you should avoid. The most obvious is excessive emotion. Unless you are writing a bodice ripper or a soap, avoid “romantic” dialogue or any other kind of dialogue that attempts to convey extreme emotions like anger or hatred.

The first time I remember being wowed by a line of dialogue was in 1980. What makes the dialogue even greater is the fact that it is surrounded by more cheese than a chunk of meat at Taco Bell. Stormtroopers pull the lovers apart from their last kiss, John Williams’s soundtrack swells, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams attempt to act, Chewbacca roars, and a plume of smoke erupts as Han Solo descends into the carbonite freezing chamber. Amidst this festival of schmaltz, the two greatest lines in movie history are uttered:

                “I love you.”
                “I know.”

What makes these lines so great is how Spartan they are. So much could have gone wrong herea last-minute profession of love where words like “forever” and “remember” and “always” are said. Han Solo is aboutwe thinkto die, and Princess Leia has never admitted to loving him. And now it’s too late! (We think.) Such chattiness would not only have been cheesy, however, it would have been uncharacteristic. Neither of these characters is the effusive type; that’s the whole problem. Moreover, who has time? You think Stormtroopers are going to pause their busy schedules so you and your beloved can wax romantic? But, most of all, these two lines in this otherwise bad scene are great because they are apt. Despite their flirtatious bickering, these two characters have known for a while that there is something more here than space hormones. All it takes, on Leia’s behalf, is the simple, quick admission. Behind the bare-bones language are volumes of speech, an admission of vulnerability the tough-as-nails princess-warrior finds excruciating to make. Though the natural response, one would think, would have been “I love you, too,” Harrison Ford, whose insight is always apparently better than his acting, purportedly ad-libbed the perfect response. It’s perfect because that’s what she quickly needs to knowthat he believes her hasty declaration despite all the refusals that have come before. She already knows he loves her; this is not what she needs to hear. Ah.

To put it more succinctly, convey emotion via circumstance, not via your dialogue. Learn the value of contrastthe higher the emotional charge of your scene, the starker and leaner your dialogue should be. Do the same for other emotions. Unless your character is under sixteen (actually or mentally), avoid lines like “I hate you!” and “I never want to see you again!” Scenes that include such dialogue quickly deteriorate into melodrama.

Not only should you avoid excessive emotion, but also excessive explanation. Do not use dialogue to reveal plot to the extent that it stops making sense. We all know the scene in any random episode of Scooby Doo or in any James Bond film where the culpritfor no apparent reason other than to inform the audiencelaunches an extended explanatory soliloquy in which he or she reveals their true plan for world domination (involving a laser) or the true reason why Frederick von Whatevermeir had to be eliminated. Why would anyone do this? Especially when it gives Bond a chance to escape and foil the plan? Unless you intend to end the speech with “And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids,” avoid the Villain Explanation Method. Find some other way to tell us what we need to know. Same thing goes for characters talking to themselves. If Suzy finds a mysterious key, please don’t have her say, “I wonder if this is the missing key to the attic!” Just write: Suzy wondered if it might be the missing key to the attic.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dialogue Basics, Part I: Fancy Fontwork & Other Mechanical Mishaps

Dialogue is one of those basics of good writing you must learn to master, and yet, for some people, it’s the most difficult. Some people believe you have to have a “gift” or “an ear” for dialogue. Perhaps. Even if you, like, totally suck at it, however, there are some moves every writer can try to improve what gifts your ear has received. It’s going to take more than one post to work through them, but here is a good start:

The Mechanics

First of all, my little grasshoppers, learn the mechanics. Though some writers come up with their own quirky ways of presenting dialogue on the page and though conventions vary between countries, languages, eras, and editors, there’s a standard way in good ole American English to do this, and you should partake:

1.       Begin a new paragraph every time you change speakers.
2.       Enclose the dialogue in quotation marks.
3.       Include any marks of punctuation belonging to the dialogue inside the quotation marks.

That’s the basics. Behold:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A said.
                “And I am Speaker B,” Speaker B said.

And so forth. The tag after the dialogue (Speaker A/B said) is called the attribution. If you have only two speakers and it’s fairly clear who said what, it’s generally okay to skip it. However, in extended passages of dialogue (more than one or two exchanges), there’s nothing more annoying than having to try to figure out who said what. Simple attributive phrases like those above are functionally invisible, and there is no need for you to worry that you are repeating them too much. The eye drifts right over them and the brain only registers them when necessary, so better to include them than to confound your reader with a whosaidit dilemma. If you like, you can spice things up by switching around the placement of your attributions:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A said.
                Speaker B said, “And I am Speaker B.”
                “I am here to tell you,” Speaker C said, “that I am Speaker C.”

Do not attempt to spice things up by finding 1001 synonyms for said. Unlike said, its synonyms do not have that cloak of invisibility that makes it serviceable without being intrusive. Furthermore, they are cheesy:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A declaimed.
                Speaker B enthused, “And I am Speaker B.”
                “I am here to tell you,” Speaker C insisted, “that I am Speaker C.”

What? This is nuts. People generally just say things. Only actors on a stage declaim, and any enthusiasm someone feels should be evident from the dialogue, not from the attribution. People do insist sometimes, but save the word for when it’s appropriate. Never get tired of the word said.

While we’re in this neighborhood, do avoid excessive adverbs and explanations of how your dialogue is delivered:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A said loudly.
                Straightening his back and taking a deep breath, Speaker B said, “And I am Speaker B.”
                “I am here to tell you,” Speaker C said forcefully, thinking that perhaps it was time for her to speak, “that I am Speaker C.”

Huh? Too much. If you’re doing a decent job of setting, characterization, and plot, it should be obvious in what way and for what reasons your characters say what they say. Adverbs such as loudly or forcefully do little to change the boring nature of the sample dialogue above, and mindless physical actions attached to dialogue are more distracting than helpful. Unless your character is crossing his fingers behind his back or secretly reaching for the trigger of the gun in her pocket, don’t include extra information with your dialogue in an effort to “wrap” it.

Another thing to avoid: wacky punctuation. Punctuation can be a wonderful tool if used well. Excessive punctuation or dramatic exclamation points are not good uses of punctuation. You get only one end mark per sentence: a period or a question mark. Do not end a question with a period, and do not end anything with an exclamation mark. Also avoid ellipses:

                “Am I Speaker A,” Speaker A said.
                Speaker B said, “I am Speaker B!!!”
                “I wonder . . . ” Speaker C said, “could I be Speaker C?!”

Such punctuation can be the work of only two kinds of people: teenagers or lunatics (some would argue these are one and the same). If being Speaker B is a cataclysm, the fact stands alone, and all your exclamation points do nothing but call attention to the fact that you are an amateur. Punctuation is not cumulative. Two or three exclamation points have no more power than one, and a dramatic question is still a question. Even a single exclamation point brings with it the stench of melodrama. As to ellipses, wonder is a good verb. It does not need ellipses to help it.

Finally, please do not use capitalization or fancy fontwork to try to get your point across:

                “I AM SPEAKER A,” Speaker A said.
                Speaker B said, “And I am Speaker B.”
                I am here to tell you,” Speaker C said, “that I am Speaker C.”

Is your keyboard having a stroke? This is just weird. Again, it betrays an effort to add drama where none exists. The drama should come from what is being said, and not from explanations, misuse of punctuation or capitalization, or your font choice. About the only alternative font you are allowed to use is italics, for emphasis. But use italics sparingly; huge chunks of italics or too frequent use of italics dilute the effectiveness of the change from your standard font, which 99.99% of writers, editors, and publishers agree is Times New Roman 12, plain.

Friday, March 11, 2011

5 Lenten Meditations on Writing

Whether you’re Catholic, Christian, some other religion, or a hard-core atheist, you’ve probably heard of Lent, the forty-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter in which Christians prepare for the feast of the Resurrection. Preparation consists, basically, of self-examination, of looking critically at your life, seeing what needs changing, and taking steps to do so. You give up something that entails a sacrifice, you are generally somber and contemplative.

See where I’m heading yet? Even if you’re not religious, I propose there is much you can learn from this tradition when it comes to writing:

1.       The past is the past, and what matters is the future. On Ash Wednesday, last year’s holy palms are burned, and the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the congregation with a cross. The ritual symbolizes our own mortalityashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our petty little problems, as well as our most cherished triumphs, will all one day be dust. Gather up all those bad poems, all the snippets not worth revising, all the rejection slips, as well as the letters of acceptance you take such pride in, go over to the barbecue, and watch ‘em burn. Tomorrow you can sit down to write with a clean slate. None of your previous successes or failures has any bearing on tomorrow’s work. No one has ever told you that you are good or bad. There is no such thing as regret or expectations. It’s okay to make mistakes, to start over as many times as you need.

2.       The spirit of Lent is one of self-examination and revision, the two principal tenets of good writing. In our one-shot world, it’s really difficult to accept the value of these two principles. We prefer the quick judgmentthumbs up, or down?—and would rather give up than revise. Been on a diet for two days and haven’t lost those ten pounds? Off to the surgeon. You spend all day sitting in front of a computer screen and then you go home and eat a quart of ice cream for dinner, and you have no idea why you’re so fat? Every woman you ask out refuses to go for a second date, but you never stop to wonder whether it might be your charming array of fart jokes that’s turning them off. No. You just keep going on first dates, over and over and over. Must be something wrong with them, but you have no theories there, either. You’re too busy moving on to the next victim. The level of self-awareness in our culture is extremely low, yet good writing demands that you be able to turn a critical eye on yourself. Cultivate self-awareness for forty days, and it’ll transform you. Observe your writing habits, your recurring problems. Then, revise. You do your best writing in the morning, before anyone else is awake? Don’t just give up because you can only do that on Sundays. Rearrange what needs rearranging. Make it happen. You have a tendency to write bad dialogue? Don’t avoid it. Go online. Figure out who’s known for her good dialogue. Read, study, practice. Make it happen. Persist. Understand that professional writers often spend years on a single piece. It takes dozens of drafts, on the average, to achieve a finished piece. Yet, most beginning writers quit after the first or second draft. They start a new piece that they then give up on after the first or second draft as well. This is no way to growyou will always be stuck at the lower rungs of achievement if you don’t embrace the value of revision.

3.       Sacrifice. Our culture tells us that the only currency is money, but in truth most things have far greater and more elusive prices. In the Catholic tradition, you spend two days fasting during Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. You don’t eat meat on Fridays, and many people give up something else, like drinking or chocolate or whatever, for all forty days. It’s a rare and wonderful gift, discipline. When you sit down to that first meal after a day of fasting, your tongue is reborn. The same plate of leftover chili that you rolled your eyes at before you fasted now tastes like ambrosia. Or, say you gave up chocolate. You thought you could never do it, and at first you nearly wept at a Hershey’s commercial. Butthere you are, forty days and not a bite. You are better than you thought you were. That which you thought you needed, you didn’t really. In fact, you’re better without it, stronger, clearer. What is keeping you from being a better writer? Is it a bad habit, like reading garbage? Is it lack of discipline? What do you think you need to write better? More time? A laptop? A class? Maybe you don’t need any of these. You may already have what you need. Sacrifice. Pay for this thing that you want, to write well. Give up an hour of sleep in the morning, the trashy novel, the dream of the room of your own in the perfect writer’s attic away from the noise of the world. They are nothing but crutches, excuses, demons! You may have told yourself before that you need to stop wasting time, but you’ll never appreciate the value of lost time until you pay for it with sacrifice, with an hour’s sleep, or the weekly trip to the mall that you gave up.

Walden (Concord Library)
The Ur-Text of Simplicity
4.       Pare it down to the bare necessities. The traditional time period of Lent represents the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, fasting, praying, and, of course, being tempted by the devil. It’s from that time that the famous saying, “Man does not live on bread alone,” comes to us. Having been fasting in the desert for so long, Jesus is tempted by the devil with bread and other niceties, to which He responds the above. It’s great to think about your writing in this way. Pare down your writing to the bare necessities, and you’ll see the higher truth beneath all the clutter. Do away with explosions, murders, bloodletting, bags of money, screams, tears, and all the other hoopla of melodrama. Get rid of clumsy adjectives and adverbs, of flowery words like incandescence. Simplify, simplify. Pick a clear noun, like fire, and say what it does: burns. Forget medievalgo Neanderthal. Let Tarzan be your guide. Me writer, you reader.
The Faulkner Reader: With A Forward By the Author
To read Faulkner's 1949
Nobel Prize Acceptance
speech and listen to
an excerpt, click here.

Letter to Artists (Meeting House Essays)
To read Pope John Paul II's
thoughts on the role
of the artist in society,
click here.

5.   Speaking of bread. Now that you are strong in the desert is a great time to reevaluate what you want from writing. What’s motivating you to write? The devil tempts Jesus not only with bread, but with the thought of tossing Himself from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that God would rescue him. One way to interpret this temptation is to see it as the height of arrogance“Look at me! I’m the best!” Jesus, not being Eric Cartman, was able to resist this temptation, but are you? Are you maybe writing because you want people to tell you how wonderful you are? Are you, in other words, showing off? Do you avoid readers whom you know will be critical, and rush instead to show your work to the mom-types who will shower you with praise? Tsk, tsk. The final temptation of the Devil is to ask Jesus to worship him. In return, he offers Him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus, not being a Kardashian, says no thanks, but what about you? Do you search for inspiration in the bestseller lists? Have you suddenly sprung an interest in high-school vampirism, perchance? Tsk, tsk. Search for a higher purpose to your writing. Live for the word, not for the bread.

Of course, if you happen to be celebrating Lent anyway, you will get more from the tradition. Even divested of its spiritual significance, however, the rituals of contemplation, evaluation, revision, purification, and awareness are processes we can all benefit from in our writing, which is, after all, a discipline, a calling, as well as an art.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Creativity & Grammar

Insistence on correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling kills the creative spirit. How many coulda-been Shakespeares have bled to death at the jab of the red pen? How many innocent children have been soured on writing when their precious expressions were “corrected” by a cruel rulemonger? If you think you “can’t write” because you don’t know what a prepositional phrase is, you, too, might be a victim of this evil conspiracy of grammar, and you should spread your wings and just write!


Wrong. Hope I didn’t get you starting a slow clap and an exuberant march to MLA headquarters in New York. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the opening drivel above. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the tools of the writing trade, and you have no more right to misuse them than carpenters have a right to go about flinging a hacksaw in the air like a Frisbee.

If I sound a little bit passionate, it’s because I’m deeply offended by the way people are so eager to toss aside the tools of my beloved trade like so much clutter. For some reason, writing is the only art in which such nonsense is contemplated. You never hear someone say they want to be a dancer but don’t much care for music, or that they want to be a chef but can’t bear the sight of food. Yet, somehow the fact that someone once said you were creative or you think you are makes many people believe they have the right to massacre the English language (or any other they attempt) in the name of creativity.

We’ve all seen the nuts on American Idol who only think they can sing. They make idiots of themselves on national television, and it’s funny, or sad, or both. But no onenot even Paula Abdul or whomever the current nice judge might be (I only see this show when other people force me to, so I don’t know)no one suggests they persevere despite their complete lack of talent. The whole point of the idiot participation spectacle is to showcase the foolhardiness of people who are blind to their own blindness.

When it comes to writing, however, the critic shuts down. As long as you’re writing, it’s great! So what if it’s the print equivalent of a caterwauling lunatic like William Hung? Part of the reason for this critical failure might be the fact that, unlike good singing, good writing is largely a mystery. The average person is about as capable of judging good writing as good food. Raised on Whoppers and Big Macs, the tongue is incapable of registering anything but fat and sugar. We are content with writing that gets the pointusually a very small, simple point, like “meet me @6”across, and whether it does so with elegance or even just expediency is of no importance. We’ve lost our gag reflex when it comes to bad writing, and adopted an anything goes approach that is serviceable if not pleasing.

Stand and DeliverAnother reason for the critical failure is that writing is saddled with a psychological function much more than the other arts. Any problem can apparently be solved by simply writing about it, and to suggest that people submit the effluvia of their souls to mechanical rules is psychoheresy. Notice that, whenever a young person is in trouble in any novel or film involving an academic setting, it’s always the English teacher that comes to the rescue, with the possible exception of Stand and Deliver. Notice in Stand and Deliver, however, that no one ever suggests that the students “express themselves” numerically. It’s through mastery of the field that they achieve not self-expression, but self-confidence.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by SapphireYet, how many times do we have to see the English teacher throw the book out the window, to the transformative cheers of the students? The latest installment of this phenomenon is Precious. I’ve taught desperate adult learners, highschool dropouts or recent immigrants trying to better their lives. The last thing they need is to express themselves. What they really need is basic skills, delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they can get that job and the stigma of illiteracy off them. Then they can worry about expressing themselves.

No academic field has suffered as much from the burden of psychology as writing. One of the first things I was taught when I was taught to teach was to put away my red pen. Corrections had to be made, of course, but preferably in some less psychologically damaging color, like blue, oreven betterin the delicate whisper of a pencil. My students’ psyches were so fragile, apparently, that the mere sight of red ink was enough to make them faint. They also suffered from an overwhelming, irrepressible boredom, making it impossible to teach anything as stultifying as grammar. Not even the shenanigans of Schoolhouse Rock could overcome such ennui. Grammar, at best, was to be imbibed “holistically,” picked up like an ABBA tune one could recall at the appropriate moment.

The result of these well-meaning philosophies is that not only can no one write correctly, but also that no one feels any sense of shame or even error at the grossest of mistakes. Chalk up another victory for the Anti-intellectual Brigade: to be punctilious about grammar is laughable, a mark of your uptightness or perhaps inability to understand the post-text cyberworld of advanced communication. Of your general nerdiness. It smacks of librarian hair buns, Erkel suspenders, and generalized virginity.

Besides, who needs to learn grammar, when all you have to do is run a grammar and spellcheck? Or, my favorite: All the Famous Writers Who Were Famously Not Good at Grammar. Someone always trots out Faulkner. I took a course in Faulkner that made me read everything he ever wrote. I have no idea what people are talking about when they say he wasn’t good at grammar. These must be the same people who just click “change” or “autocorrect” and then “print.”

The truth is Faulkner, like all good writers, was sufficiently good at writing that he could shape words into the patterns that he wanted, even when those patterns were against the rules, the way a jazz musician improvises or a painter, sculptor, dancer, or any other artist uses the medium of the art in innovative ways, which is creative, not destructive. They make informed choices, not ignorant ones. Your four-year-old little brother doesn’t know good grammar. It doesn’t make him Faulkner.

I’ve also heard beginning writers say things like, “But, isn’t that what editors are for? To fix my grammar?” Please. There are plenty of excellently crafted and perfectly written manuscripts piled miles high on every editor’s desk or inbox. Why would anyone bother with one that needs work?

Cultivate horror and shame when it comes to bad writing. If you so much as misplace an apostrophe, you should hear the gasp from the audience that sees the skater tumble to the ice mid-triple-axel or the knee bending the wrong way as the quarterback crumples to the ground. The good news is that good grammar, punctuation, and spelling, unlike the finer, “creative” points of writing, is not a matter of talent. Anyone who puts genuine effort into it can do it. No, most people don’t find it fun. Some actually doit’s a science of words and can be compelling to the scientifically inclined. But, no, most people don’t find it fun, in the same way that practicing a triple axel or shooting a ball through a hoop or playing the scales for hours and hours every day isn’t fun. But it’s rewarding and liberating, and when you can manipulate words like musical notes or make them reach across a page like the semantic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, you’ll feel that same thrill that belongs to every artist from the skater to the football player to the musician to the writer.

English Composition and Grammar : Complete CourseThe bad news is that getting to the exosphere of grammar and punctuation is a process that should take years, and, if you were cheated out of a decent education, it’s going to take a lot of effort from you to make up for that. There are no shortcuts. Get a decent grammar book and sit down with it every single day and work through it. I recommend Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar, a book that is unfortunately only available from used book dealers. It’s not cute, gimmicky, or fun. But it’s straightforward, and it has diagnostic tests and exercises that you can do on your own.

Write every day, and write well. You may have been a great dancer or football player once, but, if it’s been over a month since you’ve used those muscles, you will be sore and clumsy, and, if you wait longer than that, you may never be able to dance or play again. Grammar is the writer’s muscle. Exercise it. Don’t allow yourself the clumsy sentence in the email to your boss or the misused word on your tweet. Look over anything you write with that same attitude of pride and craft with which you put together a great outfit, cook a great meal, or wash your car. No more let a piece of your writing get away from you with an error than you would leave your house without pants.

Learn to walk before you try to run.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...