Wednesday, September 28, 2011

99 Writing Problems, but a Bitch Ain’t One

People who don’t know me very well are often surprised to hear that I’m one foul-mouthed . . . woman. Perhaps no one expects a 5’4” female poet-professor to have the talent to make Yosemite Sam blush. Whatever. I’m very proud of my ability to drop F-bombs not just between words, but between syllables. It just feels good. However, it makes teaching hard. One must keep things professional. There are two words I do allow myself to use in class: bullshit and bitch.

Listen: I’m a freaking poet. That means I will use the best word for the job, and if it offends you, go run and complain to whom you will. Bullshit is an excellent word. You can spend half an hour explaining to a student that her answer to a question “lacks authority” or “is verbose” or “illogical,” or you can say “you’re just bullshitting here” and get your point across immediately. I choose the latter approach.

Similarly, feminist politics be damned, nothing conveys my maximum-security-prison approach to writing skills better that the word bitch. You need to make words your bitches. Moreover, and here I finally get to the point of this post, if you’re going to walk around calling yourself a writer, you need to make MS Word and other tools your bitches.

Johnny, why have you chosen to capitalize the first word of all the lines in your poem? That seems like a rather traditional choice. Are you making a statement about traditional poetry here vis-à-vis your contemporary urban subject matter?

Nah. I typed them lower case, and the computer just did that. I dunno why.

Johnny needs to learn how to make that computer his bitch. Usually, especially in contexts such as this blog, when one says “writing skills,” the assumption is one is referring to rhetorical or even grammatical skills. But we must remember the most essential meaning of the verb to write: to put words down on a legible surface via some sort of tool.

I came to computer skills late in life, even for a Generation Xer. I didn’t get my first computer, a Tandy 1000 RL, until I was a junior in college, in the early ‘90s. It didn’t even have a mouse or Windows. It had its own operating system, something called Deskmate. It came without a hard drive (later I installed one myself, thank you very freaking much). To switch between programs, you had to switch floppy disks. Before my Tandy, whom I affectionately called Keifer, I didn’t even have an electric typewriter. I had a mechanical Smith Corona.

Mind you, I love that typewriter (I still have it, somewhere). Something about the physicality of it is really appealing, the tapping noise of the keys and the zip-ping! when you got to the end of the line. I forget where, but somewhere I recently read (heard?) that when you press down on the keys of a typewriter, something pushes back. That’s pretty cool. Am I going to go back to writing on a typewriter? Hell no.

When I first got Keifer, I would still compose longhand, and then use the word processing application basically as a typewriter. This worked well from the point of view of revisionI made many changes as I typed. However, I soon abandoned this double process. Working on a computer was extremely liberatingI could go backwards and forwards, and make innumerable adjustments without confusion or extra work. Even as I write this, I have ideas I want to get to jotted down in my own gibberish above, below, and within paragraphs I have already drafted. True, these could just as easily be scribbled on a sheet of paper, but I couldn’t move them around as quickly.

The only drawback to writing on the computer is how easy it is to lose drafts. If you fiddle with, say, a poem too much, and want to go back to an earlier draft, it has been overwritten, unless you are carefully creating separate documents, or maybe printing drafts as you go along. But this is a minor inconvenience, easily overcome by more careful saving of your work.

The truth is you are lost as a writer in 2011 if you don’t have at least some basic computer skills. I’ve never even spoken to an editor. All of my publishing has been done through email. If you intend to work with small, independent publishers, be ready to format your own manuscript for publicationyou need the ability to make not just MS Word but also Adobe or other PDF software your bitches.

I’m no tekkie. I’m not running to go plunk down my vast adjunct wages for an iPad, for example. I played around with one at the store, and I’m not impressed by the keyboard function. Though it’s responsive, it’s not as responsive as a physical one, and I need to write. I can’t be checking to see if every third keystroke registered. True technological literacy is not about fluttering from one latest gadget to the other, but about knowing how to use the best tools to maximize your productivity, or creativity, as the case may be.

I have ranted before about the need to have good grammar and punctuation skills to be a good writer. That is also a form of literacy. The writer’s skills, however, don’t stop there. In the same way that you’re not going to find an editor willing to plod through your bad grammar, you’re not going to find someone to type for you or figure out how to number your pages for you. Well, you might, but get ready to pay for it with money or sex. There’s always at least one bitch in every situation. Don’t let it be you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Goodbye, Summer

Labor Day was yesterday and another summer has curled up at the edges and dissipated into smoke. I didn’t write the novel, didn’t put together the manuscript, or do much writing at all. I didn’t fix up the house or lose the weight. I didn’t even do some of the things that used to define summer for me during other years when the hopeful to-do list was gobbled up by mornings laying out in the sun or floating in the water and afternoons reading in bed. Where did the summer go?

Last thing I remember, I was watching 84 Charing Cross Road, and hating it. I suppose I should have read the book instead. I don’t remember making the decision to watch the film firstI usually go the other way around, but there it was in the mail, auto-delivered in a bright red Netflix envelope from a queue I long ago lost control over, and there we were, exhausted from the usual end-of-summer syllabus scramble. Someone had recommended it to me, someone who thinks of me as a bibliophile, which I suppose I might be. Don’t remember who that was either, but I absolutely hated the film, based on the true story of writer Helene Hanff’s decades-long relationship with a London bookstore. All I could think of was how wonderful it is that hardly anyone will have to go to such lengths again to get a book. Pretty much any book you can think of is readily available online, and you can either download it instantaneously or have it delivered to your door in just a few days.

The whole “good books” attitude seems snooty to me, smells of The Canon, of Dead White Men and beliefs that exclude little brown women like me. Hanff was not just a bibliophile but an Anglophile, and anyone who acts like the sun should have never set on the British Empire is highly suspect in my book. I’ve met people like this, people who believe nothing good has been written in the past hundred years, which happens to coincide with the diversification of postcolonial literature. People who refer to women’s literature as “minor.” I don’t like these people. The death of the canon, of the leather-bound Good Book only a few of the initiated are capable of appreciating, is good news to the likes of me. One wonderful thing about the proliferation of alternative publishing venues is the democratization of literature, or at least the promise of it.

What I can’t bring myself to embrace, however, is the lack of a physical future for literature. I can download anything I want into my fancy ereader my husband got me for Christmas, but I can’t go to the Main Bookshop anymore. The Main Bookshop, like so many independent bookstores and even more than a few big-box stores, is closed for good, done in by a fire a few years ago but in reality in trouble long before then. Summer for me meant the beach, yes, but it also meant the Main Bookshop, a huge remainder bookstore that once stood in downtown Sarasota. At its height, the Main Bookshop had two floors, three if you counted the even deeper discount books, records, and prints you could find on the third floor. The place was messy, cluttered. It smelled funky. It was full of ancient tables and chairs, ratty armchairs, and even rattier sofas. When the rain kept you off the beach, you could spend hours there, reading. No fancy coffee or cakes. Just books and classical music or instrumental jazz piping in through the speakers. Every year my husband and I would bring home dozens of books, sometimes for as little as two dollars each. I had a favorite chair, I knew where the key to the bathroom was. I knew the catseveryone did. It was home. Home the way my local library branchnow basically a hallway of computer terminalsused to be when I was little, when Saturdays meant getting free air conditioning at the library and reading and napping with books. I can browse online, I can “look inside this book” on Amazon, but I’m still here, in front of this screen, my world ever smaller as the need to leave this bright rectangle in front of me for pretty much anything lessens more with every passing day.

View from the second floor of the Main Bookshop. Photo courtesy of
Byron, one of the Main Bookshop cats.
Photo courtesy of
The bathroom door. Photo courtesy
Reading is an activity of the mind, but I also have a body, and this body longs for books that occupy more than digital space. The thing that rankles me about the so-called bibliophiles is that often books seem like just keys to some clique they wish to belong tosome coffee-drinking, fake-glasses wearing club that just looks better holding a book. I’d hate to think that such hypocrisy is what, at heart, makes me still prefer paper, and, much as I once longed to wear a hoopskirt, I have no illusions about the Great Past When Good Books Were Written. Maybe wanting to sit on the floor of the Main Bookshop in front of the Women’s Studies section with a stack of books and a cat again is no different from wanting to fit into the bikini or boogie board all the way to shoreone of those summer joys I long to feel again.
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