Saturday, May 15, 2010

The universe is made of stories

I’ve been editing a long dissertation that is thoughtful and interesting from a complex, philosophical point of view. I’ve become used to the writer’s abstract and theoretical style, and yet I find myself craving examples and stories. Her thoughts go on and on, and I can parse them together and understand what she is saying, but there is nothing concrete in these first 200 pages (!) that I can relate to life experience, mine or anyone else’s.

When I was a graduate student in the late 70s and early 80s, the schools of thought that she is discussing (phenomenology, deconstructionism, hermeneutics, were very popular. But they didn’t speak to me. I was a graduate student in literature because I loved the stories of fiction and memoir, the lived experience of poetry and theater. I loved the characters and their interactions and their interpersonal politics and their dilemmas. I didn’t love thinking abstractly about the underlying intellectual implications of the writers (that all seemed made up and so esoteric I wasn’t interested) or trying to tease out their hidden motivations. But now I see that I was also put off by it, for such abstract thinking and writing was another form of discrimination, a classism, as I wrote earlier in this blog.

In editing this dissertation, I’m less put off by the author’s distancing from concrete reality as I am disappointed not to experience her story. Someone said that the universe is made of stories, not atoms. I believe the universe is made of stories, not concepts. Na├»ve as it may sound, how we are with each other, how we act and speak and care, are more important to me than how we dissect that intellectually.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A poem I wrote yesterday in class

Two hours after cricket song
I wake in a tangle of damp sheets,
the moon alarming me.

I slip on shoes and move naked into the forest,
the murmur of the river below me,
the plaintive cry of the lost and lonely before me,
his feet rustling the tinder grass of high summer,
now approaching, now evading my soft whistle on the night air,
then two tiger eyes shine and I kneel and cradle him to my breast.

Rising, hours after, a feline tattoo of red traces head, body, and tail
Across my chest in the fiery gift of the oak’s cousin.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More smart speaking

More from the Reader's Digest article on usage:

Use for all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes.

Skip "of" after "off." Say Get off me, not Get off of me.

Distinguish clearly between comprise and compose. Comprise is used as a verb that is a synonym for include. His actions comprise the finding and typing of information. The sculpture is composed of wire hangars. Why in doubt, skip comprise and use include.

Orientate means to face east; it is not a generic verb for location in space. That verb is orient.

Merge together is redundant. Merge means to put together.

I literally laughed my head off. Literally means actually and is best reserved for real events--unless your head really did come off.

X is very unique, quite unique, sort of unique. No. Something is unique or not. There are no grades of it, just like things are perfect or not.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sounding smarter

I was at my doctor's yesterday waiting for my annual physical and reading the paltry selection of magazines. I did come across this of interest.

Hopefully vs. I hope (hopefully means in a hopeful manner). 99% of the time we mean "I hope."

Between you and I should always be between you and me. Similarly her and I cannot correctly appear together. It's either her and me (both objects) or she and I (both subjects).

I feel badly refers to difficulty with your fingertips as not working properly. I feel bad means you are sad or ill.

I need to lay down is grammatically incorrect. The correct form is I need to lie down. Lay always takes a direct object. I need to lay this sack down.

ATM machine and PIN number are redundant (The M in ATM stands for machine and the N in PIN stands for number. Use ATM and PIN.

Chaise lounge is incorrect. The phrase is chaise longue (long chair from French).

Nauseous means to cause nausea, nauseated is what you become. Say I feel nauseated.

Tune in tomorrow for a few more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Some thoughts on description

The adage "show, don't tell" usually refers to the emotions of characters. Not: Ted was angry, but: Ted slammed his fist into the wall. But there's a role for "show, don't tell" in descriptive passages as well.

When she came in, she carried a bunch of fresh flowers.

When she slipped through the door, fragrance wafted off the lilacs in her hands.

Several things "show" here. First by choosing a different verb for her entrance, we give some information about our character. She moves quietly. Perhaps she doesn't want to make a fuss. Second, we engage the senses with the perfume of a specific flower. The choice of flower tells us that it's springtime, that the flowers are either a shade of purple or white, and that she most likely got them from a nearby garden, as lilacs are rarely for sale in a florist's shop. We've shown a great deal more than the "telling" sentence lets us.

When Bill sat down, Anne noticed his suit looked old.

When Bill sat down, Anne saw the too-narrow lapels and the frayed cuffs. How would they manage money for a new one?

Next time you're editing your description, look for ways to add specifics that show, don't tell. your readers will like it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Characters who inform the author

This afternoon I saw a riveting play at Third Rail downtown: The Grey Sisters. Four female actors each center stage alone, in dialog with a character who wasn't on stage. One half of conversations. The performances were outstanding.

Craig Wright, the playwright, had written the piece specifically for these four women and they had worked with him not only to hone their performances but to create their characters.

I've come to believe that characters are real beings who live in our imaginations. When I am writing a novel, the characters tell me things, tell me what is going to happen next. It isn't only a rational way of choosing from limited choices. There is suddenly a solution or a next step that wasn't there before. The beings have input, in much the same way that these actors, and the characters themselves, came into the making and writing of this play.

Perhaps this is how muses work, whispering in our inner ear with ideas and thoughts and inspiration, both in word and in emotion. Whatever it is, it is exciting!