Z Is for Zoom

The Greek alphabet goes from alpha to omega. My 2021 A to Z Challenge alphabet goes from Audience to Zoom, and yes, I can see some connections between the two. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve been in the audience for webinars and panel discussions that pre-pandemic would have been held in New York, Washington, or some other place I can’t get to.

Zoom sing with Susan Robbins (2nd row center) of Libana, November 2020. I’m top row, 2nd from left.

I’ve participated in Zoom sings (Zings?) whose leaders were in California, the Boston area, or right here on Martha’s Vineyard. Zoom sings are a little weird because you can only hear the leader — it would be total cacophony if everyone unmuted — but they’re also cool because I try out harmonies and variations that I wouldn’t dare if everyone else could hear me.

Last fall I took a six-week online seminar on the novels of Toni Morrison. I’d been hankering to read or reread all her novels in order, and this got me started with Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. I’m currently doing a nine-week seminar on three William Faulkner novels: The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! The Morrison seminar was run through a local library, the Faulkner through the professor’s home base at Swarthmore College.

When 2020 began, I’d never heard of Zoom. Who had? Now a hot topic in my circles is what we think of Zoom meetings, whether our face-to-face communication skills have atrophied, and how much some of us hate looking at ourselves onscreen.

In yet another case of old dog learning new tricks, I got a Zoom Pro account early on and have become reasonably adept at scheduling and hosting meetings and at explaining Zoom features to less-experienced users.

Writing-wise I’ve got two Zoom stories. One is about my writers’ group. In ordinary times it meets every Sunday night in the cozy parlor of one member. She provides wine, juice, water, and popcorn; the rest of us contribute baked goodies and other treats from time to time. In season there’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. When shelter-in-place orders hit in mid-March we stopped meeting. I suggested Zoom, but the other members are less tech-savvy than I am, and at 69 I’m one of the group’s younger members. It didn’t happen. Without the weekly deadline, I stopped working on my novel-then-in-progress. This may turn out to be a blessing in disguise because the current structure wasn’t working and the weekly deadline, though helpful in some ways, was making it hard to stand back and consider the thing as a whole.

Not to mention — Morrison and Faulkner have shaken up my assumptions about structure and given me some ideas, and meanwhile I’ve launched a project I’d been talking about for years: a blog/memoir based on my T-shirt collection. I’ve got at least two hundred T-shirts, and they come from all the phases of my life back to 1976. It’s now a thing, so if you’re interested, check out The T-Shirt Chronicles.

Once fall arrived in earnest and meeting outside became less pleasant, the group decided to give Zoom a try. Thanks to tech support by friends and relatives, it’s worked out fine. We’re eager to get back to wine, popcorn, and a fire in the fireplace but for now Zoom works pretty well.

My other Zoom story is short. Last May in one of my other blogs, I started a post called “Living in Zoomsville,” about the abrupt shift from in-person meetings to Zoom. I never finished it and probably never will because by midsummer living in Zoomsville had become so, well, normal that I no longer felt the urge to write about it. The moral of that story is Write it while it’s hot. Don’t put it off till you have more time. Just do it. Start now.

C Is for Critic, Criticism & Critique

I may be going too far with this multiple-word thing, but these three are closely related: they all derive, says Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, from the Greek kritikós “discerning, capable of judging.”

Plenty of writers steel themselves against the possibility of criticism and avoid dark alleys where critics are said to lurk. Merriam-Webster’s second and third definitions of critic would seem to support this wariness. (The first is more straightforward: think literary critics and film critics.) The second includes the phrase “reasoned opinion,” but the example — “Critics of the new law say that it will not reduce crime” — suggests that critics don’t like what they’re criticizing. The third is no-holds-barred negative: a critic is “one given to harsh or captious judgment.”

Many of us have encountered enough critics who are “given to harsh or captious judgment” to dump all critics into that category. When someone says “You’re so critical,” they’re usually not paying you a compliment. Small wonder that we tend to prefer feedback to criticism.

Unfortunately, those individuals “given to harsh or captious judgment” are out there. Some of them are leading workshops or teaching high school and college courses. They may even show up in your own inner circle.

But though we might love to avoid criticism altogether, we’re in trouble as writers if we close ourselves off to any possibly unsettling feedback. Other people can see things in our work that we don’t, and I’m not talking just about typos, inconsistencies, and grammatical gaffes. An outside reader might make the suggestion that helps you unsnarl a plot or make your narrative more compelling or give you an avenue to explore that you hadn’t considered.

And though I’ve been an editor by trade for more than four decades (yikes!), I will not tell you that these outside readers have to be professional editors. Not by a long shot. Serious writers comment on each other’s work, either informally or in writers’ groups. If you’ve got a non-writer friend who reads widely and is willing to spend time reading and commenting on your drafts — figure out ways to return the favor.

Here are some suggestions for both giving and receiving criticismfeedback:

  • Keep the focus on the work, not the writer. This is very important for both writers and readers.
  • When receiving feedback, “take what you like and leave the rest.” That’s commonly said at many 12-step meetings, and it’s great advice for writers. The more comments you get from others, the more they’ll contradict each other. This is good. It means that the choice is up to you. Readers are also more likely to give you their honest take if you don’t (a) argue with them, or (b) fall apart at the slightest hint your prose isn’t perfect. Asking follow-up questions is, however, absolutely OK.
  • When giving feedback, be as honest about your responses as you can. (See previous point. If the writer has given signs that they’re hyper-defensive about comments, exercise caution.)
  • It’s fine to say you don’t understand something or that it doesn’t work for you, but avoid beginning any comment with, e.g., “Most readers won’t understand . . .” or “Editors don’t like . . .” You don’t know that.
  • The more you can say about your response to a work, the more useful it will be to the writer. If the ms. is mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, experimental fiction, or whatever, and you’re not familiar with that particular genre, you may not understand some choices the writer has made. That’s fine — and congratulations on venturing into territory you don’t know well.
  • If, for example, you’re writing sf and your reader is challenging your use of FTL (faster-than-light) drives, don’t worry too much about it. What they say about other things may tell you something important. For my part, using dead bodies as a plot device bugs me for sure, but I manage to put my reservations on hold when reading a good mystery.

Interestingly enough, critique avoids much of the bad press its first cousins get — perhaps because it comes through the French, which is thought to be more polite? To me, a critique looks at the work as a whole. It doesn’t focus on typos or dangling participles or subject-verb disagreement, though if these come up frequently, the critiquer may mention it. A critique should offer the writer concrete advice on how to make the work more effective at whatever the writer wants it to do, without necessarily telling the writer how to do it.

Yet again, there are choices to be made, and it’s the writer who gets to make them. That’s the important part.

On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

View original post 914 more words

Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.

How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Mired in the thickets of writing and editing, we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. We’re creating stuff — fiction and nonfiction, stories, poems, essays, and whole books — that will get people to read. Here’s a reminder. Thanks to Charles French for his blog post calling this to my attention.

M.C. Tuggle, Writer

Reading

There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with…

View original post 199 more words

Bogged Down in Detail

Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”

“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.

I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!

At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.

Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?

At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?

With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.

I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.

Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?

Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.

I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.

The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.

A Writers’ Group Is Born

Last fall, in “Going Public,” I blogged about Writers Read, a writers’ group hosted by the library in my town of West Tisbury, Massachusetts. At each meeting, six or seven writers read short works or excerpts from long ones — the length limit of 9 minutes is strictly enforced by the moderator. All are invited to comment on each reading, with a focus on personal response to the work. This is not a critique group. Writers Read has developed a core of regulars, with other writers dropping in from time to time.

Marjorie Turner Hollman, writer and blogger, was taken with the idea and contacted me for details on how this group worked. Her local library, in Bellingham, Massachusetts, was interested in starting a local writers’ group. One thing led to another, and this spring the group was launched, with Marjorie and another writer as co-leaders. Starting from the Writers Read idea, they’re adapting it to the needs and desires of the participants. Here’s her account of how it’s working so far.

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Our first night was a “get acquainted” sort of gathering, checking in to see what writing interests each person had, and what they might be looking for from the group. It turned out we had attracted several poets, some who write in free verse, others who adhere strictly to rhyming schemes. Several participants write science fiction, or a combination science fiction/dystopia, and some write strictly personal stories — memoir.

A few people didn’t bring anything to read, so we suggested taking ten minutes at the beginning of the meeting to write. My co-leader suggested as a topic, “First day of class.” Those who were a little nervous about the group laughed, appreciating the acknowledgment of first-day jitters.

And then we shared. Some read their responses to the writing prompt, others brought in pieces that felt raw with emotion, and while others offered their most highly polished piece for display. Regardless, we listened, and provided positive feedback only. We agreed that we were not looking for a group that offered destructive observations — most of us are already hard enough on ourselves. Our basic ground rules were: no politics, no religion, and leave the erotica at home where it belongs.

A month later, our second gathering resumed with much the same structure, except that this time we came ready with a writing prompt. In fact, we offered two: “What are your writing goals?” or “Tell a story about one experience with the library and how it has changed your life.”

As we worked our way around the table during this second meeting, my co-leader Amy suggested that since we are meeting only once a month, perhaps our group could create a private Facebook page as a place to share resources and blogs that we write. Having made the suggestion, Amy was quickly nominated to put the Facebook group together. Entry to the group is limited to those who have physically come to at least one of our meetings at the library. We are seeking to set healthy limits on discussion, and foster an environment that can encourage tender creative efforts to blossom, rather than be squashed by overzealous, well-meaning folks who offer observations or criticisms that are, intentionally or not, destructive.

And so we continue, grateful for the seed that was planted when Susanna wrote about the impact her writing group has had on her as a writer. I feel sure that we have veered away from the format developed on Martha’s Vineyard. We are finding our own way, and our group is already taking on a character of its own. Regardless of how different our group becomes, I feel grateful for the encouragement we received, Susanna’s patience in explaining their process, and interest in hearing about how our group is doing. So here’s to you on Martha’s Vineyard — Happy Writing!

* * * * * * *

Marjorie Turner Hollman

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20 years, and has recorded 14 veteran’s oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.

Her website includes more information about her and her work, and a blog about her walking adventures. Her account of the first meeting of the Bellingham library writer’s group can be found in the Bellingham Bulletin for May 31, 2017.

Trust

Punctuation seems to me one of the few human inventions without bad side-effects, and I am so fond of all the little dots and curls that I once taught a whole writing course devoted to them.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

I was tempted to post that quote all by its own self because (1) I agree with it, and (2) Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it, but reading Le Guin reminds me continually to pay attention to context, and I’m continually railing at online memes that encourage us to do the opposite.

So, context: The quote comes in “Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago,”  in her most recent nonfiction collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).

Saramago, the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, was not a big fan of punctuation. Writes Le Guin: “So a Saramago page, one dense thicket from top to bottom with only commas to indicate the path, was hard going for me, and I was inclined to resent it.”

After a couple of attempts, I bailed on Joyce’s Ulysses for similar reasons. Saramago had been commended to Le Guin not only by his reputation but by a friend whose opinion she trusted, so she didn’t stop with resentment. If she was going to persevere through this difficult book, Blindness, she had to trust the author, her guide, and “the only way to find out if he deserved such trust was to read his other books. So I did.”

This worked. “I returned to Blindness and began it again from the beginning,” she writes, “by now used to the thicket and confident that wherever Saramago took me, however hard the going, it would be worth it.”

She doesn’t learn to love Saramago’s ways with punctuation: she “learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm.” She also notes that she has little difficulty when she reads his work aloud, “probably because it slows me down.”

All of which reminds me of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s much-quoted (and -misquoted) lines:

You write with ease to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

It doesn’t seem that Saramago wrote with particular ease, and “breeding” in Sheridan’s sense he certainly did not have, but — point taken. At the same time there are editors out there who think any irregularity that slows the reader down is anathema, and readers who want to barrel through one book after another without engaging with any of them or remembering them later.

I like Le Guin’s approach. She’s willing to put out considerable effort if she trusts her guide.

Me too — but I did give up on Ulysses, although I’d liked some of Joyce’s other work. The trouble was that too many other guides were clamoring for my attention.

S Is for Spelling

semicolonAll week, as drew closer in my saunter through the alphabet, I assumed it was going to be “S Is for Semicolon.” I like semicolons; you already knew that, right? I blogged about why I like them (and how I don’t really understand why some people hate them so much) in “Praisesong for the Semicolon.” True, that was almost three years ago, but the post holds up pretty well.

Plus it includes a link to where you can buy semicolon swag on Cafepress. I’ve already got the T-shirt, but I could use some more stickers.

S offered several other possibilities, though not nearly as many as C or P — slash (aka solidus), symbol, signature, serif, sans serif (which I just learned can be spelled as one word), schedule, speech, sentence, style sheet . . .

Spelling! Aha, thought I, that’s a big one!

Almost too big, I think a few minutes later, staring at the screen and wondering where to start, where to start?

With a trip to the dictionary, of course. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) has to say about spelling:

1. a. The forming of words with letters in an accepted order; orthography.
b. The art or study of orthography.
2. The way in which a word is spelled.
3. A person’s ability to spell words: a writer plagued by bad spelling.

English-language spelling is a bear, but I’ve always been good at it, probably because (at least as a kid) I had a good eye and memory for detail. In fifth grade my nickname was Walking Encyclopedia. A few years later I was a killer at Trivial Pursuit, especially when partnered with someone who knew TV and sports a lot better than I did.

Since everyone’s the hero of their own story, including me, I early on assumed that anyone who couldn’t spell well either wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t too bright.

After I learned about dyslexia, I got a lot more tolerant. I also learned that many smart people and some very good writers are “plagued by bad spelling.” You probably won’t meet any copyeditors or proofreaders who are similarly impaired, but I know a few very capable developmental or substantive editors whose grasp of spelling and punctuation is somewhat shaky. They deal with the big picture. Copyeditor and proofreader come in their wake to tend to the details.

AHD refers to “letters in an accepted order.” Right. Even when we spell words wrong, we generally agree on how they should be spelled. If necessary, we consult a dictionary. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) spell quite a few words differently, but in nearly all cases an AmE spelling is intelligible to a BrE speaker and vice versa: traveler/traveller, check/cheque, defense/defence, curb/kerb.

So why is spelling important? Is spelling important? Memes circulate on Facebook with the most atrocious spelling, intentionally atrocious spelling, like these:

 

 

 

 

And my favorite of all, this:

And we can read them. It’s true that the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, unless it’s proofreading, of course, but would you want to raed page after page of any of the above? Probably not. It’s exhausting. You put so much effort into deciphering the text that you’re barely taking in what it’s trying to tell you. The texts above are mainly trying to tell you that you can understand short passages of atrociously spelled words.

When words are spelled in “an accepted order,” we can devote more attention to how they’re strung together in sentences and paragraphs and what they’re trying to say. Sentence structure and punctuation serve the same purpose, by the way. They’re not trying to flummox you or make you feel stupid. If you’re trying to tell a story or get an idea across to readers, they’re on your side.

Spelling errors and typos don’t mean you’re stupid, but when you’re trying to make a good impression on, say, an agent or editor who has to wade through dozens of query letters in a week (or even a day), they don’t inspire confidence. They may even create the impression that you’re careless or clueless or less than competent. Take excruciating care with any document on which much depends.

And yes, digital spell checkers can be helpful. I use mine when I’m in a hurry, and when I’m typing on a virtual keyboard. But a proofreader, copyeditor, or careful reader can usually tell within a paragraph or two or three when a document has been spell-checked but not proofread. The spell checker knows that “reed” is spelled correctly, but it doesn’t know that you don’t reed books.

N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.