thoughts on language, pt. 1

maybe i’m stuck in a ridiculous, wussy progressive, politically correct, liberal arts bubble.  by which, of course, i mean that’s precisely where i live.  with the caveat that i don’t necessarily devote a whole lot of time to consuming non-print media (i.e., radio, tv, the web, etc.).  but even given that little exposure, i was kinda surprised by the extraordinary amount of coverage given recently to the AP stylebook’s decision to amend their stance on “hopefully.”

my surprise existed on several levels, not the least significant of which was the fact that i didn’t know i was using the word “hopefully” wrong.  a lot.  and so was, basically, everyone else.  this has made me a little self-conscious.  for example, i now feel like there’s a pretty good chance i just used “basically” and “self-conscious” incorrectly.  this is somewhat troubling as someone who works professionally and volunteers as a writer/editor.

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Boil Away My Plot

I love the jagged lines here; what the hell are they supposed to mean?

I’ve enjoyed my quarter of writing fiction, but I’m not going to miss plot. The nice thing about nonfiction is that I don’t have to figure out what happens next because it has always already happened. This is really convenient and a huge load off of my mind. In nonfiction we  get to babble on and on about our ideas instead of just embedding them subtly in our narratives and as someone who enjoys nonstop talking, this is pretty much my favorite genre. But what I am going to miss are the characters.

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Weird writing habits of 9 super famous authors

Six-toed kitty is Hemingway's muse.

Look, I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Great writing isn’t achieved through practice or time or Master’s degrees or the study of craft or the possession of raw talent. Nope. Great writing is about having a great writing routine – that one weird trick that’s going to put you in the perfect mindset to write the perfect sentence. All you have to do is have one special thing that gets you to that space, that great writing space. Every famous writer has their trick. Unfortunately, one person’s trick might not work for anyone else. But then again, it might. So, here are a few you can try. Below is a list of writing habits of nine successful authors who also happen to be long dead and therefore, conveniently, unable to comment on the veracity of these claims.

William Faulkner – Shoe Hands

Faulkner preferred to type with his toes instead of his fingers. He kept his shoes on his hands while he worked.

George Orwell – Swimming the English Channel

Prior to writing, Orwell would swim across the English Channel, have a croissant and a coffee on the French side, then swim back. He did this almost every day of his adult life. Except during the war years. Because it was too dangerous then.

Ernest Hemingway – Talking to Cats

It is widely known that Hemingway, following years of work in his basement genetics lab, invented a new kind of cat, one with six toes. This is more toes than a regular cat has, in case you are unaware. Before he sat down to write, Hemingway would go over his writing goals for the day with these cats. He refused to share such things with other, normal toed cats, which he considered to be poor listeners. Read more »

The Lesson of the Bone-Flutes

They were carved from mammoth ivory and bird bones, left and found in a cave in Southern Germany. We don’t actually know what the people who carved them called themselves — we know them now only as the Aurignacian Culture. Their flutes had at least two and in some cases three primary scales, which says their creators had a reasonably sophisticated understanding of musical principles. These are the same people who produced paintings and sculptures of mammoths, aurochs, rhinoceros, and lions — all now extinct in Europe, if not the entire world. Some of these sculptures are anthropomorphized and depicted in ornate dress, suggesting a religious component to their creation.

The Aurignacians disappeared 40,000 years ago. The whole of Europe has frozen over twice since they vanished. Their works predate the Lascaux cave-paintings by over 20,000 years. Read more »

World Building 101

On Thursday I defend my thesis and if all goes well, I leave Eastern Washington with another liberal arts degree under my belt. It’s been in rereading the books for my defense that I realized I’m obsessively interested in World Building. I like authors who create their own self contained universes. The men and women who devise rules which govern a place where people can live for trillions of years through the formation and destruction of the cosmos. I’m fascinated by parallel universes: by places where the dead wander in and out of 24-hour convenience stores speaking incomprehensibly. Where a journalist searches for a particle of a substance that can freeze all water on earth while uncovering the unique anthropological nuances of a Caribbean island.

In a world building story, often times our tension comes from discovering place. Characters seek desperately to make sense of an inconsistent, senseless environment. In a way this resembles the real world, with the exception that sometimes ghosts or vampires, or the apocalypse is injected into the pieces for those like myself with short attention spans. In your own work, world building allows a greater opportunity to play god. It might appeal most to those like myself who have control issues, and grow increasingly sacrilegious the more they drink. You get to determine the guiding perimeters of your world. Maybe the future has given way to a sub group of humanoids that live beneath the earth’s surface. Maybe everyone on the planet awakes from a dream aware that the earth is going to end the following night.

Most of my stories concern themselves and are driven by skewed versions of place. In this sense I’m following in a tradition (if poorly) of hundreds of authors who have spent their existences uncovering the truths of their own made-up places. I’ve included my favorite literary world builders below.

1. Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle. I love this book for the scope of its world creation. Vonnegut creates his own made up religion and bible whose first line reads: “All of the things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” He develops his own fictional country, San Lorenzo, an alternate  history of the man responsible for the creation of the atom bomb, as well as the perfect doomsday substance. Vonnegut also develops governing laws and a caste system for the island of San Lorenzo, a place where Bokononist is both practiced and outlawed under the threat of death. Essentially most Vonnegut novels exists in their own linked universe where Tralfamadorians, and Kilgore Trout appear frequently.

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The New Yorker Will Have To Look Elsewhere

Over the Memorial Day weekend, a graduate of Yale University planned to move into her new apartment and begin work as Editorial Assistant at The New Yorker magazine.

Marina Keegan, age 22, made these plans after writing a brief and upbeat address to her fellow classmates on Facebook.   In the post, she alluded to the “opposite of the word loneliness” as a way of describing her sense of community and blessing.   She also offered this poignant clause:  “We have so much time…”

Over the Memorial Day weekend, this vivacious young woman died when her boyfriend’s Lexus rolled over on a highway in Dennis, Mass.   Michael Gocksch remains in critical condition, but Marina Keegan lost consciousness at the scene and never recovered…   And so, the promising author won’t be learning the craft at the prestigious publication after all.  The New Yorker will have to look elsewhere, and that’s sad on multiple levels.

First, as an undergraduate, Keegan had the nerve to contradict Mark Helprin, who rose at a collegiate event to discourage various would-be writers by telling them that genuine jobs in the field are few and far between.   That’s the first level of melancholy associated with this rising star’s fade into oblivion:  the fact that she won’t grow up and grow into her antagonistic polemic against the intellectual-property-rights twit of the year.   And the second level of profound grief for the young woman’s absence is like unto the first…

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Guerrilla Art: Let’s Found A Movement

Don't you want to walk down this alley?


As writers, I think it’s important to always try and use words and language in new and surprising ways. I can’t say exactly how to go about this, but you always know when you hear a killer phrase that sounds exactly right, and also sounds like something you’ve never heard before. (Some examples for me are Kafka’s assertion that “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us” or Li-Young Lee’s description of “the barb / called world, that / tooth-ache, the actual” though there are of course endless others.)

That being said, it seems like everyone’s a writer these days, so maybe using     words in new ways isn’t enough. Maybe we need to re-purpose not just language but the things we associate with language. There are people out there making amazing pictures out of library date-stamps and incredibly intricate and beautiful paper sculptures that are left anonymously for others to discover. Other cool people are “poetry bombing”  local thrift stores and my only question is: why didn’t I think of that?

It’s probably because I’m not very good at craft-y things, and I’m especially hopeless at visual arts (for more on skills I don’t have, see here), but I’m all about this guerrilla art thing. I don’t know that it can quite be called a movement yet, since these artists aren’t, as far as I know, organized in any way, and most prefer to work alone, but I like the idea of a guerrilla art movement a whole lot. I propose we start one. Who’s with me? We can call it Artsault. (Too obvious? We’ll work on it.) Read more »

Opening Doors

The Little One is Me: Taken this Morning

If I hadn’t buzzed the unknown person in, the washing machine would not be running now and I’d be using the last of my computer’s battery power. I would spend evenings in the dim flickering of candle light. How long would it have taken for the electricity to be turned back on? It’s difficult to say in a country in which I’ve waited three months for my internet connection to be completed (and still wait).

A sensible person in my position might not have buzzed the unknown person in. Dripping wet, pushing the shower curtain open, she might have thought, It’s probably someone who wants to put coupons in our mailboxes. But I thought, I have a seemingly endless flight of stairs between a visitor’s entrance into the building and my front door.

I was zipping my jeans as the bell to my front door rang. I had buttoned over half of the buttons on my shirt when I reached out to open the door. My hair was surely going every which way, like an abandoned bird nest. A tall man in black with long, blonde, slicked-back hair stood on my doormat.

I need 316 euros or I’ll turn off your electricity, he told me in German. Read more »

It Has Never Got Easier

John Steinbeck wrote this letter to his former creative writing professor at Stanford, 40 years after he’d attended. The full letter is a quick read, and worth it. Here’s a general sense of it.

Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.

You canceled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

He recalls her advice that a story could be “about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.”

With no more than that you set us on the desolate lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories…

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself?

But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.

Mother of God, Y’all. Leo is Jay Gatsby.



When I was linked to the above trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (by three different people, no less), I first thought of Casey Patrick’s Bark post about how much she loves the crap out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I do not blame her. Mr. Fitzgerald is the name of the ferret I don’t have yet. I have planned this out far in advance.

Basically, I am very, very excited for this film. The Great Gatsby has been one of my Favorite Books of All Time since I read it in eleventh grade. For some background info on me: I was a terrible student up until, uh, my time at my undergrad institution in 2008. That’s almost sixteen years of being awful, a feat that surprises many who know me today as I’m actually a hard worker now and get my work done on time. This was never the case. But my junior year of high school, I had Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway to hold me over.

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