Category: language

In Phoenix

fefeWe keep a case of Budlight in the fridge. We keep drinking. (We won’t cry in front of strangers, unless we are crying for someone else, a pain not belonging to us.) We keep the crockpot the griddle the blender on the shelf created by the cabinets beside the fridge. We keep a stack of unpaid bills in the single drawer next to the bed. We keep the vibrator on. We keep the vibrator on top of the stack of bills. We keep banging the walls. We keep the walls up. We keep still. (We wash dishes in hand-burning hot water.) We keep looking for the other sock, the other sock.We keep sleeping in the unmade bed. We keep fixing the fitted sheet.  We keep moving. We keep letters in the bags in the back of the closet. We keep the cat off the table. We keep the dog from running away. We keep looking for the other sock. We keep singing six-month-old songs on the radio. We keep dirty laundry in the blue bin. We keep not having important conversations. (We have never seen rain like the storms of monsoon season in the desert — all the lights off, the heavy green curtains of the motel room drawn back, the palm trees bending away.)We keep picking up the phone. We keep putting the phone down. We keep looking for the other sock. We keep running.

He keeps a case of Budlight in the fridge. I keep drinking. (I won’t cry in front of strangers, unless I am crying for someone else, pain not belonging to me.) The crockpot the griddle the blender sit on the shelf created by the cabinets beside the fridge. I stack my unpaid bills in the single drawer next to the bed. I keep the vibrator on top of my stack of bills. The bed bangs against the walls. I keep the walls up. I keep still. (I wash dishes in water so hot I burn my hands.) I keep looking for the other sock.We keep sleeping in the unmade bed. I keep fixing the fitted sheet.  In my head I keep moving. I keep letters in the bags in the back of the closet. The cat won’t stay off the table. The dog doesn’t run away. I keep looking for the other sock. We keep singing. The dirty laundry is in the blue bin. I will not start an important conversation. (We have never seen rain like the storms of monsoon season in the desert — all the lights off, the heavy green curtains of the motel room drawn back, the palm trees bending away. There is lightning and thunder in our hearts.) I keep picking up the phone. I keep putting the phone down. We never find the other sock.

The Uniqueness of a Character’s Voice

bad-day-for-pretty-240hVery early in my writing life, I shared a story with some local writers during an event at the library where I lived in California. My prose told of an adventure involving pirates, pick-pocketing urchins, and buxom wenches. The writers read my tale and after a long moment of silence, one of them politely stated that she had problems distinguishing between my characters.

I had worked hard to create a unique quirk for each of them. My hero often cursed and my heroine had a certain way of flipping her hair. When I asked for clarification, the writer said, in a crisp English accent, “They all have a bit of a potty mouth, you see, at times a little too much.” She pointed to a page where she’d circled each swear word. Two males and one female were speaking. None of them uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the word “fuck.” If I hadn’t included a dialogue tag here and there, it would have read as one long manic rant. It still kind of did.

I revised and proudly showed up for a second evening of sharing at the library. Now, only the hero’s sidekick dropped the f-bomb. The hero instead used “shit,” while the heroine preferred milder profanities such as “crap.” The writer’s facial twitches made me snatch the pages out of her hand. Before leaving, I checked out a few books on the craft of writing.

As writers, we know that it’s not only what our characters say that is important, but also how they say it. The challenge is to make sure that each character has a unique way of speaking, moving, and thinking—and then stay consistent through the story

I new favorite author I recently started reading is Sophie Littlefield. I love her books because she is a master of close third person point of view. My favorite books of hers are a series of crime novels rich with humor and quirky characters. Told entirely from the main character’s POV, her sarcastic witty voice colors the story in ways that make it impossible not to laugh out loud. Read more »

The Apostropocalypse

The 10th annual National Punctuation Day was Tuesday, a day when SNOOTs all over the planet are encouraged to celebrate by finding and circling punctuation errors in their local papers, publicly shaming trolls, and basically judging those who are too busy…I dunno…doing stuff like this, to know that a semicolon separates two independent clauses. It wasn’t all sunshine and exclamation points, though. (That’s my only pun in this post – get over it.) An article I read in Time reminded us that the days of the apostrophe are nigh.

I like to think of myself as a soft prescriptivist. “Will you give Steven and I a ride to the airport?” No, absolutely not. “Will you watch the dog for a half hour? I’m gonna go lay out.” Ugh…yeah, fine, as long as you’re sunbathing, and not lying down for any other reason…stupid idiosyncratic constructs. I mean, language changes; thou canst deny that. But when I hear plans to flick the apostrophe into the abyss, it honestly scares me. So why am I scared about its potential demise? One reason lies in the preceding sentence.

Read more »

A Note on Translations

Woe to the bookstore and editions going out of print. I spent the afternoon photocopying after learning that it was impossible to place a clear translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais in the hands of my students this fall. One of the problems with the more attainable translations is that, with a scholar’s eye for authenticity and exactitude, they have made the 15th century French text sound old and muddled—for example, compare this quote’s translations:

Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty and Peter Antony Motteux’s translation:

For against the opinion of most philosophers, that of nothing ariseth nothing, yet, without having bottomed on so much as that which is called the First Matter, did I out of nothing become such (a) maker and creator, that I have created—what?—a gay number of fair and jolly creditors. [...] Furthermore, there shall not one hereafter, native of the country of Salmigondy, but he shall level the shot towards my nose. All the back-cracking fellows of the world, in discharging of their postern petarades, use commonly to say, Voila pour les quittes, that is, For the quit. My life will be of very short continuance, I do foresee it. I recommend to you the making of my epitaph; for I perceive I will die confected in the very stench of farts.

versus poet-translator Burton Raffel’s more modern take:

According to all the philosophers, nothing can be created out of nothing, I had nothing, not even the beginnings of anything, but something originated with me, I was the creator of something: debt. [...] And consider, too, that every fart blowing into the air, anywhere here in Salmagundi, will be aimed directly at my nose, since all the farters in the world always say, “Now we’re even!” It’s going to shorten my life, I can see it very well. I’ll let you write my epitaph: I’m going to die pickled in farts.

Why would anyone want to read an obfuscated fart joke? Read more »

Every. Day. Poetry.

“If there is no room in poetry for difficulty, where is difficulty to go?”

As Richard Blanco moved to the podium to read his inaugural poem “One Today,” I felt tremors of excitement, and fear for the significance of the moment. Any poet will tell you that poetry is not dead, but that it is often forgotten, except on this one day when the whole world watches a poet read a poem written specifically to honor the induction of a new President of the United States. The pressure on the poet to most people is obvious, but to most poets the pressure is almost unimaginable, so I sat on my bed with hope in my breast.

I was disappointed. Immediately, there was a self-reference of the poet & the poem. For those who don’t know what I mean, I will directly quote the line. Read more »

The Computer Overlord and the Signifying Monkey

Watson, the “question answering machine” from “Jeopardy!” can’t engage in smalltalk, but can get a little testy. After reading (memorizing? uploading?) the entire contents of the Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia, Watson proved incapable of gauging its audience. The supercomputer “even used the word ‘bullshit’ in an answer to a researcher’s query.”

“Ultimately, Brown’s 35-person team developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and scraped the Urban Dictionary from its memory.” -from the Jan 2013 issue of Fortune

It’s only a matter of time before Watson and SIRI team up to create the ultimate set of Your Momma jokes. Somebody warn Ken Jennings.

American Dialect Society

It’s that most excellent time of the year again, when the American Dialect Society gathers to look at what we’ve been saying for last year and vote for the best words and phrases.

Here’s what those linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students, and independent scholars decided upon for this year (winners are marked with an asterisk):

WORD OF THE YEAR

YOLO: acronym for “You Only Live Once,” often used sarcastically or self-deprecatingly
fiscal cliff: threat of spending cuts and tax increases looming over end-of-year budget negotiations
*#hashtag: a word or phrase preceded by a hash symbol (#), used on Twitter to mark a topic or make a commentary
Gangnam style: the trendy style of Seoul’s Gangnam district, as used in the Korean pop song of the same name
marriage equality: legal recognition of same-sex marriage
47 percent: portion of the population that does not pay federal income tax

MOST USEFUL

YOLO: acronym for “You Only Live Once,” often used sarcastically or self-deprecatingly
* -(po)calypse, -(ma)geddon: hyperbolic combining forms for various catastrophes
hate-watching: continuing to follow a television show despite having an aversion to it
beardruff: dandruff from one’s beard

MOST CREATIVE Read more »

Searching for Grace

I have never fully understood the idea of grace, in the religious sense. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has three slightly different definitions for the religious term alone. I was raised Episcopalian and I don’t remember the concept of grace ever being talked about much in my church, but then again, it wasn’t really your standard church. For several years, it operated out of a rented room behind the Dunkin Donuts in town and was led by a lesbian priest, years before that was officially accepted.

I know that the idea of grace is somewhat disputed among different branches of the Christian church, and that it seems to be something people can be given, not something they can achieve, though it still seems to be an envied and desirable state. Indeed, one of my professors said in class last year, “Grace is inherently passive.” For some reason, this statement has stuck with me. I have my own ideas and associations that come up when I hear the term, but I still don’t really understand the full scope of its meaning.

I’m no longer a practicing church-goer, and haven’t been for years, so when one of my friends, who often reads early drafts of my poems, told me that he saw most of my poems as seeking a kind of grace, I was taken aback. I didn’t even know what that meant. I still don’t know what that means. Poems that deal directly with religious belief, on the whole, make me uncomfortable. Or I should say, those that praise or otherwise profess their beliefs make me uncomfortable. I can appreciate the poem, but can’t always embrace it completely. (In other words, I love the complex language of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s  “Pied Beauty,” but I can’t feel a connection with it on a deeper, more emotional level.)

But this is, perhaps, a failing on my part; I reject the kind of belief they ask of me. Read more »

A Response to Our Neighbors Who Fly the Confederate Flag

When we first moved into our house, one of the first things we noticed was that our neighbors proudly displayed a rather large Confederate flag in their garage.
As my wife and I both grew up in this area of rural Minnesota, we’d seen Confederate paraphernalia before, but that was primarily from yokel high-schoolers, kids who would skip class to go hunting or come to school via snowmobile. And while I detest the Confederate flag, you know what—that’s forgivable. Sophomores in high school rarely (never?) consider the implications of their actions.*

But my neighbors are adults—and if you’re an adult and fly the Confederate flag, that means something else entirely. This is especially true in the North. Minnesota was a Union state. It was the first state to respond to Lincoln’s call for volunteers in 1861. The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry played an especially important role in helping the Union win the Battle of Gettysburg, which helped win the war. So, if you’re flying a Confederate flag in Minnesota, you’re literally flying the flag of an enemy nation.**

Oddly enough, my neighbor’s Confederate flag is flanked immediately by a large American flag. It’s like dueling banjos. Even though we’ve lived here for three years, despite my misgivings, I haven’t reacted publicly to my neighbor’s flag.

Then, this week, as I was heading to work, I noticed that a Confederate flag was displayed in a different neighbor’s garage. Read more »

Word Choice

My parents always told me that I could be a lawyer.  I hated it when they said that.  I wanted to be a dancer, or a singer, or write books, but never a lawyer.  I didn’t want to go to law school, I didn’t want to take the LSAT, and I knew I didn’t have the ability to be as well-versed while thinking on my feet.  No, I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer.  I had explained this to my parents several times over the course of eighteen years.  I insisted on it.  They said it anyway.  I fumed.

They wondered why.

Pride is certainly my greatest character flaw.  I love being precise, and when I find that the meaning of my words has been misconstrued to mean something I did not intend, I grow frustrated and panicked.  I wonder if I’ve hurt someone, I fret that people won’t like me anymore, and all because my words weren’t precise.  The language that I grew up loving so much, that I used to tell stories and write plays and work out my ideas about life, was unreliable and imperfect.  Instead of giving up on it and accepting the flaws of trying to communicate something through a living language, however, I hacked at it again and tried different words. Read more »

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