Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the title character learns that Julius Caesar, far from giving speeches about glory and sacrifice to his troops before battle, joked with them instead – and, at least once, gestured suggestively with a turnip. Wisely, Claudius ignores his written speech about honour for an impromptu one.

This episode made me realize a basic fact about war literature: If a piece talks about heroism and fallen comrades, it was probably written by a non-combatant, or by a veteran long after the fact. From this fact alone, you can usually judge how authentic a piece of war literature really is. Graves himself, as a veteran of World War I and a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, was in a position to know this fact, and I believe he was the first to record the observation.

This observation explains, for example, why Rudyard Kipling is so often admired by those who have soldiered. Possibly, Kipling doesn’t get the tone of his poems and stories quite right, partly because he was a civilian, and partly because, in describing soldiers’ lives to the audience at home, he often lectured. However, he is close enough that soldiers from any war recognize the type of life he describes, with its inside references, jokes about officers, and low level griping.

I was reminded of this touchstone when I woke a few days ago with a song I had heard over a decade ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival. It was a song about the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and its defense of Jarama, set to the tune of “The Red River Valley.”

The first two verses of the original are:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That’s a place that we all know so well,
for ’tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we’re leaving
But don’t hasten to bid us adieu
For e’en though we make our departure
We’ll be back in an hour or two.

By contrast, this is the version of the song heard a few years later at a reunion of British survivors:

There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
It is there that we gave of our manhood,
And so many of our brave comrades fell.

We are proud of the British Battalion
And the stand for Madrid that they made,
For they fought like true sons of the soil.
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.

Only a few years separate the two versions, but the falseness has already crept in – no doubt because those who sang the second version are not only survivors, but survivors of a cause that was utterly defeated. The original’s reference to manhood has changed from a complaint to a reference to self-sacrifice, and all sense of humor thoroughly scrubbed from the song. Now, the soldiers are not simply learning one of the truisms of war – that it includes long stretches of boredom and futility – but have become “true sons of the soil” (whatever that might mean when applied to foreigners fighting in Spain).

Similarly, the original ends with, “So remember the Jarama Valley / And the old men who wait patiently,” while the later version ends with, “So before we continue this reunion / Let us stand to our glorious dead.” The difference in the description of the soldiers or the tone can hardly be greater.

Apparently, this is a fundamental difference that is almost impossible to overcome. Woodie Guthrie, who sang his own version of the song, does better than the reunion version, writing that “we saw a peaceful valley turn to hell,” but even a songwriter of his talent cannot resist promising to return in victory, when the valley’s inhabitants will “breathe in our new freedom’s air.”

I understand the reasons why nostalgia might transform the experience. If nothing else, the songwriters and singers are eager to find some compensation in their defeat, and all of them were idealistic men.

Yet, even so, I far prefer the genuine sentiments of the original. Maybe I am deceiving myself, but the cynical humor of the original seems to tell me far more about war is actually like for those who live through it.


Read Full Post »

The German general Helmuth von Moltke noted that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The writer’s equivalent of that adage would be, “no outline survives contact with the keyboard.” Still, that doesn’t mean that outlining is useless – just that it is very different task than most people get taught in high school. I taught composition for eleven years as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University and community colleges. Since then, I have written close to 1700 articles, as well as numerous blogs, stories, and essays. From this experience, I feel confident in saying that almost everything the average novice thinks they know about outlining is wrong. For instance:

  • There is no point in insisting on using a formal outline, the way that most high school teachers and many text books insist. The fact that, when asked for one, most students construct a formal outline after the fact is enough to prove that, for most people, formal outlines don’t work.
  • No single type of outlining works for everyone. Instead, you should try mindmapping, mental planning, or any other form of outlining you can think of until you fgreatind the ones that work best for you. All that counts is what works – an idea so radical that after I expressed it, I sometimes heard students draw deep breaths as though I had said something shocking. Apparently in their experience, writing techniques were not about benefiting them, but satisfying a teacher’s insistent demands
  • .

  • The purposes of outlining are to prepare you to write, and to get you away from trying to outline, write, and edit at the same time. If you have ever plunged unprepared into writing, getting a few lines, then crossing them out, writing a little more, and crossing out a little more, over and over until your main emotion is frustration, you can appreciate what I mean that trying to do all these mental tasks at the same time mean that you are probably doing them all poorly. By dividing them out, you can probably be more efficient at all of them, and take less time to complete what you are writing.
  • No firm rules exist, but, based on my experience and that of other writers, the physical act of writing should occupy less than a quarter of your time. About half your time should go into researching and outlining, and the remaining quarter into editing. These are only approximations, of course, and will vary widely between people, but many novices spend as much as three-quarters of their time trying to write (but really combining all three functions)
  • Spending too much time outlining is often counter-productive. Although some people thrive on formal outlines, others go into so much detail that, by the time they go to write, they have lost all interest in the topic. Instead of preparing them to write, outlining saps the energy that should go into writing
  • .

  • Outlining is over (at least until the next draft) when you have a clear idea of how the piece you were writing was organized. This definition has at least three advantages: it keeps you fresh, gives you confidence, and helps you to think more clearly about your subject.
  • Outlining is a starting point, not necessarily a final structure. Something about writing — especially with a pen, but also with a keyboard – stimulates the human mind. Perhaps this stimulation is a matter of focus, but I have never heard it adequately explained. Personally, it is the nearest I have come to a supernatural experience, and all I really know is that it works. But for whatever reason writing stimulates other ideas, and what seemed like a thorough outline shortly after completion is likely to seem incomplete or even misleading as you write. Instead of clinging to the outline, accept this stimulation – after all, it’s a sign that writing is going well. You may choose to scribble down the ideas that come when you are writing and deal with them later, or try to incorporate them as you work, but the one thing you should never do is ignore the ideas that coming to writing. If you do, you are probably throwing away your best ideas.
  • After each draft, spend some time outlining, evaluating your original structure as well as the ideas that came to you as you writing. Look especially at the order and importance of your ideas. What seemed to work while you were originally outlining may not have worked as well as you expected when you came to write.
  • Outlining after a draft is as much about throwing out ideas as adding them. Just because you spent time expressing an idea does not mean that you should keep it. In fact, many writers believe that an idea or its expression pleases you too much, it should be deleted automatically. I wouldn’t make that an inevitable practice, but it’s worth considering, if only to improve your thoughts by challenging them.

Your methods of outlining may change as you gain more understanding of yours work habits, and as you increase your experience of writing. For instance, years ago, I needed to outline in some detail to write three thousand words. Now, I do most of my planning in my head, and only need to jot down a few key words unless I am writing at much longer length. However, I am not trying to suggest that novices imitate me. That is one thing that many people who give advice about writing fail to notice – often, what they are saying is how they do things, not anything with any claim to applying to everyone. The point is, you can make outlining work for you, if only you disregard many of the certainties you were taught and discover what works for you.

Read Full Post »

Mathew 7:29 states that Jesus of Nazareth “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The description has stayed with me despite my agnosticism, and I take it to mean that he had original thoughts and was not just copying what others had said. Over the years, I’ve taken to using the description for gifted poets, so, after reading Cathoel Jorss’ comb the sky with satellites it’s still a wilderness, I want to say at the outset that she has authority and does not sound the least like a scribe.

The title of her book is a typical example of what I mean. If you stop and think, the statement in the title is not particularly profound – something like “despite everything, the wild still exists.” However, what would be an ordinary thought sounds fresh when expressed in her words, making you notice what you might otherwise ignore.. The same is true of an almost throwaway statement like “silence is snorkelling in God’s own pond,” which also has a flippancy that calls renewed attention to it, as does Jorss’ description of what is evidently a trip to England as “Nasty, British, and short.”

A major part of Jorss’ expression is an aptness for metaphor. In one poem, she describes the sea simply as “the largest wilderness.” Another poem that compares men and women includes the comment that men “improvise, like actors / making up their lines.” Still another describes removing cobwebs from her face as “you may kiss the bride / over and over again,” and talks about “my favorite mole, a blarney stone for silence.” Some of these metaphors may be obscure at first glance, but their originality encourages you to slow down and consider them – and, with one or two exceptions, in context they are not hard to figure out.

Jorss’ tone has a formality about it most of the time, so much so that at times you might wish for a change of pace. However, when Jorss provides one, it can be arresting. Sometimes, it is just the use of “fuck” or “pee” that brings you up short, a sudden reference to Star Trek or a brief descent into the simplest of word choices. At other times, it is unexpected humor or flippancy, or a Sylvia Plath-like bluntness, or all three at once, as when she comments, “I was born old and it’s only gotten worse.” In some of her most arresting poems, she veers back and forth between these extremes so rapidly that the shifts can dizzy you:

so if I choose to believe in love
as a verb (in which a noun can dwell)
I am the last remaining member
of an ancient guild eroded
as polar shelves peel back to reveal the shanks of bone

for I have looked into the darkness so long
it seems to be streaming with light
I whistle while I work and never examine the other side
of the glass, for love is extinct, they say
it is being rebred in captivity

Jorss is not afraid to take chances with language, and if you start by half-expecting her to fall flat on her face, she never takes a serious stumble, and succeeds so frequently that much of the pleasure of her collection is seeing her carry off her audacity.

All these comments are not to say that comb the skies…. is flawless. In a few places, Jorss focuses on language so intensely that her narrative structure is weakened. Personally, too, I would like to see how her generally formal tone fares in structured traditional verse. But free verse relies on diction, tone, and metaphor, and these are all elements of writing in which Jorss shows originality and skill,

I have only read this collection twice, so at this point, all I can say is that Jorss’ work lingers with me. However, I have the strong suspicion that in time it will also pass the ultimate test of standing up to many more readings over the year.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, Steve Bougerolle tagged me for the meme of listing “ten books that stayed with you in some way.”

Considering I’ve been on a diet of three to ten books per week (depending on their density) since I was eight or nine, confining myself to ten is a bit of a challenge. Nor did I simply want to name without commenting, or to bother other people with the meme, which is why I am blogging rather than just answering on Facebook.

Still, here is my list, in no particular order:

  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: I’m one of those who think that Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. The story of several couples in a small industrial town, the novel has a psychological depth that is unequaled even today. I’ve read it three times, and can easily imagine me reading several more times, each time finding something new to admire.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: I started reading the first book of the trilogy one Saturday in the summer between Grades Four and Five. I spent a very long Sunday evening waiting for Monday so I could get the last two volumes from the store. The experience was overwhelming, and gave me a life-long taste for fantasy and science fiction.
  • Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Although I have been an agnostic since my mid-teens, I always assumed that a historical Jesus existed. But when I read this plausible case for the non-existence of Jesus, I was shocked for one of the few times in my life. I felt cheated that so much history and art had been founded on nothing. The book itself is obsessive to the point of unhealthiness, but worth wading through for its ideas.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign: I read this fragment of the Vorkosigan Saga for the first time a few months ago. Two weeks later, I read it again – something I almost never do. A mixture of space opera, Shakespearean comedy, and Regency romance, A Civil Campaign is one of the funniest books I have ever read, with a cast of characters that you can laugh at while still identifying with.
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays: This collection features not only the calm clarity of Orwell’s writing, but also the best record of what it was like to be an English intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time I finished it for the first time, it had had a permanent effect – for the better, I believe – on my prose style by making me much more aware of what my goals in writing were.
  • Wilkie Collins, No Name: A young woman is declared illegitimate, and seeks revenge and justice in Victorian England. Of course she has to repent at the end, but watching her get to that point is so much fun it hardly matters. This is one of the lost classics of Victorian literature, and deserves to be better known.
  • Susan Faludi, Stiffed:, The Betrayal of the American Man: I had read Backlash and admired it, but Stiffed, which was relatively ignored, is even more monumental. Feminists often say that men suffer under patriarchy as well, but, so far as I know, Faludi is the only feminist who set out to examine and prove this contention. It’s a book that every feminist should read, and every anti-feminist as well, and establishes what Backlash first suggested: Faludi is one of the great modern American journalists.
  • Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, The Pragmatics of Human Communication: This classic textbook applies system theory to psychology. For me, it was a gateway to the works of Gregory Bateson, Jacques LaCan, and Anthony Wilden, and, as such, a lifelong influence on my habits of thought.
  • Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works (in English): I worked steadily through these thick volumes as I was writing my thesis. Jung is not an easy read, but he gave me the intellectual framework for studying fantasy and proved to me the importance of symbols in people’s thinking. If I seem eccentric, one reason is that I am more of a Jungian while most people are Freudians or anti-Freudians.
  • Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book: As a boy, I loved the deliberately archaic language and the poems between the stories, as well as their genuine pathos. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in Cubs as long as I did, except I loved the fact that the rituals were based on Kipling’s poetry.

Give me another five list items, and I would include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which started me reading anarchists, and the collected works of Shelley, which taught me most of what I know about poetry and kept me sane during my warehouse job between high school and university. But give me another five, and I would undoubtedly want space for another five, and five more after that. For me, books are not just ways to kill time, but some of the main building blocks of my psychology (most of the rest being music and people). So when I’m asked to list influential books, in an indirect way, I’m really telling my own story, which to me seems endless.

Read Full Post »

Will Self recently published an article in which he proclaimed George Orwell a “literary mediocrity” and his admirers even more so. In particular, he condemns Orwell’s rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language” as a reaction to the inevitable growth and change of language. My first reaction to these statements is that nobody has a right to condemn an influential writer as mediocre unless they can demonstrate at least equal skill, which, both analytically and structurally, Self has not done. My second is that his interpretation is so unsupported that it seems a willful misunderstanding.

If you have any interest in writing at all, you have probably seen Orwell’s rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Contrary to Self, these rules are concerned with clarity, so to claim that they are even implicitly about the evolution of language is forced. Besides, when “Politics and the English Language” ends with the claim that its topic “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,” Orwell cannot possibly be said to be resisting linguistic change. In fact, far from being against change, Orwell’s rules overall advocate originality, and an avoidance of over-used expressions.

Moreover, as I used to explain every semester when teaching university composition, the rules are far more flexible than a general impression of them suggests. For example, most people reading the first rule emphasize “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” However, Orwell’s real concern is expressed in the words that most people forget: “which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell is not trying to ban figures of speech, but to encourage original, expressive ones.

Similarly, Orwell’s second rule does not blindly favor short words or longer ones. The result of following such a rule would be an affected simplicity of the kind that you sometimes see in Hemingway. If you mean to convey only a general sense of size, then “big” might do, but if you want to suggest something truly outsized, then “humongous” would be a more appropriate word choice, even though it is three times as long.
In the same way, “Never use the passive where you can use the active” proposes a general rule, but makes the choice a matter of purpose. If you want to suggest helplessness in a short story, “A groan issued from his lips” would be a better choice than “he groaned,” and never mind that it is in the passive voice. Nor, to judge from Orwell’s own writing, would he hesitate to use “a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word” if no “everyday English equivalent” comes to mind.

However, of all Orwell’s six rules, the last one is the most important. “Politics and the English Language” is all about original, forceful, and clear expression. With these concerns, presumably the last thing Orwell wanted to do was limit expression artificially, so in the last rules, he specifically provides for exceptions. He is talking about general tendencies, but in the end what counts for him is whatever works, not keeping the rules. “One could keep all of them and still write bad English,” he admits in the paragraph after them, and their sole virtue is that even a bad example of them would avoid the over-inflated type of English he condemns.

Of course, like all writers, when Orwell advises about writing, he is on some level rationalizing his own style, and his advice may not be as meaningful to some readers as to others. However, before Self or anyone dismisses his work as mediocre or out of date, they should at least do him the courtesy of responding to what he actually said, instead of debunking what they imagine he says.

Read Full Post »

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write. I took what I thought was a sensible detour and concentrated on teaching for a while, but every career change brought me closer to what I really wanted to do. Today, I make my living writing non-fiction, and I have managed to publish a few poems and stories – although admittedly fewer than I would prefer. However, one thing I have never done is join a writer’s group online or in-person.

I could do so easily enough, if I cared to. A whole industry exists to tell wannabe writers how to write, and many wannabes seem to enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. With a single phone call or email, I could probably wrangle at least an invitation to some sort of writer’s group.

Yet somehow, I never have. Although I have no trouble writing in a crowded coffee shop, for me writing is a solitary activity. By contrast, joining a group is a social activity, and the connection between writing and a writers’ group has never been clear to me. I’m not about to tell somebody else that they shouldn’t join a writers’ group, but the idea simply doesn’t attract me.

I know that I could get plenty of feedback if I did join a group. However, just because someone is a wannabe doesn’t mean that their criticism is worth hearing. The number of people who are useful as first readers is small in any group, and from occasional interactions with wannabes, I see no reason to think they would be an exception.

If anything, I suspect that assorted insecurities would make most members of a writer’s group somewhat worse first readers than the random assortment of friends and relatives I occasionally go to for an opinion now. More often than not, what I would hear is not how to improve a passage, but how the wannabe would write it, and why their suggestion was better than my implementation. If I did find some members of a writers’ group whose opinion was useful to me, I would still have to sit patiently through the criticisms from others that were no help.

More importantly, ever since I encountered a poet’s cafe when I was in high school, I’ve had the shrewd idea that writers’ groups are less about writing than the idea of being a writer. The groups do seem to produce more published writers than any random sampling, but they do appear to be places where people talk about writing more often than they produce a manuscript. Story ideas, hints about finding an agent, overcoming writer’s block, the latest software – the conversation continually circles writing, but only occasionally focuses on it.

Rightly or wrongly, I get the impression that wannabes are unconsciously hoping to find the shortcut that will turn them into writers overnight. Failing that, they want the support of like-minded people to reinforce their fantasy that they are moving closer to becoming writers. Yet at best, having writing ambitions is a hobby that justifies socializing and attending conferences.

This attitude clearly gives them pleasure, and I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong as such with living in the community of wannabe writers. Without any sarcasm, I’m sure that community can be very comforting at times. I just think that the fantasy is always threatening to become more important than having pages to send off for publication

For myself, I don’t have time for most of their activities. I don’t have time to talk about what I’m going to write, because I am too busy researching it, I can’t agonize over writers’ block, because I have deadlines. I suspect, too, that I will learn more about writing analyzing a novel that I admire and trying the techniques I observe that reading yet another article of tips.

Maybe other people have had different experiences of writers’ groups, and find them worthwhile. All I can say is that, for me, they seem too unconnected to writing to be a serious temptation.

Read Full Post »

Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.

The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.

However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:

A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.

A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.

An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.

An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.

Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.

Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.

Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.

In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.

But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »