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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Comically Innovative Punctuation

Many thanks to Heath Misley for alerting me of this list of much needed additions to our standard collection of punctuation marks. Mike Trapp, the author of the article, is in all likelihood a stunning genius and, in all certainty, my new hero.

Read the full article for maximum laughter. Some of my favorites:

8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 1

Only think what Edgar Allen Poe might have accomplished with such a tool at his disposal.

8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 1

I proudly plead guilty to being such a hater.

8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 1

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kaye Gibbons Excerpt

I'm reading again. Phew. I finished a book two days ago, am half way through the next one, and feeling really good. As far as I know, Kaye Gibbons isn't particularly well known, and she isn't what one would call one of the great American novelists, but I did go through a Gibbons phase in college where I tore through 4 or 5 of her novels, courtesy of Half-Priced Books in Irving. Of course, I was egotistically predisposed to like her, as her best known novel is Ellen Foster. A few others, which you may or may not have heard of: On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, Charms for the Easy Life, A Virtuous Woman, and The Life All Around Me. She writes in the Southern tradition, but isn't so subtle and difficult to decipher as some of the great Southern novelists sometimes are. She's readable and entertaining, despite the fact that she does handle some pretty dark stuff. Her Flannery-esque characters are easy to love and easy to hate, according to their (generally) clear virtues and vices. And she is good enough that both Eudora Welty and Walker Percy had good things to say about her. Walker Percy: "Ellen Foster is the real thing. Which is to say, a lovely, sometimes heart-wrenching novel."

These are the sort of books that would be good for reading out loud with one or two friends and some bourbon. I know I'm enjoying re-reading the story of Blinking Jack Stokes and Ruby Pitt Woodrow. She's a twenty year old run-away, once-genteel daughter of a farmer, now a widowed and disillusioned fragment, inescapably fated to die of lung cancer, all thanks to the heinous John Woodrow, a migrant scoundrel who deserved his graphic death. Jack is forty, the sort of man who is too simple ever to have done anything unkind or wrong, and is there to help her when she needs it. To entice you and motivate you to read it for yourself, I give you their first encounter:
That third day I went to work was the day I met Jack. I was waiting under the big tree in the backyard, waiting for somebody, either Tiny Fran or her mother, to come out and tell me to come on in, you didn't dare just go up and knock on the door, be it front door or back door, and I saw a skinny man with his dungarees all hung down around his hips, swerving, trying to manage a tall load of manure, headed across the yard towards me. . . . He pushed his wheelbarrow right up to me that day like approaching young women waiting under pecan trees was something he did every day, like it was something he regularly did on the way from the chicken house to the garden. I wasn't afraid at all by the way he looked at me, not like the way I felt when I'd stand up from picking and see the crew chief staring. Jack's look was more like what happens when I'm walking from here to the store and the sun catches something on the side of the road just right, and I wonder if it's a dime or a piece of jewelry, but then I know nobody out here has any jewelry to lose, so I pick the dime up, rub the dirt off, look at it hard, hard as I'd look if it'd been a brooch, just because I'd found it, and finding anything of value is unusual, be it a dime or a man with clay-red skin or a young woman resting under a pecan tree. (A Virtuous Woman, Vintage, 68-70)

Of course, if you haven't got time to commit to a whole novel, Charms for the Easy Life was made into what I remember being a pretty good movie, starring Gena Rowlands. Guys, it's a chick movie. Consider yourselves warned. Ellen Foster was also made into a movie, but I've never seen it, so I really couldn't tell you anything about it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Goodbye, Facebook and Netflix

Forgive me for a moment as I get a little spiritual on you. Ash Wednesday is tomorrow; Lent is looming large. The time for penance is approaching, and we've all got to figure out how little we can get by with and still make it count as penance. Whoops. No. That is the wrong attitude, in case you were wondering.

In addition to doing the extra things and the little things we all know we need to work on, we've got to choose the big things we're giving up. Two weeks ago, a voice niggling in the back of my mind, where I was eager to try to keep it, started saying: "Facebook, Netflix, Facebook, Netflix," and so on. Most unhappily, I've been confirmed in both convictions. I saw a post over on Life in the Gap that cemented the Netflix deprivation shortly to ensue; read it, and be convinced.

Then, last Wednesday, a book I picked up fell open to these words:
My Child, uncontrolled curiosity draws your attention away from your duties and brings needless distractions. It can waste a good deal of time and energy which you might use to greater good. It leads to pointless visiting and useless conversations. It fills the mind with so many empty distractions, which prevent you from freely receiving the holy thoughts and good desires which I send you throughout the day.
You would have great peace if you were less curious about things which do not concern you. One who is too interested in the sayings and doings of others, becomes forgetful of the glorious ideal which I present to him -- the ideal of pleasing Me in all things and thereby gaining eternal life.
Many things occur during the day which do not help you become a better person. What does it matter whether this one has a new garment or that one has failed in some personal project? Think of what concerns you, and of any good which you can do to others. Keep your heavenly goal before your mind, as far as your daily occupations will permit. Avoid idle words and useless activities.  (My Daily Bread, 167-168)
Definitely one of those "I am spelling it out for you in such a way you could not possibly misunderstand Me so don't even try" moments. And so, goodbye to Facebook. For now, anyway. Maybe, if my life seems much better without it, this is goodbye for good. But that's only a maybe.

I know a lot of you follow this blog through Facebook. If you'd like to keep up with it over the next 6 weeks, you can set it up so that each new post gets sent to your email (see the "Follow by email" white field at the top of the page).

But, in the meantime, a very happy Fat Tuesday to you all. I hope your day is full of drinks and alleluias and chocolate.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Improving Our Writing

One of my biggest beefs with the Harry Potter books (all of which I read faithfully, voraciously and repeatedly) was J.K. Rowling's fall back to capital letters and multiple exclamation points when she needed to demonstrate that Harry was going through yet another stage of angsty teenage torment. See book five in particular. This is symptomatic, I believe, of a big problem we're currently facing in our language, one that I point out because I notice myself operating in such a manner far too frequently.

Symbols such as smiley faces, frowny faces, worried faces, hearts, and excessive punctuation in the realm of exclamation points, questions marks, ellipses, quotation marks, dashes, and the masterfully constructed and oh so expressive $%*$!?!**#*&^*!? all point to one sad fact: we've forgotten how to express ourselves with eloquence and artful decorum. We fall back on the quick fixes. Yes, they do communicate our thoughts, and people do understand what we mean when we leave it like this.... But if we never take the trouble to say it, instead of trusting that it can be communicated without our saying it, we'll fall so far out of the habit of precision in diction that we'll forget how to be precise, how to choose our words carefully, how to communicate with style and grace. That has, of course, already happened to a large degree, as evidenced by the comparison of writings from a hundred or even fifty years ago to the writings of our present day and age. Don't get me wrong. Or, pardon, I beg you would not misapprehend my meaning. I read through the first book of The Hunger Games as quickly as the rest of you, and appreciated the sensation and suspense I suffered on behalf of the young heroine. But I also noticed a few misplaced commas and run-on sentences. Surely we can do better than that.

When I read back through things I've written, I get annoyed with myself for not having enough variation in style or word choice, making careless punctuation errors, and often taking the weak way out of the corner of sentences. Perhaps, one might say, a writer develops a certain style, works within it, and there's nothing wrong with having a distinctive style of writing. Indeed, that's what it means to say you have found your voice. Well, what if that voice you've arrived at is pedantic, trite, repetitive, inelegant, parroting and unimaginative? Then it's time to make some conscious changes and definite steps to improving your skill. There's nothing wrong with coming to terms with the fact that you need improvement, that your current voice is weak, or at least not all that it might be. This is what we call development. And the contentment of staying within an unrefined surrealist self-expression is what we call egotistical bosh.

Yes, language progresses. Language develops. Language moves with the defining philosophy of the times in order to allow people to converse in a medium necessary to their understanding of their world. But conscious decisions to shape a language can, I believe, positively affect the development of the mind to certain philosophies of being. If you nurture your mind on Netflix re-runs (I am proclaimedly guilty), you will soon forget how to enjoy the classics. We've got to exercise our language muscles, our thinking muscles (I think another name for that is the brain) if we want to have a prayer of making the world around us a lovelier, more rational, peaceful and gratifying place to be. Elegant turns of phrase are pleasing to the ear; the order inherent in them communicates a feeling of evenness, calm and order. One might argue, yes, but Ellen, you're one of those word people; not everybody wants to be an English major; not everyone cares about poetry and grammar. Naturally, I can't argue with that. I'm very glad that some of my classmates have gone on to be soldiers, policemen and doctors. But we're all word people. We all use language everyday. It surrounds us and brings us together in a way that nothing else does. So shouldn't we make a concerted effort to make it beautiful, ordered, pleasing to ourselves and those with whom we communicate? Surely this sensible care in our day to day commonplace exchanges with each other could only have a positive effect on our entire experience and thus our judgment and understanding of the world as a whole. If then, language moves with the defining philosophy of a given time, surely we should at least try to help direct that philosophy to something clean and well thought out by consciously exercising a language that will contribute to such an end.

I have, of late, been called progressive in my views of language (on account of arguing that there are times that it is licit to logically split an infinitive). Horrifying, I know; I have been called many things before, but never progressive. However, based on the admonishment of Andrew Osborn, I remember that one must be conversant with and in the language of their own time. Despite my call to return to carefully chosen words and fine language, I am certainly not advocating that we begin speaking in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter with the floridity of the Romantics, the eight syllable words of Dickens and Henry James, and the seemingly endless sentences of the 1700s. Clarity and pleasing form can both, however, be retained in minimalist writing. And this is what I am advocating we strive to keep alive.

Thus, I have decided over the last few weeks on a number of concrete steps I will take to achieve this in my own writing. They are:
  1. No more smiley faces or emoticons of any kind. The Egyptians wrote with pictures, but luckily for us we have an alphabet. Let's use it.
  2. No more exclamation points. There are adequate ways of expressing hyperbolic emotion without recourse to this overused punctuation mark. It's only a matter of getting over my laziness and taking some time to write things well.
  3. Avoid the word "rather." I like this word. The problem is, I like it much too much. I use it everywhere and all the time. No more.
  4. No more ellipses (except when they're legitimately used to indicate a break in a quotation). I've already said my piece on these, but to reiterate, in brief, they are lazy and unimaginative.
  5. Avoid Dashes. Why am I so hell-bent on avoiding these? This comes in response to the semi-colon being taken out of mainstream usage and replaced with the em dash. I strenuously object, and am therefore taking a stand on the soap box in the corner of my cubicle. That'll show 'em.
Of course, nothing improves your writing so well as reading good writing. We are formed and influenced by what we take into us, so make sure it's something good.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Musick, Brideshead, and Herbert

I recently joined a very demanding choir. What this means is that I have no time for reading. I'm not sure yet that the trade is worth it, but, as these new demands are not constant, I think it will be good. I am aching to read, and once our concert is well and truly done, hopefully I can switch back over for a much needed literary refueling.

Strawberries in Champagne (England)

I recently hit that point where the newness of my new life is no longer new; in consequence, the oldness of my old life has been soaking in a particularly and increasingly attractive gleam of nostalgia. I'm satisfying this need-to-be-where-I-have-been-before by watching an episode of Brideshead Revisited before I fall asleep each night. This, in turn, makes me wish I were back in school; the best parts of the wildness and joyful exuberance with which Sebastian and Charles lived out their Arcadian days at Oxford and at Brideshead remind me of the intense richness of late night poetry proclamations, warm conversations, hints of decadence, ebullient beauty, long hours of singing and the resultant deeply cemented friendships that were the heart and soul of my own time at college. One of my dearest professors charged my class as we were leaving: "Maintain an epic sense of the world as momentous, divinely-charged, inexhaustible, and maintain that glorious synthesis of high seriousness and irrepressible playfullness." I suppose this is what I feel myself somehow lacking now.

Daisies in Olympic Stadium (Greece)

And so I turned back to my dear friend George Herbert, whom I first encountered as the summit and depth of all my college efforts under the dread and delightful heading "Junior Poet Project." As such, his poetry has since become a familiar, comforting, warm and welcoming source of sympathy and peace. He was one of the metaphysical poets living in the 17th century, focused much on theological matters, and justly overshadowed by the contemporary and really much superior poet, his mother's friend John Donne. I opened to The Thanksgiving, about which I am sure there are many more fine things to be said than I am going to say now, but the comforts given to me in my one short read-through were two in number.

First, in lines 3-4: "Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee, / Who in all grief preventest me?" The idea in these words reminds me of some of the words in the Mass that never fail to astound me if I actually stop and think about them: "What return shall I make to the Lord for all He has given me? I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the Name of the Lord. Praising will I call upon the Lord and I shall be saved from my enemies." How can we adequately grieve for Him? How can we possibly repay Him for all that He has done for us? Why, nothing simpler! Continue letting Him do things. Continue taking what he offers. Continue drinking his blood (that's what's in the Chalice of Salvation). Wow. All we have to do is say yes and He'll do, is already doing, constantly and eternally does, all the heavy lifting, all the protecting us from our enemies. He is the only one who can give us the ability to thank Him -- the thanking him comes from him. He is thanked if we continue taking from him. Boundless, depthless, fathomless generosity and incomprehensible gift of self. "You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat."

Given the truly only ever so slight hint of resentment with which I find myself looking at my music binder (I love this music -- I really do), I found myself laughing a little ruefully at these next lines: "My musick shall finde thee, and ev'ry string / Shall have his attribute to sing; / That all together may accord in thee, / And prove one God, one harmonie" (39-42). Especially given the fact that I sing in choirs, each voice having his own attribute to sing, and that I have the alto line, the harmony line, and, to top it all off, it is always sacred music (much of which Herbert might well have had a chance to hear himself), this was one of the moments where the text was speaking right to me. It was, no doubt, written just for me.

So yes, my exposure to the written word has been sadly limited in these last weeks. But I've been lucky in what I've read. I hope you enjoy it as well.