Thursday, December 24, 2009

Strunk and White

For 50 years, writers and editors have relied on a pocket-size grammar
reference book entitled The Elements of Style, but commonly referred to
as "Strunk and White" for its authors, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

You probably recognize the name E.B. White as the author of Charlotte's
Webb, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. The Pulitzer Prize
winning author also wrote for The New Yorker for six decades.

The 1959 publication was actually White's edited and updated rewrite of Strunk's
1918 grammar guide. Strunk had been White's English professor at

The Elements of Style is the best-known and most widely used grammar
guide, having sold more than 10 million copies. But not everyone is
enamored of it.

In an essay for Chronicles of Higher Education in April, University of
Edinburgh English professor Geoffrey K. Pullum shreds Strunk and White.
Pullum's view: "(B)oth authors were grammatical incompetents."

Pullum writes: "The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem
in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges
from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence
has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has
significantly degraded it."

Pullum then picks the volume apart, particularly the authors'
misunderstanding of active and passive voices.

Pullum concludes: "Several generations of college students learned
their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and
the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely
anxious and insecure whenever they write 'however' or 'than me' or
'was' or 'which,' but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the
grip of The Elements of Style.

"So I won't be ... toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and
underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state
of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying
English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and
interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch
of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic
bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten

The entire article can be found at:

Although Pullum is on target, I still recommend that you keep a copy of
Strunk and White handy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? For two centuries, scholars on both sides of that argument have made passionate and reasoned arguments. Among those who doubted that the real Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the works attributed to him were Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin wrote: "In the work of greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare. Whoever wrote [Shakespeare] had an aristocratic attitude."

Others point to the shear volume of Shakespeare's works and conclude that no one man could have written it all. Others say the real author left clues of the clever ruse in the works themselves where only the most perceptive can spot them.

More recent skeptics have included Sir John Gielgud, Joe Sobran and Derek Jacobi, the who produced the "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt."

Whom do the skeptics say wrote the works? The leading candidates are Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford; Sir Francis Bacon; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Christopher Marlow, a prolific writer believed to have faked his own murder to escape execution for heresy. Some say Marlow wrote from exile and credited the works to Shakespeare with the bard's collusion. Dozens of others have been suspected of writing the works, including Queen Elizabeth and King James I.

The author and columnist Joe Sobran's 1997 book "Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time" posits that the real playwright was de Vere.

Because the prevailing view that Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare, there is no list of prominent celebrities who argue their case. But plenty of scholars have made convincing arguments. Here's a couple of readable arguments for:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sports talk

Post-game interviews are icing on the cake for those writers who also love sports. Watching coaches destroy the English language is as entertaining as watching Ndamukong Suh destroying quarterbacks. Coaches, many of them with master's degrees, mangle phrases as badly as running backs. And coaches have a particular talent for confusing verb tenses. But you expect more from sports writers, who make a living with the language.

Sometimes sportswriters project their own errors onto coaches in quotes. One writer I read frequently online quotes coaches using "that" for "who," as in "He's a player that shows real leadership" instead of "... who shows real leadership." Another writer leaves off the auxiliary verbs in perfect tense. Instead of "We've got to turn this season around," it is "We got to turn this season around." The writer wouldn't write "He got to get better" or "I got to get better" but can't seem to hear the last part of the contraction "we've" during interviews. It took hearing the coaches' own words for me to realize it was the writers who inserted the errors.

The inability to use verb tenses correctly afflicts plenty of national sportswriters. It has become fashionable for coaches and athletes to speak of past events in present and future tense. "If we score on that fourth down we win the game." Ah, but the game is over and you lost, so it's too late for that.

A CBS sportwriter, in a column about this year's five Heisman candidates arriving in New York for tomorrow's award ceremony, makes six errors in the first four paragraphs. Example: "If there isn't a second left on the clock last week in Arlington, Texas, the fallout carries all the way to New York for the 75th Heisman ceremony."

But there ISN'T a second left on the clock. It ran out — twice, actually, as those who saw the game know — six days ago. The sentence should read: "If there hadn't been a second left on the clock last week in Arlington, Texas, the fallout would have carried all the way to New York for the 75th Heisman ceremony." That turns 28 words into 30. Is that really such a problem?

By the way, I pick Colt McCoy for the Heisman. He's had a strong season to cap a stellar four-year career. Mark Ingram can wait until next year. Suh will have to be satisfied with being selected first in next year's NFL draft. Gerhart managed to take 21 credit hours at America's most selective university while racking up 1,736 yards against tough competition. He deserves it as much as anyone. Tebow doesn't have the stats this season to become only the second player to win the Heisman twice, but if they give an award for greatest all-around human being on the planet, he's a shoo-in.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chesterton on literature and education

G.K. Chesterton distinguished prose from poetry:
"The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say."

Chesterton dashed the snobbish notion that truly great art or literature cannot be also popular:
"By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."

Chesterton was a keen observer of society and a biting critic of public institutions. He said of public education: "The purpose of compulsory education is to deprive the common people of their common sense."
And these words from 1935 England fit 2009 America:
"Though the academic authorities are actually proud of conducting everything by means of examinations, they seldom indulge in what religious people used to describe as self-examination. The consequence is that the modern state has educated its citizens in a series of ephemeral fads."

Indeed, the unending succession of educational reforms demonstrates not only that every previous attempt to reform failed, but that every new generation must stumble upon this revelation anew.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Michener on writing

James Michener on writing:

"I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions."

That one might surprise readers of Michener's lengthy novels. He packed so much historical information in each novel that the reader might assume that he wasted no time trying to find the right word or worrying about the "swirl and swing."
He accomplished it in two steps. He explains:

“I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters.”

My son and I watched an old Waltons episode, "The Literary Man," about a middle-aged drifter in search of the great story he was meant to write. He convinced John-Boy, the aspiring writer, that the secret to becoming a successful writer was to leave everything behind and set out on a personal journey. In the end, of course, the drifter realized he was deceiving himself; success as a writer does not depend on embarking on great adventures (Twain, Hemingway) but writing honestly about what you know.

Or, as Michener said:
"The really great writers are people like Emily Bronte who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination."

The same was true of C.S. Lewis and Beatrix Potter and J.K. Rowling and countless successful writers who were also loners. The adventure might be more fun, but it is more likely to distract you from writing than inspire you to write.
Writing is work. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. But you must sit and do it.

“I am always interested in why young people become writers, and from talking with many I have concluded that most do not want to be writers working eight and ten hours a day and accomplishing little; they want to have been writers, garnering the rewards of having completed a best-seller. They aspire to the rewards of writing but not to the travail.”

Do you aspire to write — or to be a writer? If the former, you have a stronger chance.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Coaches' wisdom

Some coaches dispense wisdom.

"Coaching is not a natural way of life. Your victories and losses are too clear cut."
Tommy Prothro

"Make sure that team members know they are working with you, not for you."
John Wooden

"Every game is an opportunity to measure yourself against your own potential."
Bud Wilkinson

And some coaches, not so much.

"The road to easy street goes through the sewer."
John Madden

“The playbook that Kent has, we have. When they walk out the door, they can take everything else with them. When you have a copy of it, you have a copy of it."
Charlie Weis

“Hey, the offensive linemen are the biggest guys on the field, they're bigger than everybody else, and that's what makes them the biggest guys on the field.”
John Madden

The latter are more fun.

Friday, November 6, 2009

More poetry definitions

From reader Jack, more on poetry:

"Here is a quote for your son to ponder,
'Seldom seen on restroom wall
are words that do not rhyme at all.'

"or perhaps this, from 'The Journal of My Other Self' (R.M.Rilke)
'he was a poet and hated the approximate'"

Thanks, Jack.

And here's a scholarly, and most unpoetic, attempt to define poetry from
"Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define."

Snore. All you need are the last three words: "impossible to define."

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bad poetry

My son, a junior in high school, has developed strong but uninformed opinions about poetry. If a poem doesn't have rhythm and rhyme, he has decreed, it is not poetry. So his definition of poetry is minimalistic: "Words laid down with rhythm and rhyme."

Poetry is, admittedly, difficult to define. But Samuel Taylor Coleridge has provided the best definition of poetry I know of: "The best words in the best order."

Rhythm and rhyme at least demonstrate that the writer selected the words carefully. But that can be demonstrated in many ways. Some poetry can be appreciated only by a practiced ear.

If you as a writer take as much time selecting the right word or rearranging a phrase as other writers take to churn out 1,000 words, you just might be a poet.

My son is a critic, but the harshest critics of writers are other writers. Fortunately for readers, the criticism can be quite amusing.

Will Rogers:
"In Hollywood the woods are full of people that learned to write but evidently can't read. If they could read their stuff, they'd stop writing."

Yeah, and not just in Hollywood.

T.S. Eliot:
"Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers."

And the editors who have been there are the quickest to recognize writing that is just beyond fixing.

Flannery O'Conner:
"Everywhere I go, I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."

True enough, but if you don't stroke those young egos the university will lose paying customers. The professor's first job is not to teach but to keep the customers happy.

Dear writer, don't let those negative comments discourage you. Take the advice of Lillian Hellman: "If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves."

Especially if that advice comes from T.S. Eliot or Flannery O'Conner. But what if that advice comes from Lillian Hellman? Do you take her advice by ignoring it, or ignore her advice by taking it?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Randy Wayne White

My friend Jack pointed me to the Web site of crime fiction author Randy Wayne White, which contains some writing exercises that might push you toward writing the book you've been mulling. Exercise 1 begins:

"Write the dust jacket copy for the book you hope to write. Write as if your book has already been accepted, as if you've already received your advance payment, and as if what you write will appear on the book when it is published." The copy should emphasize "key why-you-must-read-this-book elements that will put you, the author, in better touch with your novel or work of non-fiction."

White recommends that you begin by reading, "over and over," the dust jacket copy of some favorite books. The copy "should establish key characters and plot elements." And it must be between 225 and 250 words — "no exceptions."

Web site,, contains plenty more exercises to get your creative juices flowing.

White quotes Elmore Leonard: "My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."

White has had 23 novels published since 1981, including seven under the pen name Randy Striker, and seven non-fiction books.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dickens in Kentucky

Ever wonder how your favorite author might describe the place where you live? The most famous English author of the 19th century, Charles Dickens, was known for his descriptions, so vivid that you can almost smell the coal fires and rotting food, almost hear the wheezing coughs and the clattering hoofprints on the cobblestones of London's streets. But how would he describe, say, Kentucky? Or Illinois?

In his "American Notes," Charles Dickens recounted his only visit to the United States in 1842. Part of the journey took him down the Ohio River aboard a riverboat from Cininnati to Louisville, then past present-day Paducah to Cairo and up the Mississippi to St. Louis. He describes a lengthy conversation with a Choctaw chief who was on his way home, presumably to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), after meeting with government officials in Washington. This was about 10 years after the Choctaw were forcibly relocated from the Southeast to Indian Territory along what became known as the Trail of Tears. The Choctaw were the first of the five civilized Native American tribes to be removed from its homeland. Dickens wrote:

"He spoke English perfectly well, though he had not begun to learn the language, he told me, until he was a young man grown. He had read many books; and Scott’s poetry appeared to have left a strong impression on his mind: especially the opening of The Lady of the Lake, and the great battle scene in Marmion, in which, no doubt from the congeniality of the subjects to his own pursuits and tastes, he had great interest and delight. He appeared to understand correctly all he had read; and whatever fiction had enlisted his sympathy in its belief, had done so keenly and earnestly. ...
"He was a remarkably handsome man; some years past forty, I should judge; with long black hair, an aquiline nose, broad cheek-bones, a sunburnt complexion, and a very bright, keen, dark, and piercing eye. There were but twenty thousand of the Choctaws left, he said, and their number was decreasing every day. A few of his brother chiefs had been obliged to become civilised, and to make themselves acquainted with what the whites knew, for it was their only chance of existence. But they were not many; and the rest were as they always had been. He dwelt on this: and said several times that unless they tried to assimilate themselves to their conquerors, they must be swept away before the strides of civilised society."

Dickens also desribed meeting "a certain Kentucky Giant whose name is Porter, and who is of the moderate height of seven feet eight inches, in his stockings. ... There never was a race of people who so completely gave the lie to history as these giants, or whom all the chroniclers have so cruelly libelled. Instead of roaring and ravaging about the world, constantly catering for their cannibal larders, and perpetually going to market in an unlawful manner, they are the meekest people in any man’s acquaintance: rather inclining to milk and vegetable diet, and bearing anything for a quiet life."

Dickens' account of the region around Paducah was not complimentary:

"Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number: their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet. No songs of birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and shadows from swift passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky, shone upon the same monotonous objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along, as wearily and slowly as the time itself."

Dickens was particuarly nasty in his description of Cairo, which I have quoted before:

"At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people’s ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo."

Had Dickens visited Cairo in the 1920s, he would have seen a thriving, bustling city of 25,000. But today, 167 years after Dickens' brief stop, his description is eerily accurate again. The city has lost two-thirds of its population, and it has the highest concentration of poverty in Illinois. Abandoned buildings — homes, downtown storefronts, churches — sit rotting away, overgrown with vegetation.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Buckley's big words

Readers often criticized the late William F. Buckley's vocabulary, complaining that one couldn't read his books, or even his columns, without a dictionary handy. Buckley found himself constantly defending his use of words unfamiliar to most readers. In fact, he eventually wrote a book on the subject. It was called, appropriately, "The Right Word."

He wrote: "I am often accused of an inordinate reliance on unusual words, and desire to defend myself against the insinuation that I write as I do simply to prove that I have returned recently from the bowels of a dictionary with a fish in my mouth."

Instead, he said, he looked for the word that best fit. He just happened to operate with a greater vocabulary than — well, just about everyone else in the English-speaking world.

In a 1996 interview, he found himself again defending his use of obscure words: "So, in defending the use of these words, I begin by asking the question: why were they invented? They must have been invented because there was, as the economist put it, 'a felt need' for them. That is to say, there came a moment at which a writer felt that the existing inventory didn’t quite do what he wanted it to do. These words were originally used because somebody with a sensitive ear felt the need for them. Do you therefore, because it’s very seldom that one hears an A-flat diminished tenth, say to yourself, I won’t use that chord, notwithstanding the pleasure it gives to people whose ears are educated enough to hear that little difference? People don’t say to a musician, please don’t use any unusual chords."

An accomplished musician, Buckley had a keen ear for the rhythm and tone of words placed together. He wrote in a style that, when read aloud, would be pleasing to the ear, or at least to his ear, which were the only ears he had to work with.

In National Review, the magazine he founded, he wrote: "In language, rhythm is an act of timing. 'Why did you use the "irenic" when you say it means "peaceful"?' a talk show host once asked indignantly. To which the answer given was: 'I desired the extra syllable.' In all circumstances? No, for God's sake."

In a New York Times interview, Buckley said a writer should be "sensitive to cadence, variety, marksmanship, accent, nuance and drama."

What do you do when you come upon a word, in Buckley's writing or elsewhere, that you don't know?

Buckley said, "That reader has the usual choices: he can ignore the word; (he can) attempt, from the context, to divine its meaning precisely or roughly; or he can look it up."

More comments from Buckley can be found at:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Brookhiser on writing

From Richard Brookhiser's blog, "Right Time, Right Place" on National Review Online:

Secrets of Writing, Revealed
One of the questions that came up in Claremont, Calif., on my Left Coast swing was, How does one become a (better) writer? I gave three practical exercises.

Writing. Practice does not make perfect, unless you are Keats, but it makes you better. Write and write and write, to deadline if possible (that compels you to write faster).

Reading. Read good writers. Steal shamelessly. In time, and with luck, the dross of imitation will fall away, and you will be left with your own alloy. (William F. Buckley Jr. was a model to all who wrote for him, though we couldn't — and shouldn't — have become junior WFBs ourselves).

Editing. (Don't you mean being edited? — Ed.) Having your flourishes struck away is a necessary experience. It is good to have to take one hundred words out of a piece because an ad got bigger; better to have to put the words back and add another hundred because the ad went away.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


How much do tragic personal circumstances contribute to artistic genius? Mark Twain certainly endured more than his share. Others, like Ernest Hemingway, created their own tragic circumstances.

Unlike Twain, whose life's work was filled with wit and humor despite the untimely deaths of most of his loved ones, Edgar Allan Poe's dark style and macabre stories reflected the tragedies of his own life. His parents, both actors, died when Edgar was a toddler, his mother at age 24, his father at 26. He was estranged from his foster father, and his foster mother died when he was 20. He was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but was dismissed after one year.
His older brother, with whom Edgar lived as a young adult, also died at 24 of tuberculosis. Edgar's wife, whom he married when she was 13, died at 25.
Although a prolific and commercially successful author, Poe was an alcoholic. He died at 40, possibly from alcohol poisoning.

The bicentennial of Poe's birth, Jan. 19, 1809, was this year. Next Wednesday, Oct. 7, marks the 160th anniversary of his death. Every year on his birthday, the mysterious Poe Toaster — clad in black with face obscured, with a hood or scarf, and carrying a silver-tipped cane — visits Poe's grave and leaves a partially full bottle of cognac and three red roses.

Trivia: The Baltimore Ravens are named for Poe's poem "The Raven."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wolfe and Tan

From an Entertainment Weekly interview, bestselling author Tom Wolfe on his problem meeting deadlines:

"It has been a character defect of mine from early on. When I was unable to do The Bonfire of the Vanities, I had the title and everything, but I didn't know where to start. And I was almost catatonic for eight months. I'd sit in front of the typewriter and nothing happened. I read somewhere that writers as they get older become more and more perfectionist. Which may be because they think more highly of themselves and they worry about their reputations. I think there's some truth to that."

Asked, "It seems like you must enjoy writing. Do you?"

Wolfe replied: "No, I really don't. Every now and then, there's something I know is going well, but I wouldn't call it fun exactly."

From an Academy of Achievement interview with Amy Tan:

"I also grew up, thankfully, with a love of language. That may have happened because I was bilingual at an early age. I stopped speaking Chinese when I was five, but I loved words. Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Writing blogs

Check out the following blogs:

ETO 22, The Dead Man in Yossarian's Tent
Old Tybee Ranger
Dot Common Sense

The first blog is my son's. A new blog, it offers humor pieces he has written based on his military experience, including his deployment to Iraq.

A sample:
“Sir, I was wondering what funding source you would like me to use in order to pay for all these projects,” he asked.
“The funding sources have all been cut off,” he quickly replied. “I told you, no money as a weapons system. You really need to take notes, LT.”
“Roger, sir, that’s why I was asking. If we have no way of paying these people, then I guess I’m not sure why we are starting these projects.” Lieutenant Ox was attempting to use reason, but Major Schmeis had long since built up an immunity to that nonsense.
“Because nonlethal is the main effort, LT. We do nonlethal, or people die. Is that what you want, LT? For people to die? People are dying every day, LT, and if we don’t do nonlethal, people are going to continue to die. You do love America, don’t you?” He asked.
“I do love America, sir.” LT Ox loved America so much that he volunteered to leave it for 15 months at a time to not do projects in Abu Dahbu. It was about a good a place as any to not do projects, when one thought about it. Why, just now, some of his friends were not doing projects in Afghanistan, others were not doing them in the Philippines, and he was sure that even now, there was some super-secret special forces in Iran or Pakistan right now, not doing projects in some small village, attempting to win the hearts and minds.

The second blog is my brother-in-law's. He's been at it for some time, writing daily on a host of topics from music to science to history to politics. He includes lots of links and visuals. He and my sister, along with another couple, are retracing Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery, and he is blogging daily on his observations.

A sample:
"Today was our first day in western Iowa and under a brilliant sun. We expected to see thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. We also knew the impact of bio fuel development caused farmers to increase their acreage in these crops over the last few years. How does one measure that increase? For those confined to the highways, it is the brilliant reflections of the sun off what must be thousands of new grain storage bins on farms both big and small. The new corrugated steel bins contrast sharply with their older, drab gray neighbors. With a bit of elevation and the correct sun angle, they glitter like gems set in a quilt of tan, green and yellow spreading to the horizon."

The third blogger is an Illinois reader who has decided, after a lifetime of thinking about it, to start writing.

A sample:
"It probably is now apparent that I know very little about Writing, having written nothing more original than Technical Reports for the past twenty five years or so, but I think I'm willing to learn, from experts in the field, those who earn their living on the keyboard, and with the agility of their mind.
"But therein lies the trick. I've said before that I have probably read Thousands of books in my life, so far, and usually add from two or three to six or seven, weekly, depending on the weather and my attention span. I do not regret for one moment reading anything, but I think one danger that I will have to learn to avoid, or at least manage, is letting any one writer influence me in my writing."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Art v. craft

On the art blog, Mary Rayme writes:
"Art is a work that transcends its humble materials to create an original statement or expression in a meaningful and enduring way. Crafts CAN transcend their humble materials as well to become art but it takes an experienced and determined crafter to do this. The elegant and humble quilts of Gee's Bend transcend their craft origins to become modern masterpieces of color and shape. Enjoy looking at these magnificent examples of great art being created out of great necessity."

My sculpture professor in college defined the distinction between art and craft in simpler terms:
"A craftsmen weeps over his mistakes. An artist celebrates them."

Art provides for more of a dialogue between the creator and the creation, where the artist responds to what the work says to him. Craft is a one-way conversation in which the crafter imposes his will on the work, beats it into submission, knows before he begins what the final product will look like and does not deviate.
A fine piece of craftsmanship can be beautiful but is is less likely to be original. Developing into a craftsman requires repetition of the same process time and again.
Art is riskier. Art follows a less-trodden path. It is at least as likely to fail as succeed. But it has greater potential.
The greatest work combines the practiced skill of the craftsman to an original work. The artist who can do that is the true master.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Correct the error in this AP brief:

Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham will miss the rest of the season after having surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee against Brigham Young.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Do you think it's too late to start writing? It's a good thing Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't think that way when, at her journalist daughter's urging, she started writing books at age 65. She wrote about her own adventures as a child in a series of nine children's novels, the Little House books, between 1932 and 1943. And then she lived to see them widely published before her death in 1957 at age 90.

Interestingly, Wilder got an unusually early start on another of her careers — teaching. She was hired to teach in a one-room school at age 15 and taught three years while continuing her own schooling. She quit teaching at age 18 when she married a young but already prosperous farmer, Almanzo Wilder, whose own childhood is featured in Wilder's "Farmer Boy."

Wilder's motivation was largely monetary. A series of misfortunes, culminating in the loss of the couple's investments in the stock market crash of 1929, had made them dependent on their daughter. But by the mid-1930s, both Wilder and her daughter Rose were successful authors, earning substantial income from book royalties.

Wilder's success was due to several factors, including Rose's editing of her manuscripts, but it was absolutely dependent on one of the most basic principles in writing — write what you know. Although she was well read and interested in many things, she did not try to go outside herself in her subject matter.

Friday, September 4, 2009

King on writing

Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft" is a guide for aspiring writers combined with a memoir on King's life and work.

Some excerpts:
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it."

King's maxim suggests that if you don't observe the first part, you'll never get it written, and if you never observe the second part, you'll never get it published. Be protective in the first stage, be open in the second.

It makes me nervous when people ask me to critique their work, not in fear that they won't listen but but in fear that they will. I don't want the responsibility for spoiling someone's art because of my own biases. I always qualify my comments by suggesting that they ask at least three people to look it over and then pay close attention to suggestions they hear from at least two, but to feel free to ignore comments they hear from only one.

More King:
"In truth, I've found that any day's routine interruptions and distractions don't much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters."

I think that reflects the discipline of a seasoned writer. Many artists require isolation (Thoreau), and so they create late at night or physically separated from the confines of their everyday lives in a studio or attic or barn loft.

"The scariest moment is always just before you start."

That's true of every art. Painters are frightened by empty canvases. Actors are frightened just before the curtain opens. Writers are frightened by blank pages (or blank screens with pestering cursors pulsing their impatience). The important thing is to start, even if you start badly.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton died Aug. 22. He was 83. Although not well-known outside his native Texas, he was immensely popular in the Lone Star state.

Kelton, who maintained parallel careers as a journalist and a novelist, was the author of 62 books. The most famous was "The Good Old Boys," which was made into a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. The Western Writers of America voted Kelton "Best Author of All Time." His novel "The Time It Never Rained," which literary critic Jon Tuska called "one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in the 20th century," is among my all-time favorite novels.

Kelton said he like to take a character, put him in a time of change and transition and see what he did.

Judy Alter, his long-time publisher at TCU Press and author of "Elmer Kelton and West Texas: A Literary Relationship," penned his obituary for the Dallas Morning News Sunday. She wrote: "Elmer's characters were complex, never Western stereotypes, but his authentic voice was the most distinctive aspect of his writing, along with the same wry humor that characterized him in conversation. He shied away from happy endings because, he said, life doesn't work out like that."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Twain on writing

Reader Dan spotted the error in the AP story (see comments under Sports Talk, Aug. 21).

Mark Twain

With Hal Holbrook's one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight," coming to the Carson Center in Paducah next month, I thought I'd whet your appetite with some of Twain's words on writing.

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."

"I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness."

"Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

"... use plain simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."

"As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out."

"I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules — knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings — and I still know one of them: the one which says — but never mind, it will come back to me presently."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sports talk

Spot the error in this sentence from an AP story on Usain Bolt's second world record at the world championships:

"For the second straight race — five, if his record-breaking runs at the Beijing Olympics are counted — Bolt's biggest competitor was the clock."

Speaking of sports, a coach in the region said last week that this was his "41th" year coaching. Not 41st. Forty oneth (if that's how you spell it). And that's a hint about the answer to the spot-the-error puzzle.

While we're on the subject of sports, I know a lot of people are tired of Brett Favre and wish he would go away. But I, for one, think it's great that he's back, again, because he provides the best quotes of any athlete since Yogi Berra.

Take this plum: "I consider myself more of a loner now, and I think when you get older, especially in this game, and just talking with other players who have come and gone, I see what they were saying when I was a young guy in the locker room."

And: "I know it's not a one-man team win or lose."

And: "I really believe this team has a lot of potential — whether it's this year or in years to come, I don't know."

If none of that inspired you, then this surely will: "I, most talented players don't always succeed. Some don't even make the team. It's more what's inside."

OK, he still doesn't beat Yogi, who warned, "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

And: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

I hope you know where you're going, aspiring writers, and I hope you get there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The late humor columnist Erma Bombeck described her writing process in an 1991 interview with the University of Dayton Quarterly:

"Discipline is what I do best. I can't imagine any writer saying to you, 'I just write when I feel like it.' That's a luxury, and that's stupid. The same for writer's block. If you're a professional writer, you write. You don't sit there and wait for sweet inspiration to tap you on the shoulder and say now's the time. We meet deadlines. I write for newspapers, and newspapers don't wait for anybody. You write whether you feel like it, you write whether you've got an idea, you write whether it's Pulitzer Prize material. You just do it. That's it. Discipline is what we're all about. If you don't have discipline, you're not a writer. This is a job for me. I come in every morning at 8 a.m. and I don't leave until 11:30 for lunch. I take a nap, and then I'm back at the typewriter by 1:30 and I write until 5. This happens five, six, seven days a week. I don't see how I can do any less."

Bombeck started writing at age 37 when she convinced the editor of a suburban weekly to pay her $3 a column. By the time she died, 32 years later, her columns were syndicated in 600 newspapers and her 10 books had sold 15 million copies.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The hard work of humor

The late, great southern columnist Lewis Grizzard said humor writing is hard work. "It's like being married to a nymphomaniac. The first two weeks are fun, after that it's work."

Humor writer Dave Barry said (in News Writing Interviews): "It's hard to think of an ending. The beginning is really hard, and the ending is always really hard, and the middle part is also very hard. It's just hard, hard, hard. Kids, don't go into this ...
"I am an obsessive rewriter. I don't even remember how I used to write without a computer because I have to change everything so often. But I write every sentence dozens of times, and that's literally true. ... If they ever had one of those programs that shows all the different versions of a document, mine would be in the thousands for almost every column I write. It's supposed to look the opposite of that. it's supposed to look like it just came out, and you were probably drinking when you did it — in five minutes. But for me it's hour after hour after hour of staring at the screen and just changing, changing, changing."

I am on a self-imposed hiatus from my humor column which appeared most Sundays in The Paducah Sun until earlier this year. The columns were getting a little flat as I found myself with less time to put into them. And a humor column that doesn't make readers laugh is a waste of valuable newsprint.

What P.J. O'Rourke and Dave Barry and Lewis Grizzard all say reflects my own experience. It IS a lot of work and surprisingly time consuming. I might start a column on Wednesday, tinker with it on Thursday, finish it on Friday, then come in on Saturday and finetune it — only to read it in print on Sunday and wish I could change another sentence or two. All that for a piece that is only 600 words long. I usually had it memorized by the time it went to press, and I can quote some columns almost verbatim, including some I wrote years ago, just because I stared at them so long on the screen.

That's not the process I use in editorial writing, which is more straightforward and predictable and routine. I can write two to three editorials in the time it takes to write one humor column.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

P.J. O'Rourke

WARNING: No one who is concerned about his social standing should read P.J. O'Rourke in a public setting.

The communist-turned-conservative humorist isn't the sort whose inappropriate comments force you to suppress a guilty snicker. Instead, they are SO inappropriate (and yet so spot on) that they make you guffaw in spite of yourself, blowing snot on those sitting nearest you, and prompting your wife to say, "If you're going to read that, go in the other room."

I mean, this is the guy whose book titles include "Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism" and "Give War a Chance."

O'Rourke's writing has the effortless quality that comes only with intense effort.

In a 2005 interview with Christopher Gray for the London Telegraph, he described his writing process:

"Writing is agony. I hate it."
"People think writing is easy, but just ask them to sit down and write a thank you note to their aunt or something and they turn purple. I like thinking about writing. I like having written. But actually sitting down and doing it ..."

O'Rourke typically writes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day. "I take the kids to school and then go straight into the office. ... Four typed pages a day is the quota. That's about 1,000 words. I never yet heard of a writer who doesn't work similar hours and have a quota requirement."

He says it doesn't get easier. "Sure, I can look at some of my old pieces and see lapses of taste or clumsiness of construction and think, 'wouldn't do it that way now,' but that doesn't mean the process has become plainer to me. The thing is, when you get right down to it, and it's painful to say this, but, well, few writers get better as they get older. In fact, it's hard to think of one ... On the other hand, maybe it's just laziness. I mean, I only read English in college because I already spoke the language."

Friday, August 7, 2009


Readers Read ( interviewed the late novelist Michael Crichton in 2002. Below are excerpts from that interview.

"I don't know why I do what I do. And I try not to analyze it too much."

(How long it takes to write a book, from initial idea to publication?):
"There is no way to say, it varies so much. The Great Train Robbery was three years. Sphere was 20 years. Jurassic was eight years. Disclosure was five years. Usually, an idea 'cooks' in my head for a very long time before I write it."

"I tend to write books that grab me by the throat and force me to write them. I don't usually feel as if I have a choice, or much control of what comes out. Often, I don't want to be writing a particular book, but there I am, writing it anyway."

"Writing a book, you get to have things exactly as you want them, but you are often struggling with yourself, which is a very hard thing to do. And you're alone a lot of the time, which is fine with me, except that eventually I start to be very silent in public settings and I find I've lost my ability to do small talk. I never had much ability at that, anyway. So in a way, writing is anti-social. But when the book is done, it's your book — good or bad, right or wrong, it's you own work. And that can produce a feeling of satisfaction."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Henry the great

Secrets of success from two great American authors:

"The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night."
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"In the long run
men hit only what they aim at.
though they should fail immediately,
they had better aim at something high."
—Henry David Thoreau

And the lesson, of course, is that if you want to succeed as a writer, your first name needs to be Henry.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Check out "John Grisham, 20 Years of Writing" on the blog "shaffer's notebook" (shaffer'

Blogger Todd Shaffer compiled Grisham's comments on writing from numerous interviews. Grisham describes how he got started, sneaking off for a half hour as often as possible to write "A Time to Kill" while carrying on a modest law practice and serving in the Mississippi Legislature.

Grisham is a great advocate of starting with outlines. Shaffer writes: "Grisham outlines his stories extensively. Sometimes these outlines take longer to write than the manuscript. And at any given time he may be working on several outlines for different stories."

The outline contains two-paragraph synopses for each chapter in the story. Although tedious, outlining cuts down tremendously on the editing later.

"The more time I spend on the outline, the easier it is to write the book," Grisham said in an interview with Borders. And in an interview with he said, "The outlining process is no fun, but it forces the writer to see the entire story."

Shaffer describes Grisham as a "self-taught writer, driven by instinct and by critical reading."

Grisham was the best-selling author of the 1990s, selling more than 60 million books. Pelican Brief was number one with 11 million copies. Grisham had four other novels in the top 10 (#2 The Client, #5 The Firm, #9 The Chamber, #10 The Runaway Jury).

The next most popular authors were Stephen King (38 million sold), Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

Grisham did not let up in his second decade as an author. He writes one book a year (he's at 22 and counting). At last count, 235 million Grisham books were in print worldwide, translated into 29 languages. Nine of his novels have been turned into films.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Truthful writing

"The trouble with bad student writing is the trouble with all bad writing. It is not serious, and it does not tell the truth."
—Eudora Welty

In his book "Telling Writing," Ken Macrorie gives an example of false, pretentious writing from a student essay: "The automobile is a mechanism fascinating to everyone in all its diverse manifestations and in every conceivable kind of situation or circumstance."

It's the kind of writing students turn in hoping the teacher will be impressed by their vocabularies. But it's neither true (EVERYONE is fascinated by automobiles?) nor interesting, even if the grammar and spelling are correct.

Compare that with this passage, written by a fourth grader in a class Macrorie taught (the assignment was to "write freely and truthfully"):
"When I watered the calves I spilted the water on my self becose the two calves made me spell it. And then I wen't to tell my mom. The calves barn steks. And when the like you whith they tung it tikls. And when they kike you it smarts. And when you feel then it fell's like bon's."
(In case you couldn't decipher the words: "The calves' barn stinks. And when they lick you with their tongue, it tickles. And when they kick you, it smarts. And when you feel them, it feels like bones."
Macrorie points out that the child instinctively used parallel construction for "clarity and punch." Despite the bad spelling, the passage conveys more information and is more readable than the wordy passage on automobiles.

I have noticed that college missions statements are, like the automobile passage, unreadable. The committees who meet to write these statements end up with meaningless collections of trendy words placed in arbitrary order.

This one is typical: "Through all of is programs, the college encourages students of varied backgrounds and abilities to realize their full intellectual and personal potential so they may gain understanding about themselves, others and the forces shaping our rapidly changing and pluralistic world." Huh?

As is this one: "(The) University will be respected nationally for outstanding academic programs, global sensitivity and engagement, and a stimulating intellectual community that prepares students for lifelong learning in a diverse and changing world." Snore.

This one might set a record for mind-numbing nonsense: "As an urban research university with strong disciplinary-based departments and a wide array of problem-oriented interdisciplinary programs, the goal of the university is to develop, transmit, and utilize knowledge in order to provide access to quality education for diverse groups of students ..."
Really, a "wide array of problem-oriented interdisciplinary programs"?

You would think that somewhere in the halls of those hallowed institutions they could find someone who can write an honest sentence. If I'm paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education, I really don't care about their global sensitivity. I just want to know they're going to teach me some things I don't already know.

The fourth grader might write: "The kollig shud teech me stuf." That would be an honest mission statement.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Construction v. Creation


My son asked, "Did you want any updog?"
"What's updog?" I responded.
"Nuttin' much. What's up, dog, wit' you?"

I told him that was an old joke. And besides, it was supposed to be "updoc."
He asked, "UpDOC? Nobody says updoc."
Bugs Bunny did, of course. But he didn't know that. Culture evolves, but not much.


Charles Dickens: "The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists."

Dickens may not have intended this as theology, but it is sound doctrine. The word of the Lord to Jeremiah (v. 1:5) "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." And David wrote in Psalm 139 (v. 15, 16): "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body." As created beings, we were loved before we came into being. We existed in the mind of the Creator.

And because we inherited the nature of God, the "spark of the divine" in one theological tradition, we have the ability not only to visualize our creation — art, music, writing, architecture — but to derive intense joy from the creative process and lasting joy from the finished product.

But our work is never seen complete before it is created. I have spoken with many artists and writers who say they don't know where the piece they are working on is going. Fiction writers sometimes find their own hearts racing as they strike the keys in eager anticipation of what will happen next. You might argue that since they dictate the events, nothing that happens can be a surprise. But in fact the writers often DON'T know. They create the characters, and while the characters generally behave in accordance with the traits the author has given them, that leaves plenty of room for suspense and surprise. And sometimes the characters behave in ways wholly unpredictable even to their creator.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Iconic monotony

Reader Frankie wrote:
"I know we have discussed this before, but if you have any influence at all, I beg of you to plead with your fellow media types to find another word besides 'iconic' to describe anything and everything under the sun. Just within the past couple of days: from Iran, we have Neda, who (appeared) as the iconic video martyr; today, it is Ed McMahon, described on (the) MSN home page as the “iconic” Tonight Show sidekick. Enough already. I know these fads usually fade away (parameters, paradigm shift) but this one seems to have no end.

To which I replied:
"It has become the iconic cliche. But it fits the parameters of newspaper style. You'll just have to wait for a paradigm shift."

To which Frankie responded:
"Gadzooks! How about you initiate the shift by ordering your reporters/editors to obviate the word from their lexicons?"

I couldn't resist:
"Instead I will suggest that they find more opportunities to use the word 'Gadzooks!'"

Ah, but Frankie is right. And he even wrote before the death and subsequent nonstop coverage of the other two "icons," Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

We in the press do tend to perpetuate word fads. They generally originate on the screen. Writing coach Paula LaRocque addressed the problem of cliches in a column entitled "Fadspeak: Gag me to the max fer sure."
She listed some of the "canned clutter" media writers should avoid:
Get real.
Get a life.
Get over it.
Go for it.
Suck it up.
Deal with it.
The mother of all ...
Your worst nightmare.
In your dreams.
The ... from Hell.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist (or brain surgeon).
What's wrong with this picture?
Same old same old.

If you're like me, you probably didn't get through the list without finding a few you've used, and that might make you feel a little embarrassed and self-conscious. What I recommend is that, instead of immobilizing yourself by trying to keep a list of all the words and phrases to avoid in your writing, just strive to keep your writing fresh. Go ahead and use the cliche once to get it out of your system (that's my one shot with "get it out of your system"). But don't let your writing grow stale with the habitual use of any word or phrase. If you know you've used it before, think of something else this time. And don't let it bog you down in the first writing; catch it in the rewrite.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hemingway's Five Tips

Ernest Hemingway offered five tips for authors (which might be more accurately called "five tips for authors who want to write like Ernest Hemingway"):

1. Use short sentences.
William Faulkner and Jame Fenimore Cooper don't make the cut.
From A Farewell to Arms: "That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had to learn."

2. Use short opening paragraphs.
From The Snows of Kilimanjaro: "'The marvelous thing is that it's painless,' he said."

3. Use vigorous English.
Show muscle, passion, pain, dirt.
From The Old Man and Sea: "The next shark that came was a single shovelnose. He came like a pig to the trough if a pig had a mouth so wide that you could put your head in it."

4. Be positive, not negative.
This is Hemingway, so the rule obviously has to do with style, not content.
Hemingway would not have written: "She was not entirely devoid of a certain comeliness." He would have written — and did — "She was still a good-looking woman, she had a pleasant body ... she was not pretty, but he liked her face."
Example from In Our Time: "When they evacuated they had all their baggage animals they couldn't take off with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs broken pushed over in the shallow water. It was a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business."
Note, incidentally, that Hemingway didn't care for apostrophes, reflective of his aggressive, impatient nature. Pauses projected weakness and would have undercut his raw prose.

5. Never have only four rules.
Hemingway here signals that the number of rules, even the rules themselves, are essentially arbitrary. Use or discard his as you see fit.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Further or farther

Further or farther?

A travel guide offers: "10 tips for trips: How to make money go farther"
A Los Angeles Times travel article is headlined: "Tips to make your budget go farther for less"
A Continental Airlines ad promises: "Make your money go farther."

An error or a play on words? I think it's a clever bit of marketing, even if many consumers don't pick up on it.

Your story

G.K. Chesterton wrote: "With every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand." True, but solving the mystery is a powerful motivator. A strong aid for authors in writing stories is recognizing their own stories.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Oscar Wilde: "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."

Discovering and becoming your true, inner self is fraught with risk. Society affirms conformity. Your place in the culture is determined by the uniform you wear and the language you speak. If it is original it doesn't fit any of the available boxes and people don't know how to interact with you. We have all been conditioned to categorize. And we learn to interact with categories, not individuals. It's safer to accept the limits of our own category than to venture out, to follow our heart.

I generally try to steer clear of politics and theology on this blog, but today's an exception. I have observed that the more individual believers become like Christ, the less they become like one another. That is, the more we discover the unique nature God has endowed us with, the more liberated we become from the constraints of society's boxes. Of course, becoming like Christ is distinct — and sometimes the polar opposite — of becoming more religious. We have all observed the choreography of popular religion, which is the antithesis of freedom in Christ. But I won't risk stepping on any toes by saying anything more about that.

I believe we create — paint, sculpt, build, sing, play, dance, design, write — as an expression of our nature, which is in the image of our Creator. That's true whether we acknowledge the Creator or not. Creativity is at the heart of God's nature. And we reflect His nature in our own creative expression. It is a central part of what separates us from the rest of creation.

It follows logically, then, that the more we find that unique inner voice, the more original will be our artisitc expression. But the more original the expression, the less likely the culture will be to affirm it.

Angela Monet: "Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music."

Still, an original piece — art, music, literature — that is truly honest touches the heart of the open listener or reader or observer. At a subconscious level, we distinguish the authentic from the pretentious. The audience that recognizes the authentic expression shares the joy of the creator in discovering himself, his "nature of God," in his work.

Recognize the danger. Then risk it anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Deadlines can be a curse ...

Bill Walsh: A harsh reality of newspaper editing is that the deadlines don't allow for the polish that you expect in books or even magazines.

... a blessing ...

Emile Zola: One forges one's style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.
Harry Shearer: I am one of those people who thrive on deadlines. Nothing brings on inspiration more readily than desperation.
Val Kilmer: Without deadlines and restrictions, I just tend to become preoccupied with other things.

... or restrictions to ignore.

Sarah McLachlan: Deadlines are meant to be broken. And I just keep breaking them.
Douglas Adams: I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Some writers are frozen, immobilized by deadlines. Others need deadlines to get their creative juices flowing. A pastor used to call me at midnight or later on a Saturday night to ask if I had any sermon ideas. I've never been a pastor — why was he asking me? I was more stressed over his sermons than he was. One time he STARTED on a wedding sermon two hours before the wedding, while intermittently entertaining guests of the wedding party in his house, a parsonage next to the church. He clearly thrived on deadlines.

I used to be quite a procrastinator, but as I get older I can't stomach the pressure. Now I generally write editorials a couple of days in advance. That gives me an extra day or two to polish them before publication. But, as a result, I'm sometimes criticized for overworking a piece and for writing long. The risk of reworking something too much is that the writing can lose the fluid quality of the first writing.

If you are motivated by deadlines but aren't yet getting published, impose deadlines on yourself. Write them down. Tell your spouse. That might provide the little bit of pressure you need to strike the keys.

Friday, June 12, 2009


The first book Dave Sargent ever read was his own.
Sargent, a prolific children's book author, went through school without ever learning to read. In the military he was diagnosed with inverted-mirrored vision, or severe dyslexia. He finally learned to read at age 20.
A successful entrepreneur, he didn't start writing until he was nearly 50. Because of his dyslexia, he wrote his first books with giant letters on a writing tablet. He has more than 300 books in publication.

And your excuse for not writing ...?

Thursday, June 4, 2009


I told you about the letter writers who don't bother to rewrite from their orginal draft and leave it to us to decipher their scribblings. I have observed over the years that the worse the writing, the more demanding the writers. The letter writers who hand over the most embarrassing pieces are the most likely to insist that we publish it "exactly like it is," with no editing. When I owned a small weekly, I sometimes granted their wish, taking devilish delight, I confess, in allowing them to sound so stupid in a public forum. But as a rule we clean up letters, correcting minor errors, deleting repetition, cutting the superfluous.

Authors also rewrite, sometimes multiple times. Shelby Foote is the one exception I know about. Foote, who wrote his books in longhand, seldom altered a word from the first draft. He never used a computer or even a typewriter. And he had enough clout with the publisher that he was one of the few authors whose work was immune from alteration by book editors.

He is the rare exception. James Patterson rewrites two to seven times. Many, probably most, authors pitch more of their writing than they keep.

Recommendation: Write the first draft quickly to capture the rhythm and flow. Don't rewrite right away (unless you are, like me, writing on a daily deadline and have no choice). Writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant, author of "8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better," writes: "Self-editing requires tincture of time. If you want to judge how much rewriting your work requires, you need some distance from it. Take a break."

For some that break might be hours, for others it might be weeks, or even months. For letter writers, I always suggest that they sleep on it one night and reread it the next day before submitting it.
When you rewrite, do so carefully to fix the flaws without compromising the flow.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why & When

Why write? How about to capture the passion before it dissolves in time?
Charles Frazier (author of "Cold Mountain" and "Thirteen Moons"):
"So of course time is necessary. But nevertheless damn painful, for it transforms all the pieces of your life — joy and sorrow, youth and age, love and hate, terror and bliss — from fire into smoke rising up the air and dissipating on a breeze."

When should you write? Stephen King writes in the morning. As did Shelby Foote. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote late at night. Those two periods of the day seem to be the most common. Afternoon and evening, on the other hand, seem to be when writers live their lives.

And here's a suggestion from Elmer Kelton (author of "The Time It Never Rained" and "The Good Old Boys"):
"I just write whenever I can."

Can't find the time? Hogwash. Not many writers can afford a Walden Pond experience. Waiting for the right circumstances before you begin is only an excuse. If you want to write, write.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Just that

Writing pet peeve:
Sentences in which the subject and the object are the same word, with "just that" in between.
Example: Knuckleheads who like the Yankees are just that, knuckleheads.
It is understandable how this happens in conversation. You might say, "The genius who first combined chocolate and peanut butter is, well, just that, a genius."
But it is inexecusable in writing. It reflects the worst kind of laziness, refusing to self-edit. It shows up in letters to the editor all the time.
Few letter writers bother to edit their own work. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but I can't imagine submitting something for publication without editing it first.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Newspaper bloopers

More from Richard Lederer, author of "Anguished English" — Newspaper bloopers:

The airplane was only a few feet from the ground when it crashed, witnesses said.

With the exception of victimless crimes (which need not concern us here), every single crime committed in this nation of ours involves a victim.

Simon Wynne has been kicked off the ESU basketball team after being arrested and accused of driving a parked car while intoxicated.

Montreal police don't hesitate to use whatever laws, regulations or persuasions they feel they need to control morality in the city and prevent it from getting a foothold.

A college friendship that began a year ago ended in matrimony yesterday.

Friday, May 15, 2009

You don't know Jack

Reader Jack e-mailed the following in response to last Friday's quiz:

I think the answers are
1. Moby Dick (or the great white whale) H. Melville
2. A tale of two cities, c. Dickens
3. Pride and Prejudice, J. Austin
4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, S. L. Clements (NDP Mark Twain.
5. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger ( I hated that book)
6. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, in my humble opinion one of, if not the greatest Writer of my Generation
7.The Great Gatsby, F. S. Fitzgerald (college Assignment, hated it)
8. The Old Man of the Sea, E. Hemingway ( I think this was Hemingways best work, many of the others were of the Strong Man, Breast-Beating, Hard Drinking, Courageous, genre (which he belied, by committing a messy suicide rather than show true courage and battle an illness,)(just my humble opinion)
9. 1984, Orwell
10. Absalom, Absalom, W. Faulkner.
Fun Quiz, and challenging, I liked it that you slipped a couple of easy one and a couple of more difficult (read forgettable) ones.

Jack knows his literature. He got 100 percent. Well done.

If you haven't yet stumbled across "Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language" by Richard Lederer, you ought to get your hands on a copy. A sample:

From a want ad: "Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with a round bottom for efficient beating."

Lederer has a sequel entitled "More Anguished English: an Expose of Embarrassing, Excruciating, and Egregious Errors in English."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


This is the 100th post on this blog. I orginally expected to post every weekday, which would have meant that the 100th post would have been published last August. But reality set in. I now shoot for two posts a week and often settle for one.

Speaking of 100, when the late Isaac Isamov wrote his 100th book, he chose to base it on his favorite subject: himself. At least he admitted it: "Any writer who is a monster of vanity and egocentricity — like myself for instance — would love to write a book like that." He called the book "Opus 100."

The prolific Isamov wrote or edited more than 500 books. And, if Wikipedia is to be believed, his works have been published in nine of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System. Although he wrote on chemistry, astronomy, history and literature, he is best known for his science fiction novels.

He wrote: "I don't indulge in scholarly depth. I don't make creative contributions. I'm a translator. I can read a dozen dull books and make one interesting book out of them."

In a single decade, he wrote 68 books. That's a book every 53 days.

Asmiov is probably the most popular science fiction writer of all time. And the least popular. Critic John Jenkins wrote: "It has been pointed out that most science fiction writers since the 1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberately avoiding anything like his style."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Opening lines


Identify the books that begin with these first lines. Also identify the authors.

1. Call me Ishmael.

2. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

3. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

4. "TOM!"
No answer.
No answer.

5. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

6. To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

7. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

8. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

9. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

10. From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in which Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that— a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Resume bloopers

Looking for a job in writing?

One tip: Proof your resume.

Back when I hired reporters, the first task was to narrow the list by eliminating as many applications as possible right away. A sloppy resume is a red flag. I remember one applicant who wrote that she was a part-time, on-call EMT.
She meant to write: I have one eight-hour shift a week.
But she left out the "f" in shift. Either that or she suffered from a chronic periodic bowel disorder. Regular irregularity? At least she knew when it was coming.

The online Resume Dictionary ( lists the following actual resume bloopers (with my comments).
* References: Dictionary, Almanac, and the Guinness Book of World Records. (What, no encyclopedias?)
* References will be executed upon request. (Even if they recommend you for the job?)
* Will provide sootable references. (Must be hiring a chimney sweep.)
* References will provide references. (But you have to figure out who they are.)

Application Bloopers —

Please list your past experience:
* I don't believe in reincarnation. (But ask me again in my next life.)
* Did not keep track. (Don't worry, we can call your mother.)
* I have no past. (You're hired, Jason Bourne.)
* I have no experience but I am willing to find some. (Just tell me where to look.)
* I have been clean and sober since college. (And I haven't been to college since last night.)

Reason for leaving last job:
* Maturity leave. (Don't worry, I got over it.)
* Took leave of abstinence. (I'm thinking of making it permanent.)
* The policy manual forced me to. (Something about showing up for work every day ...)
* Didn't need one. (A job or a reason?)
* For a bitter job. (That's why I'm here, to punish myself.)

Ever come across a resume or application blooper? Please share.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Literary Tour

In case there's a reader of this blog out there, here are the anwers to Jack's quiz:

Williams Faulkner wrote the outline to his book "A Fable" on the walls of his Oxford, Miss., home, Rowan Oak.

I would not have known that had we not stopped to tour the house on our way home from spring break in Florida a decade ago.

On that memorable trip we also drove through the square at Canton, Miss., where "A Time to Kill" was filmed. We saw John Grisham's home in Oxford and toured the town square and the Ole Miss campus. We took the ferry to Dauphin Island and drove through the historic downtown in Mobile.

Oxford is an incubator of literary talent, as is Ashville, North Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Mississippi, as a whole, has proven fertile ground for great American writers, with Eudora Welty at the top of the list. (You can keep Faulkner.)

On that spring break trip, the last we took with the whole family, we camped on the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore at Pensacola, where my sister, Mary, once lived and worked as a National Park Service ranger. It was cold and windy, and the beach was deserted. No wonder, the icy wind drove sand particles into your skin. We have a picture of Sam, who was about 5, racing along the edge of the surf with his hands outstretched and his head thrown back, inspired by the seagulls. He was lost in his world. That photo, as grainy as the air that day, captures his nature, approaching life at full tilt and reckless abandon. The youngest of our five and the only one still at home, he is the family exclamation point.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009



Most newspapers keep their style consistent by adhering to the rules in the Associated Press Stylebook. The Stylebook tells us when to capitalize a title and which months can be abbreviated and how to compile box scores in baseball.

The AP Stylebook also contains some annoying inconsistencies. In AP style, we use the dollar sign ($1) but not the cents (50 cents). We spell out percent (25 percent) and degrees (40-degree temperatures) but abbreviate miles per hour (60 mph). We spell out inches (8 inches tall) but abbreviate milimeters (20 mm).

The most ridiculous entry in the Stylebook might be this:

A numeral is a figure, letter, word or group of words expressing a number.

AAAAAAAAGH! In the first place, why not just put: "A numeral is a number"? What the heck does "expressing a number" mean?
And if that weren't bad enough, a numeral — to the rest of the world anyway — is a symbol or mark that represents a number.

Numbers may be written out or represented by symbols (one, 2, III, four, 5, VI ...)
But numerals are never written out (Arabic numberals: 1, 2, 3, 4; or Roman numerals, I, II, III, IV).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Three dead white males

A local reader e-mailed the correct answers to both questions and the bonus from Friday's post.

The three authors who all died 45 years and five months ago Wednesday (if I had given the date — Nov. 22, 1963 — it would have been a dead give-away on one of the authors, who also made his mark in another field) are:

Aldous Huxley: "Brave New World"
C.S. Lewis: "The Chronicles of Narnia"
John F. Kennedy: "Profiles in Courage"
Bonus: The book about their imaginary conversation on the other side:
"Between Heaven and Hell" by Peter Kreeft

Well done, Jack.

Now, can anyone name the three authors' author brothers or anything they authored?

And any thoughts on which author made the most important and lasting impact on civilization?

Here's a case for Huxley, at least for the "lasting" part. Huxley may be the least familiar of the three today, at least in the United States. But he was instrumental in pushing the Darwinian theory of natural selection into the mainstream. He believed it the duty of the naturally superior, such as himself, to engineer the non-survival of the least fit. He advocated eugenics, social engineering to prevent inferior races from procreating. Hitler was in the same idealogical camp; the Third Reich represented the logical outcome of the eugenics movement. The inherent racism in the theory of evolution is veiled today.

Huxley came from a family of intellectuals suffering a serious superiroity complex. But others were not so enamored of the Huxleys as they were of themselves. Here's what other authors had to say about Aldous Huxley:
D.H. Lawrence: "I don't like his books; even if I admire a sort of desperate courage of repulsion and repudiation in them. But again, I feel only half a man writes the books — a sort of precocious adolescent."
George Orwell: "You were right about Huxley's book (Ape and Essence) — it is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex? He cannot get off the subject of flagellating women."
Bertrand Russell: "You could always tell by his conversation which volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica he'd been reading. One day it would Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath."

Jack the e-mailer offered his own literary question:
"Now here's one for you: What famous author outlined chapters of one of his books on the walls of his bedroom/writing room?"

I got this one, but I won't give it away yet. Anyone know the answer?
And here are three bonus questions: What is the name of the book? What is the name of the house? And where is it located?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Check it out


Three authors died on the same day 45 years and five months ago Wednesday.

1. Name the authors.
2. Name at least one book each wrote.

Bonus: Name the book about their imaginary conversation on the other side of the veil. Name the author.
Double bonus: Tell me where I misplaced my copy.
Triple bonus: All three authors had brothers who were also authors. Name the brothers and at least one each of their books.

Essay: Which of the three authors made the most important and lasting contribution to civilization?


My friend and frequent critic Frank, an lawyer, said he saw a church marquee that read "Practice resurrection."
"How?" Frank asked. Good question.
"Got me," I replied. "I'm still looking for an attorney who isn't still practicing. At what point do you get it right?"
Not to be outdone, Frank responded, "About the same time that 'caregivers' stop charging!"


A co-worker told me a book we discussed is available to peruse at the library but can't be taken out of the library. I told her I would check it out. Of course, I'll have to check it out without checking it out.

I met my wife in a library. We were both on work study in college, assigned to the library. I checked her out right away. She was definitely the most interesting thing I ever checked out at any library.

My job for three years was to write -- draw, really -- the titles on the spines of rebound books, usually with white ink. Many of the books were oversize — art books and the like. The library manager hired me for my "artistic" hand. I happened to be back in that library a few weeks ago and found dozens of books that I had marked 30 years ago. It was nice to see some sign, however insignificant, that I had been there.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Kiddie lit

Do you secretly enjoy reading "children's" books? You are not alone.

C.S. Lewis, author and professor of English literature at Oxford and Cambridge, wrote this about kiddie lit:
"No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty — except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all ...
"I never met The Wind in the willows or E. Nesbit's Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story ...
"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up ...
"Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table."

You may not have been able to read Lewis' space trilogy as a child, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia as much today as you did when your mother first read them aloud to you.

Lewis himself was enchanted by Beatrix Potter's books and illustrations as a child, and they proved a major influence on his fantasy works. And are not A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder as delightful today as when you first read them?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Enormity of writing errors


My wife stumbled across a great book for a spring fiction writers. It is entitled, appropriately, The Fiction Class.

Patterned after herself and her own experience as a writing instructor at the Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan, author Susan Breen's main character is the aspiring writer and fiction writing teacher Arabella Hicks. In each chapter, the book moves from her class, where the assignments provide the setting for the dialogue, to the nursing home where Arabella meets with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. At the end of each chapter is an "assignment" for the reader that corresponds with the class's assignment in that chapter. Breen teaches the elements of fiction writing in the midst of a published piece of fiction. What better way to teach them?

Preventative preventive

I wish there were one. Even a fine writer like Victor Davis Hanson, in this week's column, refers to "renditions, preventative detentions, wiretapping and summary deportations ..." Some dictionaries include "preventative" as an alternative to "preventive," but it still grates. I even hear "preventative" used occasionally by medical professionals.

Enormity of the problem

Mona Charen's column this week looks at the evolving English language. "Begs" as used in "begs the question," she points out, means "avoids" or "circumvents." To beg the question is to avoid the issue at hand. But because the phrase has been used incorrectly so often to mean "raises (or prompts) the question," it is now acceptable to use it that way, according to some dictionaries, including the New Oxford Dictionary of English.

The same might be true of "15 items or less," which should, of course, be "15 items or fewer." Charen says that one annoys her adolescent child. (I think the lady in front of me in Wal-Mart yesterday thought it read "15 items or more" since her shopping cart contained at least 30.)

Charen still does not approve using the term "enormity" as a synonym for "enormousness." The term "enormity" means "excessive wickedness, passing all moral bounds." But will she accept it to mean "enormousness" in 10 years, when TV news anchors and politicians have said it that way so often that dictionaries permit it?

And not to beg the question, this begs the question: Should we avoid a common usage error until the language experts tell us it's now acceptable to use it in the popular fashion, or should we instead use the error as frequently as possible to hasten its evolution to acceptability?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Charles Frazier

Good writing requires a certain level of life experience and worldly wisdom to be authentic. It's no wonder so many writers don't start writing, at least for publication, until later in life.

Charles Frazier, whose best-selling first novel, Cold Mountain, won the National Book Award in 1997, wrote:
"Like a lot of people, I tried to write some fiction when I was in my twenties -- college age, just after that. It didn't work out so well. I wasn't happy with what I did; it was sort of pretentious and technically pretty weak. So I put the idea away and decided that I was going to be an academic and that I would study other people's writing rather than write myself.
"But when I got to be forty, I started wanting to write again for some reason and found when I began doing it that what I was doing was very different from what I had done when I was twenty-five. I liked it better and was happier doing it, and it seemed to me to be worth doing suddenly. I think as you get older you get a sense of what is important in life and what is significant enough to write about."

Frazier was 47 when Cold Mountain was published.

Notice also that, by his own account, his early writing was product driven while the later was process driven. He talks about the results of the early writing (pretentious, technically weak), but of his mindset with his later writing (happier, worth doing).

A complete interview with Frazier is found at

Friday, March 13, 2009

M. Scott and E.A. Poe

Friday the 13th, an appropriate day for my favorite quote from The Office:

"I'm not superstitious. But I am a LITTLE stitious." —Michael Scott

And if you are a little stitious, you might appreciate a few thoughts -- witty, insightful and disturbing -- from Edgar Allan Poe:

"I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity."

"I have great faith in fools; self-confidence my friends call it."

"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"

"Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only at night."

"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.'"

"With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


As I've probably written before, the imaginary Washington Post "Mensa Invitational" has circulated in e-mails for 12 years, and it also appears on countless Web sites. It may be an imaginary column, but it is humorous and it does contain actual word entries from the Post's "Style Invitational." The Style Invitational is a weekly contest for wordsmiths to respond to a different verbal challenge each week.

A few weeks ago the contest was to write a diary entry for people throughout history.

The winner was Jeff Brechlin of Egan, Minn., who wrote:
"June 20, '76: Working on draft of document for TJ. I've articulated two unalienable Rights -- Life, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- need a third. Well, it will come to me. -Sally"

Check out the Web site for yourself.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary wrote: "Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school."

So how does that happen? Cleary wrote: "My mother would read aloud to my father and me in the evening. She read mainly travel books."

It didn't have to be travel books. The main thing is that she did it.

I am convinced that the single most effective strategy for molding high achieving kids is to read to them, starting when they are very young, even still in diapers and not yet talking. If a child sits in his mother's lap as she reads to him, and he is allowed to touch the pictures and talk about what he sees and hears, he will develop a love for books at an early age. That will serve him well throughout his life. Reading is, of course, the foundation for all learning, so kids who read well are more likely to achieve in other subjects as well.

Children will continue to read on their own all through school if they see their parents reading. And when everyone in the family reads the same books, it leads to lively discussions. I can't keep up with the reading of my wife and children, now mostly grown, and I feel left out when they are discussing a book I haven't read.

When kids say "I hate to read," what they really mean is they hate reading as a class in school. Leave it to schools to take what is naturally a pleasure and so dissect it that it becomes drudgery.

Cleary, one of the most successful children's authors, described how she approaches a story: "I don't necessarily start with the beginning of the book. I just start witht he part of the story that's most vivid in my imagination and work forward and backward from there."

Asked what year her books take place, she answers, "In childhood." Great books are timeless. That's why hers are still so popular, even those written a half century ago.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review review

A book reviewer writes:
"A mother's blood guilt runs the heart of this powerful novel. When it is at last resolved, a pale flower of happiness blooms, the best any of us can expect late in a rich, complicated life."

I can't figure out the subject-verb-object relationship: "guilt runs the heart." Does the reviewer mean "guilt runs through the heart ..."? That would make sense. Or "blood guilt controls the mother's heart in this novel." The sentence attempts to use the literary device of personification by referring to the "heart" of the novel. But it doesn't quite work because the subject is a fictional character's emotional motivation, or "heart," leaving the reader confused about whom the heart belongs to — the character or the novel.

The reviewer continues by saying "it is at last resolved." The antecedent of "it" is found in the previous sentence, "mother's blood guilt." Guilt might be cured or forgiven or eased or erased, but it cannot be resolved. Conflicts are resolved.

Finally, is "a pale flower of happiness" really "the best any of us can expect late in a rich, complicated life"? What a cynical view. If life is indeed rich, do we not have a reasonable chance at more than a faded version of happiness, however complicated our past?

Monday, February 23, 2009


A recent article in the Sun used the term "all toll." Another, more recent, article used the term "all told."

Which is correct?

"All told," of course. But "all toll" and "all tolled," which often appear in print, seem to make sense.

"All tolled" is an example of an "eggcorn," which is, according to The Word Detective, the substitution of a word of words that sound similar to correct words and make sense, sort of. The term "eggcorn" was coined by linguist Geoffrey Pullum after seeing someone write the word "eggcorn" for "acorn." An acorn is an egg-shaped seed, so the error is not illogical.

"Tolled" can mean "added up" or "charged," so "all tolled" makes sense, since the idiom "all told" is used to mean "the total" or "the sum of relevant facts" or "the end result."

The Word Detective gives another example: "for all intensive purposes" instead of the correct "for all intents and purposes." I guess that means an eggcorn can also be a mondegreen (see Jan. 9).

I have written before about the use of "kindly" for "kind of." Instead of "Kind of keep that information under your hat," the speaker says "Kindly keep that information under your hat." It makes perfect sense, but the speaker, at least in rural Arkansas, is not referring to kindness at all. It makes less sense when he says "I'm kindly getting a cold." As opposed to what, crankily getting a cold?

I heard "kindly" used for "kind of" here in Kentucky over the weekend and realized it wasn't a uniquely Arkie eggcorn.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sturm and Drang

Sorry I've been delinquent with the blog for the past two weeks. If you live in western Kentucky, western Tennessee or north Arkansas, you understand. But any readers from elsewhere might not be aware of the huge ice storm that hit Jan. 26 and 27 and shut down the region. In Kentucky, 700,000 people were without electricity. Now, ten days later, we are among those still without electricity.

Most folks are using generators while they wait for the power to be restored. Because we live in an apartment, that is not an option. So we are just toughing it out. The temperature has remained below freezing for most of the time since the storm hit, and it got down to 13 degrees two days ago. But today it's is a sunny 58. That brings some measure of relief.

I told my son in Iraq that it looked like a war zone here. He replied, "Oh, you mean trash everywhere, little kids running up to beg and lazy Iraqis sitting around waiting for a handout?" After 15 months in Iraq, he's grown a bit cynical.

Our house in Arkansas, 200 miles southwest of here, was also without power, and many of the beautiful trees surrounding the house were damaged, but the house itself was untouched. Praise be.

A reader e-mailed:

"I've been missing your column. Been somewhat out of touch due to the Sturm und Drang of the ice storm, had to retreat to our son's home ...
Just checked your blog. My wife and I were at that book sale also, but I missed that book (dang).
The amusing epitaphs reminded me of an old epitaph I memorized long ago, about an Irish fellow killed in an automobile accident. It goes;
"This is the Grave of Mike O'Day
Who died maintaining his right of way
His right was clear, his will was strong
But he's just as Dead as if he'd been wrong.

"Oh yes, one more, which you have probably already heard or read:
"Here lies Les Moore
Died of two shots from a forty four
No less no more."

I appreciated the e-mail but was, I'm afraid, unfamiliar with the term "Sturm and Drang."

The term identifies a literary movement of late 18th century Germany connected to the Enlightenment and emphasizing subjectivity and emotional extremes. It is translated to the familiar "storm and stress," (which my German mother-in-law applied to my wife as a child), but it could also be translated "passion and energy" or "rebellion." "Sturm" could also be translated "urge," "longing," "drive" or "impulse."

Wouldn't you like to live your life so that "Sturm and Drang" could be your epitaph?

(Feb. 13 update: Power was restored to our apartment last Saturday, Feb. 7. But at least 8,000 in far western Kentucky are still waiting for power, 17 days after the storm.)