It Is What It Isn’t

“The Shining is not really about the murders at the Overlook Hotel. It is about the murder of a race – the race of Native Americans – and the consequences of that murder.”

-Bill Blakemore, writing in The San Francisco Chronicle

“There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable–nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11.”

-Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art

What stuck me on this is the last line of the Mailer quote–the idea that a little apocalypse would (naturally) burrow inside the skulls/souls of novelists or whomever, re-wire a few circuit breakers, and change all the output.

Of course people were going to write about 9/11–though I have yet to read anything “extraordinary” about it–but whence this idea that it would inspire (compel?) extraordinary work about other things?

Does this mean we uh, “credit” 9/11 with any great post 9/11 writing? That probably isn’t what The Lion King was getting at, but it’s a danger worth fearing if his premise is widely adopted.

Zooming in, do we “credit” 9/11 with any great post 9/11 writing that pertains to tragedy, loss, ideology, etc.?  This might be a defensible position, but it might also be crass and disrespectful.  No readers should use 9/11 as a tourniquet to help them mainline their meaning fix.

I have a good feeling Mr. Mailer would agree.  But if anyone could have turned out a piece of extraordinary work that doesn’t–yet does–have to do with that Tuesday rain of blood and fire, my ten dollars would have been on Stanley Kubrick.

On Simplicity, or, ABC

“PEYALISWTABOC. Perpetually ensure you are located in situations where transactions are being officially concluded!”


“Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind.  Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking: a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.”

-William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Needless to say, this goes on everywhere–not just in the corridors of corporate drudgery. Z nails it.  Like, Golgotha nails it.  What else can you do when you’ve gotta hit a deadline and you just can’t force your brain to make it happen?

Nothing.  You start throwing marshmallows into the air and pray at least one lands toasting distance from the fire.

And what if you don’t have the “talent” of bullcrapping your way through office and other communications?  Maybe this is better than having it.  Because then you need to either take responsibility for the things you’re responsible for (nice compound clause), or quit. The B+ English major can continue to hide his incompetence behind flatulent verbal smokescreens, sealing his middle management destiny.

Ultimately Zinsser’s sharp observation begs the question of what a simple style is and what it isn’t.  Let’s say my memo doesn’t contain a word that’s longer than six letters.  Is it stylistically simple?  Yeah, probably.

But overwrought style is ultimately subjective, and so it has to be grouped with its distant cousin, hard-core pornography, under Justice Stewart’s evergreen definition: I know it when I see it.

Unlike hard-core pornography, you (and I) might be doing it without realizing we’re doing it.


Please forgive me a link-only post today, I have a lot going on.  Most of it is writing-related which is good, but it still feels like scrambling–both my (figurative) feet and my (literal) brain.

Jeff Goins’ post on Write to Done about distractedness and its antidotes has given me aid and comfort recently.  I hope it can do the same for you.

Whoa Whoa Whoa

7. Do Not Overstate

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that has followed it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment and your poise.”

-The Elements of Style

Let’s take this one for a spin:

I was born in 1983 at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (now New York-Presbyterian Hospital). While expecting, my parents at first liked “Sam” as a tag for their undeclared son, then second-guessed the schoolyard liability of being named after the elder statesman of Texas. Because any third grade thug is just killing time until he can ace the AP U.S. History exam, yeah?

So they arrived somehow at “James”. Red Bull is the greatest scientific discovery of the later twentieth century. I finished school, tried and failed to become the next Mark Knopfler, and today am still alive.

Did my overstatement kill the rest of the story? I don’t think so, though maybe when I look at this again tomorrow I’ll see it did.

I concede the basic point, though. Spewing easily-disproved hyperbole is a reliable way to set off B.S. detectors, which you should probably assume are up to date and numerous, and will be reading your work sooner or later.

So how did Sam H. affect his legacy when he apocryphally said,

“Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may.”




What’s a Yoot?


infant. Applicable to children through 12 months old.”

-AP Stylebook, 39th edition

Thanks, AP.  Could you please weigh in on all the other vague age-grouping nouns now? Thanks for “Middle Ages”, but how about “middle age”?

I don’t see “tween” between “TV” and “twelve apostles”.

Where does an “adolescent” end and a “pre-teen” begin?

I guess we don’t lose much in our communication by allowing terms like these their blurry borders. But if we can figure out “infant”, is there any good reason not to do the same for “toddler”, “senior” and everything in between?

This post is really a plug for Write or Die, a great application by Jeff Printy I discovered this week.

Enter the amount of words you intend to write in a set amount of time. If you’re not on track, WoD blares a sound approximating infants–definitely, unambiguously infants–being fed through a woodchipper.

I’ve met every goal since installing it, may God have mercy on my soul.

The faint of heart can select other sounds like “Alarm Clock from Hell” or “Evil Violins”.

Unless you have total, chest-thumping confidence in your ability to write undistracted, you should get it too.

Remembering Ray Bradbury

“June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head.  Now, a whole autumn, a white winter, a cool and greening spring to figure sums and totals of summer past.”

-Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

“To hell with the internet.” 

-Ray Bradbury

I’m not gonna inflate my (positive) opinion of Ray Bradbury just because he’s sipping dandelion wine with the angels now.

In fact, for a long time I associated him only with a hated summer reading assignment–Fahrenheit 451 the summer between 7th and 8th grades, which happened to be the nadir of my giving a toss about schoolwork.  The whole “sieve and the sand” metaphor flew over my head and bombed a wad of guano square in my eye.

Of course, we got a test on the first day of class.  I blamed Bradbury.

He also seemed to have a little of the jerk in him, albeit in the endearing “get the hell off my lawn you kids!” way.  (Also, was he right or was he right about the internet?)  I used to work for the company that published his books, and it was understood in our department that he really didn’t like to be disturbed.

Point here is that Dandelion Wine is a great book.  Nostalgia done right is a spiritual experience, and I’d heard DW was as real a testimony as we had.  What a pleasure to find this true when I eventually scored a brittle old trade paperback copy in an unannounced stoop sale.

But what really blew my mind was the fundamental weirdness Ray Bradbury somehow credibly wove into what could have been a maudlin Norman Rockwell sketch.

Thank you, old man, for the sense of it all–the Happiness Machines and the mornings of no caterpillars.

Boing Boing

caoutchouc. This strange-looking word, adopted in the 18c. from a Quechua word via Spanish and French, is pronounced /ka℧t∫℧k/.” –Fowler’s Modern English Usage

I can’t believe this is in any English dictionary. The last time I heard it spoken–sung, actually–was in fourth grade French class circa 1994, where we were tasked with reciting some nutball song about trampolines and rubber babies that was supposedly not in English.

But it is in the American Heritage Dictionary 4th Ed., as well as the catch-all dictionary that comes packaged with Macs. (It means “unvulcanized natural rubber”.)

At least Fowler grants, with classic British restraint, that it is “strange-looking”. Caoutchouc is strange everything. Between the triple vowel and the arguably silent “c” on the end, this is a lingusitic three dollar bill if ever I choked on one.

English speaking muscles are not set up to handle a word like /ka℧t∫℧k/. Even if it would (probably) sound awesome sneered by Mick Jagger, I don’t know what sex innuendo he could rhyme it with.

Obviously it will not remain in the language.  It would make my week interesting to hear from anyone who has encountered or, for planet Vulcan’s sake, used caoutchouc in the past ten years.  Preferably someone with no connections to the rubber industry, but I doubt even the Fitzcarraldos of 2012 are punishing their larynxes with this anymore.

I can only imagine what throat-contorting morphemes comprise the Quechua word for rubber after vulcanization.

Live long and bounce back.

Oh Really?

“real  Is it really necessary?  When used to mean after taking inflation into account, it is legitimate.  In other contexts (Investors are showing real interest in the country, but Bolivians wonder if real prosperity will ever arrive) it is often better left out.”

The Economist Style Guide

I admit to being an abuser of “real” and other flabby non-quantifications like “pretty”, “kind of”, “mostly”, et al.  These are convenient ways of staying politically correct or covering up a lack of research.

The thing about “real” is how it implies that without its presence, whatever you’re describing is somehow fake or insubstantial.  Which probably wouldn’t be true, but the four-letter bugger sits on your shoulder and wheedles until you’re convinced that you’d better use him or else your point is lost.

Of course, your point is what it is, however “real” you claim it is or it isn’t.  Trust your reader enough to know that.