Be Very Careful What You Write
Writing is more dangerous than most people think. I’m not sure that the pen is really mightier than the sword, but a lot people are very afraid of what you pen. And they’ll move quickly to strike back at you, not with a sword, but with a lawsuit.
The defamation and slander laws are the powerful weapons used by those who don’t approve of your freedom of expression. And lawyers are their hired assassins.
That these repressive and regressive laws are still on the books is appalling. They are as archaic as that petty commandment from that insecure, Old Testament bully: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain..”
If you think these laws are really protecting the innocent, I recommend reviewing the alleged ‘victims’ of libel and the writers who have had been the real victims, sued for simply pointing out that the Emperor isn’t really wearing magical garments. Charlatans don’t appreciate being exposed, and the Emperor can afford an expensive team of lawyers to teach you a costly lesson.
The ‘Church’ of Scientology libel suits number in the thousands. Time magazine estimated that they spend an average of about $20 million per year on various legal actions and are the exclusive client of several law firms.
The high profile and respected science writers Dr. Ben Goldacre (M.D) and Dr. Simon Singh (Ph.D., Physics) are just two of the many writers who have suffered through expensive lawsuits simply for pointing out the dangerous lies of ‘alternative medicine’ charlatans who are costing people their lives.
The experience (or even threat) of being sued, unless one has secure financial support from another source, will silence many writers who just can’t afford to be financially ruined. Unfortunately one needs lawyers to defend oneself, and lawyers are too expensive for writers without other backing. A friend of mine was sued for writing an exposé of abuses at a senior citizen home, and then reluctantly, but prudently, gave up on investigative journalism.
If you object to what someone writes, the honourable response is a rebuttal: a duel with words, not at attack by lawyers with archaic laws as their weapons.
The Real Writing Comes After The Writing
I’ve always felt the real work involved in good writing isn’t in managing to write something of potential interest; it is in applying one’s critical skills to brutally prune and shape it. Certainly what I initially write is just the raw material for the finished work—and often very raw. Maybe some other more talented writers may have brains that do this for them before they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. But there is no question that most really bad writing has never had the writer move beyond just managing to string some words together—and being quite content with the product.
And all the talk about our brains being divided into a creative half and a critical half is largely poppycock. Still, if one were to dichotomize the act of creation, the most crucial and difficult stage in in creating something worthwhile is not the initial generation of the raw material. (Even a computer can do that.) It is applying one’s critical faculties to discern what has potential worth, so one can refine it, while discarding what is worthless.
Last year I gave a TEDx talk about this topic, presumptuously entitled “Redefining Creativity”.
The Morning After
Reading what I wrote on the morning afterwards demonstrates how difficult it is to be objective about one’s own work. I either tend to think I’m playing in the same league with Shakespeare and the big hitters or I really should give up the game. I know in my heart that what I wrought is neither an immortal masterpiece nor an immoral piece of shit, but my reaction always seems to be extreme.
However, with a little temporal distance, I can gain a little more objectivity and get back to editing it—which I believe is what writing is really about. Some writers may be able to do that in their heads, and so that when they sit down to write they are merely transcribing the already completed work from their brains. And perhaps some may be truly inspired; i.e., dictated the final work by their Muse or their subconscious. (Although I find that hard to believe, based on my own experience. A few lines of a poem, yes, but not a completed work!)
This may have a lot to do with why I don’t read my own books once they’re published and out on their own. They’re a done deed. I can’t edit them. I can’t take them back—with an abject apology. It is frightening to think I might gag when I read something I wrote and have since forgotten and put totally out of my mind.
But sometimes I do, for whatever reason. And because of the time passed, it is like reading something that was written by someone else. So my reaction is closer to objective.
My wife recently showed me a poem she’d printed out and couldn’t remember where it came from. I read it and said I didn’t know either, but it was pretty damn good. Then something twigged in my brain. I did a phrase search of my own work in my computer files, and it was from one of my own books! This may not say much for my memory, but I don’t care. I can’t think of anything more gratifying than reading your own work as if it wasn’t yours—and finding it good. No one else’s praise of it could compare.
Teaching Creative Writing
Many writers supplement their income by taking short-term jobs ‘teaching’ creative writing. And I’m sure most of them don’t take this gig just for the money—which, frankly, isn’t anything to crow about. It is intrinsically rewarding to encourage and help others in learning the art and craft of stringing words together.
I’ve done it, but when doing it, I’ve always been troubled by doubts that it is really possible to ‘teach’ creative writing. As with all the arts, as with all skills, one can teach someone how to use the tools, but showing someone how to apply watercolours isn’t going to teach them to how to enter into competition with Turner or Blake. So yes, you can teach some of the tricks of the writing trade, and that is important, but I’m not at all sure that is the same thing as teaching creative writing. For one thing, motivation is incredibly important for success at any endeavour, and every teacher of anything knows how hard that is to teach.
Nevertheless, encouraging others to share your enthusiasm is rewarding. Unfortunately, too often it seems the only interest in writing that many students have is in their own writing. How little so many of them have read amazes me. There are so many would-be poets who never read poetry.
I could never do this, but a writer friend of mine told me that when students proudly show him their efforts for evaluation, he always tells them that it is total shit. He claims that the writers with real potential will be motivated to prove him wrong. And it’ll toughen them up for dealing with the rejection slips that litter almost all writers’ paths to eventual publication.
I don’t know. Maybe sometimes, but I think most people who succeed at anything will recall someone special who encouraged them at that critical junction where they have to decide whether or not to persevere, someone who convinced them the effort was worth it all.
Why Grammar Does and Does Not Matter
Grammar rules (and spelling and even definition) are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are not a set of rules. They are a collection of shared conventions that help make effective communication possible. And in this case, the end (effective communication) justifies any means, including rejecting these conventions.
Open almost any great novel, and you’ll see the ‘rules’ repeatedly being disobeyed to good effect. And this is even truer of poetry, which usually breaks a whole whack of ‘rules’ of grammar, punctuation, and—most startlingly—denotative clarity just to achieve its effect.
For example, let what Stephen Fry calls “grammar Nazis” evaluate this charming poem by e.e. cummings, who couldn’t even conform to capitalization usage in spelling his own name: “anyone lived in a pretty how town”.
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: The End: Fire Or Ice Or Us
Ideas abound regarding how the world will end. Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” begins with the lines, “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.”
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1509
Why Isn’t Poetry Read?
There is no question that poetry now is by far the least popular literary genre, at least in the English-speaking world. Successful novels sell millions. An incredibly successful book of poems might find a thousand readers. You won’t see a volume of poetry on the New York Times Best Seller list. You’ll find novels, biographies and autobiographies, non-fiction books on history or even science, cookbooks, and self-help or pop psychology books.
The question is why this is so.
Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Misunderstanding What It Is?
People who don’t read poetry have strange ideas about what poetry actually is. They may associate it with those dead poets they had to read in school and so assume what makes something a poem is the use of accentual/syllabic meter and the regular pattern of end rhyme that was common in English poetry from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. This, of course, means they’ll consider Hallmark card doggerel to be poetry, but not most of the good poetry written since the beginning of the twentieth century. And they probably didn’t get enough enjoyment from reading those poems they were assigned in high school to want to seek out poetry as an adult reader.
The common use of the adjectival form gets closer to the real meaning of poetry. We are recognizing the essence of poetry when we say something is “poetic”, meaning an expression of something that rises high above the mundane. My preferred definition, which I believe to be shared by most poets, is that poetry is simply the most effective and efficient use of language. It uses every appropriate tool available in the language to accomplish this: the sound of the words, their cadence, even their appearance on the page. But it has nothing to do with mandatory unjustified margins and line breaks—or a regular meter and rhyme scheme. Those are tools that may or may not be used depending on whether or not they are judged to be the best means to the end. This is why prose can justifiably be called poetic, why ‘prose poem’ isn’t an oxymoron.
So don’t ever recommend a book as poetry. Recommend a book by simply saying it is poetic.
Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Miseducation?
I don’t teach English literature. I do teach an elective course of the Psychology Of Art. One of the many specific art forms covered is literature, including poetry. I ask my university students if they ever read poetry, and if not, why. They don’t, and the most common reason given has to do with their prior introduction to it in what Paul Goodman aptly calls “compulsory miseducation”.
I’m afraid the wonderful film, Dead Poets Society, about a brilliant, unorthodox and inspiring teacher is fiction requiring substantial suspension of disbelief. I strongly suspect most of those with the responsibility of introducing young people to poetry don’t even read the stuff themselves. “Eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.” “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you want to enthuse someone about something, you have to be enthused yourself.
Even those teachers who sincerely care about poetry are undermined by the system. They don’t dare introduce anything that would interest a student if it could possibly be considered ‘disrespectful of authority’ or ‘intended for mature audiences’. Such material could offend some parent.
A friend of mine was invited to a local high school as part of the “Poets In The Schools” program arranged by The League of Canadian Poets so students could actually meet a real, more or less alive poet. It is based on the same worthwhile concept that brings cops or firefighters into the classroom. But my friend had made the mistake of reading one of his poems about spring that mentioned the smell of dog shit defrosting in the warm sunlight. A parent complained, and he was called into the principal’s office to be ‘reprimanded’, an incident he said brought back humiliating memories of his own experiences in high school.
Poetry has been ghettoized, and the ghetto is Academe. Too often students are taken on a field trip there by someone who lives in the suburbs and is very uncomfortable in that dangerous neighbourhood.
Why Poetry Isn’t Read: False Expectations
“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” ― T.S. Eliot
Too often poems are approached as if they were puzzles, something written in code that needs to be deciphered. (And too often that is how teachers introduce poetry to students.) It is no wonder many people see no point in solving a puzzle when the solution is just a mundane statement.
But poems aren’t word puzzles. Poetry is an attempt to express something that cannot be paraphrased, translated, into unambiguous declarative sentences. Ambiguity is at the heart of it. It is about connotation, not denotation.
To ask what a poem really ‘means’, is to approach it with the false expectation that it can accurately be paraphrased into more easily ‘understood’ language. It means approaching the poem as if it were like some recipe from a cookbook where only metric measures are given, and one needs to convert grams to ounces because those are the only units on your kitchen scale.
Wallace Stevens said that a poem doesn’t mean, it just is. His point is well taken, but a poem’s very existence can certainly mean something personally to the reader who doesn’t just view it as a mere means to an end. We don’t ask what a Beethoven sonata or a Rembrandt portrait means, for their ‘meaning’ is their existence in our experience of them. Poems, too, should simply be experienced.
Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Effort Required?
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ― William Styron, Conversations with William Styron
Reading poetry can be especially exhausting. It isn’t a passive activity. To be appreciated it demands your undivided attention, and paying attention requires effort. It isn’t like the music from some ‘Easy Listening’ radio station playing in the background as you go about your business.
The language of poetry is demanding.
When students are introduced to the great poetry of the past, the language puts them off. I’ve had many students tell me they had to read Shakespeare in high school, and just don’t see what’s the big deal with him. The English language has changed a lot since the 17th century, and it requires substantial and sustained effort to read something in what seems like a foreign language. I tell them that it’s worth the effort, like most things with substantial rewards. You don’t win a sports competition by taking it easy.
Much contemporary poetry may seem just as foreign as archaic English, for many readers are not accustomed to the use of language that often is without a readily discernable logic. The reaction is similar to the only too common reaction to contemporary non-representational visual art. Accustomed to an immediately recognizable external referent (e.g., a person or a landscape), they are quick to dismiss it as not really art and not worth their attention.
And, finally, poetry is exhausting even when it is appreciated, because the experience of it is emotionally exhausting. Anything that successfully taps into our deepest emotions is bound to be. But, then, who regrets feeling emotionally drained after falling—or making—love?
Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Need For Narrative?
Poetry was once actually popular. As recently as the Nineteenth Century the publication of a book of poetry could catapult the poet to the status of famous author. When in 1812 Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (a story of the travels of rebellious, disillusioned young man searching for meaning to his life) was published, it became an immediate best seller. The poet Lord Byron wrote “I awoke one morning and found myself famous."
But poetry was already facing serious competition from the new kid on the block who had moved into the literary neighbourhood about a hundred years earlier. The first English novel is often said to be Robinson Crusoe published in 1719. The literacy rate had doubled since Shakespeare’s time, and more and more people were reading books. And what had always been central to ‘literature’, whether as theatre or even oral storytelling, was narrative. People wanted characters and plots. People wanted stories. Even in the 1800’s poems were still predominately narrative, but the prose of a novel was more flexible and, importantly, more accessible to the average reader.
So poets moved out of what had become a commercial centre and built their own community—and concentrated on doing what poems do best: expressing concisely what seems inexpressible. So most poetry since has been lyric, rather than narrative.
Nevertheless, many poems still contain a narrative component. And, arguably, poetry really is better equipped to probe deeply into character than is the novel.
And then of course it has to be said that many novels, or parts of them, really are poetry.
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Reasons To Read
You would think reading needs no justification. Its value should be self-evident, but clearly it isn’t for many people. A large survey in 2012 revealed that one-quarter of Americans over the age of 16 hadn’t read even a single book of any kind during the previous year, even though the reported functional literacy rate is 99%. (They did watch an average of 1,500 hours of television.) Of course, I’m sure no one reading this posting needs to be inspired to read. That would be as silly as a recent billboard explaining how to get help in learning to read.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1522
I’d like to make a suggestion. My newest book is out just in time for last minute shoppers: Embracing The Moon: 25 Little Worlds. And if I do say so myself, it looks great, and the art printed beautifully.
Christmas Presents God When He’s Drunk
Another seasonal suggestion: God When He’s Drunk It’s a collection of stories diverse enough to have something to appeal to anyone’s particular taste in fiction, no matter now unusual or even perverse.
Finding An Editor
I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to act as editor of his own writing and always has to be the final judge as to when it is as good as it’s going to get before stamping it “DONE”. Nevertheless, it unavoidable that real objectivity about one’s own work is impossible. Also, when reading your own writing you know what you thought you were saying, so you read too fast and miss obvious typos or missing words. Personally, I’m particularly terrible at proofing my own writing, partially because I read very fast, as well as being a very impatient fellow.
This is why writers need editors and proof-readers. Very few people are likely to volunteer for the latter chore, because it is tedious, boring, and requires solid knowledge of grammatical and spelling conventions. Even more difficult is finding a good editor. It’s hard enough to find someone who’ll find time to carefully read your latest masterpiece, but finding someone who understands and relates to what you’re trying express is even more difficult.
Writers and even their best editors are often engaged in more or less acrimonious dispute. No writer likes being told to cut something or that some part of what they’ve written desperately needs revising or that they’ve fallen off the deep end with some bit of florid or overblown phrasing. I know my ego is more bruised by that kind of criticism (no matter how justified) than if someone insulted me personally.
I’m fortunate. My wife, Ursula, is kind enough to take on these chores. And she is extremely competent at both.
She taught English composition at university, and I’ll admit she knows more about grammar conventions than I do. (I call them conventions, and she calls them rules, which is at the bottom of many disagreements.) We may have heated battles about the placement and use of various punctuation marks, but so far none has resulted in divorce proceedings.
And probably no one knows my writing (and me) better than she does, so she is ideally suited to editing my stuff. Naturally her criticisms and suggestions in this role I take more personally, but I always appreciate them and take them under far more serious consideration than I would from anyone else.
So let me end this posting with a public acknowledgement of my smart, kind wife. (And, incidentally, not wanting to press my luck, I’ve been trying to proof and edit these blog postings without her assistance. So blame me for any screw-ups.)
Sometimes starting to write can require effort, but so does stopping. But I’m going to until the New Year. Season’s Greetings to everyone, including Grinchs, curmudgeons, and misanthropes—my kind of people.
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Criminal Business Models
Many people think that big business is criminal, for as Bertolt Brecht remarked, “It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.” But organized crime may be the ultimate big business. And often we are their customers. Here are three TED talks that analyse the effective economics of established criminal enterprises. Draw your own conclusions about how similar they are to successful, ‘legitimate’ businesses.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1515
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Food Extremists
We are fascinated with the experiences of those who are willing to go to extremes. That is why so many people enjoy (although usually only vicariously) extreme sports. I’m not sure if eating could be considered a sport, but there certainly are extremists when it comes to eating choices.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1529