Draft No. 4

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 11 Comments

Punctuation & my pig tale

July 6, 2017 | 12 Comments

The New York Times isn’t alone in making me ill over its colon usage. But I adore the Times and read it faithfully, so I’m daily aggrieved. The usage I detest: capitalizing the first letter of the clause after a colon. In this style, incomplete sentences escape the initial capital. But independent clauses unfortunately do not.

Here’s a true story in which I’ll use a colon before an independent clause in the first sentence of the second paragraph:

“I knew a farmer who had a sow who learned to escape by ramming herself through an electrified fence. Hot wires hurt. Even if briefly. The swine knew this. But oh, the rewards of freedom! So she’d run full bore, as it were, at the fence.

“And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming: before she was shocked, she’d start screaming. Which was how the farmer knew his pig was out again. Inside his house, he’d hear her cries as she ran, unfettered and unharmed, at the waiting fence. I wonder if what really motivated her was rage—at injustice, since, technically, the fence hurt her before her crime.”

The idiocy of the alternate stylistic practice is that, following its hazy logic, the first word in an independent clause after a semicolon should really be capitalized too: “And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming; Before she was shocked, she’d start screaming.”

Now I really feel nauseous. I mean, look at it.

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The long & short of sentences

June 28, 2017 | 8 Comments

Richard Ford’s new memoir, Between Them, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. In contrast, Brian Doyle, a prolific writer of novels and narrative nonfiction who died in May, was a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. “His Last Game,” an essay of only 1,184 words,is about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012. It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices.

Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.

He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.

You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child.

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Feminism & our human destiny

June 7, 2017 | 13 Comments

Giving a friend a tour of Otterbein University recently, my wife and I guided her into its Science Center, mostly so I could re-visit its plexiglass aviary of parakeets just off the lobby. A subject of study by faculty and students, the birds, of the sort sold in countless pet shops, are native to Australia and are properly called budgerigars. Otterbein’s dozen budgies flit about in an array of colors and patterns: traditional greens, spritely blues, luminescent yellows.

“These birds all look different,” I said to our guest. “But all of them have something in common. Can you see it?”

A mathematician, she accepted this empirical challenge and circled the aviary. The birds took scant notice, accustomed to visitors. After she gave up, I said, “They’re all males.” The only giveaway is that, in the traditional patterns, males have a vivid blue cere, a patch of flesh, above their beaks.

Thus the chance to explain that Otterbein academics have duplicated a fraternity house—because a female-only budgie flock would fight. (And surely all hell would break loose if the academics had mixed males and females.)

“But why do they make that noise?” she asked me. “What are they saying?”

We listened to the birds’ chortling—an endless, repetitious but pleasing boy chorus. Why indeed? A traditional survival-of-the-fittest answer: they’re claiming territory. A prelude to war. But surely the best answer—and equally Charles Darwin’s—is: because female parakeets like the sound. Furthermore, they’re favoring males who are sociable enough to flock together to produce such background sound for them to enjoy.

The latter answer isn’t my Romantic notion but arrives courtesy of a remarkable new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.

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A creator’s credo

May 10, 2017 | 10 Comments

One day late in the semester just ended, I ran into Shelby Page, a former student. I was leaving Otterbein University’s Art and Communication Building, and Shelby was going in. When she was a freshman, I had taught her and 13 other whip-smart honors classmates in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” I hadn’t seen her since our class. She told me of her upcoming senior exhibit, which I’ve now attended. I was impressed by Shelby’s work and by her brief Artist’s Statement on the wall. Her thoughts on artmaking addressed her work as a visual artist, but they apply to writing and probably to making anything:

“Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece.”

There’s hard truth in Shelby’s insights here, and there’s hope. The truth is that what you envision in a flash hasn’t really been planned, though it may feel that way, and it sure isn’t done. What you sensed was glorious completion was pure possibility. Nothing more, nothing less. A glimmer. The first step is to act on it or to let it go. Let’s say you begin, fired with intention. As Shelby says, your intention quickly meets the reality of what’s emerging.

Art is a field of geniuses, but I presume that, like me, everyone gets humbled. In writing, no one is smart enough to foresee where actual words and sentences will send your notion. And of course the writer is struggling with what s/he’s capable of—at that moment, with that material—and so on into the future. But because art flares during creation, as Shelby says, also lends hope. Especially when, however cheerfully you began, you proceed in fear and trembling. What happened to my plan?

I’ve become a fan of prompts and borrowed structures for this reason—they thwart intention. By raising or lowering the stakes, they bleed off preexisting intention and some anxiety. When I write something with a fully realized intention, it risks being superficial, boring. Without friction, it isn’t deep enough: there hasn’t been enough discovery. I sense this sometimes in others’ work as well. For me, intention, in the sense of chasing a germinal idea or feeling, is vital—but not in the sense of hewing to a predetermined plan, of transcribing what you already “know.”

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My grandfather’s essay

May 3, 2017 | 9 Comments

Driving back and forth between Ohio and Virginia late last winter and into spring, as I taught a short course in memoir at Virginia Tech, I thought of how I might write an essay about my granddaughter. Or rather, about the twelve-plus hours in February when I had cared for her alone.

Let me repeat and recast that: a guy in his sixties, with a bad back and a grumpy demeanor, was tasked with watching a toddler, then in the throes of the Terrible Twos, alone for over twelve hours. Oh, she’s adorable—the cutest, sweetest, smartest kid on Earth—but she does something different every 30 seconds. A force of nature, she totally sets your agenda. And did I mention that she doesn’t nap when at home, only at daycare? That she’s in the Terrible Twos? For the uninformed, the latter means “no” is a fraught word. So I’d rolled with the punches, all 12.5 hours of them.

At the end, punch drunk, I had only two clear memories of that Saturday. A vivid one at the start and another indelible moment at the end. Two memories to work with. Which seemed great, in a way: open with the first and close with the second. A memoir sandwich. I steadily warmed to this, seeing how beautifully those two moments captured my and Little Kathy’s rollercoaster of emotions and activities. It was so intense, I have only two memories! She wiped my slate clean and almost killed me! Perfect. The problem, of course, emerged as I tried to write the essay. I have only two clear memories of that day.

Much spilled out for the middle, don’t get me wrong. As I said in my email to my memoir class for retirees that starts tonight, “After this class, should you choose, you’ll be well on your way to inflicting your own grandchild, dog . . . partner, self, or family on the unsuspecting world!”

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A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 12 Comments

I’m always circling back to James Baldwin. My latest return, reading The Devil Finds Work, his essays on American cinema, was spurred by watching the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I found the film, as a work of history, of racial reconsideration, of brilliantly structured art, quite literally stunning. Based loosely on Baldwin’s unrealized plan to write a book about three slain friends—civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. It opened nationwide on February 3, and I saw it shortly afterward in a screening at Ohio State. I’ve been trying since then to watch it again. The film’s power derives, in large part, from its periodic juxtaposition of images of American racists of another era with those who’ve gaped and japed at recent rallies.

Such a stinky revelation of human insufficiency. Hence the timeliness of Baldwin’s urgent message that race is America’s story. Race is where our nation’s transcendent ideals meet the angels and demons of human nature. Is America only an accident of its riches or is it an avatar of the expanding human spirit?

Baldwin sank his teeth in such foundational issues. Which is partly what makes him one of America’s greatest writers. He loved America and its culture, but was an outsider—made doubly so by his race and his homosexuality—and he wrote in fierce, profound clarity and despair. The Devil Finds Work shows you what it’s like for such a man to consider movies he loves and ones he hates. It’s a racial and social deconstruction of American cinema.

Writing of the “mindless and hysterical banality” of the evil in The Exorcist, Baldwin reveals his own feeling of insufficiency before the “heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” Any human’s freedom carries the almost unbearable burden of honestly confronting one’s failure to be fully human: “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live.”

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