Literary Devices

Literary Devices

About a year or so ago my sister-in-law back ‘home’ in Tennessee observed an endearing habit in my brother. From an adjoining room she could hear him plunking out something on a computer keyboard. Only he was not typing the way somebody, you know, normal, would: his technique was more like firing off a weapon with each keystroke, with a final cannon shot for each period: pow! pow! pow! BOOM! It made her giggle.

Yep, I said, it comes from dad. I don’t know how I know this: I don’t have an explicit memory of dad typing this way, but he must’ve at some point. He has hands you could describe as athletic, I think, long, muscular digits with rounded fingertips. My brother has the same hands, and so do I. And not long after my sister-in-law observed my brother’s explosive typing habit, I realized I possess precisely the same disposition when it comes to typing. Nature or nurture—who knows? It’s clear the proverbial apples did not fall far from the tree.

I’m hard on keyboards, but I figure that falls comfortably and justifiably within the domain of a writer. I’m already on my second one in a tenure just under three years at the digital marketing agency where I work, which is also where I confirmed the typing technique lineage I already suspected: on a quiet afternoon (you could hear a pin drop) I realized the loudest noise in our becubicled open space was the sound coming from my fingertips. Bam-bam-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-bam! Over time I also realized the most percussive keystrokes occurred when I was trying hard to make a point—in a piece of correspondence, in content I was writing for a client, even in mere frustration after making the same stupid typo three times in a row—CAPITAL G, dammit! Pow! Somehow banging the keyboard extra hard seems meaningful and necessary, or cathartic at least. Maybe it’s simply passive aggression, I don’t know.

The reader can discern no proof of emphatic typing at the other end of an email, nor can the e-commerce consumer parsing through a product description or blog post. Once upon a time, gentle reader, the typewritten page might indeed have revealed the vigor of a keystroke, with inky letters imprinted deeply on a fibrous page like some ancient rune in bas relief. You could flip the page over and feel the words through the other side; I remember this phenomenon from any number of prep school papers I churned out in my youth.

The Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee lies within the bowels of Neyland Stadium, in a long, curvilinear corridor that follows the exact contours of the stadium itself. It was still the men’s athletic dorm when my dad was a student there in the 1960s; the tiny dorm rooms were later pressed into service as anthropology professors’ offices, classrooms, and even laboratories. On any fall weekday afternoon during class one could hear the muted sounds of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band practicing on the field above

When I was clocking countless hours as an anthropology major there in the 1990s (and even a few a bit later as a graduate student in city planning), one could also hear the telltale percussive strikes of a manual typewriter issuing forth from a particular office filled to the brim with books, journals, files, and stacks upon stacks of papers: the beloved professor and mentor who sat behind the old desk in that office stubbornly refused to transition to the digital age when most of his colleagues had long abandoned the analog world (more recently he has relented)—I found this tenacity one of his most endearing habits among many when I was his student. That loud clackety-clack-clack reverberating through the department was reassuring: Dr. Faulkner is in the house.

I can’t say I miss the typewriter, however romantic it may seem as viewed through the lens of nostalgia, at least not in the way I sometimes miss the old-fashioned vinyl LPs that digital music plowed under decades ago. I could easily hop back on that bandwagon, as others have. But the typewriter’s limitations are simply too dramatic as held up against the word processor, and that gap widens all the time. I’d even wager our advancing digital devices may hasten our evolution as a species, outpacing any decent interval Darwin himself could have imagined (it’s a shaky assertion, I know).

Underscoring an important point—in the era of the typewriter and now—demands a classical command of the language, though, with judicious use of italics or bold-face type thrown in for good measure: doesn’t make a difference how hard you bang out your thoughts on the keyboard, as I am doing now. Either you know how to express them on ‘paper,’ or you don’t.

My devices at home are failing. My old Gateway laptop I procured just after I came to Vermont in 2012 is falling apart a piece at a time: it has given me almost five years of excellent service, and I paid nothing for it—old credit card thank-you points stepped in during a crisis, no complaints here. Back in the winter I bought a wireless mouse to make working from home a little easier (lots of tabs open at once, lots of clicking back and forth between them, but without the luxury of the two large desktop monitors I have at the office). And after I made that leap, my laptop mouse pad quietly died, almost as if it had withered from neglect before finally giving up. I felt a little bad about that.

More recently I realized the keyboard itself was on its last leg when the spring under the space bar broke on one end (the end that bears a visible thumb-shaped dip in the black plastic); the action on the other end remained intact, forcing me somehow into another quadrant of my brain when I typed. It was an awkward transition at best, but I made it work. A couple of other keys—important ones—threatened to fail, too: one simply cannot live without the commanding and affirming delete, backspace, and enter keys. And then last weekend the space bar finally gave up the ghost completely. I could lightly tap it and it still responded, sort of, but I worried it might decide to just keep on going when I touched it, reducing my writing to infinite empty space and no way to stop it. (In space, no one can hear you scream.) So I found a wireless keyboard to use for the time being, until I have time to browse for the perfect replacement laptop. This means my laptop is now effectively a desktop: I’m tethered to my desk if I want to write, just like I was in the analog age. (And anyway, my battery’s shot, too: I must stay plugged in all the time now.)

My shiny, new wireless keyboard is compact but fully loaded; I kicked the tires when I was looking, and the ad suggested it was made for people like me, slackers trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. I paid almost nothing for it, which makes it sweeter still, of course. I think this proclivity to keep on going with the same old equipment fairly aligns me with my beloved anthropology professor.

Best of all, though, the keys are springy and loud, almost like an old typewriter keyboard—a very smart typewriter. BOOM! Anything for a good literary device.

This one’s for you, Dr. Faulkner.

Live Your Life: A Mother’s Reflection

A Mother’s Life

Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak

It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”

I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.

Off you go, then, I told him.

Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.

We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.

We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.

And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.

During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.

Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)

A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.

And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.

A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.

Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.

Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.

My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.

The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.

Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.

The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.

Toying with Words: Pondering the Evolution of Language

I love language.

For years growing up I believed the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was in fact Murders-in-the-Room Org. I knew of it only because my mom loved to wax poetic about the 1930s horror film based on it. I imagined a bloody scene in a bedroom ruled by a wrinkly, club-wielding creature: in my immature mind’s eye he looked a little like an illustration from an early childhood tome of the bridge troll in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” While the movie sounded deliciously terrifying, my psyche was as yet tender and I was not keen to witness that kind of carnage on a screen.

Another memorable mix-up came from the father of my mom’s closest childhood friend, who loved to evoke a mystery character from his own past named “Fyeshadye.” Turns out we all knew Fyeshadye from a familiar childhood prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/Fyeshadye before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take

Fyeshadye’s creator and I were in good company, it would seem: the endearing Mr. Tumnus—inhabitant of Narnia, an invention of one C.S. Lewis—mistook the character Lucy’s provenance as Spare Oom, a delightful take on the “spare room” whence Lucy had stumbled from the wardrobe into Narnia.

In music this phenomenon is known as a mondegreen, a mishearing of a lyric that results in a comical misinterpretation of it. In 1988, “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed skewered presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in a caricature showing each one’s take on the lyrics from “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen’s 1963 party standard (you can imagine). Funnier still, though, was Bloom County character Bill D. Cat’s rendition of the lyrics, as follows (cue the familiar dah-dah-dah/dah-dah organ intro):

Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Ee fi li curl way fra nee
Ee cat-ta shi fo kra-see
Ne sait a shi auuuu lome
Ee newa fwo ma-make I ome
(chorus)
Ree nie (garbled) ail zee
Me tink (garbled) ee (garbled)
(garbled) dwee Li’l Friskies
(garbled) ack
(garbled)
(guitar solo)

©1988 Berkeley Breathed Bloom County

Have any of these mondegreenian misinterpretations stuck in our language permanently through time? Writing about mondegreens in this New Yorker.com piece, Maria Konnikova submits they surely have (and don’t call me Shirley). It’s worth a gander if the evolution of the mother tongue interests you at all.

I started down the mondegreen road after listening to a clip of Terry Gross’s interview with Merriam Webster editor Kory Stamper. What caught my ear was Stamper’s account of eavesdropping on her teenage daughter chatting with friends in the back seat of the car, talking in truncated cyber language the way teenagers do these days. In one example Stamper referenced the “A-F” usage that has come into common parlance as a modern-day vulgarity. (For the uninitiated, it’s a stand-in for “as f**k,” for example, We were hungry as f**k—it lacks imagination to be sure, as most vulgarities do, but you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary American teen who does not use it, and I’ve come to prefer it over hearing the actual f-bomb.) Over time, Stamper observed, these kids further truncated “A-F” to simply, “affe” (pronounced like the second syllable of giraffe). Thus, We were hungry affe. Its fate as a future entry in Merriam Webster, perhaps, rests with Ms. Stamper.

I have been at the wheel of that carpooling car, also eavesdropping with interest. Nor has my fascination with this linguistic evolution ended in my post-parenting years: my own Millennial kid still introduces me to all kinds of stylized and acrobatic language at the other end of the thousand miles that separate us. Much of it eludes me until I ask, although I try to parse through it first to see if I can figure it out. One of my favorites is the phenomenon of pressing a noun into service as an intransitive verb. On a recent Sunday morning I explained I could not video chat with him because I was headed out the door to yoga. He messaged back, “Who TF yogas at 9:30 on Sunday morning?” This example includes still another iteration of the “A-F” vulgarity (using “the” in place  of “as”), along with the noun “yoga” now morphing into an action word.

A more common evolution is the smooshing together of words, a phenomenon I struggle with professionally all the time. A case in point: am I a copy editor, or a copyeditor? Depends whom you ask. My copywriting colleagues ask me these kinds of questions all the time, and more often than not I have to survey the opinions out there in the ether before I settle on an answer. Call it verbal co-dependence if you will—one yearns for rules and directions, but often none exists. One thing is certain: our language is a living, breathing thing. And what logophile among us would not love a peek at the condition of the King’s English a hundred years hence?

I leave you with the actual lyrics to “Louie Louie” as written by R. Berry in 1955, along with the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording. And I defy you to recognize these words when you hear them:

Louie Louie, me gotta go
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
Me sail the ship all alone
Me never thinks me make it home
(chorus)
Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair
(chorus, guitar solo)
Me see Jamaica moon above
It won’t be long, me see my love
I take her in my arms and then
Me tell her I never leave again

Oh, Just. Let. Me.

Patient Scout Surveys the World
Patient, Camouflaged Scout Surveys the World

Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.

However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.

In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.

At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.

More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.

Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.

One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”

Retirés All
Retirés All; photo, Xavier Battle

Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.

Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.

In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.

Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.

Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:

Band-Aid Blunder
Band-Aid Blunder

I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)

There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:

band-aid_box_blunder_2

Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.

I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.

Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

Precise Language
Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.

On Writing Well: Don’t *Be* a Writer

Lilliputian Lessons
Lilliputian Lessons

In grad school I knew a young ninny who believed taking courses in technical writing would plug the gaping holes in his undergraduate academic experience and give him all the tools he needed to enjoy success in his anticipated professional life. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t say for sure whether those technical writing courses lived up to his expectations, but sitting around in a student lobby one morning I gently opined to him that coursework in English literature might serve him better. Why? he wondered. I tried to distill down my answer as best I could, but mainly, I explained, you’ll write your tail off in those classes—this is why they’re called writing-intensive courses. What do you do in literature courses? You read and read. And then you write and write about what you read. You become a better writer the more you write. And there is a depth and breadth to those writing assignments you probably won’t get in technical writing courses—you’ll have to think critically and explain yourself on paper, in a way you hope engages your reader.

In the end my suggestion was lost on him, an outcome probably as much a consequence of my flawed attempt to explain as it was his thick skull. But to this guy’s way of thinking, and to scores of others like him, taking a technical writing course was the only tincture you needed to treat the Awful Writing plague. (These were also the folks who cleaved stubbornly to the juvenile notion that undertaking coursework in anything that could not be harnessed directly for professional life was time wasted.) I submit that if you lack an understanding of the written word, or if your command of it is limited, your technical writing will reflect these deficiencies as much the rest of your writing does.

It’s a truth that should have come home to you the day your freshman English literature professor handed back your half-baked paper on Gulliver’s Travels marked up in red. If you were worth your own salt, you recognized that as a gift, all the notes he wrote diligently on the back of every double-spaced page of your pedestrian work—the missives about your over-reliance on the verb to be, your wearisome overuse of passive voice, the absence of descriptive language, but also your wordiness, and countless other missteps—all of that amounting to an essay in its own right. It was your wake-up call, if you were not a nubbin head. And there’s the rub: if you never possessed the desire to write well in the first place, it was all for naught.

That professor taught me in my early life as an undergraduate. He was an untenured newbie with a fresh-from-Columbia doctorate, now paid to stand before sleepy liberal arts majors at the University of Tennessee to try to pique our collective literary interest. Poor man; I feel sure most of us cared not one jot about his Canterbury Tales lectures or much else on the course syllabus, but were there mainly to tick another prerequisite box. The morning he recited the Prologue to us in a gorgeous, lilting cadence, though, that morning we bore witness to high art in a brutalist cinderblock classroom—Geoffrey Chaucer paid us a visit that day. This professor’s penchant for elevating the written word, and his unfaltering willingness to rip my flawed prose and then calmly explain why, kept me coming back for more. I even suffered with him through Restoration drama, a course I feel certain he was handed to teach because nobody else wanted it.

I believe this because of the King Lear incident which unfolded in an adjacent classroom one morning. Through the voice of an esteemed Shakespearian scholar, Lear had the audacity to reverberate so explosively from the room next door, the young academic before us was forced to suspend his own lecture for a few moments. He stepped back from the lectern while Lear howled on. And when the king finally fell silent, he quietly lamented to those of us who were listening, I wish I were teaching that. I heard these words fall from his lips, a tiny and rare glimpse into this man’s true demeanor, and somehow admired him more for it.

One of my favorite writers was a distinguished English professor at my alma mater, a teacher of fiction writing; he was also a friend. His uncensored wit and telling of stories were as artful and engaging as his published work. Something he once told a woman at a book signing so beautifully encapsulated the truth about writing and has stayed with me all these years. She was working on her first novel, she explained, seeking any advice he could give her—she desperately wanted to be a writer. The room collectively rolled its eyes, and I braced myself for what was coming.

Without flinching he quipped, I can’t advise you if you want to be a writer, only if you want to write.

This wisdom transcends writing to include other disciplines: don’t be a doctor, practice medicine.  Don’t be a carpenter, build things. It certainly applies to writing “subdisciplines,” if you will: don’t be a technical writer, explain things. Don’t be a marketing copy writer, influence consumers with brilliant prose. Maybe. At the very least this statement expresses its sentiment with a more active voice, with less reliance on the verb to be, after all. It emphatically describes something more akin to a heartfelt yearning.

As for the would-be Lear lecturer, I hear he holds an impressive title at the University of Tennessee these days but continues to teach. Evidently it’s wicked difficult to get a coveted spot in one of his classes; must be the Chaucer.

My Journey to the Corporate World: Don’t Hate

Knoxville Ballet School Level 2B

A ballet friend and colleague recently asked whether I’ve been “itching” to teach again. I had to think about that. These days I’m not sure I would describe my desire to teach as an itch, but maybe—it felt like something more profound when I took the colossal and risky leap of faith to open a small ballet school in 2006. Any kind of business startup demands your full commitment, and I mean full, to say nothing of a healthy bank account—double what you think it will take and then some, buckets of your time, unrelenting nail biting, more time, all your waking hours, and a few sleepless nights thrown in for good measure—did I mention time?

When you start a school there are exactly no guarantees the thing will fly; mine ultimately did not, although had I been willing to leave behind some of my stubbornly held ideas about maintaining a certain artistic “pureness” in my business practices, I believe it would have: when my marriage failed and everything came unglued I was already teetering on the threshold of fiscal success. But teetering falls short of paying the light bill and the rent.

Other benchmarks at the school—teaching standards, community engagement, relationship building—undeniably painted a picture of success. I submit that during its brief life the ballet school purveyed a product of a quality unmatched anywhere in my home town and beyond. What I could bring to the table was complete immersion in classical ballet by way of the pedigree handed me by my own ballerina mom and each of her friends and colleagues, who nurtured along my intense love for the form for most of two decades. We often speak of teaching ballet as commuting the art form to a new generation, our tacit obligation to keep it alive but also to leave our own thumbprint on it, part and parcel of its natural evolution; I saw the school as my chance to do that.

But in 2009 I also made an important business and artistic decision to develop a professional relationship with American Ballet Theatre, which served my community back home in more ways than can be quantified on a spreadsheet; the school’s population—its young enrollees and their families—were the beneficiaries of the collective wisdom of scores of professionals thanks to ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Friendships and professional ties forged at ABT persist; whether they will be called again into “active service” at some point is anybody’s guess, which is the thing I find so enticing about the future to begin with, a kind of counter weight to the uncertainty that can be so disquieting.

The question is, does a ballet school, or any other business, really, deserve to be there in the first place if it can’t self-sustain? Does every struggling business (or ill-conceived business plan or idea) deserve a Kickstarter campaign? I never even thought of going down that road with my own small ballet school.

Instead I sized up my desperate situation and ultimately took a job in the corporate world after a brief teaching stint elsewhere, a “selling out” frowned on in some circles. Even the word itself—corporate—has negative connotations (greed comes to mind), some deserved to be sure. It derives from the Latin word for body, but its implicit meaning now is “all” versus “one.” The corps de ballet, for example, is the main body of the company, apart from its soloists, but without whom there is no ballet. We often think of the corporate entity, though, as antithetical to the individual, and therefore antithetical to creativity.

Working in the corporate world is not a universally wretched condition: I’m privileged to make a living doing the one other thing I love, which is writing, even if it is not always in my own voice. (Is there creativity in my work? In spades.) But when you dance in the corps de ballet, you are part of something bigger, as I am now.

Were I still at the helm of a ballet school, my approach now would almost certainly be broader, making use of the classroom space to generate revenue for as many moments as the day allowed, to reach a wider audience, to tap into the bigger desires of the community—to be more corporate minded, if you will; this is not about greed, but survival. In those days I eschewed these opportunities in the name of artistic purity, of being only the one thing, the best ballet school. Even the school’s slogan spelled it out: excellent instruction in correct classical ballet technique. But it would have been entirely possible to reach beyond the confines of classical ballet instruction and still maintain that slogan, and the highest standards for ballet training. (And in hindsight, the school’s one exceptional product really demanded a higher price tag than I put on it.) I embraced the paradigm of the diva soloist instead of being a team player in the corps de ballet, and it finally cost me my school. Without the corps, there is no ballet.

So I answered my friend’s question yes, with an asterisk: some day in the future, I would enjoy standing at the front of the classroom again, at a time when I don’t absolutely need the income from an unwieldy teaching load to (barely) make ends meet. Teaching ballet really is a luxury; working as I do now is a necessity, but is honorable, I believe, and satisfying, a pleasure for which being vilified by some folks out there in the ether feels misguided. These days I pay the light bill and the rent as a member of the corps, no Kickstarter campaign required.

Deb and Celia at ABT 1

With one of my young Knoxville Ballet School students at ABT in 2012

Learning to Write in Bits and Bytes

Digital Marketing Blog Post 2

How many of your speech and language neurons are you willing to prune away?

I write and edit wide-ranging content for a successful digital marketing content company, where we keep abreast of the latest in best practices. Maintaining high standards is important because we hand our clientele deliverables that ultimately affect their bottom lines, and of course the quality of our work speaks volumes about us as an agency. We want everybody to be profitable and happy. And we want to continue to give our clients the best advice to achieve those ends.

Lately the trade chatter’s been all about writing shorter content. And still shorter content. Why? Mainly because we are tethered to our smart phones all the livelong day, and for a message to effectively reach us, it has to fit nicely on that little glass screen without beseeching us to scroll and scroll and scroll, because we might grow impatient and move on. (To be sure, I’m not slamming the device itself, which is pretty dang amazing when you stop for a nanosecond to think about it—an entire computer, widely available, globally connected, with the same power as your laptop. And it fits in the palm of your hand.)

When I say shorter content, I don’t mean the web descriptions limited to a certain number of characters or fewer to avoid the dreaded Google nip and tuck in the search results. This is about writing less. And less. For example, cramming your marketing message into a blog post a consumer can read at a glance before going on, but hopefully not before the desired “conversion” that ends in an e-commerce transaction—maybe not right then, but the seed will have been planted. (And if you’re really lucky, they’ll share it via social media—that’s a digital marketing high five, right there.)

The thing is, we’re not talking about an ad slogan made to fit on a T-shirt (USAir Begins With You). We’re talking about writing, preferably using the King’s English with art and skill to thoughtfully engage a reader, ulterior motives notwithstanding. I find this trend to trim more than a little disquieting.

Remember when your prep school English teachers or college professors urged you to be concise in your writing? To express an idea in fewer words, with “tighter” language and presumably more clarity? They were absolutely right about that—wordiness is wearisome. If you can express the same thought more succinctly, without changing its meaning, your message usually packs so much more punch.

But this is a different economy of words, a writing style dictated by our collectively shorter and shorter attention spans, where paragraphs are replaced more and more by bulleted or numbered lists, for example. Waxing poetic has no place here (although Haiku as a form handily fits on the little screen: Click on this here link/Go buy cheap stuff from China/Happy consumer). But so much must be clipped in the interest of space (and time, because nobody seems to have enough of it to parse through a longish article these days), critical ideas—and beautiful language—often fall through the cracks, or get poked through them.

When short digital content is good, it can be very, very good (and by the way, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “clever.”) But that is so rarely the case. The funny thing is, I have seen some minimalist content out there that is so badly written it still somehow manages to be wordy. Unbelievably, sometimes it’s even celebrated as excellent writing. Go figure. At the risk of sounding like a cynic (okay, I’m a cynic), I submit much of it is tripe.

Back to those neurons: does that sound like rubbish to you? It might be. In fact, I hope it is for the sake of us as a species. But consider the toll this here digital era has taken on our language to date, where words are reduced to snippets that don’t really make much sense at all out of context. I know, because I’m the proud parent of a young millennial whose daily messages to me are often so reductionist I have to ask two or three times for clarification. (I have been known to correct his spelling and grammar on Facebook. I know, but he’ll thank me someday.)

Lest you think I weep for the future, fear not: I see this emerging code for writing the best digital content possible, using the fewest words, as the most magnificent professional challenge: how to effectively engage your audience with the most spartan language imaginable. Evelyn Waugh once said of his own writing, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” It is a nice metaphor for what we do in this biz, only the data size keeps shrinking (see ‘bits and bytes’ above).

We use “shares” and “likes” to measure success, and sometimes the most horrid content still emerges victorious by these standards. Still, I like to think quality prose prevails over silly numbered lists, like good over evil in classic literature. In the world of digital marketing copy, my opinion does not matter: strategies and yardsticks for success can be discussed in focus groups and around conference room tables ‘til the cows come home, but the only thing that finally matters is the bottom line.

Reflections: Loss, Life’s Frailty, & Gratitude

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Groucho MarxNYPL Digital Collection Woman and Dog

Mind you, this is not too profound. After last weekend’s disappointing discovery of the incipient decline of many, many of my books I am feeling better about them tonight. I’m lucky to live with somebody who loves me and pushed up his sleeves without provocation to help me save the rest of my collection. A tall bookcase came out of storage last Monday and stands smooshed between a window on one side and a gigantic china cabinet that belongs to the landlord on the other; it seems a little out of place, like it has not yet been properly introduced to the cabinet, but I am ever so grateful there was room on that particular wall for it.

I’ve emptied three large boxes of books, then cleaned and shelved them. There are many more to go and a couple more bookcases to bring out of storage and somehow squeeze among the rest of our belongings—it’s a little like forcing a puzzle piece that does not really fit. Like so many other things in this transitional chapter, it’ll have to do.

The Book Project will continue to unfold over a couple of weeks before it’s done. For now I’m wiping the sweat off my brow, in a good way.

It still does not take much these days to get me thinking about loss, and the books were a predictable catalyst for it: the loss of my home and family, my hard-won ballet school, many of my personal belongings, and then my beloved canine companion Clarence a short while before the very livelihood I moved to Vermont to pursue in the first place was yanked out from under me. There was a moment when I was shaking an angry fist skyward: it all seemed like too damn much.

And then I blew my nose, pushed up my sleeves, and got on past it. Doesn’t mean I don’t still have moments of angst, bitterness, and even stronger feelings. I don’t like going down that road, but I do sometimes when little things set me off: a landscape, a news story, a piece of music—or a book. I think humans are hard wired like that, and it’s part and parcel of continuing to heal and move forward, so long as we’re relatively healthy and stable to begin with.

I don’t live by silly quotes of the kind you see découpaged on living room walls, that are meant to daily remind us how to live our lives. Nothing against them if they really help people, but the cynic in me tends to snigger. Maybe if there is a judgment day I’ll be forced to recant: Sorry I did not live, love, nor laugh when instructed; my bad.

But I do reflect on the higher meaning of things I’ve experienced. Recently it’s been all about living without the things and people once near and dear to me, every. single. day. In the last year since I’ve started fiscally rebuilding my life I’ve been gobsmacked by this simple idea: you really do learn to appreciate the things you can’t have anymore.

This thought tugged at me a couple of weeks ago when I left the dentist’s office after not having the luxury of dental care for about four years. And again last Saturday when HCB and I joined a small group of <mainly> new friends to break bread together and enjoy each other’s company—something I once did routinely, never imgaining that too would soon be a luxury.

Last night HCB and I visited a local inn whose proprietors he has known for years, where we had an indulgent glass of pinot noir and shared a flourless chocolate torte in an intimate bar: divine. I also spent a few minutes enjoying the company of the oversized yellow lab who owns the place. This invoked in me equal parts of joy and overwhelming sadness.

It came bubbling right up to the surface again: you have no dog. YOU HAVE NO DOG. I have lived very few years of my life without a dog. In my professional life as a marketing writer I spend a lot of time writing about dogs for a particular client. The research is fun and so is the writing. But I am almost daily reminded I still have no dog. We’re not allowed to have a dog in this house, and when Clarence and I once came here as visitors, the tricky spiral staircase was too much for him. There was a lot of pacing and vocalizing when we were not all together on the same level of the house. A lot. Last night I thoroughly enjoyed loving on the big ‘ole yellow lab. It was magical. Did you know I have been writing stories about you? I wanted to ask him. When I finally have a dog of my own again, I am confident I will appreciate him more than I ever appreciated a dog, if that is possible. (Yes, it will be a “him” and his name will be Jeeves. Or Wooster. Or Jack.)

I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies, Sideways, which HCB and I watched on the telly Friday night. It was this movie to inspire our glass of pinot. And it is a scene that so beautifully expresses many of the emotions I’ve felt (and still struggle with) the last few years. But it will make you laugh, I hope. Go forth and live and love, also.

Warning: this clip is most emphatically NOT kid-friendly. Do yourself a favor and watch it in high def if it does not automatically load that way. Oh, and hat tip to my new(ish) friend Deb, who put the New York Public Library Digital Collections link on my radar, whence comes the great doggie image at the top of the post. Cheers!

All That Glitters: Making Effort Look Effortless

When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.

Chandelier 1

This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.

Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.

Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.

This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,

[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.

Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.

In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.

But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.

And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.

P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?