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WRITING PHILOSOPHY

My Personal Notations from “A Mere Journalist” by Aristides [Joseph Epstein] in The American Scholar (Winter 1985/86).

“Off and on for more than twenty years, I have been keeping a journal.  One expects a famous writer to keep a journal,” wrote Aristides, the pen name for Joseph P Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, 1975-1997. 

“The first function of a young writer’s journal: a place to grouse, a place to dramatize one’s condition in prose, and a place to bemoan the fact that, once again, this time in the instance of oneself, the world in its ignorance is failing to recognize another genius.”

“In my [current] journal…I have done my best to cease complaining and have taken as my motto the lines from the beer commercial that runs ‘I guess it doesn’t get much better than this.’”

“…to feature introspection and self-analysis…even in a journal has its limits.”

“Who needs this?…I suppose I alone do.  Something in me impels me to record much I have thought, or experienced, or read, or heard.”

“I find keeping a journal quickens life; it provides the double pleasure of first living life and then savoring it through the formation of sentences about it.”

Graphomania: a writer’s disease “taking the form of simply being unable to put down the pen (the authorly equivalent to logorrhea).  ‘Advanced’ stage takes the form of needing to write down everything because anything that hasn’t been written down isn’t quite real.”

“The graphomaniac’s slogan is ‘no ink, no life.’”

“I must confess that I do not write in my journal every day.  But when I do write something in my journal, I feel rather more complete…  Not that journal writing elevates me–it doesn’t, usually…”

“I do feel upon having made an entry in my journal as if I have done my duty, completed, in effect, an act of intellectual hygiene.”

“I do not often look into my journals; yet whenever I do, I am impressed by how much experience has slipped through the net of my memory.”

“I suspect that anyone who keeps a journal has to be something of a Copernican–he [or she] really must believe that the world revolves around himself [or herself].”

“Everything I have written is these journals is true–or at least as true as I could make it at the time I wrote it.  Lying, as such, is not, I believe, a question in my journal.”

“I try, when writing in my journal, to keep in mind the twin truths that I am someone of the greatest importance to myself and that I am also ultimately insignificant.  (This is not always so easily accomplished.)”

“Sometimes I am astonished at the items that find their way into this journal of mine.”

“I [once] wrote that John Wayne had become part of the furniture of [my] one’s life.  The first half of one’s life, it strikes me, one fills up one’s rooms with such furniture; the second half, one watches this furniture, piece by piece, being removed.”

“My journal has served as a running inventory of my days, and I am pleased to have kept it.”

“Though we must live life forward, ‘Life can only be understood backward,’ wrote Kierkegaard.  Yet a journal does provide backward understanding…a great aid in replaying segments of past experience, in running over important and even trivial events, in recollecting moods and moments otherwise lost to memory.”

“A journal is a simple device for blowing off steam, privately settling scores, clarifying thoughts, giving way to vanities, rectifying hypocrisies, and generally leaving an impression and record of your days.”

“When you are through with it, [and] when the time has come to leave this…earth, you can even pass the damn thing along to your yet unborn great-grandchildren.”

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“If you don’t understand, ask before it’s too late.”  –Anon.

Once upon a time, as the story goes, there were three bears, a Lorax, and seven dwarfs.  They all planned to sit down on the forest lawn one late spring morning for a leisurely brunch, complete with honey, biscuits, green eggs and ham (this was a typical New Orleans Brennan’s-style meal), and some good apple pies baked by the old hag who also built gingerbread houses.  Well, because of the whims of Thor and the other gods, the brunch party was called on account of rain.  But they all lived happily ever after, for they knew behind every rain cloud there was a silver lining.

THE END.

SO IT GOES.

HEIGH, HO!

Narration is to entertain, by storytelling, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Mostly.  There is FACTUAL narration and FICTIONAL narration.  (Some get them mixed up.)

FACTUAL presents a sequence of events (and people involved) as they are, CONCERNED WITH TIME AND ACTION.  The events have significance or meaning to the teller of the tale, even though he or she may not have been directly involved in the event (what I might know from a historical happening). 

(Sometimes, though, narration or storytelling is used to make a point, or even to make an argument, as in a parable, a fable, or in a sermon [or at a political rally]).  In telling, tellers capture and use DETAILS and organize and present with FEELINGS and EMOTIONS, yet ordering with reason-ableness.  (A reader or listener wants to hear or read details that emotionally involve–“Yeah!  That happened to me!”; details that are understandable; details that present a sense of time and past-ness to make it all ring true–memoriesofatime)

TELL A GOOD STORY.  BE HONEST AND TRUE.  PUT IT ALL IN GOOD ORDER: incidents, anecdotes, memories, nostalgics, milestones, autobiography, biography, family history. 

Jean Piaget told some teachers once upon a time that most people usually do not reflect upon their lives–and maybe cannot–until they are 18 or 19.  (He said some writers need to be taught how to reflect.)

Finally, once upon a time, the author Flannery O’Connor remarked that anybody who has survived childhood (the 18 or 19 mentioned by Piaget?) has enough information about life to last (to write about?) the rest of his or her days.

THE END.

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“To work together, words need help.  They need connecting words, and they need punctuation.  All methods of punctuation point the way for the reader, gathering, linking, separating, and emphasizing what truly matters.  These marks are more than squiggles on a page.  They are the ligaments of meaning and purpose.”  –Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar, 2010.

At one English conference I attended, long into my teaching career, I listened to a speaker lecture about grammar, and teaching punctuation.  I heard him say clearly that the semicolon was such a sophisticated piece of punctuation that it should not be used until students were in 12th grade!  Sophistication, and more.

semicolons

It differs from everything else–the comma, colon, period–yet incorporates each with a semblance of “uniqueness”: slow…explain…stop.  All at the same time.  But it’s a slow-stopper, not a full-stopper.  A breather.  (“Take a breath,” it says.)  It is just so useful, so delightful, so important, and so special.  Not to be easily misused.  Roy Peter Clark describes it as an object that connects and separates at the same time, like a swinging gate, even: “a barrier that forces separation but invites you to pass through to the other side” (Glamour of Grammar).  It is so special.

But it wasn’t always so special then as it is to me now.  Memories of a time: My latest high school composition returned to me.  The paper had red-pen bleedings…D31…here and there, with some comments written in the margins, from my teacher Father William Flaherty.  william-flaherty-ma-stl

These bloody droppings, references to items in our writing handbook [which I still keep under pain of excommunication!], these codes, symbols, cryptic messages…D31…we would have to consult, we would try to learn well enough before the next theme or essay was due.  It did not always work that way so easily.  Repeatedly I would make those same mistakes/errors…D31…until…the semester ended. 

writing-handbook HANDBOOK USED 1956-1960

New semester: same rules about that pesky semicolon.  But more “sophisticated” examples for us to follow.  For the next year.  And the next.  Then the end of 12th grade.  Done with all the gobbledygook about punctuation and grammar rules.  “All done.  I’m putting that handbook away!”  Then: College.  More writing books, like The Elements of Style.  Never did I expect D31 to follow me, to become such a part of my writing life.  I was impressed with D31, impressed upon by D31:

“Use a semicolon rather than a comma before and, or, nor, but, and for in a compound sentence if–A Either clause is long–say, three or four lines.  B Either clause contains a comma, colon, dash, or parentheses.”    

That’s how I learned it; that’s how I used it; that’s how I taught it.  So here I am, so many years later, out of the classroom, yet still concerned with punctuation and with the special semicolon.

How special?  When I first read not long ago the words “Project Semicolon” in a blog posting, I thought it was another grammar site, part of the Common Core, intending to teach today’s students in elementary and high school grades the sophistication and beauty of using the semicolon.  I became excited that there existed devotion still to punctuation, and especially to my favorite special mark.  What a surprise when I clicked on the link:  http://www.projectsemicolon.org/

PROJECT SEMICOLON is a global non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction, and self-injury.  PROJECT SEMICOLON exists to encourage, love, and inspire.  How fitting a sign the “organization” has chosen to symbolize the purpose of the group: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to.  You are the author and the sentence is your life.  Your story is not over.”  The mark is most often seen or displayed as a tattoo, placed behind an ear or on an arm or wrist.  It often represents the wearer’s past (the before), the present (the now), and what will or can be or should be (the future): a “slow-stopper,” not a “full-stopper,” indicating that there is more to come, more to the story. 

So why would someone ever have a tattoo of a punctuation mark, for everyone to see?  Is this like “wearing a heart upon a sleeve”?  I believe so.  To be very open about one’s emotions, not ashamed of the past, being honest; being loyal and truthful in the present, with no secrets; and perhaps never to forget the adventure of life to come, the future.  Openness and honesty is risky business.  It takes courage to admit, to “come out,” as it were.  And the tattoo is symbolic of this.  I like it, endorse it, support it, and support the organization.

semicolon-arm-tattoo

There it is: I am a marked man.  An impressed man.  My tat indicates a story to be told; or it promises, better, that something lies beneath the embedded ink and the skin–perhaps some “in-depth” meaning.  And that explanation is saved, remains, for another day.

©  James F. O’Neil  2017

 

 

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“What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning.  / The end is where we start from.”  –T. S. Eliot

“The past is never dead.  In fact it’s not even past.”  –William Faulkner

“…these statements express the realization that we can never access the body of the past, the physical experience that people now dead once felt in the very fiber of their bodies.  But we can also nevernot want to access that past, to think, imagine, and write our way back to an imagination of what those bodies must have felt [Walt Whitman’s referring to the Civil War dead].  Often our own past feels this way, too–we recall feeling pain or horror or terror, but it is difficult to ‘get it in the books,’  to write it so that others can experience in their bodies what we felt in ours (or so that we can once again feel what we know we once felt).  Writers often experience most keenly this notion that ‘the past is never dead’ and that we are always starting at the end.’”  [IWP © The University of Iowa 2012-2016]

MEMORIESOFATIME  are often written about past events which caused the writer to feel intensely and deeply and physically, then described in such a way emphasizing what the body felt–words being used to bring a dead past alive.

“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”  –Corrie Ten Boom

“Fear not for the future, weep not for the past.”  –Percy Bysshe Shelley

“There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.”  ….  “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.” –James Joyce

“We can’t let the past be forgotten.”  –George Takei

“The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”  –Simone Weil

© James F. O’Neil 2016 

“Technical communication is the transfer of information about a technical situation, product, service, or concept, by written, oral, or visual means, to audiences of varying levels of technical knowledge, so that each member of the audience clearly understands the message.”  –Ron Blicq, Administratively Write!  [1985]

. . .

Communicating in business and industry is not all about telephones, emails, secretarial assistants and transcription, and signing contracts. 

From some old class notes, perhaps still with some relevancy:

  • 28% of time on the job is spent in written communication
  • The writing process involves exploring a topic (20%); planning (10%); actual writing (30%); re-writing (35%); proofreading and editing (5%)
  • Business writers do not always have choices of topics–and write under pressure in 43% of the situations.

. . .

Presenting Technical Information

[Some]  Notes from Professor Reginald Kapp, Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC)

“Clear and precise technical communication is getting directly to the point, being specific and not generalizing, using qualifications and metaphors in writing, using a technical vocabulary.

“Thinking about the person addressed is ‘the first lesson in the art of conveying information effectively from mind to mind.’

“Functional English is the English that any writer uses who expresses meaning clearly and without ambiguity; who spares readers unnecessary effort; who selects every item and places every sentence and every word so that it will meet the function assigned to it.  Functional English presents facts and ideas simply and logically.

“Functional English is chiefly the language of science…nearly always concerned with the outer world; it rarely conveys information obtained by introspection.

“Plain statement alone serves the purpose of Functional English.  Words must not be made to carry either more or less meaning than they do in common usage.

“Language was not evolved by the human race in order to discuss what goes on in our minds.  It was designed as an instrument of the co-operative practical work of every day.

Yet, new information must bring with it associations with things the reader, listener, or viewer already knows, in the ‘storehouse of memories’: ‘things heard, seen, felt; tastes and smells; spoken and written words; trivial and momentous ones; things experienced in reality and things experienced in thought only.’  Thus, illustrative examples should be those familiar to the receiver, not those familiar only to the sender.

“Understanding requires the correlation of the new information with what is already known.  During correlation, work is done on the items that have been assembled for display in consciousness.

“The pleasure one gets from imaginative art is the pleasure of exercising one’s imagination, one’s insight, one’s understanding of human nature.  Imaginative writing calls for insight.  Scientists must not leave anything to the imagination.  They must set it all down in black and white, as Newton did.  Scientists must explain, where the poet implies.”  [1948]

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“A critic is one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique;  one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances.”  [standard dictionary definition]

But what gives them the right to say those things?

They have the job!  We do not…

We give them the power over us–or at least over what we read, see, and hear.  Nevertheless, they are also expressing their own opinions–as we have opinions.

Whom to believe?  For the most part, it’s a matter of taste and style.  A good critic likes what we like and hates what we hate, writes the way we would like to and reviews the things we like to read about.  A bad critic doesn’t.

THERE ARE FEW ESTABLISHED RULES IN THE FIELD OF CRITICISM–AND FEWER CRITICS’ TRAINING INSTITUTES.

Yet we can look at training in the field of alleged expertise and the ability to communicate effectively when judging the critics we read or listen to.

And what about their reputation among peers?  the effort they expend?  their “readability”?

We have to decide whether we want to read the work of others.  We must be critical of the critics, though, if we have our own standards.  And standards we MUST have.

BE READY TO BE YOUR OWN CRITIC.

“Every effective…critic sees some facet of…art and develops our awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches.”  –David Daiches

GOOD PEDAGOGY: “Tell ‘em what you told ‘em”:  [See https://memoriesofatime.com/category/artistic-ventures/ ] HISTORICAL (H): concerned with historical “facts”; FORMALISM (F): concerned with the text (alone); SOCIO-CULTURAL (S): concerned with the text as social commentary; PSYCHOLOGICAL (P): [FREUD]: studies author/artist, work/characters, reader/viewer; MYTHOPOEIC (M): [JUNG]:  tries to present a work as the verbal aspect of ritual. 

CRITICAL READING SKILLS: Seeing/reading what’s there for sure; understanding what we put there; and what it means to us in the greater scheme of things, the “big” picture.”

Finally, review “Comprehension and Critical Reading”: https://memoriesofatime.com/2015/06/30/comprehension-and-critical-reading/

and

“Critical Reading and Skills”: https://memoriesofatime.com/2015/07/11/critical-reading-and-skills/

Finally,

“The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art–and, by analogy, our own experience–more, rather than less, real to us.  The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”  — Susan Sontag
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“I have four principles of writing good English.  They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.”  –William Zinsser

ON WRITING WELL PIC

William Knowlton Zinsser: October 7, 1922 – May 12, 2015: American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher.

On Writing Well, 1976: “…along with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style…a copy of this latest book by William Zinsser should be shelved in every library that houses ‘how-to’ books on non-fiction.  [He] is an expert, a practitioner, with ‘one lesson that writers must learn’: how to control their material.  And he does it well.  Simple.  Direct.  Uncluttered.  His purpose ‘is not to teach good nonfiction, or good journalism, but to teach good English that can be put to those uses.’  Recommended as a good textbook too.”  [from a CHOICE review, June ’76 by James F. O’Neil]

Zinsser was a graduate of Princeton University.

His 18 books include On Writing Well, which is in the seventh edition, revised and updated (2006), the “30th anniversary edition” which includes “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir” and “Writing Family History and Memoir.”   

Throughout the 1970s, Zinsser taught writing at Yale University.

On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips.  But that’s not the point of the book.  It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer.”

“I always write to affirm–or, if I start negatively, deploring some situation or trend that strikes me as injurious, my goal is to arrive at a constructive point.”

“One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’”

Executive editor, Book-of-the-Month Club: 1979-1987.

“Writers are the custodians of memory.”

“Humanity.  Be yourself.  Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not.  Your product, finally, is you.  Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.”

“Re-writing is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”

“…the storytelling business…is the oldest of narrative forms, going back to the caveman and the crib, endlessly riveting…all you have to do is tell a story, using the simple tools of the English language, and never losing your own humanity.”

“Repeat after me:
Short is better than long.
Simple is good.
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence.”

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william zinsser r. i. p. 5-12-2015

William Zinsser

 

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