Posts Tagged writing

Because its time has come …

I dislike poetry. I really do. So I work with myself, reading and re-reading as much as I can. Exposure and Response Prevention. (Don’t ask. It helps to have a psychologist for a spouse impressive jargon comes easily. )

But sometimes I read a poem, perhaps for the tenth time, and something happens. I understand it like never before. Because its time has come I’m ready for it.

So here’s one whose time has come for me. I wrote a vile term paper on it in college.  Oh but last night I fell in love with it. So I’m putting it up here.

The Thought-Fox

 Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Besides the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.  

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

(This is one of the most anthologized of Ted Hughes’ poems and is also available online, so I’m not citing source.)


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Received wisdom

We . . . write to heighten our own awareness of life. . . .  We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection . . . . We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it . . .  to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth, to expand our world when we feel strangled, constricted, lonely  . . . . When I don’t write I feel my world shrinking. I feel I lose my fire, my colour.

 – Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, V.5


We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.

– C. Day Lewis, The Poetic Image

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The tyrnny of tim and txt

Last Wednesday I bid farewell to another year of my life, letting it slip through memory into the confines of history. My history. And, reluctantly, I welcome the grey hair, wrinkles, surprises, pleasures, crises, wisdom, experience, deja vu of another year of my life.  With the hope that the  year will be different from the previous ones, but not so different that I struggle to make sense of it. 

More than anything else, I wish life would slow down so I could keep pace with it. One day at a time. One hour. One moment. So I could live, truly live, each moment, and not rush willy-nilly from one moment to the next, one day to the next, one year to the next. Having the experience and missing the meaning. 

Time is  a precious commodity today, isn’t it? No one seems to have enough of it.  Specially not readers who want their authors to write tight. Today’s readers have perilously short attention spans and very little time for verbose communicators. Words compete today with the television remote and the computer mouse. One click or one press of a button and you can go back and forth, skip something, replay it or remain frozen at a particular point. Who says time travel is science fiction?!  

We have more and more and want less and less.

And yet, as William Brohaugh points out in his book, Write Tight, Hemingway wasn’t competing with Nintendo and ESPN when he wrote his admirably crisp and clear prose.

I belong to the generation that still remembers the pleasures of letter-writing but has made the smooth transition to e-mailing. And now I listen, bewildered, as people tell me they have no patience for e-mails. It’s Orkut scraps, Facebook pokes, or texting and sms-ing. Instantaneous and telegraphic communication. 

We live in an age where the diminutive, the brief and the simple are highly prized in communication, said Umberto Eco. And text-messaging embodies this zeitgeist perfectly.

Generation Txt. Everyone is jmping on the bndwgn. (Source) Text messaging is growing up.  So much so that if you do not possess a mobile or cannot txt, you are, effectively, a non-person. 

Cellphone novels are all the rage, I’m told, in Japan. Seventeen-something young girls text away the ‘profound insights’ of their life into their cellphones, on their way to college or a part-time job. Not a moment of their life wasted. Theirs not the  life of simply standing and staring. 

The truncated messages of texting are just words sans vowels, the assumption being that the words can easily be guessed from the consonants alone. Which is funny considering that vowels are often sounded differently in different words! 

What springs to my mind when I think of texting is the bonsai – small, compact, exotic; reality miniaturized. But can the bonsai match the grandeur of a tree?

Anyone who has known the pleasures of sitting in the shade of the spreading branches of a tree, climbing and exploring its secrets, sitting atop, reading, sheltered in its foliage on a  hot summer day,  will know what I mean.

The bonsai has its beauty – the beauty of the hothouse – but I’d rather go climb a tree!! 

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The only explanation I offer for the title of this post is that I can’t think of anything else!  

Writing is not easy. And I don’t mean just titles. Writing five sentences on nothing in particular can be tough, too. This was an exercise I gave my students in one of their introductory syntax classes for the semester. Saves me the trouble of hunting up examples for syntactic analysis, of course! But the idea behind the exercise was to get real sentences for analysis rather than text-book ones.

I’d have thought writing five English sentences would be as easy as ABC for postgradute students of English. Well, not quite! 

Some of them said the difficulty was due to the self-consciousness that the exercise induced. We don’t usually make up sentences that have no specific communicative or expressive purpose.  Like the toy sentences in grammar books: John is a boy. She is a girl. Seriously, does anyone ever say such things in real-life conversations?!

 The exercise reinforced my fascination for the creativity and ease with which we  string words together into sentences. All the time. Spontaneously. Without pausing to ‘construct’ them in our minds! It’s almost as if we’re programmed.

 Oh, that reminds me.

The other day I had to fill out a form on-line. After I hit the Submit button, the machine gave me this message: “We’re not convinced you’re human . . . ” And went on to describe how I could ‘prove’ my human-ness – by typing a word inside a box exactly as it was displayed. You know, the kind one often gets when creating e-mail IDs.

It set me thinking. How would I prove to a machine that I’m human? I mean, just how is a machine even qualified to judge my human-ness? Gave me the goosebumps, it did.

The seduction of the machine is nowhere more evident than when it breaks down. Like yesterday when, thanks to the Internet outage, the electronic catalogue in our university library was inaccessible; and since, in their zeal to appear modern and high-tech, the library had stowed away their manual catalogue, I was reduced to rummaging painstakingly through the bookshelves.

I love it though – not the dust on my hands and face, but the browsing. Because that’s when you stumble upon some gems. And that’s how I found Mike Sharples’ How We Write: Writing As Creative Design: a fascinating study of the mental processes involved in writing.  (Sigh. The disbelief is quite uncalled for. Condemned, as I am, to read and mark student writing for a living, I cannot help but find such books interesting.) 

Sharples draws attention to the rather mechanistic metaphors that we use in talking of the writing process:

The hydraulic metaphors – well up, flow, dry up;

The pyrotechnic metaphors – fire the imagination, burning with ideas;

The exploration metaphors – searching for ideas, finding the right phrase;

The bodily function metaphors – writer’s block.

But the last word on metaphors of writing is Freud’s: “Since writing entails making liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper, it sometimes assumes the significance of copulation.”

Hmmm. Where does that leave one half of humanity, I wonder? The female half?

And to wind up, here’s an absolutely hilarious piece by Dennis Baron on the hazards of handwriting. And you thought computers and e-mail had made handwriting a thing of the past? Ha!

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Be brief. Be clear. Be human.

That’s the key to good writing in English, as numerous books, training programmes and web sites on writing would have us believe. Everyone’s campaigning for Clear English. Or Plain English. (Are they the same?)

It’s all the rage in today’s corporate workplace. No one wants good, old-fashioned grammar and correct usage anymore. “Oh we know all that,” they say airily. They have a point and they want to make it, quickly and clearly.  Today’s writing is for a global audience (global suggesting, I presume, ‘shorn of local identities’). That’s what they tell un-cool, pre-historic English teachers. Like me.

If you don’t believe me, just pick up books like Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish – enraged polemic that attacks the “obscure, verbose, and muddled” English of journalistic and business writing in India. I quite agree. However, such writing is definitely not peculiar to India or Indian writing. Nunberg has a list of groaners that litter journalistic and media news-writing in the West. Here’s a sampler:

Aftermath – Print words don’t belong in spoken copy. Do you know anyone who says ‘aftermath’ in normal conversation? When we were kids, aftermath came recess.
Mastermind – Anytime there’s more than one mugger/bank robber/con artist working together, we reward the guy in charge with this silly title, instead of just saying he planned the crime. Look, Professor Moriarty outwitting Sherlock Holmes, that’s a mastermind. Some creep who sticks a gun in a teller’s face… no way.

And there’s plenty more where that came from!

Clear writing itself is not exactly a late 20th century invention, or even a product of today’s global (read American) business requirements. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)  perhaps set the stage for straightforward writing in America with these memorable words:

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.

(And this was a political pamphlet  – the kind one expects to see riddled with bombast and stylized rhetoric) 

But it’s really Mark Twain’s prose that we think of today as classic American prose – easy, clear and direct. And, of course, one of the best known essays on modern English style is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (1946).

Now tell me, dear reader mine, is the plain/clear English rhetoric a breakthrough in how to write a clear English sentence? Or has that information really always “been around since the King James Bible?”(Zinsser in his 1976 classic On Writing Well.)

What does this plain/clear English campaign mean to us here in India? Well, we’re being told that the English we learned in school and college – Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Wordsworth, Shelley and the like –  is no help at all for today’s writing requirements. 

Communicative English. That’s what the communication pundits say we need today. As if there can ever be language that is not communicative! Some tautology this.

Am I against the plain/clear English rhetoric? Not really. Given the unflattering levels of unemployment in our country, I’d say if learning Taiwanese English will fetch students jobs, let’s by all means teach it .

However, I’m looking at the underbelly.  And I see, written here, two mantras that I’d like to have a go at.  The first is that to write clearly/plainly you should  ‘write the way you speak’. A mantra that will make your language ‘human’ rather than heavy-handed and bureaucratic. That seems clear enough. But is it? 

Can we, in India, write the way we speak English? Spoken English varies so widely across the country that it would be well nigh impossible to arrive at one variety of ‘standard’ Indian English that everyone might use to write. Which perhaps explains why we revert to the formal, bureaucratic English of the Raj and Victorian England when we write. 

In the absence of a commonly agreed upon spoken variety, and in the face of growing aversion to the “flatulent orotundity” (Sanyal’s phrase) of Indian English, is it any wonder that our youth have taken to the fast, easy-off-the tongue slang of American pop culture – American sitcoms, movies, popular magazines, and web sites?

A bright young man once asked me why he shouldn’t use big and unfamiliar words, when he knew how to use them correctly. And it’s true – he never made a mistake in word choice.  The simple answer, apparently, is “your reader”. One writes for a reader and most readers prefer simple, clear, direct language.  (Which is perhaps a dumbing-down of the reader if you ask me, but that’s for another post.)

I have no gripe with the plain English campaign. Really. I do strive for clarity and precision in my writing. But I rarely succeed, even though every book on style that I read gives me all the formulas: 

  • Make your writing talk.
  • Consider your readers.
  • Be plain.
  • Be yourself.
  • Write from your own experience.
  • Build your thesis.
  • Revise!
  • Etc.

I can’t help but echo Richard Lanham: “A student may actually try to earn all those badges. But if he has any spirit, he’ll murmur a well-chosen four-letter word and go out and get stoned.”

Can one learn style in a vacuum, without the context that gives style its meaning? Can one learn English prose style without a knowledge of the rich tradition that has made English prose style what it is? 

The Style Books get around this rather ingenuously. Abolish style!  they say.  Let style wither away, leaving the bare facts and plain words shining by themselves. That’s clarity for you!  

And the second mantra:   When you know and understand what you’re writing about,  clarity just happens. Everything’s as plain as can be.

Unclear writing is the result of ignorance. It’s the thought that counts. Perish style!

One might just as well say “Be inteligent.” instead of “Be clear.”

Ha! Ha! Ha! With the bar set so high, is it any surprise that I consistently fail to be brief, clear, and human? 

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