Category Archives: Writing

Cliches and Lowing the Boom

I learned through Rebecca of Rebecca Writes about ClicheSite.com and the handy Cliche of the Day. At first, I thought this a cool little resource. Now, I think I’ll avoid it. If I fill my head with cliches, I’ll become a twisted and disturbed old man. Maybe I just need the cup of tea I just steeped for a better mood. Maybe I should go out for some live steel combat.

You know, that reminds me of the warning the thespians gave before the start of Julius Caesar at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. They told us to go the bathroom before or during the intermission, because afterward angry men with real swords could be running through the hallway at any time–which they did. It was great.

Subjects Worth Writing About

Mark Bertrand quotes Melville’s Moby Dick on what great book should tackle: ” . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Read the rest of this short post and tell him what you think.

James Thurber’s Guide to English Usage

[first posted October 22, 2004] In an earlier post, I referred to this collection of useful usage articles by James Thurber. On the question of using “bad” or “badly” within a sentence like “I feel bad(ly),” Thurber advises not to use either word.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn’t feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn’t feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, “I look well, but I don’t feel well.” While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words “bad” and “badly,” it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn’t feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically—“I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes,” or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one’s listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

Tell It Like It Is

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

From Andy Crouch’s address at the 2005 Christy Awards.

Substandard Spelling

The Chicago Tribune aulso got into th act, uezing simpler spelingz in th nuezpaeper for about 40 years, ending in 1975. Plae-riet George Bernard Shaw, hoo roet moest of his mateerial in shorthand, left muny in his wil for th development of a nue English alfabet. . . . But for aul th hi-proefiel and skolarly eforts, the iedeea of funy-luuking but simpler spelingz didn’t captivaet the masez then — or now.

From the article, “Push for Simpler Spelling Persists,” by AP Writer Darlene Superville. She says the idea of overhauling English spelling has not captured “th publix imajinaeshun.”

I Don’t Care If We Lose

Alan of Thinklings is talking about an article in which Peter Leithart argues that Modern Protestants can’t write. He says it has something to do with Zwingli. Maybe I’m in a mood tonight, but I find that I don’t care. I don’t care why we haven’t written well in the past. Some write now, and no light-weight, commercially successful novel from an evangelical author takes away from their artist effort. God will raise up artwork to glorify himself. I don’t care who complains about, heh, mere entertainment.

The Thinklings carry on part of the discussion in relation to movies.

Who’s in control here?

Ever wonder what comedy was like before Christianity? Anthony Esolen has an intriguing meditation over at Mere Comments today.

Phil wonders, in a post below, why we read literature. I suspect it’s partly for the same reason a few of us miserable wretches produce literature. And that’s the main reason anyone does anything—a need to feel in control, or to feel vicariously that there is control and order somewhere.

The older I get (and I’m getting pretty old) the more I agree with the psychological theory that most of us do the things we do (wise or stupid or crazy) out of a desire to feel in control of some part of our worlds.

There are many ways to divide mankind into Two Kinds of People, but it seems to me one of those standard divisions is between the Men of Action and Creative Men (I know I’m supposed to say Persons nowadays, but being a brutal sexist is one of the ways I try to exercise control on my own part). Generally—there are exceptions, of course—people who do big things and impose their wills on others don’t produce art. And people who produce art aren’t movers and shakers in the world.

When I was a child, I learned early on that I didn’t have much power in my environment. I couldn’t make decisions and I was pretty much at everybody else’s mercy.

So I started playing with puppets. I loved puppets. They were like little people who’d do whatever I wanted them to do. Later I turned to drawing. Drawing was better than puppets, because the cast of characters I could play with was unlimited. Finally I started writing, and that was even better, because my drawing skills only went so far, while writing gave me a greater sense of mastery.

A greater sense of mastery. An arena where I could call the shots. Turn any old pile of ideas and conflicts into a coherent, rational whole.

Sounds kind of pathetic when I put it that way, but it seems to me all human endeavors are like that in one way or another. The politician tries to create or change the political order to make it conform to his own vision of A Really Good Society. The scientist tries to discover the hidden laws of the universe, and to manipulate them to achieve ends he approves of. The carpenter imposes a new level of order on lumber.

Lewis and Tolkien called this “subcreation.” Rather than seeing it as a pitiful attempt to impose order where there is none (as the postmodern critic might charge), they saw human creativity as one of God’s gifts, bestowed by Him along with His Image at Creation.

How you see it all depends on the biases you bring to your observations. And if you want to minimize it by explaining it away with psychological jargon, well, that’s another way of imposing order on the world, isn’t it?

Andree Seu on Writing and Faking It

[first posted August 16, 2003] This week’s issue of World Magazine includes another great essay by one of my favorite essayists/columnists/journalists (whichever label fits best) Andree Seu. She says, “Writers know that you can find a source to say anything you want, so they move heaven and earth to scare up an expert who agrees with them.” That and the pressures of marketing, whose goal is to turn a profit, makes some reporting and even fiction writing an exercise in building a pre-determined product. For some news sources, the stories they report are meant primarily to earn them money, not inform their readers. The right to know, if it exists, is subject to the desire for profit. She ends her essay expressing disappointment over the report that Tom Clancy doesn’t write all of his novels. “I keep wondering about the poor schmo who writes for Mr. Clancy and doesn’t get his name on the jacket,” she says.

A couple years ago, Ms. Seu told me that she was preparing her essays for possible publication in book form. Whether that pans out, that is to say if it’s in the cards she’s been dealt (I love American gambling and gold rush metaphors), I hope she has a book of some sort published while I’m still around to read it. I’m sure it will have more heart and thought than at least half of what’s published that year. [That book or a precursor to it now exists.]

If not the whole nine yards, at least 8.5 of it

[first posted August 29, 2003] Gideon Strauss introduced me to The Phrase Finder, another helpful etymology web site for understanding the origin and true meaning of clichés and phrases. Now, before you stop reading and rush to the site, let me tell you about the phrase you’re going to look for, “the whole nine yards.”

The phrase means “all of it or as much as can be.” If you went the whole nine yards to get something done, you did as much as anyone could do. How did the phrase come about? The Phrase Finder says, “No one knows the origin, although many have an fervent belief that they do. These convictions are unfailingly based on no more evidence than ‘someone told me’.”

There are several possible origins, but not enough evidence to back up any of them conclusively. I like what Evan Morris, the inimitable Word Detective, has to say on this. He says he likes the theory that nine cubic yards is the most a cement mixer can carry. He argues that this theory has the advantage of being concrete.

Speaking of the Word Detective, let me point you to the question I asked him earlier this year on thumbing one’s nose. It’s a small, fleeting thrill to have a question published in your better’s column. Being a small man, I’ve been quite proud of myself for months.