Rabbi or Psychologist?

 

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on the sidelines with my son and daughter-in-law watching my seven-year-old grandson play baseball. I felt my chest tighten when he came up to bat and wondered about my anxiety. Ethan got his stance just right and stood confidently facing the batting box. Things went well. As I recall, he ran to first base and was able to score a run before his team took the field.

Of all the games I’ve watched in my life, that was the most riveting. And I think it was because I had just begun reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, a novel that begins with a game between young Orthodox and Hasidic boys living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn toward the end of World War II. From their coaches and uniforms to their seriousness about the game, I knew this was no ordinary game and that the entire scene from start to finish was a metaphor for what was to follow.

Wearing their “regular” clothes, the Orthodox players watched with wary amazement as the Hasidic team marched to the sandlot dressed completely alike, all wearing white shirts, dark pants, and black skullcaps covering their closely cropped hair. The fringes of their traditional undergarments showed above their belts. The Orthodox boys were coached by a gentile athletic coach who was intensely involved in the game; the Hasidic team was accompanied by a young rabbi who basically sat on the sidelines reading a book—that is, until the game got intense.

I finished the book two weeks ago, and the baseball scene remains in my mind like a memory. I can see, feel, and hear everything as if I were there. When Danny Saunders pitched a fast ball hitting Reuven Malter’s glasses and knocking him down, I gasped. I’d heard that all sports could be brutal, but this was different. Did Danny intend to wound Reuven so viciously? Was he going to lose his eye?

Reuven is taken to a hospital, and before he leaves a few days later, the reader has learned a lot about the central characters. Danny’s father is an Hasidic rebbe who led his congregation out of Russian bondage to America. Reuven’s father teaches Talmud at an Orthodox school. Little mention is made of their mothers or of women in general. Reuven’s mother is deceased, and he and his father have a woman who cooks and cleans for them.

While Reuven is in the hospital ward, Danny comes to apologize for hurting his eye, and although Reuven is angry at first, a friendship between the two boys begins to develop. The rest of the novel centers around the friendship between the boys, both Jews but each different in their relationship to their fathers and in their religious beliefs and practices. Although one is Orthodox and one Hasidic, both live within insulated Jewish communities. There are no outsiders there.

Is The Chosen a coming of age book? Yes, but it’s much more. Is it about fathers and sons and the imparting of generational wisdom? Yes again. It’s also about culture and how it affects all of us—Jew and Methodist, Hispanic and European, male and female, royal or common.  We tend to think of our culture as “the one,” and are often surprised, perhaps even aghast, at the way others conduct their lives. Interestingly, when Potok goes to Korea as an adult, he finds himself in a culture that didn’t know or care about Jews or Judaism. How can that be?

There’s competition and striving, not just to win the game but to win at life, one’s own life and not necessarily the one others have chosen for us. You’ll have to read the book to find out whether the two friends follow the paths their fathers have chosen for them. All I can say is that whether they become a rabbi, psychologist, yeshiva teacher, or storekeeper, they adhere to the principles of traditional Judaism.

Not only is Potok a marvelous story teller, but he’s a great teacher, too. I was with Reuven in the hospital as he lay wondering about whether he’d lose his eye, with him and his father drinking tea together, with both Reuven and Danny during the sessions with Reb Saunders, and many other instances too numerous to mention. But the icing on the cake was how well Potok introduced his readers to another world. He gave me a peep into the world of Judaism and taught me about practices and beliefs and terms heretofore unknown. I like knowing what gematria, yeshiva, apikorsim, and Kabbalah mean even if I never have a chance to use them outside of a blog.

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Crepuscular or Dim?

I should have known I had some serious editing to do when my friend and grammar guru suggested that we meet to go over her proofed copy of my family history. I’d been working on it for a year and a half and thought I was DONE.

After self-publishing the volume with CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publishing) in March 2018, I vowed to take a breather from another such project for a long, long time. As far as I could tell from spot checking several pages, the finished product looked fine. People, especially the younger generation, enjoyed reading it, and one of my daughters even posted about about it on Facebook while on a cross-country road trip.

Then one day I succumbed to the temptation to check the accuracy of a date.  After that, a cousin told me a story about our grandfather, and I had to find a way to include it. That one teensy weensy paragraph wreaked havoc on the formatting, but if I wanted to include the story, I had to pay the price. The story told of a tender father/daughter moment and was too sweet to ignore, so I included it…and corrected the inaccurate date. I also changed the font size of a poem and added three photographs. All those changes were good, but there were repercussions. Print jumped from the middle of one page to the top of another, leaving blank spaces.

When I sent for proof copies, I accidently ordered two, and a friend generously volunteered to proof a copy for me. Family events and a serious sinus infection postponed our meeting, and I wondered if we could just talk on the phone. I mean, how involved could the editing be? I could tell from her query about where we could meet that there was more to take care of than a phone call could master.

We met in Georgetown, SC, and after lunch at one of our favorite restaurants on Front Street,  we spent about an hour sitting on an outside bench painstakingly going over each page of the book. Each page. Painstakingly.

Feeling the gentle breeze and watching the world along the waterfront made the work less grueling—more pleasant. One of the river cruise ships docked in the harbor, and dozens of happy, chatting passengers walked by us leaving a whiff of sunscreen in their wake. A motley crew, they had learned a lot about rice plantations and visited a small island. Daunted by all the things my friend suggested that I fix, I soon became distracted by a busy pigeon atop the restaurant.

“Do you really need to use crepuscular?” she asked about a twilight scene in a cemetery.

“I guess not. But I really like the word.”

“I like it, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best word for the scene.”

Most of the suggested edits involved missing commas, American rather than British spelling (meager vs. meagre), too many colons, spacing issues, missing words, repeated words, and hyphens. Easy fixes. It’s just that they were indeed fixes, something I’d have to work on to get as perfect as possible. Although I’d been saying it was “just” a family book, I realized I needed to strike through just. Families are important, not only the ones about whom my siblings and I were writing but also the future generations who might have an interest in a pistol-packing grandmother or a great grandfather with a sense of humor.

I procrastinated a few days, but Monday I began the revisions. They took all the livelong day and added two pages to the final page count. Monday night I reuploaded the manuscript to KDP and decided to change the cover. Why not? That took another hour or so, but as the midnight hour approached, the latest edition was ready to be proofed. I proofed the changes with an online reviewer but opted to order a physical proof, too.

Writing is a process, a hard one, and you need more than one set of eyes to read your manuscript. While we might balk at suggested changes, keeping our readers in mind will nudge us to do the right thing, to go the second mile. I hope my resolve stays strong  when I look at the Friday’s proof.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in books, editing, family histories, nonficion, self publishing, stories, Uncategorized, writing, writing life, writing projects | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Cinderella

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A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I had an interesting and enlightening discussion on feminism, and at the beginning of our thread, terms like glass ceiling, the second shift, and benevolent sexism were bandied about.

I mentioned an article I’d read decades previously in which the author said she wanted a wife. Even though it was a tongue-in-cheek piece, I got it. I got it loud and clear. Forty years later, I can still recall my reactions. Caught somewhere between amusement and annoyance, I stopped reading and sat quietly thinking about all the things Jessie Bernard had written about the differences in perception of a woman’s marriage and a man’s.

I didn’t have to be a researcher to know she was right. All I had to do was look around—at the people I knew and at the ones on television, in books, and in music. Remember the catchy lyrics about bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan? And how aboutth-2 innocent little Snow White cleaning up after those little dwarves? Pretty sure she cooked for them, too. With just a little scratch beneath the surface, that becomes a weird story. Did I actually read that to my daughters?

 

Speaking of reading to children, one night after story time and nightly prayers, I tucked my four-year-old little girl in and prepared to leave the room. Her words stopped me before I got to the threshold. “Mama, you’re just like Cinderella,” she said with the sweet innocence of a child. I turned around and sat down on the side of her bed.

“What do you mean?” I asked, halfway afraid to hear her answer.

“She does all the dirty work, the stuff no one else wants to do.” She said.

“You mean like cooking?”

“And folding clothes and washing dishes.”

“Yeah, but I’m the mommy, and that’s what mommies are supposed to do.”

“What about when she married the prince?  Did she have to wash his clothes, too?”

“Who?”

“Cinderella.”

“Look Babycakes, I don’t know. It’s just a story. Time to close your eyes and go to sleep. Night, night. Love you.”

From that night forward, I was “woke.” I wasn’t a radical feminist, just a woman who became increasingly aware of the traditional gender roles of men and women and the shifting mores of our society.

When my friends and I had our recent messenger discussion, one of them said she hadn’t read much feminist literature but that she had read widely about intersectionality. I told her I’d have to get back to her on that because at that moment, it was a new term to me. Although there are several definitions, here’s the one I like best. Google provided it.

“The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

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I like it. The term resounds with me. It’s not sufficient to look at someone and think of her gender as being the only role or status. Is the woman black, white, polka-dotted, Jewish, brown, mocha, old, young, transgender, wealthy, and/or ___________ _____________? Fill in the blanks. All of our roles overlap to describe who we are. While I don’t see it as a novel idea, I have to admit that I’ve been focused on gender without consideration of how the other descriptors could work to broaden or restrict a person’s self-image AND the way others react to her.

My new goal is to write a short story about intersectionality without spelling it out. I can’t say writing fiction with feminist undertones is easy. Writing, to me, is never easy. BUT, I know more about feminist issues and am only now exploring intersectional ones. Wish me luck. Better yet, toss me some ideas.

Posted in feminism, fiction, intersectionality, lifestyle, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Be Teachable

 

 

I’m delighted to have a story accepted for publication in moonShine Review. It’s an honor, something I’ve been working toward for a couple of years at least, maybe longer. More than once, a friend told me I should send some photographs since each issue showcased the work of just one photographer. I didn’t have the courage to ask her whether she kept suggesting photography instead of writing. Was it because she didn’t think my writing was good enough?

Whatever the reason, I buried that idea somewhere just below the surface while looking through old issues of moonShine, confident that I’d learn what the editors were looking for. I also began experimenting with fiction and tried out different attempts with my critique group.

Before working with a writing group, writing fiction was a mysterious process  I perused textbooks and “how-to” books and articles galore. I read Stephen King’s On Writing, Neil Gaimond’s advice, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Then Annie Dillard blew me away with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I went back to nonfiction. How could I get past such beautiful phrases as “I am a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs. This is our life, these re our lighted seasons, and then we die.”?

Still, I wanted to write fiction, and with the encouragement and advice of my critique group and a lot of effort on my own, I improved. There were challenges.

1. I couldn’t conjure up an imaginary scene, much less piece together a story-full of them. When I mentioned this to a writer friend, she said something like, “Just take something you’ve written in first person and change it to third.” Duh. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

2. I would start writing willy-nilly without an understanding of the beginning, middle, or end of the story. My critique group was a huge help. “That’s your end,” someone would say about a sentence or paragraph a few sentences before the end. I couldn’t always see it right away and would sometimes say, “But I wanted to end it this way.”

“Go ahead. I’m just telling you what I think. You don’t want someone to finish your story and be disappointed,” she might say.

Without knowing it, I was following the advice of Neil Gaiman. “Show your story to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that it is. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.”

While our group “mostly” adheres to that philosophy, we also feel that the writer has the last say. If one person suggests something is just not right (in his or her opinion), you can listen or not. But if two or more pinpoint the same lame word, dangling participle, or weak sentence, you might want to sit up straight and pay attention. 

3. I wasn’t very descriptive or specific. Here’s s sentence taken from Where the Crawdads Sing: “Waves slammed one another, awash in their own white saliva, breaking apart on the shore with loud booms—energy searching for a beachhead.” I’m a beach lover and have spent thousands of hours on the shore, always feeling the energy in the roar and power of the ocean. But could I write like Delia Owens? No. Not now. Maybe never. But I can try to learn.

4.  Dialogue was tricky. It’s great if used correctly. Does it move a story along or merely take up space?. I’ve tried to make mine realistic without overdoing it. Enough’s enough. Every word counts. No uhs and uh-uhs or you knows. Something I often recall from taking counseling classes is to let the client, troubled person, or patient talk and to pay attention to what they’re not saying. “Please hear what I’m not saying,” advised my professors.

Writing fiction isn’t easy. It’s doable, though. Be teachable. Read a lot and write a lot and get your writer friends to critique your work. Then revise and write some more and read some more–even at times when you least feel like it.

 

 

Posted in Annie Dillard, books, books on writing, critique groups, editing, fiction, Uncategorized, writing, writing fiction | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Plenty o Tomorrows

 

I’ve been doing a lot more reading than writing lately–pretty much all nonfiction. Not that I don’t enjoy fiction, but well, as the saying goes, “It is what it is.”

As I sit here pounding out some words, I’m remembering my feelings of fear and uncertainty as I read Silent Dell, the pain and compassion when Reading 12 Years a Slave, and the admiration I felt for the heroine of Scarlet Sister Mary. I enjoyed that book so much that I continue to dip into it again and again just to marvel at the way Julia Peterkin wrote. She’s the only writer I can think of at the moment who successfully used a different dialect, that of “Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense.”

I have friends and a husband who have lost children and have learned that there is absolutely nothing I can say to assuage their pain. I can offer a listening ear, a hug, and an occasional word of solace. The deep cut they feel is always there, sore and painful. I have read a couple of things lately that might help them make it through a day, an hour, five minutes.

In Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, the author responds to a mother who’s waiting to see whether her six-month-old daughter with a brain tumor is going to recover or not. Strayed tells her of situations in which there seemed to be no mercy—not for the mother whose teenaged daughter was killed in an automobile accident or for countless others who “have been devastated for reasons that cannot be explained or justified in spiritual terms.”

Strayed mentions the emails, kind words, and prayers sent to and for the mother and  says they “formed a tiny raft that could just barely hold your weight as you floated through those terrible hours while you awaited your daughter’s fate.” She continues, “In your darkest hour you were held afloat by the human love that was given to you when you most needed it.”

No one can take away your pain, but maybe prayers and kind thoughts can form a raft to get you through the night.

And then there’s this from Sacred Voices, a collection of “women’s wisdom through the ages.” It’s a book I’ve flipped through for several years, always finding something beautiful, refreshing, and worth pondering. Rioberta Menchu of Guatemala writes of the time her parents and one of her brothers were murdered. Genocide, the practice of a scorched-earth policy, and the slaughter of humans and animals took place while wealthy tourists visited nearby pyramids and resorts.

The horror of the situation in Guatemala was publicized in a documentary made for ETV and featuring the singer Sting.  He “invited hundreds of grieving mothers of desaparecidos to appear with him, and over the course of the evening, he danced for a minute or two with each one of them as though he were her missing son given a chance to say goodbye.”

The mothers’ grief didn’t disappear, yet for at least one minute, someone held them and pretended to be their son. That’s a beautiful image. Did the dance help? I don’t know. I see the dance functioning like the raft mentioned above.

For now, I’m closing with a favorite quote from Scarlet Sister Mary. Ben Budda has come come to straighten her out and says, “I come to talk stiff words, gal.” I’ve used that phrase so often that now others have picked it up. Someone you care about is suffering, making a mistake, or choosing a crooked path. What do you say? Do? Stiff words are sometimes needed. Ben Budda tells Mary to hold her head up and wash her face and says, “Plenty o  tomorrows is ahead o you.” He loves her and wants her to face reality: “Yesterday’s sun is set.”

I’m often surprised at the directions my posts take. I intended to include uplifting, encouraging thoughts from three nonfiction books. Instead I mentioned two (one that I hadn’t intended to include), and a novel. I’ll get back to the other recent nonfiction reads in a day or two.

Posted in books, fiction, nonficion, readng, Suffering, Uncategorized, words, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blue Spiral Notebook

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The writers I hang out with don’t write for money. Sure, they’d take it if offered, but that’s not their primary reason for putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. They do it because they must. They have a story to tell or some ideas to share, and they understand the power of words. A few of them likely feel Robertson Davies who said, “There is no use whatsoever in trying to write a book unless you know that you must write that book or go mad, or perhaps die.”

I have dozens of journals, pretty ones and utilitarian ones and cool ones. One has Anais Nin’s words “We write to taste life twice…”on the front. I found an old one, a spiral bound composition notebook that I used for making notes for class, listing grocery items, and jotting down to-do lists. I smiled at some of the entries but found most of them boring. I was about to toss the notebook when I found a few pages that took me back to September, 1989, the month Hugo came raging through South Carolina.

I had arisen early the morning of the 21st and watched an update with the local weather station. Hugo was expected to make landfall somewhere on the coast, possibly South Carolina. No way, I thought gazing from my kitchen window. The sky was blue and cloudless, and from all appearances, it was shaping up to be another scorcher in Myrtle Beach. Yet, I felt fidgety and on edge. What to do? Should we pack up and leave for the Midlands to be with family?

Elizabeth, my eleven-year-old, and I were the only ones up and about. In-the-know about the storm’s progress and what the experts told people to do, she sat at the kitchen table making a list for us to take to the store. I was sort of nonchalant about the situation until I looked over Lib’s shoulder and saw items like water, candles, batteries, and flashlight written in her neatly developing cursive. Caught somewhere between amusement and wonder at her diligence, I began to see the situation as more serious.

A few years later a friend gave me a gratitude journal that accompanied Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance. I faithfully recorded five things each day I was thankful for. Before I knew it, I was seeing journals everywhere, and I was off to the races. Some of my gratitude lists had as many as a dozen things in them—phrases, not paragraphs. I  added some specifics. Instead of writing “Family,” I’d write something like “Meeting Aunt Polly, Sue, Little Polly, Ann, and Lisa at The Pearl for lunch.” That was an entry for Saturday, February 4, 2006. Aunt Polly has gone to heaven, and The Pearl has long since closed up shop.

Soon I began to copy quotes from books while in Barnes and Noble or the local library. This was before the internet made finding quotes easy. I began taking notes just about everywhere—in church, in meetings, at stoplights. Increasingly aware of the fleeting nature of time and the inaccuracy of memory, I deliberately took more notice of my environment and recorded goings-on, feelings, and observations.

Gratitude lists still make the cut. It’s just that they’re often interpersed between new words, story ideas, or travel memories. Sometimes my children kid me about it. If ever there’s a doubt about what happened or who did what and where they did it, someone will say, “Ask Mom. It’s probably in one of her journals.”

I’m grateful that I wrote the happenings of that Friday morning when my little girl prompted me to take the coming storm seriously. I’ll always remember that morning in the kitchen and my feelings when I skimmed her list, astonishment and the realization that she was growing up. If I hadn’t taken the time to jot those moments in the blue notebook, the memory would have slid into oblivion.

Did we go to the store for provisions? I don’t know. There’s no record of it. I did record how and where we slept that night: on the floor in the hall of our ranch home that night, windows securely taped against the wind.

 

 

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Don’t Mess with Beatrice

This morning I read a supremely superb nonfiction essay titled “Mourning my Grandfather Through the Velveteen Rabbit” in an online publication, lithub.com.  Originally published April 11, 2017 and written by Sarah Gerard, it was undoubtedly the best article I’ve ever read describing the care and connections between generations.

I was lured in by the title, hooked by the first paragraph, and totally “in” by the third paragraph.

The family was Jewish, and I learned about their burial traditions and the way they care for the elderly. “As they lowered him into the ground, we dropped our gloves in after him. In the Jewish tradition, we bury our own dead, so each of us shoveled a mound of earth from a bucket onto the casket.” Towards the end of the grandmother’s life, the  classy lady who had orchestrated fabulous family gatherings, her son (the author’s father) moisturizes her skin and applies sunscreen before putting a baseball cap on her head and taking her for a ride in her wheelchair.

The author writes of dozens of life changes, including moving from one location to another and of growing up and growing old. She was a child going shopping with her grandmother, and in the twinkling of an eye (forgive the cliché), she’s sitting vigil at the bedside of her dying grandfather. The reader sees the grandparents go from meeting  at a dance and smiling on a beach to being bed-bound or pushed in a wheelchair. The description was amazing. I was there in the rooms, all of them, with these people. In one scene, the grandmother is in a room hospital facility watching television beneath a white afghan that was once on her family room sofa.

Can’t you see it all? I can, and I want to be able to write like Gerard. But I can’t and likely never will. That’s okay, though. There are different voices, varied stories to tell, and wide-ranging ways and words with which to share them.

In March of last year, I was done, so done, with a family history that I published through CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publishing). It was a time consuming and sometimes torturous process, one I walked away from limping and gasping for air. Who knew it would be so difficult?

But things began to niggle at me. When glancing through the book recently, I spotted “is” when it should have been “his.” I saw doctor’s offices instead of “doctors’ offices.” What could I do? Only one thing—make it right. Once I decided to correct those small but, to me, significant errors, I felt compelled to add a couple of stories and at least one more photograph. The proof copy will arrive later this week.*

One of my grandmothers was always somewhat of an enigma to me. Loving and generous, yes, but a spitfire too. No doubt you’ve heard “Don’t mess with Texas,” and after hearing a certain family story dozens of time, I could add, “Don’t mess with Beatrice.” Whether completely accurate or not, I know there’s a kernel of truth in the story.

Because of my grandfather’s job with the railroad, my grandparents often lived in what I’ve heard referred to as railroad houses. One time they arrived at a new location, and my grandmother found the house totally unacceptable. I don’t know whether the doors were hanging on hinges, the roof had a leak, or there were bats in the attic. I just know that she was beyond upset. Taking matters into her own hands, she approached the “boss man” about it. Nothing happened. At least, nothing happened in the time frame she expected. After further complaints and requests, Beatrice stepped up her game. Armed with a pistol, she walked to the office** where this man was working and again repeated her requests to have the repairs made to their home. According to family lore, the issues  were taken care of the next day.

Some people candy-coat a history, glossing over the weird or over-the top-stuff. In this case, it seemed wrong to exclude my grandmother’s defiant determination. I’m not advocating that any of her posterity go to such lengths to get results. Using a gun is not the preferred method. To me, the story bespeaks an unwavering resolve to take care of business. She had grit.

I’ll never be a Sarah Gerard writer, but I too have stories to tell. So do you, and neither of us should let the anxiety about not being good enough keep us from sharing family stories.

*I accidentally ordered two copies, and if you want to help me proofread….
**Some versions report her as inviting him to dinner and bringing out the pistol after dessert.

 

Posted in books, families, family histories, nonficion, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Well, Alrighty Then

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I love teaching, I really do. I should be retired by now, and for the most part I am. I teach two online classes but don’t show up at 8:00 ready to “rock and roll.” Nor do have committee work, an office, or a dress code. The absolute best part is that I still get to interact with students. Sometimes they write something humorous like “for all intensive purposes” when they mean “for all intents and purposes.” Funny, huh? Yeah, it kinda is.

It’s not so funny, though, when you learn, as I did, that one’s own writing can be humorous, too.

I’m not judging, especially since I’ve been reading bits of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.I introduced the author a couple of blogs back. So far, he’s the only editor/writer I’ve ever read who’s both amusing and instructive.  He adds personal anecdotes and interjects witty comments throughout. He’s taught me a lot, including things I thought I knew.

  • I’ve been overheard saying, “We were chomping at the bit to get out of the house.” You probably have too. The correct phrase is “champing at the bit,” but since champing is an unfamiliar word to many people, they don’t use it. Either is fine with Dreyer; he sees the condemnation of chomping as trifling. Me too.
  • Nonplussed is an interesting word, one that I misused for years without a single soul letting me know. Perhaps they were ignorant too. “Accustomed to waiting in line, she was nonplussed at the length of the queue at the highway department.” Was she cool, calm, and collected? Yes. Was she nonplussed? I don’t know. Not unless she was confused.
  • “Fake it ‘til you make it” is a phrase I often write…or used to. No more. Dreyer calls it a prissyism and takes a look at the words till and until. Till is an older word than until and since they mean the same thing, he encourages his readers to write, “Fake it till you make it.” Learning that bit of information was almost worth the price of the book. Almost. Every time I’ve written ‘til, I wondered why and yet did it anyway.
  • My writing group has put a couple of anthologies together, an engaging project in many ways. The undertaking engaged our time, energy, thoughts, and dreams, and it provided ample opportunities for us to participate (engage) as a group. One of the excellent writers and I did most of the editing, and when we came to a story using alright, I felt uneasy about it. Better look it up in a big thick style guide, I thought.
  • My sources were definitive–no quibbling about it; all right was right, not alright. We presented the information to the writer and let the decision be his. We weren’t Random House, after all, and we wanted to retain the integrity of each writer’s work (or something high-minded like that). He went with the correct term—all right. Dreyer says that although alright is making inroads, he’ll continue to wrinkle his nose at the sight of it.

Question: what about alrighty?

“I want to spell colour with a u whether I live in England or not,” he said.

“But you live in America, and here we spell it color,” she replied.

“I don’t give a fig about how people in Iowa or Colorado spell it, and that’s that,” he said.

“Well, alrighty then,” she said with a sigh.

  • My siblings and I wrote a family history a year ago, and whenever I used the word forebearers, that red zigzag line immediately showed up beneath it. I learned there was no such word; forebear, yes; forebearers, no. My brother did the same thing, and we could have sworn (hackneyed phrase, but it fits) we’d seen it before—often, in fact. But we were wrong. Dreyer doesn’t mention forbearer, but he does caution his readers about confusing forbear (refrain from) with forebear (ancestor).

Why this blog? Why this topic? Writing, editing, and revising aren’t easy, but they’re worth it if you want to produce something decent. I’m willing to learn. What about you?

 

 

Posted in anthologies, Benjamin Dreyer, books, books on writing, editing, readng, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hard Writing = Easy Reading

 

Writers need to be a bit tough-skinned if they want to improve their poetry and prose.   It’s the only way I know to have a tight, well-developed story or article that’s smooth, correctly punctuated, interesting, and easy reading. Someone* said easy reading meant hard writing. Focus, diligence, and the discipline to stay with it, editing and revising—perhaps several times, are necessary.

Way back when, I published a human relations text—or rather, I wrote it, and Prentice-Hall published it. I was naïve then, even more than I am now, thirty years later. No one told me anything about revisions and edits. I knew in a vague sort of way that other people would look at it before my fifteen chapters were put into book form, but I figured my work was basically done when I mailed the manuscript. Yes, mailed.

It’s an understatement to say things have changed. In 2019, every publication that I’m familiar with solicits electronic manuscripts only. Period. As a disclaimer, my world is a small one compared to writers who compose and submit more regularly and widely than I. I’m sure there are publishers who still accept snail mail. I just don’t know about them.

Back to the hard work and thick skin required of a successful* writer, editing and revising are fundamental. Without the help of my hometown writing group, I’d still be sprinkling “it” all over the page(s), never guessing I needed to be more specific. Same thing with passive voice. My verbs passively showed up in every other sentence until a peer-editor circled each one in a nonfiction piece I’d written and encouraged me to think of something stronger for each one. At first I balked. But then I accepted the challenge and found it fun. Rewarding too.

Not long after I sent the completed (or so I thought) manuscript to Prentice-Hall, I received a large manila envelope containing the edited version. Not expecting any serious issues, I opened the envelope and glared in disbelief. The first page was red, bleeding with editorial recommendations and corrections. It’s been a long time (1989), so I can’t remember whether every page was like that, but I do recall my feelings of astonishment and well, anger.

I liked my sentence structure and word choice. How dare they change things!

I soon calmed down. Reading the editor’s notes and learning the various editorial marks and what they meant took time. Here’s what I learned. He (a male in this case) was correct, and his job was to make my work cleaner and clearer. As well as I can recall, I followed each directive. The text had a “good run” for a couple of years, but there was no second edition.

I don’t need an editor or member of my critique group to let me know I’ve strayed from my original purpose of the importance of editing and revising. Next time, I’ll do a better job of being more specific in dos and don’ts that I’ve recently learned. For example, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD says the copy chief of Random House Benjamin Dreyer. (Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, page 32).

*Was it Maya Angelou, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hood,Anthony Trollope, Lord Byron, or someone else?

*To some writers, successful means to have a best seller, win the Pulitzer, have name recognition wherever she goes, or make a lot of money. Not me. It’s not because I’m too lazy, uninspired, or unfocused. I’m committed to writing a little something each day and am happy/eager to share it, but my life is too full to devote more time to it. Writing blogs makes me happy, and if you’ve read this far, that makes me feel successful.

 

 

Posted in Benjamin Dreyer, books, Camden Writers, critique groups, editing, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Exclamation Points & Oxford Commas

Intrigued by a friend’s comments about her personal use of the exclamation point, I clicked the link she had posted a to a New York Times’ article about Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. That title! I mean, it takes a lot of verve, confidence, and chutzpah to claim one’s guide as utterly correct. And I know the author wouldn’t like that exclamation mark.

I knew I had to have that book ASAP and ordered it that very hour. It arrived two days later, and I’ve been enjoying Dreyer’s advice, suggestions, and voice ever since. He’s funny but serious, knowledgeable but not pedantic, experienced but not condescending. I have a dogeared copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, an up-to-date edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and two Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) books, my favorite being The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Those are my go-to sources, so why did I order the ultimate guide and why am I liking it so much?

I ordered it because I’m about to begin an editing project and need all the help I can get. And I want that help to be delivered by a practicing expert, one who walks the talk, someone like Dreyer who’s the copy chief at Random House. Now that I have the guide, I like it because it’s an invaluable tool, a veritable treasure chest of information, some new and some old. As a person who’s worked thirty years as a copy editor, Dreyer is committed not only to what he does for Random House authors but also to helping anyone who wants to improve their writing. I’m not sure whether the correct pronoun should be his or her, his, her, or their so I stuck with the latter. When I come across his advice, I’ll let you know.

For now, I’m sharing a few things I’ve learned the last couple of days.

I need to use fresh terms. On the first page of Chapter 1, Dreyer challenges his readers to go one week without using very, rather, really, quite, and in fact. I gulped. Those are some of my mostly commonly used words. He goes on to recommend tossing out just, pretty, of course, surely, and that said. And that’s just on the first page. I’m in trouble, I thought. (Incidentally, Dryer doesn’t recommend the use of Italics when expressing a writer’s thoughts, but well, I’m in the learning stage.)

It took only a few seconds to construct a silly sentence using six of those words/phrases. It would really be very hard for me to go just one day without writing these rather common words and quite impossible, in fact, to go a week. Dreyer isn’t asking me or any other readers to eliminate the words forever, just one measly little week. I’ll try.

I can use the Oxford comma if I so desire and ignore the know-it-alls who tell me it’s passé. Dreyer says, “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” Whether you call it series or Oxford, use it. In the first sentence below, I’m visualizing green beans folded into chocolate pudding. In the second, I see them as separate dishes.

  • “For dinner, we’re having grilled pork chops, rice, green beans and pudding.”
  • “For dinner, we’re having pork chops, rice, green beans, and pudding.”

Dreyer says that certain prose rules are essentially inarguable. For instance, a subject and verb should always agree in number. At the same time, he claims to be an “enthusiastic subscriber” to the concept that rules are made to be broken—once you’ve learned them. He shares a humorous story about a hoity toity person who got her just reward after haughtily correcting someone who ended a sentence with a preposition. And Dreyer says it’s okay to begin a sentence with And or But.

So far, I’m loving this utterly correct guide, even in the places where I could say “guilty as charged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Benjamin Dreyer, books, books on writing, editing, nonficion, Uncategorized, words, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment