Wednesday, December 17, 2014

English as Acrobat, or the Folly of TOCWTS

Several weeks back, a blogger that I really should have stopped reading by now asked in a post whether the correct styling was As and Bs or A's and B's. This question actually can't be answered, believe it or not, and within it lies an invaluable writing/editing lesson for a certain type of person. If you couldn't care less about punctuation mechanics, this post might run a little dull for you. (And, by the way, if you couldn't care less about punctuation mechanics, what are you doing reading this blog?)

In my view - those three words apply to the rest of this paragraph - apostrophes are only available as punctuation when substituting for other letters in contractions (would not --> wouldn't) or when indicating possession (Krycek's prosthesis). A's and B's is not a possessive construction, it's a plural construction, and apostrophes cannot be used correctly when pluralizing nouns. Even though styling it As and Bs can be a little confusing, because the first item in the list looks like a capitalized version of the word "as", it’s still the mechanically correct style. And anyway so much of English syntax and grammar depends upon context, upon user effort, and As and Bs will only be confusing for as long as it takes the reader to read through the next two words.

I was not the first commenter on the relevant blog post, and one of the earlier commenters laid down that it was definitely A's and B's. I commented and specifically said that I didn't want to get into an argument, but that in my view, apostrophes can't ever be used for possession, etc., basically a short version of the paragraph above. I noted that I had three years of experience as a copy editor. The prior commenter responded pretty rudely, saying that whoever was paying me to be an editor should be made aware that they were paying someone incompetent, and noted that she had many more years of experience editing than I did. I sort of went  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on it, and said that my company followed the Chicago style guide fairly closely but that we had our own house guide and that, of course, style guides vary. The commenter responded by quoting a passage from Chicago that kinda proved my point rather than hers, and then closed with something like "the vast majority of writers and editors would prefer A's and B's."

A Google Image search of "grammar Nazi" turns up all kinds of delightful stuff,
including things I feel really bad laughing at 

Like I said, I didn't want to get into it. Apostrophes are a sore point with me because they are so often misused out there in the non-grammar-devoted world, and this commenter was unpleasantly aggressive, and that combination meant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ was the way to go. So I didn't respond a second time.

But I knew without a doubt that the commenter was invested in a phenomenon called The One Correct Way To Style. TOCWTS is something that I thought existed in the years before I was a copy editor, but I now know something that, if you are a picky, grouchy grammar fiend like me, take heed, weary one, because this will make your future life a thousand times easier: it does not exist.

There is no one correct way to do certain kinds of punctuation and styling in English. There just isn't. There are different styles, and which one is used in whatever it is you're reading depends on 1) the publication and 2) the context. That's all. No other big rule in the sky; the publication and the context. Some organizations use Chicago, some use AP, some use house rules. If you're the one writing, with no other answerable party, which one is used depends on your preference and potentially on your investment in the rhythm of a sentence. So the rude commenter was right, it's A's and B's, but so was I, it's As and Bs.

(dies laughing)

In this blog I use the Oxford or serial comma, meaning that in a list of three items, a comma appears before the last item in the list. Mulder, Scully, and Skinner. In quite a lot of style guides, the second comma, after "Scully", is not correct. For me, this is nuts, because it causes unnecessary confusion, but for the Washington Post, it's the law. I also would say (contrary to the style guide of the company where I worked for three years) Jesus's taxes or Texas's fertilizer, rather than Jesus' taxes or Texas' fertilizer. Not because one or the other is correct - neither is correct or incorrect (!!), it depends on the style guide - but because the apostrophe hanging out there looks weird to me on a non-plural noun, different than the friends' convictions or the creatures' fangs, for example. And I would always say As and Bs, because apostrophes matter a hell of a lot to me, but if I worked for a company or a client that insisted on A's and B's, I would cringe and correct for that. Because that's how it's correct in that context. No immutable TOCWTS exists for that phrase. It's all context.

There are rules of English punctuation and style that do not bend. The difference between it's and its is not negotiable. But English is a remarkable acrobat, flexible and strong and death-defying, and there is no one way to be an acrobat. Once I accepted this, the arguments I was willing to have about punctuation and grammar dropped to nearly zero. Because if there's no one correct way to do certain stylings, who's to say that I know the one correct way to use any of the rules I've always considered immutable?

From here, I could ramble awhile about poststructuralism, and how my whole worldview seems to be heading in that direction as I get older and learn more - truth dissociating itself from certainty, and vice versa, and things getting really malleable and interesting and me thinking that yeah, this is how life really is, lived in the liminal spaces between this rule and that reality - or I can give you a concrete example, hastily created in Paint, to sum up.

Neither one is wrong. They are both acceptable. It just depends on where, when, and how you are.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

All Fiction is a Farce

So, remember that required, requisitioned radical revision I did on the Girl Scout story for my workshop class? I'm still kind of eh about what I did with it, but something came out in class that's worth analysis. Here's the beginning:
Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.

Yes, that's really the way I'm starting this. Because it's hilarious how much my life is a replica of the premise of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
One of the students who read my revision in class last week pinged the second sentence up there. He said that sentence implies that the narrator is conscious of an audience, although nothing in the rest of the story mentions or clarifies that awareness. Tallulah (the narrating character) appears to be telling this story to someone, per that sentence, but the story doesn't say who that someone is. Who is it? he asked me.

What do you think? I said.

I don't know! he said. Who is it?

Sharp guy, this student. He's asked questions like this before - questions that imply I have a concrete answer about some aspect of a story I wrote, an answer that he wants. He's quite right about the sentence, but the answer isn't simple, and I doubt it's the one he wants.

The answer is, I wanted the reader to read that sentence and think about the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration. All fiction is a farce, see. There is no Tallulah. I made her up for the purposes of writing the Girl Scout story. Tallulah is narrating to an audience because there is a reader sitting there with the story I wrote in her voice, and for no other reason. The Fresh Prince theme song is really the way I'm starting my story, and it's really the way Tallulah's starting hers. I meant to pull back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz: whether you like it or not, reader, all there is is me at my desk. No smoke, no flame, no Tallulah.

I'll grant you that I went about this exposure pretty clumsily/lazily in this story, and that there are only two moments in the 2,500 words that even bother with it. The rest of the story is straightforward and not really all that good. I think the reason I wrote that second sentence into the story at all is that I was harried about having to write it, and I fall back to my Big Writing Concerns when I have to write and I don't know what to write about. (Or when I can't think of a better way to transition from the Fresh Prince theme song into the meat of the story.) BWCs for me are the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration, along with truth and the other stuff I wrote about in this post.

There are authors who dance with these issues gracefully. I am not one of them as yet. John Barth does it in "Lost in the Funhouse" (the story), Wallace does it in "Good Old Neon", and a Canadian writer named Lee Henderson does it in "Attempts at a Great Relationship", which was probably my first exposure to this kind of metafiction.

Although this was likely my real first exposure.
There's a reason I loved Harold. 

I copied some aspects of Henderson's story when I wrote "How [Not] to Bake Bread" this spring, a story which I do not claim is any good at all but which felt like my first major foray into the kind of writing I deeply want to do. I haven't managed to write anything like it since, and I don't really know how to go about doing so, but I find that my desire to make readers think about the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration keeps leaking into even the most mundane fiction over the last few months. Especially when I don't have a clear idea of what I'm writing about.

So I get meta when I get stressed. I find myself jabbering about Barthes and Prospero and how bizarre reading actually is - the various levels of delusion that we elevator downward and through when we open the cover of a book. When I sit down to write something I don't know how to write, I dig into the lotto bowl, and I come up with, say, something in pop culture. I use that thing as an entry point, and then I seem to just pass the burden of what I'm doing on to the reader with "Wow, you guys, reading is fucked up, amirite?"

Later on in that revision of the Girl Scout story, this appears:
Hearing [my life history] laid out for Naomee like that changed things, though. The way it came out of me wasn't complex, or lasting - it didn't resonate in my bones, didn't lie on top of my skin like a film of cheap soap. It did sound like a TV movie plot. Was my life so easy to summarize?
I'm trying to poke the reader into realizing the sham in which she and I are complicit. Yes of course Tallulah's life is easy to summarize. I MADE IT UP. I made it up and you have read it and that is some crazy shit.

I wish I was better at that poke. Sometimes I feel it's the only thing I want to write about - that stories and characters are far less crucially the thing that motivates me to put words on the page and that the meta stuff, the stuff that comes out when I'm stressed (like, oh, now) is all that matters to me. Writers can't expose those issues in fiction without coming up with stories and characters, of course, and doing so unconvincingly leads to terrible fiction. Just ask the people who read my revision of the Girl Scout story.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rosanna, or How I Discovered Something Worth Knowing

How do you learn things you're glad to know? For me it usually happens elliptically. Through weird coincidences. Yes, I do have an example, glad you asked.

Years ago, a friend recommended that I listen to a cover of Toto's "Africa" recorded by a Slovenian a capella group, Perpetuum Jazzile. I loved it, so I surfed on and listened to them doing "Rosanna," even though "Rosanna" was never a favorite song of mine. It was too bouncy, maybe a minute too long, with a silly synth bridge and a loud and unnecessary brass line. One of those songs that I heard enough times on my parents' adult contemporary FM station in the car on the way to the grocery store that I never felt the need to listen to it in my adult life.

Until I heard Perpetuum Jazzile do "Rosanna."

Then the song took on something new, a charm it hadn't had before. It felt like an interesting assemblage of elements instead of a mere lump of semiprecious material. After a few listens to the cover, I decided to listen to the real thing, for the first time in years, so I YouTubed actual Toto doing "Rosanna." The first comment under the video (at the time) was something like "Ah, Rosanna. Making drummers cry like children since 1982."

Wow, what?

I had no idea what that was about, and wanted to know, so I looked it up. Turns out that Toto's drummer, Jeff Porcaro, was quite possibly the best pop-music drummer of the 20th century. He was a studio musician on many, many, many recordings, a lot of them very famous indeed, and his playing was effortless, innovative, and precise. He died at 38, weirdly, while mowing his lawn, possibly after taking a leetle too much cocaine, but maybe from something else.

For "Rosanna," Jeff Porcaro wrote what is now known as the Rosanna shuffle (!), and after that my research turned into areas of music knowledge that I could no longer follow - ghost notes and other stuff about drumming that I don't understand. But this shuffle is famously hard. (There's video of Porcaro himself breaking it down. I suspect it resembles Michael Jordan teaching how to dunk.) Tons of videos exist of amateur drummers playing along with the song, concentration and pride sharing facial space. For "Rosanna"! A song that I considered one of the least interesting hits of the 80s until Perpetuum Jazzile came into my life.

I consider this information about Jeff Porcaro and the Rosanna shuffle to be ephemera well worth knowing, whether I ever find practical use for it or not. You never know what's going to be of use inside your head, though. Hell, maybe I'll be across beers from a drummer one day and this will be the only thing I have to say to him. And let's not leave aside the fact that today I got an entire blog post out of it.

In any event, I'm really glad I know this, but the way I got to it is so knotted and forked that it's a wonder I learned it at all. From a friend pointing me to a cover of a song I love, to a cover of a song I was once kind of eh about, to the song itself, to a comment on YouTube (which I suggest has the worst comment threads in the entire universe), to Wikipedia, and thence to new knowledge.


I seriously doubt I would've had occasion to learn Jeff Porcaro's name any other way. This Escheresque path to knowledge is the way I learn lots of things worth knowing, and incidentally, it's also the way I pick up little details that make writing more fun and interesting than it would otherwise be. I like finding a place in story, in character, to put the random stuff I learn. I haven't found a place for "Rosanna" yet, but I suspect I will.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Excess, Both Mine and Hearst's

So wow, this past weekend was interesting. I:
  • read most of Go Down, Moses 
  • wrote an entire story nearly from scratch - used some of the characters and a little of the premise from the Girl Scout story, but expanded and rethought so significantly that it's a whole separate story, and no part of the 2,500 words of it existed previously outside my head 
  • wrote a prospectus for a final literary analysis paper, which might be total crap 
  • read a couple of chapters of Intertextuality, by Graham Allen 
  • read or skimmed about a dozen scholarly papers 
  • chose twenty sentences from a writing exercise to cut up and put in an envelope together 
  • attempted to comprehend Lacan 
  • wished Matt happy trails on a short trip he's taking with his parents, on which I'm going along as of [checks watch] this morning, and 
  • finished off season 4 of The X-Files in my continuing marathon. 
It was a weekend that played to my strengths as a postmodern thinker, but I was pretty close to insane by Sunday night.

I'm disgruntled with what I did on the Girl Scout story. A radical revision was mandatory, per the professor (I guess that'd make it a required, requisitioned radical revision), so I did one, but I'm pretty eh about what I came up with. It was easy to write and hard to revise - the exact opposite of the original version of the story. Isn't that interesting? (In a few weeks I might come back to this and unpack it, because it may be worth expanding upon in a longer post, but I'm seriously dying of schoolwork, so let's call this parenthetical a Post-It note for possible further thought later.)

I put myself into a different narrative position, and found that although I didn't mind telling the story inside a certain character's head, it wasn't at all the story that intrigued me about the situation. I didn't work especially hard in drafting it, and the results were not especially appealing, so the revision was a kind of hapless clean-up on something that doesn't have a lot of integrity. I don't have the time to make it worthy of me, and anyway it's work I did for a class assignment, not work I did because I thought I needed to write a better story. So, I met the requirements of the class, which is fine for this story at this moment. End of line.

Thanks to everyone for their responses to my poll of last Friday. As of this writing I have three friends and ten traitors in my life. Ha ha, no, I don't mean to call you traitors (you rotten traitors) but the poll's answers certainly exposed what I actually wanted to do with my December as opposed to what I probably need to do.

Classes are proceeding as normal tomorrow, but I won't be at them. I'll be here instead. I'm going to try and mentally set aside everything that still remains for me to do in terms of school until I get back, and wallow richly in the excess of others.

Yeah, no, this level of excess is tooooootally normal

Happy [early] Thanksgiving, everyone.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Not Much More than a Poll

All I'm doing right now is keeping my head on the millstone. Or...wait. No?

Because I've got more schoolwork than I can feasibly do between now and the end of the semester (which is in like two weeks), really I'm just looking forward to the end, which will come sometime between December 8 (last day of classes) and December 12 (last paper due). Hence my thoughts of late stray to December 13, when my mind will be free and able to focus on other things for a month or so. 

When I finished the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, around Labor Day, I promised myself that I could start the next volume at the end of this semester, i.e. on December 13. I've been looking forward to it all this time. But in between then and now, I figured out that I was ready to start writing the wikibook. I haven't written word one on it, because I'm barely keeping my head above water with all the other stuff. So this is my dilemma: should I spend the month's break reading Proust? Or should I spend the month's break making a sincere start on this novel? 

What do you, the viewers at home, think? 

Should I start the book or should I start the book?

Nose to the grindstone! That's what I meant to say. I think I've been reading too much. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Chekhov Meets Poochie

The Simpsons comes up on this blog sometimes, and it comes up among friends sometimes, but it comes up in my brain, like, all the time. Most of the minutes I live in any given week contain a thought related to The Simpsons. I'm certainly not the only person whose mind is more or less a Simpsons encyclopedia, but I know people who've never watched it. So I never really know, when I'm trying to use The Simpsons to make a point or a joke, whether it's going to make the right amount of sense to everybody.

Okay, then. Disclaimer made. 

The Simpsons once introduced a character named Poochie, a "soulless product of committee thinking" to its violent, animated show-within-a-show, Itchy & Scratchy. In the episode, the title characters are driving, approaching a fireworks factory, when Poochie appears at the side of the road. He proceeds to mug, shout catchphrases, and generally make like soulless characters did in the 1990s. Cut to Milhouse, one of the watching Simpsons characters, who moans "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?" Poochie hops in the car and drives off, and the fireworks factory sits there, unused. No violence; no joy.

You probably don't need to watch this if you were nodding along to the paragraph above, but if you weren't, please watch it, if only up to 1.30. The rest of the post'll make more sense. 

The longer this scene has cooked in my brain, the more writing lessons I find in Milhouse's question. (Really.) Poochie was introduced because Itchy & Scratchy's ratings were falling, and the producers wanted to keep getting raises every year. So they added Poochie to the "dramaturgical dyad" represented by Itchy and Scratchy (or by Tom and Jerry, or by Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote). And Poochie fucked things up not necessarily because he was a dramaturgical third wheel, but because he was a gimmick. What he did was not what the show did. 

Hence Milhouse's question. What he's asking is, when is this show going to do what I expect it to do? When am I going to get the explosion that is the whole point of this experience? 

It is a completely correct question to ask of any art. I'm not saying that every piece of art has to do what the audience wants it to, or what makes the audience feel comfy. That would mean we'd only ever have committee art: blockbuster summer movies instead of art-house films, James Patterson books instead of (not in addition to) Virginia Woolf. But every narrative has to be consistent to its purpose, and satisfactory, whether we're talking about a Roadrunner cartoon or a Faulkner novel.

One of my professors has said that a good book or a good story teaches the audience how to read it. Good art in any stratum accomplishes this. I sit down to watch The Avengers, and I know what kind of movie it is, what kind of enjoyment I'm going to get out of it, before five minutes have passed. I sit down to read a David Markson book, and I know what its pleasures (or lack thereof) will be in a few pages. It tells me what it's up to, and I adjust my expectations.* That's how audiences get satisfaction out of art. Stopping a Roadrunner cartoon in the middle to put Wile E. Coyote on a soapbox about the disappearing desert ecosystem, and never tossing him off a cliff at all, would not satisfy, even if the audience cares about the environment. The audience would just sit there, scratching its abstract audience-head, going "Why didn't he fall off the cliff?" Because that's what a Roadrunner cartoon is for

Audiences with any small measure of sophistication adjust their expectations based on the art they're consuming. I may not feel that every one of my questions has been answered when I watch a Lynch film, but that is not my expectation. 

And so back to Milhouse. His question betrays his expectation for Itchy & Scratchy: it's going to be violent. If a fireworks factory appears in the frame, there damn well better be explosions before the end of the show. Failing to make that happen betrays the audience's expectation and, more significantly, the purpose of the art. By showing the fireworks factory, the show is teaching Milhouse how to watch it, and by bringing in Poochie (who is essentially a commercial for the 1990s, not a character), it discards that lesson. 

The fireworks factory is something else, too: it's Chekhov's gun
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. 

Chekhov's gun mostly means "don't put shit in your stories that doesn't matter," but I also think of it as a lesson about narrative coherence, and about what draws the audience's attention. A gun on the wall in a story about the descendants of Samuel Colt might not need to go off, but that gun in the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead sure as hell had to. It was contextually unusual, and it was brought to the audience's attention. The fireworks factory might not be unusual in the context of Itchy & Scratchy, but it was brought to the audience's attention, and Milhouse is totally right to ask when that particular gun is going to go off.

There's yet another lesson that comes out of this question, which was (IMHO) most succinctly stated by Tom Servo in the MST3K of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank: Never show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie. The fireworks factory is the most interesting thing in the cartoon, but it's Poochie's bullshit that's front and center. And Poochie is rendered even more horrid by the possibility of the fireworks factory. 

So, in sum, what can writers take from Milhouse's question? I'll put it in bullet form: 
  • Teach your audience how to read your art. 
  • Don't fuck with that lesson. 
  • Understand that your audience is going to have expectations of your art, based on when and where s/he is consuming it and whatever other paratextual cues you offer about it. 
  • Meet those expectations, unless you want your art to annoy. 
  • Put only the stuff that matters into your work. 
  • Make that stuff matter as it narratively ought to. 
  • And don't shortchange the best parts of your work in favor of something that works less well, even if that something matters more to you. 
That's a lot to glean from one nine-word question in a TV episode from 1997. Not bad, Van Houten, not bad. Oh, and there's a thing to learn from Poochie himself: don't put a commercial masquerading as a character into your art. But I don't think we really needed Poochie to learn that. 

*This is why postmodernism is so cool to me: it constantly tosses those expectations up in the air and lets them fall as they may. But it's also why not everyone can deal with postmodernism - because they want their experiences to be consistent, because they want to feel secure about the kind of art they're consuming. You should've read the reactions on an opera fan page I frequent about a postmodern production of Prince Igor I attended last season. Whoo, they were not happy. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Based on True Plant-Related Events

I don't have anything to blog about right now, so instead I'm opening my coat. What follows is 1,000ish words of an exercise I wrote for my workshop class this semester. I didn't like the way the remaining 500 words turned out - too tidy - but I liked this first 1,000. I hope you like it too.