Wednesday, December 24, 2014

There's Gotta Be a 420 Joke in Here Somewhere

At the end of last week, I drafted 90% of a thoughtful post about a problem with the theme of fathers and sons in narrative art. One of those theoretical, "let's make believe I know what I'm talking about" kinds of posts, which I really like writing but which I have no idea if people like reading, or if they have any basis in actual discourse. By the time I was finished thinking about the theme and revising the post, I sort of hated my opinions about it, along with what I'd written. I think my brain is momentarily tired of being tested against the cruel light of what genuine experts know about these kinds of topics. Perhaps I'll like the post a lot better once the holidays are over, but in the meantime I'm just going to share something else.

Meanwhile just skirting the subject of what's happening this week

The final exercise I did in my workshop class this semester was after a writer named Lou Beach, who wrote a whole book of stories of under 420 characters each. (This used to be the data limit for Facebook posts. Good times, eh?) I wrote several, and I was pretty happy with what I came up with, so here are a few.

Never have I ever, she prompted. Never have I ever. I would have been happy to hear that little loop of R and V and soft H from her mouth for days, but she wanted a new truth from mine. Gossip, maybe. Tim told me last night that he. Did you hear that he. Kissed you, I answered. 
Why is Esther the only thing on my mind at this moment? Not my kids or my husband or my sainted mother, but Esther. Nothing under me but sky and flame, and the debris of 126 other passengers in a screaming lipstick tube. No parachute. No flotation device. My body moves at terminal velocity and my mind hovers on a stupid stuffed horse I bought my sister when we were both eleven. 
The fall made me dizzy, but trying to get up and failing, like a downed drunk, was worse. Engines muttering and a sharp bitter smell around me. Stay still. Keep breathing. I've got a kit for when this happens, even so far from home. It's a seizure, I tell myself, I've been telling myself for several minutes, until I realize it's just that I've fallen in love with the girl at the gas pump next to mine. 

Naturally these all pale in comparison with Beach's own work and with the greatest and famousest six-word story, but I really had fun writing them. Try a few of your own. 420 characters, not 420 words. MS Word doesn't keep track of characters automatically, but I estimate that 80 words is a good upper limit to keep in mind at first. What can you say in that amount of space?

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.