Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Question on Language

Early this month, Emily Johnson Dickerson died. She was the last monolingual speaker of the Chickasaw language. She was the last person alive whose worldview was completely Chickasaw--who could not separate the language from herself.

I didn't know Emily Johnson Dickerson. And I'm not Chickasaw. But reading about her got me to thinking. About language. About history. About power--and the lack of it. And about how all of that comes across in writing.


For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply interested in language and words. It might be genetic--my mom was a competitive Scrabble player, traveling across the country for meets. It might also be related to where I'm from--my hometown of New Orleans is home to a vast array of accents and dialects that have developed over almost three centuries of immigration, emigration and cultural mixing between Native American, European and African groups. Long before I'd ever heard of the Tower of Babel or Linguistic Relativity or Determinism, before Noam Chomsky blew my mind, I was interested in what it meant that I called that strip of grass in the middle of the road a neutral ground while my Georgia cousins called it a median.

When, in middle school, I started studying Latin, my interest in language was heightened. Seeing the relationship between those ancient, foreign words and my own was something magical. Later, when my English class read Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street (in which the main character, Esperanza, explains that "In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters."), I started to think more about the risks, the negative consequences, how these magical codes could isolate us, limit us, keep us apart. I started to think about the linguistic changes that have occurred in my own city, my own family, my own life. Why do my parents and I speak English instead of the West African languages of our enslaved ancestors? Or the Dutch and perhaps Yiddish of the European Jewish slave traders who also contributed to our blood? Why don't I speak the French spoken by my octaroon great-grandparents?

Those are all questions for which, if I look to history, I can find satisfactory answers. I don't speak Senegambian because my ancestors who spoke it were forced to assimilate into French and Spanish speaking societies. I don't speak Dutch or Yiddish because my ancestors who spoke it didn't claim us as part of their line and, as such, didn't ever introduce us to their mother tongues. I don't speak French because, after Louisiana became a state, the Americans privileged English and coerced (read: forced) the population to learn it.

But there is a question that is, for me, more troubling. Why do I code-switch the way I do--why am I writing this blog post in this language instead of the New Orleanian African American English I use at home? I know the answer. The answer is that I learned to write in Standard American English. SAE is what I learned to use in school. SAE is part of what allows me to be inside the discourse community that I want to be inside of, to be a member of The Academy, to be part of the club. But even though I want access to the world SAE opens for me, I worry about what I'm sacrificing to be in that world.

I often joke that I'm not a creative writer--that I think it's all magic and wizardry and I respect it and value it (or maybe envy it) but I can't do it. But I think maybe the real reason is more than that. I think part of my struggle with creative writing is that, were I to write my world, it would need to be in the language I speak. But I can only write in SAE.

So, I'm wondering. Creative writers, you magical, wonderful, talented people: how much--if at all--does your language (not so much your content or style, but your actual language) change when you're switching between creative and non- (or less) creative work? Code-switchers: to what degree do you feel like you control your switching? Poly-glots: can you use your multiple languages with the same ease in all subjects? And readers: who are some of your favorite writers who write outside of standard language forms?

Tell us--or write us, as it were.

Crafted By Hand

I carry around a little black notebook in my bag and a black Pilot G-2 .07 pen in my front right pocket.  Without these items, I am a vessel adrift  in a sea of touchscreens and key boards, unable to write.

I feel almost guilty saying it, belonging as I do to the Millennial generation, but I am uncomfortable staring at blank screens. The blinking cursor in Word and Blogger is nothing short of tyrannical. Instead of an expanse of real estate awaiting my every thought, the blank page on a computer screen is an impenetrable fortress.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this preference for writing longhand. Author and video game designer James Mechner also writes in longhand, and wrote a great article on his reasons for backing away from digital devices. And, as Chris Gayomali points out in The Week, it is difficult to become sucked into a vortex of "puppy videos and ex-boyfriend/girlfriend stalking" with only a pad and pen on the desk. Writing longhand cuts down on distractions.

For me, the critical part of handwriting my ideas, outlines and first drafts is to silence my inner editor. There is an important difference between striking out a sentence with my pen and smacking that backspace button on my keyboard a few times. When I scratch a phrase out with my pen, the words are still there on the page. On a piece of paper, I see the progress I have made in articulating my ideas, even if those ideas are buried underneath black scribble marks. I build upon those lines (and lines and lines and lines) of crossed out material when formulating my ideas. With a word processor, the labor entailed in this writing, crossing out, and re-writing disappears into the ether.

Once I have a draft or a strong outline, I move to the computer. My drafts still need quite a bit of revision at this point, but when the cursor starts laughing in my face and the cold glare of the computer screen peels back the layers of my eyeballs, I refer to my handwritten draft. (If I'm still stuck, I check out puppy videos on Facebook.)

So, the next time you suddenly realize you wasted three hours reading each and every Buzzfeed list from the last three years when you were supposed to be writing your paper, shut down that laptop, find a pen and some paper, bring to mind those 3rd Grade handwriting lessons, and write. At the very least, you'll have something down on paper.

Key Shortcuts in Essay Writing

There are a few tools in a word processor that I use all of the time. However, many people do not know these fantastic tricks. If you already know about these tools, tell your friends and save them some time and frustration.

So, we all know about spell-check, but we don't all know about the synonym function on the word-processor. The synonym function is also extremely useful--especially for ESL students. Go to tools, thesaurus, or simply left or double-click (depending on your computer) the word you want a synonym for. That way, if you can only think of a word that is similar to the word you actually want, you can find the word you actually want.

Or, say you have a problem with tense and you want to find all of the times you used the suffix "ed" in a document. To search within your own document on your computer, go to the "Edit bar. Under "Edit" click "find", or "go to", or "replace", depending on what you want to do.

If you are looking for something specific within a research journal, rather than reading the entire thing and finding no mention of whatever it is you are searching, search within an online document by pressing Command F. Try it now, and a search bar will appear on your screen. Now search "sun." Look, the sun is highlighted!

To highlight multiple things at once hold down Command while you highlight. This is useful for editing long documents.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Richard Sherman and the Rhetoric of Talking Trash

Ok, so I imagine everyone with a Facebook account has watched or at least heard about Richard Sherman's epic post game trash talking session, hosted by Erin Andrews. There is an awful lot of noise surrounding this issue, and absolutely no shortage of articles, videos, and other internet goodies. Just Google Richard Sherman, and be ready to sacrifice a few hours to the internet.

I love Richard Sherman. I grew up in Tacoma, WA, and am a devoted 12th Man. I am absolutely thrilled to watch the Seahawks take on the Broncos in what has been termed "The Ganja Bowl" because both Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana earlier this year. I have enjoyed every second of Richard Sherman locking down receivers and freeing up his mouth. An absolute internet genius put together a video of all the best Sherman moments over the years.

But, what I want to concentrate on here is what I will call the Rhetoric of Talking Trash. Here is the basic formula, as far as I can tell:

1. Denigrate the abilities of your competitor
2. Extol your own virtues and abilities, as well as the struggle you went through to reach the pinnacle of your profession.
NOTE: The order of Steps 1 and 2 are negotiable.
3. Denigrate anyone you consider to be a "naysayer" or potential ally to your enemy.
4. Repeat.
5. S/he who loses his/her temper, loses the game.

Every rhetorical strategy should have a purpose. I think this is where a lot of people base their dislike of trash talk; they see it as a useless device. However, I would argue that talking trash serves a very important goal; it is about self-confidence, about the type of brazen, head-held-high, no-one-can-stop-me, it's-not-arrogance-if-it's-the-truth belief in oneself that I love to see.

Humility has its place. But so does some swagger. Go Hawks.

Monday, January 20, 2014


As I see it, one of the biggest struggles lovers of language face is reconciling our appreciation for the manipulation of words with our respect for the rules that govern written communication. After all, nobody likes a Grammar Nazi--like comedian and wordsmith Stephen Fry says, they're too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer's less than perfect use of the apostrophe--but nobody likes being a Grammar Nazi, either.

And the internet only makes it harder. If you're like me, you heart the interwebz. Hard. But even if you aren't super bout that reddit lyfe and don't use hashtags on the daily, it's hard to escape textspeak and slang and LOLCats and, and, and.

Denver based artist Shawn Huckins is making it even harder to escape pop culture wordplay with his newest series, The American_Tier. The series consists of hand-painted replicas of 19th-Century works on top of which Huckins superimposes text drawn from pop culture jargon.

"J.J. Reynolds: Whatever"

In his artist's statement, Huckins poses a question: "If Lewis & Clark could comment today, would they click the ‘like’ button, or post ‘wtf?’ and then go check their Miley Cyrus tweet?"

I don't know. Personally, I just wanna tell Huckins "Bye, Felicia. I'mma just look at these pictures."

But real talk, I bet Lewis & Clark would have a bomb twitter feed. "Oh hai @TommyJeff. We all up n dis La Territory w. @Sacagawea. &btw, re: the Pacific. We #FountIt."

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Clever Little Comma

I have comma problems. I have tried to figure out for years how to use them. I've read many a chapter on how to use commas in many a grammar book, but little, if anything, stuck. However, I have finally found something that has helped: the chapter on commas in Eat, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss. (I discovered the book by reading earlier posts on this very blog.) She explains the history of commas (did you know the Bible was originally written without commas?) and that many famous fiction writers break the already flexible rules about commas.

Here is a fun little video for anyone who does not want to do the reading.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Write On, My Cash-Strapped Friends

Yesterday, this article over at The Onion invaded my social media world. My poet friends were posting it. My journalist friends were posting it. My adjunct English professor friends were posting it. My part-time librarian friends were posting it. Of course, the article is satirical, but it rings true for writers. If you’re looking to earn a steady paycheck and live life as a real life grown up - with, like, good credit and a retirement plan and without a gazillion dollars of debt - writing might not be for you.

But, I like to be an optimist. I mean, I have to be. I just moved my family across the country so that I could pursue a graduate degree in English. I have to believe there’s hope. And for me, that hope lies in self-publishing. Thanks to the internet, anyone can share their words with the world. Anyone can advertize. There are DIY fundraising options like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Writers like Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous have exploded onto the literary scene from the blogosphere. Independently published poetry journals and chapbooks are popping up everywhere. Visual artists and writers are coming together to publish their own conceptual magazines.

This is no longer Papa Hemingway's literary world.

So yeah, writers, you might have to wait tables or work as a valet to make ends meet. You might end up on food stamps after getting your Ph.D. But, maybe you'll end up on the Amazon bestsellers list. So write on.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The facts, and nothing but...

While Charleston and the rest of the Midwest suffered under the Polar Vortex, surely 2014's first catchphrase, I visited my grandparents in Phoenix. Each morning, after a jog through the gated retirement community where my grandparents reside (aptly titled "Sunsets and Death by Del Webb"), I watched Fox News with my grandfather. I allowed myself to feel slight pangs of empathy for my Midwest friends and colleagues as the Fox broadcasters talked about the colder-than-Antartica weather.

Beyond the opportunity for cultural observation extended viewing of Fox News provides a young, liberal-leaning, pony-tailed English graduate student, I also witnessed a fantastic example of the tension that exists between truth, facts, and personal experience.

On January 8th, Fox News ran a very long segment about Robert Gates's tell-all memoir "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." The story, still on the Fox News website, is titled "Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates slams Obama's leadership style in new book." In a telling example of the differences between media organizations, The New York Times also ran a piece on Gates's memoir. Their title? "The Deliberations of War: 'Duty,' by Robert M. Gates, About Time with Bush and Obama." (Neither Fox News nor The New York Times talked about how it is ironic that a "secretary," which means "secret keeper" in Latin, wrote a tell-all memoir).

Of course, the two article titles raise questions about media bias, and whether or not there is such a thing as fair and honest reporting. A lot of people have rightly wondered whether any news organization in our nation actually reports the facts, or simply tries to persuade readers to their side of some greater argument. Now, I find this conversation especially interesting for two reasons: 1) I wrote for newspapers in high school and college and 2) I am just about finished with a wonderful book by Ben Yagoda called Memoir: A History.

While writing for newspapers, I realized that unbiased reporting is more or less impossible. We write and read linearly, even though events rarely occur in a linear fashion. When writing news stories, I had to put the information in a certain order, which meant I often imposed an artificial linearity on a specific event. I decided what information was most important, and I put that information at the top of the story. This means, regardless of the situation, that it is impossible to not editorialize a news story.

Yagoda spends a lot of time on a similar point in his book when talking about "fictionalized" autobiographies; James Frey's Million Little Pieces is the most well-known example. Yagoda writes about how memory is not nearly as reliable as we like to imagine. The idea of our memory as the world's first recording device is a misguided myth that helps us sleep better at night. When reading a memoir, we should all be a little wary of an author's representation of a childhood experience that occurred decades previous. Yagoda's point is that, while some nonfiction writers knowingly exaggerate or just plain make things up (see Frey), many nonfiction writers just remember events incorrectly.

Beyond the failures of memory, it seems to me that any story told from a single perspective is going to have a lot more interpretations than facts. Gates's book, along with the hundreds of others like it, should not be called a tell-all. It should be called a tell-a-tiny-bit-from-a-limited-perspective. 

Now, the really intriguing part of Yagoda's book, at least for me, is his observation that the lines between fiction and non-fiction used to be far more permeable. People caring about these categories, and defending the lines between fact and fiction with enormous amounts of litigation, is a relatively contemporary phenomenon. (There is a correlation here between memoirs and fiction. Nonfiction writers are often sued for making things up. Fiction writers are often sued for not making things up, characters especially). The New Yorker, for example, used to categorize the personal memoirs it published, known as "casuals" back in the day, as fiction in their in-house catalogs, according to Yagoda. 

If a memoir does not have all its facts straight, is it worth nothing? Is honesty about facts, or about how those facts are presented? (Yagoda provides his own answer to those questions at the end of his book, which I do not want to spoil for anyone.) Gates's memoir, as well as memoir as a genre, has something very important to offer, something more important than "the truth." Memoirs provide insight and perspective. If the memoir is written by someone who had a lot of power, then it provides insight and perspective on a situation of which many are ignorant. Those insights, the recounting of those events, are not important because of the facts they contain. They are important because they allow the reader to share in the experience of another. It may not be the truth, but it is certainly (if it's a memoir worth reading) truthful. And, maybe, truthfulness is all we can hope for.