“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.”
― Abraham Lincoln
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
―Kurt Vonnegut,A Man Without a Country
Semicolons . . . signal, rather than shout, a relationship. . . . A semicolon is a compliment from the writer to the reader. It says: “I don’t have to draw you a picture; a hint will do.”
— George Will
I love semicolons.
But I’m not allowed to use them any more. When I write fiction, Kurt Vonnegut’s lesson in creative writing rules. My critique group insists.
Mr. Vonnegut, however, is wrong. The semicolon is not a transvestite hermaphrodite, representing absolutely nothing.
It is a compliment from the writer to the reader.
It is a wooden bench, where you can sit for a moment, catching your breath.
It’s a useful little chap.
When Mr. Vonnegut called the semicolon a transvestite hermaphrodite–well, bless his heart, he must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.
In the previous post, I announced my intention to get up, go to BookPeople, write for an hour on a project of not-email and not-post (because Ramona DeFelice Long told me to), and get off the laptop by 7:00 p.m.
Here’s how the day went.
At 8:00 a.m., I discovered Ernest experiencing grave digestive problems reminiscent of previous problems caused by eating string. No matter how careful we are, he’s always able to find string.
After practicing every sneaky tactic I know to wrestle him into the carrier, I hauled him to the vet, wrote a check, hauled him home, and spent the next twenty-four hours stalking him up hill and down dale, from litterbox to litterbox, to get an accurate picture of his post-doc activity.
If there wasn’t any, I would have to take him back to the vet today for reconsideration of the diagnosis of UTI to ingestion of string.
In addition to the X-ray, the veterinarian gave him a long-lasting injection of antibiotic so we wouldn’t have to catch him and fight over pills or liquid for a week. I could have chosen to start treatment without the X-ray and see what happened but wasn’t sure I could get him back into the carrier if the antibiotic didn’t work. Some things are not worth the effort.
Because we have two cats and two litterboxes, and because I knew isolation wouldn’t be possible, at least if I valued our doors, I sat up all night watching him. He slept. All night. Didn’t go near a litterbox. I played Bookworm.
David rose at 7:00 a.m. We changed shifts. I went upstairs for four hours of sleep. David stalked.
I woke at 11:00 to the news that Ernest had performed admirably. David had kept samples. I said I didn’t need to see them.
Ernest is in fine fettle. At present he’s lying on my arm, making biscuits where I wish he were not. I will tolerate this until the first claw penetrates my clothing and punctures my flesh. He means well.
In fact, he forgave and forgot as soon as we returned from the veterinary clinic. He swished around as if I had never betrayed him, sat in my lap, pinned down my left arm while I typed, lay on the footstool, gazed at me lovingly.
I’m grateful he doesn’t hold a grudge. In the fight for proper medical attention I nearly dislocated his shoulder. I’m trying to forgive and forget that my back and my right arm will once again have to be put right by the massage therapist. The carrier alone is heavy, and with Ernest inside it gains seventeen pounds.
Concerning the writing life: I did not go to BookPeople; I did not write for an hour; I did not eat breakfast or lunch until nearly 3:00 p.m. I did not do anything except be nurse and mama to a big, hulking guy tabby cat.
But hey–I got another blog post out of it.
The craziest thing is that it’s almost the same post I wrote two or three years ago, about the day I was
determined to write write write but instead spent the day lying on the floor in William’s bedroom, trying to coax an ailing Ernest out from under the bed and to the doctor.
Now the question: Do these things happen because I’m crazy, or am I crazy because these things happen?
What is the moral? (Must be a moral.)
Change in the Davis-Waller house doesn’t seem likely, at least while Ernest and I live here. Might as well accept that and go on.
I should never never never publicize my intention of writing writing writing.
Writing writing writing equals change. See first moral, above.
And failing to follow through is embarrassing. Especially reporting the failure, as is only fair. Readers deserve to know.
When this post is safely online, I shall throw things into a bag and head south to retreat with Austin Mystery Writers. I will have a cabin and a river and some pecan trees. I will not have Internet connection or decent TV reception. Phones will work only outside.
And for the next two days, I promise to sit in a porch swing and Write. Write. Write.
If paragraphs in this post are incorrectly spaced, please pretend they’re not. Today’s format is like Ernest–not under my control. It’s just one more miracle of modern technology.
On my way home from work one night in the ’90s, I heard actress Judith Ivey on Selected Shorts, reading “Personal Testimony,” a short story by Lynna Williams.
The narrator is eleven-year-old Ellen Whitmore, a preacher’s daughter from Fort Worth, who is at Southern Baptist summer camp in Oklahoma. At evening services, when campers are expected to witness to their experiences of sin and repentance, Ellen demonstrates a talent that catches the attention of fifteen-year-old Michael. Although he’s reputed to be most spiritual boy in camp, Michael has what Ellen’s brother calls “Jesus Jaw”– he has plenty to say but can’t complete a simple sentence: “I just–I mean, it’s just so–I just . . .” He tells Ellen he wishes he could speak about his spiritual life as easily as she can speak about hers, so, following her mother’s example, she offers to help. Within days, she has a thriving business writing personal testimonies for older campers, a gratifying popularity, and a fat stack of bills stashed in her Bible at John 3:16. Her adventure in capitalism ends at the summer’s final service, when she sees her father in the congregation, realizes he knows, and makes one last and very public attempt to avoid his wrath.
I’ve heard that people don’t laugh aloud when alone. That’s not true. I sailed down I-35 guffawing and then quickly broke out in tears.
(I hate it when writers manipulate me like that. It’s just one more skill to covet.)
I’d been writing off and on for a few years but hadn’t produced anything even marginally successful. A small circle of friends and family liked the pieces I showed them, but they also liked me– most of the time–and they weren’t seasoned critics anyway. The writing was bad. I was frustrated. Not knowing what was wrong, I couldn’t make it right. Classes and workshops didn’t help.
The night I heard Judith Ivey read, all that changed. I didn’t experience an epiphany, per se, but there was a definite moment of enlightenment: My best work was bad because it had no voice. I had no voice. The nearest I could manage was a small-time literary critic in love with semicolons.
Listening to “Personal Testimony,” I heard Lynna William’ voice and knew what I should do.
My work should sound natural to my ear. Informal. Fluid. First person narration by a self-absorbed eleven-year-old girl with attitude, precocious in some areas and in others absolutely clueless. That comprised Enlightenment, Part I.
Then came Enlightenment, Part II: I’ve been hearing that voice most of my life. It’s the one I think in. I didn’t have to worry about copying Williams–it’s my voice, too. I’d just never recognized its potential.
Not long after hearing “Personal Testimony,” I allowed the eleven-year-old in my head to dictate a story while I wrote. Then she dictated another. And they worked.
My inner child is different from Ellen, as is only right. Mine is sharper, has more attitude. I have no idea why.
A year ago, my eleven-year-old suddenly morphed into a forty-year-old woman. She has so much attitude she’s scary. Now there’s a third voice, very different from the other two, stronger and scarier even than the forty-year-old. The third voice came as a relief. I’d wondered whether the pre-teen was all I had. What if everything I wrote came from the same source and sounded just like what had come before? The child is fun to listen to, for a while, but after a time, she can become wearing. I spend enough time with her as it is. Readers would soon get their fill.
There are some things that can’t be learned in a classroom. An instructor might have told me my work lacked voice, but he couldn’t have said how to find the right fit.
I’m indebted to Lynna Williams for helping me to hear a girl’s voice, and to recognize its value. She inspired hope. She showed me that if I listen, the eleven-year-old in my head will tell me what I need to know.
“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” ~ Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
There was wailing and gnashing of teeth today at Writers Who Write.
Now, it’s too early for a digression, but I shall digress. Writing that first sentence, I wondered whether anything besides teeth can be gnashed. So, although everyone says not to research while you’re writing, I googled gnash and found this:
To grind or strike (the teeth, for example) together
To bite (something) by grinding the teeth
I would have searched further for confirmation but was distracted by these words, in large blue font, about two inches above the definitions:
Wisdom Teeth Removal
Which reminded me of a certain unhappy experience in the office of an oral surgeon in Seguin in 1976, and the effect it still has on my life today. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that if a doctor ever slices one of your arteries and then looks down at you and says, “Do you have high blood pressure?” in an accusing tone, as if it’s your fault that protracted hemorrhaging is messing up his schedule (and you’re only twenty-five and skinny to boot but, under present conditions, who wouldn’t have high blood pressure?) and you want to say, “Don’t you have a cuff in this office?” but can’t–in short, if this should happen to you, do not, under any circumstances, politely refrain from coughing. And afterward, when your mother and your cousin are dragging you from the operating room, do not offer to pay for having the doctor’s nice, starched, formerly white coat laundered.
Well, anyway. To clear my mind of the old insult, I scrolled down the page and found two references: a line from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison.
And one from Homer’s Collection of Hesiod, Homer and Homerica:
Two serpents hung down at their girdles with heads curved forward: their tongues were flickering, and their teeth gnashing with fury, and their eyes glaring fiercely.
And the combination of the two reminded me of a description of Madame Defarge:
Instantly Madame Defarge’s knife was in her girdle, the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and the Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.
That’s my favorite line from ATOTC, not because of its poetry, but because when I read it aloud to my freshman English students, they became still and silent (for the first time that year), and their eyes widened, and their lips formed grim lines, and I knew my politest students were suppressing laughter, doing their best not to be wild things just because they’d heard that a character had a knife in her girdle. The word was funny enough without the knife. Goodness knows what they’d have looked like if Madame had had two serpents in her girdle.
That was the spring of 1984, when teenagers remembered girdle commercials on television.
I took pity and explained the difference between Madame Defarge’s girdle and Jane Russell’s girdle. They began to breathe again. I tucked the moment away to recall at times when I needed a laugh.
When I got into the girdle part of this piece, I realized I needed to confirm when various commercials were aired. I didn’t want to say the Playtex 18 Hour Girdle was advertised in 1980 when it was really the I Can’t Believe It’s a Girdle. During my research, I learned quite a lot about foundation garments. The most arresting fact was that “[t]he Playtex brand completely disappeared from Australia in 1984.” I didn’t take time to find out why, but I have this image of the entire inventory vanishing while picnicking at Hanging Rock.
I also learned that Playtex was once owned by Sara Lee. That must have been the most mutually beneficial arrangement in the history of American retail. First sell them pastries, then sell them girdles. A win-win situation, on the corporate side at least.
In the midst of all this, an event of monumental importance occurred. With an episode of Lou Grant playing in the background, I heard a character portrayed by Laraine Day tell Billie how she had hidden her identity when she moved from Hollywood to housewifery: “I wore specs and took off my girdle.”
Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”
There I was, blissfully meandering from wailing to teeth to Dickens to Homer to girdles, when up popped another girdle. As if it were planned. Julia Cameron is right. There’s something to be said for relaxing and opening oneself to the universe.
But back to the wailing and gnashing. At Writers Who Write, a twice-weekly work group, I was absorbed in tweaking a short story when the manuscript disappeared and a new screen appeared bearing the message from my Chromebook’s Googledocs: Whoops! That shouldn’t have happened.
No, indeed it should not.
I filled out the requisite form, explaining what had happened: I pressed Enter, or maybe the ” key, or maybe both Enter and the ” key at the same time, and the next thing I saw was Whoops!
I didn’t mention that I pressed the Whatever key with a certain amount of flair, as if I were following my piano teacher’s instruction to Let the piano breathe!
When I was twelve, I was too much concerned with correctness–and preventing stress to my ears–to let my fingers stray too far from the keys, but on the laptop and the Chromebook, I am a veritable Liberace. Googledocs, however, likes correctness.
When I checked about an hour ago, the manuscript was still lost in cyberspace. But I’m easy. If the universe can provide a girdle, coming up with a lost manuscript should be no stretch at all.
In the previous episode, Kaye George, author of the Immy Duckworthy, PI mystery series, had just suggested members of Austin Mystery Writers publish an anthology of short stories. Her proposal sent me into paroxysms of insecurity and doubt: could I write two stories of acceptable quality in the time allotted? Or would I embarrass myself and slink away, ostracized from the group, never to plot again?
Now, the rest of the story:
The burning questions posed in She Cannot Get Away have been answered, in part. I can write at least one story in the time allotted me. I’ve already done so. Almost.
As with every project, the key is to start early. I started two years ago. In a retreat workshop sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas, I wrote a fragment beginning with the following sentence:
The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the eggs she was about to scramble, I took the eggs away from her and called a family conference.
Some readers have seen that sentence before. They may be sick of it. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it, fizzing over what comes next. My critique group suggested it’s the beginning of a novel, but I don’t think the situation has the necessary elasticity. In my hands, a novel starting with four siblings plotting to “put Mama out of her misery” could end up reading like the story board of a Road Runner cartoon: Children drop a metaphorical anvil off a bridge, miss Mama by a hair, light the fuse on a stick of dynamite, miss Mama by a hair, find themselves hoist with their own petard. Over and over for three hundred pages.
Shakespeare, given the same situation, would no doubt have come up with something fresh and original. But Shakespeare didn’t see as many Warner Brothers cartoons as I have. If he had, his creative faculty might have been warped, too.
Well. On July 4 of this year, I posted here that I was optimistic about the chances of getting a story out of the ground glass. Today I report that the two-year-old fragment is now part of a short story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At our meeting last week, Austin Mystery Writers gave it their approval. Except for one thing. And I knew before a word was said exactly what it would be.
“But nobody died,” said Kaye.
I said I knew that.
“But it’s a murder mystery,” said Gale. “Somebody has to die.”
The three critique partners sitting the other side of the table nodded. In unison.
“I was going for subtlety,” I said. “It’s a death of the spirit.”
They stared at me. I stared back.
“But somebody really has to die,” said Kaye.
And then five people said they didn’t understand the last line. I had written the entire story so I could use that line, and no one understood what it meant.
I continued to stare. A string of pejoratives ran through my brain, notably philistines, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Finally I spoke.
“Thank you,” I said.
Then my friends began throwing out ideas for endings they preferred to mine, in each of which someone died. I sighed repeatedly and said things like, Yeahhhh, and Okayyyy, and I guessss…
People who tell inconvenient truths are so irritating. Especially when they gang up on you.
We moved on to discuss someone else’s submission. We chatted a while. We gathered our books and papers and parted.
I didn’t mention they were correct:The ending as written was weak. It fell flat. When I walked into the meeting, I already knew it was wrong. And I knew they wouldn’t let me get away with it.
Thirty minutes later, I sat across town in a writing work group, staring at my laptop monitor and thinking, Kaye gave me the perfect ending. All the suggestions were good, but hers works on multiple levels. It’s so right. Why didn’t I think of it myself?
Oh, who cares about why. What matters is that Kaye thought of it, and that she and four other writers talked turkey and made me listen.
If they hadn’t–and if I hadn’t–I’d have had a bigger problem than the embarrassment of
not turning in a story for the anthology. I’d have faced the humiliation of turning in a story whose last line four highly literate women couldn’t decipher.
Critique groups meet a variety of needs: for inspiration, encouragement, advice, mentoring, ideas, retreats, gossip…and for talking turkey. Carefully. Kindly. Intelligently. Honestly. Firmly. Timely.
I owe Austin Mystery Writers–big time. Because I’m convinced that if they hadn’t talked turkey to me, my literary goose would have thoroughly cooked.
(Okay, guys, what do you have to say about that ending?)
I’ve been working on Molly but haven’t been averaging the 1667 words per day required to reach the target by the end of November.
According to the NaNo stats page, at my current rate, I’ll reach 50,000 words on September 28, 2015.
But there is hope—if I write 2,753 words each and every day for the rest of the month.
Is it possible to write 2,753 words in one day? Of course. Call it a blog post and I’ll write twice that.
Sick of staring at Times New Roman, I switched to Accord SF.
Now MS Word 2007 asserts it independence by saving Accord SF in italics. The italics icon on the toolbar, however, isn’t highlighted, and no amount of clicking or unclicking it affects the text. Nothing affects the text. It’s in italics and it’s going to stay that way.
I think the dysfunction is related to repeated crashing of blog documents several weeks ago. I saved in Accord SF but after each crash reopened to italicized Accord SF. Why italics have leaked over into text documents, I cannot say.
If anyone can shed light on this case, please feel free. In the interim, and probably forever, I’ll be using Open Office, which I like better anyway.
Except for blog posts. I don’t have time or patience to read the OO instructions. And Word blog format is on its best behavior.
They say the secret to winning NaNoWriMo is Never Delete.
That’s not my way. I revise as I go. Like this:
Word word word word word word word Delete delete delete Different word different word different word Word word Delete Different word…
It’s slow, but my OCD feels comfortable with it.
NaNo, however, despises it.
NaNo likes something like the following:
Word word word word Wrong word Right word Word word word word Wrong word Wrong word Wrong word Right word Right word Wrong word…
Which just drives me up the wall.
I saved. Word crashed. I reopened to italics.
What it will look like when it’s published to WordPress I won’t try to predict.
Just once, I would like to live through a day in which I don’t have to eat my words, my hat, or a large portion of crow.