Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Professing to know

A writing teacher (or perhaps a professor) gave a friend of mine a book about writing. Since I am not a professional writer, I probably have no business assessing this book. And since I am not a professional writer, I'll put this bluntly: That "professional" book? It sucked.

If you peruse this blog, you will probably have a hard time finding the expression "it sucked" anywhere. I tend not to write about things I have any critique of (excluding politics, social phenomena, bad products, service, and advertising). Okay, so I do critique.

But, when it comes to books, music, and art, I tend to keep mum. My opinion is that it's all opinion. Now, that's one heck of an awkward sentence, but I'll let it stay.

When I was in art school, I was taught how and why to critique art. I've forgotten all of it. For each professor professed to know exactly what was good and bad, and in every decade it was something different. So, I came to dismiss criticism. I loathe the expression, "I may not know anything, but I know what I like." I may know something and I know what I like is more to my taste.

I don't feel badly when others don't like the same things I do, and I hope you feel likewise.

Now, what was I writing about? I forget.

Oh, the book about writing.

First of all, the author has absolutely no sense of humor. I suspect anyone who doesn't have a sense of humor. But still, I had to give my friend a reason why I didn't think this book was good besides that "it sucked" and the author didn't seem to find humor in anything.

He did have a rule for everything. No long sentences (hear that, Monsieur Proust?) No curse words (fuck that). There were so many rules for no this or that and very few rules for what makes for good writing. If there were, I don't remember.

But the kicker was a chapter of writing examples from his sad students. My friend read some of them out loud (and then e-mailed them to me). Here, he gives examples of terrible, pathetic, and unknowing imbecilic sentences involving the dreaded and no-no word "like". Some of these were the best sentences in the book:

"McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty Bag filled with vegetable soup."

I burst out loud when I heard this. I think it's great. It's a perfect description. I don't see pictures in my mind with ease, but I can see this, and I can hear it, too. Mr. Professor, if you think this is terrible, I almost feel sorry for you.

"Her vocabulary was as bad as . . . like . . . whatever."

Almost perfect. No, I take that back. It's perfect. I thought that the word "like" might be best left out, but it serves a dual purpose here. The word "like" is interjected into so many people's vocabularies, like, I don't know, like that, y'know? Whatever. You know what I'm talking about, like, right?

Another rule - never use dashes:

"The hailstones leaped from the pavement - the same way that maggots do when you fry them in hot grease."

I admire the person who came up with this image. How on earth did that leap into their mind? Had they actually seen maggots fried in hot grease? I somehow doubt that, and so, I am impressed. It's good fun and a hell of a lot better than any description of a hailstone I've ever heard, especially since it leaves out their size. Why are hailstones always described as peas or golf balls when one can use a real form of measurement?*

"He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells - as if she were a garbage truck backing up."

The sound trucks make when backing up aren't exactly bell-like, but using that image and sound as a descriptor of the love-struck individual works beautifully. It shows the absurdity of blind love in a fresh way. Sorry, Mr. Professor, you need to lighten up. I am also afraid your classes and book may be squelching young talent's creativity.

I do hope my friend doesn't follow a word of advice in it (including "never use contractions").

Image note: Arthur Rackham
'The Professor Can't Stand that Sort of Thing' 1932

*This reminds me that when I tattooed, people would frequently call and ask, "How much would a half dollar sized tattoo be?" I got sick of it. I started asking folks, "Have you ever seen a half dollar?" Yes, that was obnoxious of me, but the truth is, I don't recall ever seeing a half dollar in my life. And, even if I had (which I suppose I must have), the price of a "half dollar sized" tattoo depends on many more factors than it's size.


jmcleod76 said...

Great post, Julie! Laughed my ass off! (And didn't even abbreviate it). I'm with you on those "bad" sentences. But I'm kind of a geek ... I was infomred in England that liking "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was passe, and that I was in danger of being thought of as hopelessly lowbrow for reading such trash. I won't lie and say that sort of thing doesn't get to me, but come on! How can you not love a man who uses sentences like "the spaceships hung in the air like bricks don't." Language is a plaything, and some people are just too uptight for play.

Because I'm the "pro" writer at work, people are always asking me about whether or not certain sentences are "correct." Somewhere along the line, many of us got the idea that there's only one right way to say something - preferably without slang, without double negatives, without dangling participles, without prepositions at the end, etc. I've never taken that narrow of a view. I enjoy using "correct" grammar because I have my fair share of leftover priggish tendencies due to insecurity. But language is an evolving thing, and it also depends on your intention. Sometimes a gramatically incorrect sentence gets the idea across much better than a correct one. Twain understood that.

I got into a small argument with my boss once over the merits of "ebonics," as he called it, though that label makes me uncomfortable. My argument was that slang, including "ebonics," can have merit in the right context. That, as long as something is correct within its own cultural milieu, it has its own sense of rightness and beauty. The problem only comes when a person doesn't know enough not to use it outside of its proper context, such as in a job interview or similar. He disagreed. He said that using "improper English" is base (even though he uses more of it than he realizes) and there is no place for it anywhere ...

We've also disagreed over the placement of prepositions at the ends of sentences, which I specifically learned in journalism school is an outdated rule. It's true. It is. If you listen to people speak - perfectly intelligent, educated, professional people - no one worries about using "to" or "for" at the end of sentences anymore (except prigs like me, who sometimes worry about it). We have evolved past that rule. If language didn't evolve, we'd all still sound like Chaucer.

howunremarkable said...

Fantastic post. The student examples are just too amazing.

BitterGrace said...

I couldn't agree more, with the post and the comments. Style tyrants are death to good writing. Teachers of that school tend to encourage stiff, self-conscious writing from their students. There's a lot to be said for learning to use language in a precise, disciplined way, but to do that it is necessary to think--and rules are all about not thinking. (Oops, used a dash!)

TMC said...

I'm not one much for how-to's on writing although I do think that some kind of standard is helpful. I'm also sort of hesitant to say ok to letting the language be written as it is spoken. But hey, I'm irrationally picky & fond of rules.

Julie H. Rose said...

Thanks for the insightful comments. Very enjoyable!

I don't know many writing and grammar rules, and I'm sure you pros can see that (like the fact that I continually forget the rule for the word ITS).

I've learned to write by reading. I suppose I'm lucky, in a way, that I write intuitively, for I'm in "beginner's mind" when writing, and I don't struggle over trying to find the right word or fret over whether I'm doing it correctly or not (because I really do not know).

I could find out. I should with things like the word ITS, don't you think? Otherwise, I'll keep on doing what I'm doing. It grieves me that people like the professor I wrote about are killing young people's spirits, making writing into a dull chore, and imposing their humorless rules on impressionable minds.

I have a story about Ebonics that relates well to what you wrote, Jaime, but this response is becoming overlong. . .

You guys are all so smart! Thanks.

jmcleod76 said...

@Julie: You're pretty smart too, lady. And it amuses me to no end that you worry about posting overly-long comments after the massive missives I leave here, and elsewhere (I'm looking at you BitterGrace and TMC). No matter, though, write a blog about your story.

@TMC: I'm not saying that I think grammatical rules are bad, exactly. There is certainly merit in speaking or writing in mutually agreeed upon ways. Honestly, if I'm a Nazi about anything in my life at all, I'm a grammar-Nazi. I have to stop myself from correcting people's grammar, becuase I just don't want to be "that guy." But the impulse is there. And grammar matters to me when it comes to people like politicians. It bothered me to no end that our former president mangled the English language so terribly, and that we very nearly had a vice president with an equally loose understanding of the rules of grammar. But, to me, it's all context. When it comes to creative writing, I think too many rules are probably a bad thing. Certainly, it's OK to give helpful pointers about what generally works, but some of the best writing breaks all the rules.

Anonymous said...

I am the "friend" who purchased the "professional" writer's book. My suspicion is that he wrote the examples of "poor analogies and metaphors" himself (while attributing it to high school students). It was the most entertaining and thought-provoking chapter. I think he poured more creativity into that section than most of the rest of his book. Ironic, no?

I appreciate all the comments from you professional or schooled writers. I agree that the wrong kind of critique from this type of "authority figure" has the potential to squash our unique writer's voice. That's a darn shame. Certain rules are important but if the sentence you write is evocative, it's evocative!

The "professional writer" did have a sense of humor - just very outdated and hokey.