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.