Professor Potty Mouth

I tweet whenever the mood strikes and I have access to a Twitter application. I tweet when I’m planning my classes, when I’m writing, when I’m reading, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m on the bus, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking a little too much. I hardly censor myself.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I don’t take the social networking tool very seriously. But I’m always shocked by how seriously other people take my Twitter account!

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the CEO of an established company asked me, “What are your strategies for attracting new followers?”

Well, I don’t really have a strategy. I just tweet whenever the mood strikes and I have access to a Twitter application. I tweet when I’m planning my classes, when I’m writing, when I’m reading, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m on the bus, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking a little too much. I hardly censor myself.

And some other people don’t seem to like that. I’ve received direct messages from followers who have never even met me, suggesting that I “Stop tweeting right now! You’re embarrassing yourself.” One very bitter person told me that I am unfit to be a professor because I include curse words and “low” vocabulary like “dude” in my tweets. As a writer who uses “dude”, how could I ever expect to achieve any success?

I just have to laugh. If you think that maintaining a PG Twitter stream is a way to achieve or maintain professional success, you have a lot to learn. I’m less concerned about cursing/diction and more concerned about tweeting something ignorant, slanderous, or truly offensive.

I know that, when it counts, I do my job, and I do my job well. Formality is meant for academic essays, business e-mails, proposals, and press releases. Twitter does not require formality – I know that because something that wants to be taken seriously wouldn’t be named “Twitter”.

Also, I’m 25 years old. Sure, I am old enough to be a responsible adult, but I think my casual, sometimes naive, tweeting reinforces the fact that I do still have a lot to learn – and I never pretend otherwise.

For anyone who thinks that cursing taints my image as a professor, I just have to ask: have you ever taken a creative writing class? My absolute favorite professors – the ones who were always the most animated, passionate, and approachable – cursed like sailors.

I rarely curse in class – I said bullshit last week and felt weird about it – but my students use “bad” words in their writing. And they use the words intelligently. Some of the readings I assign include more profanity than I post on Twitter in a whole year.

Writing that contains profanity is not simply meant to have shock value. In fact, skilled writers usually do cursing so well that the readers hardly notices it – the curse words become part of the book’s normal, accepted vernacular.

If you’re telling people how they should behave on Twitter, then maybe it’s time for you to get off the computer and read something that’s meant to be taken seriously, like a book. But stay away from Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, and Slaughterhouse Five.

(Photo by meddygarnet)

I Have a Graduate Degree in Lying

The writer isn’t lying, not even close. Instead, the writer describes a truth different from the one defined by our justice system, the one we mean when we ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” When you answer “yes” to that question, you swear to tell the objective truth.

Pretend that your first novel, a work of fiction about Podunk, your hometown, just arrived from the presses. You are thrilled to hold the hardbound book, which is so new that it smells like ink. You are weeping tears of joy when your publicist calls.

“I just wanted to let you know that your book received its first bit of press,” she says. “A journalist at the local Podunk newspaper researched parallels between scenes in your book and things that happened to you while you lived there. The journalist interviewed your old teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends.”

“But my book is a work of fiction,” you say. “It’s not meant to be an account of what actually happened to me.”

“Press is press, right?” says your publicist.

The scenario I just described is basically what happened to Ginger Strand, author of the novel Flight.

In class on Tuesday, my students and I discussed an article that Strand wrote for Poets & Writers magazine about her experience being questioned by people from her hometown.

She writes, “The local newspaper had run a feature pointing out some of the similarities between Flight and my life, and that was what people wanted to hear about. I began to sense a creeping frustration. Why were people so interested in the reality behind the fiction? Why weren’t they paying more attention to the craft of what I had done?”

Strand made so much effort to craft a work of fiction, but no one really seemed to care. I’ve felt that before. Once, I gave a close friend one of my short stories to read. When I asked her, “What did you think?”, she responded, “That really happened to you, Laryssa? I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”. Silence. “That didn’t happen to me.” A lot of my fiction is based on life experience, but this story in particular was completely fabricated.

In an interview from Donald Barthelme’s book “Not-Knowing”, William Gass has this to say about truth in writing: “…we ought to abandon truth as an ideal as artists. I think it’s pernicious. I think it gets in the way all the time. That sounds sort of odd to some people but actually you’d say that to a mathematician. Mathematicians aren’t interested in truth, they’re interested in formal coherence.”

I really like Gass’ explanation, and I wish more readers could push aside their desire for knowing (for what, really?) and learn to appreciate language, form, and artistic merit.

In good fiction, the writer isn’t lying, not even close. Instead, the writer describes a truth different from the one defined by our justice system, the one we mean when we ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” When you answer “yes” to that question, you swear to tell the objective truth. But when you write good fiction, you are obligated to communicate emotional truth.

Sometimes, the police report that describes your wallet being stolen doesn’t accurately represent the emotional truth that you felt when your wallet was stolen.

A better way to convey your emotions would be to write that your wallet was stolen by a snarling monster who rose from a sewer. Because the feeling of being violated was just that frightening and unexpected and ridiculous.

And if the image best describes how you, the victim, felt, how could anyone argue with that?

(Photo by emdot)

How to Have a Great Idea

How does having a great idea make you feel? Excited? Overwhelmed? Does anyone feel angry when they have a new idea? Probably not. When I have a new idea, especially one that I know I can actualize, I feel most alive. I feel grateful. So, how can you have great ideas more often?

The best ideas are born spontaneously, and they will strike you when you least expect them: in the shower, in the car, in the middle of a meeting with your boss. When you have a big idea, you will most likely want to document it. Maybe you’ll scribble a note on a paper napkin or text-message the idea to yourself.

How does having a great idea make you feel? Excited? Overwhelmed? Does anyone feel angry when they have a new idea? Probably not. When I have a new idea, especially one that I know I can actualize, I feel most alive. I feel grateful.

So, how can you have great ideas more often? Think of it this way: when you have to do something you don’t really want to do by a certain deadline, like paying a bill, the fact that you have to pay that bill will burden you until you do it. But once you pay the bill, you will feel relief.

Living a creative, rich, idea-filled life is not always fun and games. It requires work and some discipline. Your need to have great ideas should a debt you owe yourself. Paying the bill will allow you to keep the lights or the heat working in your mind.

Be your own bill collector. Every day, you need to earn as much as you can to pay off that debt: experience, observation, human interaction, and an interest in the world.

You probably don’t even realize how many wondrous things are already bubbling in your mind. How can you catch the ideas you’re already making?

No matter how many friends you have, or how much time you spend with other people, you will inevitably spend a lot of time by yourself. Maybe you commute alone by car. Maybe you have a job that requires careful focus and silence. Maybe you sleep alone. I assume you use the bathroom by yourself.

In those moments, you maintain a dialogue with yourself. Your brain is never quiet. You probably reflect on things that happened to you that day – you replay your observations, analyze your interactions with other people, reinforce things you learned, note things you want to change, or choose things that you want to improve.

Start paying attention to your internal dialogue. Make it a point to listen to what you have to say to yourself! The ideas lurk there.

How can you actualize all these great new ideas? Carry them with you (see photo above) for a period of time. You need to keep the colorful sack of ideas near you always. It should be as precious as a purse or a backpack with all your most important belongings. Never let it out of your sight.

You will know that you’re ready to actualize that idea when it completely overtakes you. You won’t be able to stand keeping it in your head any longer! At that point, if you’ve been following all my advice, the “how” will be obviously apparent.

(Photo by skippyjon)

Emily Dickinson at the Computer

I’m no Dickinson scholar, but I do know that she wrote her poems by hand. The dashes were a mark of great energy, violence, and passion. They break up sentences and phrases in a way that commas and semicolons can’t. They demonstrate a fierce continuation of thought, a determination to reach the end of the idea.

In class last week, my students and I discussed Emily Dickinson’s poem #449, better known as “I died for beauty – but was scarce“. We were all mesmerized by the dashes, a punctuation mark sprinkled throughout Dickinson’s work.

I’m no Dickinson scholar, but I do know that she wrote her poems by hand. The dashes were a mark of great energy, some violence, and definitely passion. They break up sentences and phrases in a way that commas and semicolons can’t. They demonstrate a fierce continuation of thought, a determination to reach the end of the idea. The dashes also complete full thoughts but act as bridges to the next sentence.

Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Start writing and insert dashes whenever your emotions are stirred. Drawing a dash requires the horizontal movement of your hand, throwing some of your weight onto the paper, and the ability to stop at the end of the mark and transition back to the first letter of the next word.

How much of the energy that you invest in writing is obvious on the page? If you make a dash with force, the ink with be dark, and the line will be heavy. If you make a dash in passing, the mark will be light.

The act of writing with pen and paper is physical in a way that most of us don’t realize. The whole body is involved in the process. And, because writing with pen is more permanent than other methods of writing, it requires a certain concentration too.

Sometimes, I try to imagine what I would do if I lost my ability to write, in the physical sense. What if I lost function of my hands? Or could no longer see the page in front of me? If I had to dictate my thoughts to someone else, I would probably need to close my eyes and imagine my hand writing those thoughts in order to make sense of them.

But we’re all disabled now, aren’t we? Look at a keyboard. See the dash at the end of the number row? Press it. A dash will appear on the screen. Press it harder, with more force. A dash will appear on the screen. Start hammering away at the dash key. A dash will appear on the screen. No matter how hard you press that key, the dash will look the same.

Would Dickinson have been able to draft poems on her MacBook? Has part of me been lost in translation?

(Photo by mrbill)

How to Be Rich, Even When You’re Poor

If you see an interesting word, and you learn how to use it, you can add it to your Bank of Vocabulary account, without any fees or interest rates! You can’t hoard endless amounts of your favorite snack or your favorite brand of clothing, but you can have as many of your favorite words as you want.

Words are free. If you see an interesting word, and you learn how to use it, you can add it to your Bank of Vocabulary account, without any fees or interest rates!

What are your favorite words? You can’t hoard endless amounts of your favorite snack or your favorite brand of clothing, but you can have as many of your favorite words as you want – for FREE!

I will never forget the college professor who told me that I could make any word I use my own. Building your vocabulary is a simple yet very powerful practice, once you start taking advantage of it.

You can even invent words! If you need to express something, but can’t think of the appropriate word, make a new word! If you use it frequently enough, and can convince other people to use it, it will become part of language, just like any other word. Dictionary editors frequently add words to subsequent editions. According to Merriam-Webster:

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

How do words enhance your life? Using a rich and varied vocabulary will make you seem more intelligent and articulate. If you want to belong to a certain group, you can use the words the group members use when they are together.

The words you use help shape your identity. But how will you know which words you want to use if you don’t know many words? How do you find new words? How do you discover the riches that await you?

Some people cruise the dictionary, others subscribe to word-of-the-day e-mails. Personally, I think the best way to expand your vocabulary is to read challenging works: books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, essays, etc. Make note of the words you like, even if you’ve seen them before or know what they mean. Good writers use words in challenging, surprising contexts. Reading something in context is the best way to learn.

For example, this morning, on the bus, I was reading “Complicit with Everything”, a poem by Tony Hoagland. Before reading this poem, I was sort of familiar with the word complicit, but I probably wouldn’t have used it in everyday speech. In the poem, a vine growing up the side of a shingled house is described as “complicit with nothing but everything”.

I had never seen the word “complicit” used in such a context. When I had access to a computer, I looked it up on Dictionary.com: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, esp. with others; having complicity.” Could you imagine a vine described as something involved in an illegal act? Poets make words fun and interesting. I will certainly remember “complicit” in the future.

Don’t skip over unfamiliar words. Make a point to notice how the writer uses the word in context. For the rest of the day, find reasons to use that word in conversation. I promise you that you won’t sound like a jerk if you occasionally use a “big” word. In fact, you might inspire someone else to use that word too. And you’ll be one word richer than you were before.

(Photo by Bethany L. King)

On “Word Garbage” and Heavy Reading

In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head.

In class yesterday, one of my students asked, “In order to be a great writer, do you need to write works that are difficult to understand?”. He was frustrated by an essay I had assigned: “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He cited Crime and Punishment as another example of a tedious book – why was it necessary to read 20 pages of description about a room? I hope he never has to read Moby Dick.

I let the other students answer before giving my own opinion. Most of them agreed that, yes, Emerson is difficult to read. However, we try to read his work because we know we are going to learn something new, that we will find a reward once we reach the end.

But the student kept pressing for answers. “But why should we have to read complicated sentences and unnecessary words to get to that point?”

I tend to agree. If Emerson was living and writing today, in the same style, very few readers would tolerate his work. We expect information to be delivered to us clearly, without embellishment or “word garbage” (coined by another student). Writers, if they expect to have any readers, must cater to this attitude.

Some students remarked that, in 1844, reading was the only form of entertainment – what now seems like torture was once a pleasant diversion.

While reading Emerson’s essay in preparation for class, I found myself wanting to condense every paragraph. I could strip down most of the sentences to simple, coherent statements and only keep some of the flowery language that particularly struck me. For example, I really like “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it…” but could do without the rest of that long, convoluted sentence. Easily, I could knock off three full pages, and the reader probably wouldn’t miss anything.

In addition, while reading, I had to focus intensely in order to read every single word. Emerson meant for us to read every word – his diction makes that obvious. However, the long paragraphs and complicated sentences make my eye want to jump to whatever seems most important.

Reading Emerson is more a history lesson than a model of how to communicate today, to contemporary audiences. Experiencing the writing of that time, a reader can’t help but wonder why someone would want to write that way. The writing reflects the culture of thought; sentences like “We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety” gives us clues about the ways that intellectuals discussed topics like philosophy and science.

In response to my student’s question: In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head, even months after reading it. A great writer shouldn’t be difficult to read; a great writer should understand and anticipate his or her reader and make consolations for that person.

At the same time, a great writer will never “talk down” to the reader; he or she trusts the reader will understand complicated concepts. A great writer is like a professor who teaches a very complicated subject to a class of beginners. The subject matter is heavy, but the instructor must explain it in a way that intelligent, mature students can understand. That means: making consolations and having patience while remaining stringent.

A great writer knows that he or she can’t win them all.

(Photo by jennaddenda)

The Blinding Light of the Beginning Writer

I don’t like grammatical errors, not because I’m a grammar snob – I’m the first to admit that I don’t know every single rule and nuance – but because poor grammar in a piece of writing interferes with my ability to read it. Grammar can be taught; if someone wants to learn grammar badly enough, that person can learn it.

I don’t like grammatical errors, not because I’m a grammar snob – I’m the first to admit that I don’t know every single rule and nuance – but because poor grammar in a piece of writing interferes with my ability to read it.

Grammar can be taught; if someone wants to learn grammar badly enough, that person can learn it.

Most children learn grammar simply by listening to language. They may not be able to explain the difference between “is” and “are” and when to use those words appropriately. But they figure out how to use those words without thinking too hard about them. Later, in school, students learn the rules that describe the grammar they absorbed as children.

Sometimes, a child isn’t able to learn all the nuances of English grammar simply by listening to others speak. That’s why grammar lessons are helpful – they clear everything up for the student. Usually, as you get older, your grammar will improve, simply because you begin to understand and have rules for the way you have communicated your entire life.

However, having a working command of grammar doesn’t necessarily make anyone a good or imaginative writer. As most people grow older, their imagination fades. Imagination cannot be taught.

In fact, I think some of the best, most imaginative writing could be produced by enthusiastic, passionate young writers who don’t necessarily have the best command of grammar. I’m not trying to make excuses for native English speakers who don’t have a working knowledge of grammar by age 18. But the ones who still try to write despite their frustration with the language, the ones committed to expressing their ideas and emotions – those young writers produce some of the best, most imaginative writing.

Writing, without fully understanding how to do so, is quite brave, especially when we have so many other ways to communicate.

It’s up to someone who appreciates imagination and creativity to approach these writers and teach them the value of grammar, to possibly show them a new way to learn. Not everyone with poor grammar is careless, and many have ideas that they deserve to express.

When I read something by a beginner, I typically value imagination over order, but I value order because I know readers don’t have patience for disorder. And they deserve to see the beginning writer’s light too.

(Photo by Abulic Monkey)

One Word Ahead of You

On college campuses, Communications majors have a reputation for being lazy because, well, how hard could it be to communicate? Communicating effectively is actually very difficult. In order to be an effective communicator, you need an expansive imagination. You must take into consideration all ways you could be misunderstood.

On college campuses, Communications majors have a reputation for being ditzy and lazy because, well, how hard could it be to communicate?

Communicating effectively is actually very difficult. In order to be an effective communicator, you need to have an expansive imagination. You must take into consideration all the possible ways that you could be misunderstood.

For example, if you ask your friend to meet you at a Dunkin’ Donuts in your town, make sure that only one Dunkin’ location exists. Your friend, who has a different frame of reference, may think you mean the other Dunkin’ Donuts, which is on the other side of town. Being an effective communicator means being considerate and conscientious.

You must be good at “reading” people: judging body language, paying attention to facial expressions, and listening very carefully. You need to actually care that the other person is receiving your message as you mean to communicate it.

You need to treat every word and gesture like it makes the difference between life or death – let’s face it, in some situations (emergency room, construction site, factory, etc.), your word can assuage or exacerbate* a life-threatening situation.

Communicating effectively means appreciating and mastering language. You should have an extensive vocabulary but know how to wield it wisely. You will rarely use “big” words. You will *always choose the word that most closely matches the idea or image in your mind.

Sometimes, you will have to compromise the accuracy of a word for the sake of making sure that the other person understands – perhaps his or her vocabulary isn’t as expansive as your own.

as·suage Verb /??sw?j/: Make (an unpleasant feeling) less intense

ex·ac·er·bate Verb /ig?zas?r?b?t/: Make (a problem, bad situation, or negative feeling) worse

You need to consider the person or group of people that comprise your audience – cultural differences or language barriers may influence the way that you chose to convey your message. My favorite anecdote involves a car named the Chevy Nova. In Spanish, the phrase “no va” literally means “doesn’t go”.

Next time someone tells you that they are a writer or communicator, take them very seriously. Because, if they’re any good at what they do, they are taking you seriously, making sure you get the information you need and that your needs are understood.

(Photo by Andres Rueda)

Imagine a Bookstore Where Books Had No Titles

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, but I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button. When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays until I could come up with something better. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title.

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, even if that title only serves as a temporary place holder. I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button.

When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays and term papers until I could come up with something better, usually right before I printed it. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title, and didn’t hand in a paper called “Fuckity Fuck”.

A title is a necessary component of any piece of writing, as necessary as a name for a human being. What you are named informs you, and your personality informs your name. What would you be without your name? Even if your parents hadn’t given you a name, you would earn one eventually. People would have to address you somehow.

Similarly, a title informs a piece of writing, and a piece of writing informs its title. If you were in a bookstore where none of the books had titles, you would have to find some way to distinguish among them.

You may not realize how much you rely on titles. Even if you don’t necessarily know what a title means, you know that it makes the beginning of any piece of writing – beginnings aren’t always easy to recognize on their own. Have you ever lost a paperclip that was holding together a stack of photocopied pages? At least the title will help you find the beginning easily. Titles are a formality, and they create an expectation for the reader.

Sometimes, a title can say more about a piece of writing than the actual piece does. Especially in a poem, the title might actually tell the whole story.

For example, in “Wants”, a two-page story by Grace Paley, the narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library, when she’s returning books that are many years overdue. The narrator and her husband have an awkward conversation during which they decide that the reason their marriage fell apart is because they wanted different things. The reader must think about which wants are worthy – did they want different things? Were their wants trivial? Did the narrator want for nothing? The simple title – a word that can be used as either a noun or a verb – really says it all.

Many beginning writers struggle with titles. So, how do you get used to writing titles? Ask yourself: What is the most profound or the strongest image in the story? Is the narrator preoccupied by something? Does the setting play an important role? What do you want the reader to notice the most? Name those things.

Pretend you are in a dark library with your story or poem. You are afraid. You are trying to call out to it.

“Story,” you say. “Poem,” you say.

But, because you are in a library, surrounded by books, you need to be more specific. What would you call it so that it recognizes you?

(Photo by malias)

Breaking up Isn’t that Hard to Do

Writing a block of text is easy, and I can understand why a beginning writer might feel inclined to do so when he/she is composing a rough draft. One sentence follows the next. But even after they had a chance to type and revise a free-writing exercise, a lot of my students and colleagues just don’t include paragraph breaks.

Writing a block of text is easy, and I can understand why a beginning writer might feel inclined to do so when he/she is free-writing or composing a rough draft. One sentence follows the next.

But even after they had a chance to type, revise, and polish a free-writing exercise, a lot of my students and colleagues just don’t include paragraph breaks. I’m not angry; I’m just surprised.

I mean, would you want to read 500 words all rammed together? Probably not.

If nothing else, paragraphs break up a text so that they eye can follow it easily. Especially now, in our digital age, text needs to be easy to read, or no one is going to read it. If you want someone to read your writing, paragraphs are basically essential.

For me, paragraph breaks are also organic. After all, we don’t speak in chunks of language. We usually pause, look out into space to collect our thoughts, gesture with our hands, and let other people speak. No one ever spews out a chunk of language. If they do, I want to meet them. Or avoid them.

In school, when we were first learning how to write essays, we were taught the five-sentence paragraph. The first sentence is supposed to be your “topic sentence”. Three sentences follow the topic sentence with examples. And the final sentence states a conclusion.

Think of your favorite book. Could you imagine if every paragraph in that book was written this way, with five-sentence paragraphs? But your favorite book has paragraph breaks, right? Could you imagine it without paragraphs?

So, without any rules, how do you know when to create a new paragraph? Read your writing out loud to yourself, and pay attention to the places you feel inclined to pause. Those are probably the places where your thoughts need to catch up with your tongue, or where you would pause if you were actually telling the story to a friend.

If you don’t want to read your text out loud, dialogue is a fairly obvious cue to make a new paragraph. Pay attention to transition words like “however”, “also”, and “furthermore”. Also, make a new paragraph when you start a new idea, move to a different location, share a new example, or introduce a person. Do you have any tricks for deciding where to insert paragraph breaks?

Hell, even haphazard paragraphs are better than no paragraphs at all.

(Photo by CarbonNYC)