Archive for December, 2012
I’ve been struck over the years I’ve been working with the English language, with phrases of (usually) two words which together produce an unusual “click” or sound in my mind that isn’t simply the result of the sum of the individual meanings of the words. A few are below, and perhaps you, as the reader of this blog, may have run across a couple of your own. These are not oxymorons. The unusual or even ironic meaning of the phrase is not the result of two seemingly contradictory words, like cruel joke. In these phrases, which I’ve started calling juxtapositions for a lack of any better name, the two words are independent, but result in a phrase that just doesn’t work. The meaning of the phrase doesn’t derive from the meanings of the two words. Try these:
Vacuum cleaner – a common tool around the house, but to me it sounds like a device for cleaning vacuums. But how can you clean a vacuum? By definition, a vacuum is free of all matter (a few neutrinos or Higgs bosons notwithstanding), so how can you have a device for cleaning something that is already clean?
Observation blind – I saw this on a sign at a wildlife refuge. If you are blind, how can you observe? That is, how can you observe the ducks landing on the pond? Or, if you are observing, how can you be blind?
Sergeant major – Coming from a military background, this has always intrigued me. How can a sergeant be a major? Or, can a major be a sergeant?
These are a few juxtapositions I’ve run across lately, and I’ll try and add a few more over the next several years as I update this blog on a regular basis. They don’t occur very often, however, and many may not exist in English. I may not be able to come up with many more.
As an aspiring writer, I’m always plagued by the fear that I won’t be able to come up with another idea for a story. That applies to either a short story or a novel, though right now I have enough ideas for novels to last me for a couple of years. I’m trying to finish my trilogy, two-thirds of which is complete and the third part is in partial rough-draft form, and I have a good idea for another novel (not related to the trilogy) so I’m set for a couple of years. I usually take about a year to write a novel.
But the inspiration for short-story plots is another matter. I’ve heard of writers who have hundreds of plot lines running around in their heads and they can’t get them down on paper fast enough. That’s not me. I have to work just to pull out a plot line. Lately, though, I’ve had better luck. I just finished a course in writing speculative fiction (a term that includes science fiction and fantasy) in which we were given prompts by the instructor. Some of the prompts were for “homework”and we had to have them ready for the next class, and some of the prompts were given in class for a short writing session. As far as I was concerned, the prompts were enormously helpful in focusing my mind on completing a short story. A good prompt starts the mind running in the right direction and lets it flow to a satisfactory ending. Of the fifteen or sixteen prompts we got in the class, I got good ideas for short stories (and in one case, a novelette) from about half of them. I’ve already sent off one short story called “Bones” to an online journal called “Still Crazy,” a journal for writers over 50. More will be submitted in the near future.
But now comes the hard part: making my own prompts. Now I’m back to the real world where writers have to provide their own inspiration. Can’t rely on the instructor for prompts anymore. But the course taught me something. It taught me to look for prompts in the world around. A comment on TV, a newspaper headline, a conversation overheard, a picture on the news or one tucked away for years in an album. Even the name of a paint chip in the paint department of the local home improvement center. What I learned in the course wasn’t just how to write, but how to get ideas. That may not have been intended to be one of the aims of the course, but I learned how to use it anyway.
So, now back to writing. I’ve got stories to finish and send out.
Have you ever heard of Walt Kelly? He’s the artist/writer who gave us the comic strip “Pogo” back in the 1950’s through the ’70’s. I’ve been a fan of his ever since my father bought a copy of Kelly’s book, “The Pogo Papers” (1953) in 1954. The book was a compilation of earlier Pogo comic strips and it introduced me to Kelly’s particular style of drawing and writing. I was immediately hooked and I’ve followed Kelly and his strip ever since. Kelly died in 1973, but his estate decided not to allow his strip to be reprinted again the way the estate of Charles Schulz did for “Peanuts,” so Kelly’s work is limited to his books. I’m calling Kelly a writer as well as an artist because of the written parts of his comic strip books. I refer you especially to the opening comments in “The Pogo Papers” and “G. O. Fizzickle Pogo” (1958). (I’m sure these books are out of print but you might be able to obtain a copy at a used-book store, or perhaps through Amazon or Abebooks. They may have back copies.) Kelly’s unique method of storytelling has fascinated me for as long as I’ve been reading his stuff.
“Pogo” is the comic strip that followed characters who lived in the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia: Pogo Possum, Albert Alligator, Churchy LaFemme the turtle, Howland Owl, and many others. But Kelly was also known to put a political spin on some of his characters, such as Wiley Catt, an obvious take-off on the gun-toting ultra conservative (and probably racist) Southerner of the 40’s and 50’s, and the Honorable Mole MacCarony, a caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarony was extremely nearsighted and went around spraying everyone with disinfectant.
Kelly was a poet too, and some of his best writings were poems. He liked to play with words, substituting similar-sounding words in well-known poems and songs. He’s the one who modified “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” into “Deck us all with Boston Charlie.” He even wrote a book with that line as the title, giving stories as to how the (modified) carol came to be. All the lyrics are in there if you care to look them up.
But Kelly’s poems could be serious. One of my favorites is a short one titled “For the Mother of Kathryn Barbara” from 1953. Here it is:
There’s a star in the wind
and the wind winds high,
thru fog, thru night.
Thru cold, thru cold
and the bitter alone…
There high in the wind
rides a Star, my own,
And the Star is a Word…
of white, of white…
And the Star in the wind
is a Word.
Since this is the Christmas season as I write this in 2012, I’ll end this blog with another poem of Kelly’s, “With Apologies to a Year Gone By”:
The gentle journey jars to stop,
The drifting dream is done
And now we’ll walk
As men have walked
Through years not yet begun.
For Christmas is a nightlong hope
And Hope the search of years.
The gentle journey wanders on
With laughter, love and tears—
That’s enough for now.
I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, mostly for a course in science fiction I’m taking, and I’ve become more and more aware of a very common grammatical construction that virtually all writers (including me) use. And use almost to distraction. I’m talking about two particular phrases, each of which comes in several forms: “there is” or “there are” and its past tense versions “there was” and “there were” on one hand, and “it is” or “it was” on the other. Actually, I’ve been aware of these forms for a long time, but lately they’ve been grating on my mind more than usual. Why? I think it’s because (see, I used one there) both phrases are so indefinite and hard to pin down. I’ve noticed them cropping up in my writing and I’ve begun to try to avoid them if possible, even recasting a sentence if necessary. It isn’t always possible, though, especially in dialogue.
Take the “there is/are/was/were” construction. “There” is usually a direction–someone says, “Over there,” and points. To say, for example, “There is no way I’m doing that,” or some such comment is to use “there” in such an indefinite manner as to make defining “there” almost impossible. Where is the “there” in this phrase? It doesn’t refer to a direction and is practically meaningless. Some more examples: There is no time like the present. There will be plenty of time. And so on.
The other common irritating phrase includes the word “it.” “It” is usually a pronoun referring to a specific object. But when used, for example, in the phrase, “It is time to go,” or “It took time to…” it becomes less a pronoun and more a vague, nebulous something that satisfies our need for a word to fill a grammatical void. In this situation, the object the “it” refers to is largely unknown. Take the sentence, “It’s snowing out.” “It” is the subject of the sentence and “snowing” the verb, but what is “it” that’s snowing? The weather? Not exactly. The “weather” doesn’t snow. The snow is the weather. Weather exists all the time, and snow is only one manifestation of weather. So is a bright sunny day. So what is it that’s snowing? I can’t imagine.
In short, I’m trying to reduce my use of these problematic phrases in my writing, though I don’t have any real illusions I’ll be able to eliminate them entirely. Both are so heavily ingrained into the English language that everyone uses them. They appear in writing all the time, and we use them in speaking even more frequently. But what the hell, they’re good targets to shoot at and it’s challenging (another one) to see what I can do about them.