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O Tempora! O Mores!

THE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED MONDAY DECEMBER 5, 2016

O Tempora! O Mores!

William Strunk, Jr.

After an absence of seventy years, I have returned to America to discover that my beloved English language is unrecognizable. At Cornell, where I was a professor for forty-six years, I was well known for my brief book on English language usage, The Elements of Style, which was published by Harper’s in 1920.

Imagine my surprise to discover that my former student, Andy White, republished my book in 1959, with revisions, an introduction, and a new chapter on writing. Of course, he published it under his formal name, E. B. White, an extremely successful writer for many years on The New Yorker staff. I regret, in a way, that he and the publisher believed that the book needed to be brought up to date, so to speak, because I admire the terseness and intensity of my original. In his introduction, he describes me in my classroom, leaning far out over the desk, clutching my lapels, blinking my eyes, and saying, “Get the little book! “Get the little book! “Get the little book!” That was the whole point, really—its brevity.

To revert to my theme, that the Standard English that I revered has changed drastically, let me mention one of my first acts upon returning to New York. I telephone the house of an old acquaintance, deeply aware that she would be long dead. A young woman answers. I identify myself and inquire, “Am I speaking to hergreat-granddaughter?” “Yes, this is her.” I am appalled, since in my day speakers knew that linking verbs like “to be, to seem, to appear” take the subjective or nominative case. Of course, the young woman should have said, “This is she.” To test this rule, one can finish the sentence in one’s head: “This is she (who is answering).”

The young woman, however, is kind enough to offer to take me on a little sight-seeing tour by automobile. As a former teacher, I have always enjoyed conversing with young people, but this lovely young woman is unable to articulate a single sentence without innumerable and highly ungrammatical uses of the preposition “like.” Making conversation, I ask, “Are you in school?” She: “Yes, I go to, like, an art school.” I persevere: “Are you enjoying it?’ She: “It’s, like, awesome.” When she ends the conversation with, “Hopefully, I will become a painter,” I despair of her rhetorical gifts: she believes she is saying, “I hope I will become a painter.” I must come to grips with the fact that she is speaking currently acceptable American English.

I press on with my research into the new American language by visiting an English writing class at a local college. These students also frequently use the slang interjection, “like,” but I am interested as well in other surprising changes in usage. The students are reviewing with their professor an essay with some errors he has identified. He gives me a copy to follow along. I am surprised and pained by the errors he overlooks. The weeds are growing mightily in many of the sentences we parse. “This is a subject which defines . . .” is left unpruned; imagine the improvement in writing, simply, “This subject defines . . .” and removing three useless words. The teacher allows “Charles’ friend” to stand, instead of following the rule of forming the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s, no matter what the final consonant: thus, “Charles’s.”

I turn to the current literature on changes in language, or the lexicon, to find out that popular usage has vanquished, one by one, the rules I cherished seventy years ago. The latest such text, by John McWhorter and published by Holt this very month, is called Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, literally). I mourn the usage that I spent my career perfecting in order to pass it on to my young students. I can only shake my white-haired head and say, “Oh, times! Oh, customs!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

­­­ William Strunk Junior (1869-1946) was a professor at Cornell and the author of The Elements of Style.

 

 

 

 

 

On Kitten Diaries and Commencement Speeches

I believe (and I trust that my colleagues will agree with me!) that one central characteristic which unites us at the Center for Writing Excellence is the importance of writing, whether public or private, in our lives. I am not at all claiming that writing holds identical significance for all the consultants here, but I do know that, in one way or another, specific kinds of writing have helped us all learn about ourselves and our worlds as we grow. For me, private writing is therapeutic; it allows me to sort through thoughts, feelings, concerns, and dreams in a safe space, and offers, inexplicably, immediate calm and reassurance. In contrast, I find public writing enriching and empowering; it encourages me to consider the minds and receptions of others, and reminds me of the powerful differences writing can make in our world.

From fourth to ninth grade, I was a dedicated journal-writer. In the beginning, I coaxed my mother into purchasing dollar-store diaries patterned with kittens dangling from trees or flowers lilting in a lush field. These diaries had terrible little locks that anyone could have picked or broken with only a modicum of effort, but those locks made me feel safe and secure in the privacy of my thoughts (and I always held the key on my person, to be safe). As I grew older, I purchased my own journals, choosing ones with subtler prints or poetic messages looping in golden script across their covers; as these journals did not come with locks, I was always sure to hide them (and no, I shan’t refer their location here). No matter the physical form of the diary or journal, their quiet pages and their protection from judgment gave me a place to air the frustrations and grievances of my life at the time, and to think through things in writing without fear that I would be teased or pressed for further meaning. We know that we learn as we write, that the process of writing is also one of discovering, and, for me, private journaling was a place where I could discover and consider my thoughts and feelings.

In contrast, as I prepared to graduate from the University of Delaware in the spring of 2015, my peers in the English Education Program chose me to write and deliver the keynote speech for our commencement dinner and awards ceremony. This is one of the most public writing experiences that I have had thus far, and in remembering it, I also recall both the stress and excitement I felt at the prospect of crafting such an important and meaningful text. I wanted to create a speech that would unite my experiences at the University of Delaware and within the English Education Program with those of my peers and, after four years, friends, and I wanted to do so in a thoughtful, meaningful, and memorable way. After a challenging final semester of student teaching and its vigorous demands, I wanted to remind my friends of the significance of our achievements, and to help kindle in them the pride I felt in all of us. In this instance, public writing encouraged me to access the human experiences I shared with my cohort, and to communicate the significance of those experiences through the written and, later, spoken word. I think that the overarching consideration of audience that public writing requires and inspires engenders connections and, in many cases, empathy among us as people. When I delivered the speech, I cried, and all of my friends in the program cried with me. For me, that is one of the greatest strengths of public writing: it makes us think about others, and it helps us grow and understand the world alongside them.

Ultimately, I believe that private and public writing enable us to understand ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our worlds in different but equally meaningful capacities. Private writing helps us understand our feelings, our thoughts, our conceptions and misconceptions, our regrets, and our dreams. I believe and hope that this understanding then leads us to feel empathy for others. As a result, when we turn to public writing, we bring this consideration for our fellow men and women with us, and use the power and meaning of the written word to communicate and build with one another from a place of thoughtfulness and depth.

On Developing Stronger Writers and Thinkers

Dear Madam President,

When I learned that you were seeking input from experienced scholars and educators of English literature and language across the United States of America on possible changes to the school systems and curricula, I was both incredibly pleased and rather relieved. Too often, parties with financial rather than pedagogical interests at heart have substantial influence on the development of educational structure and policy. As a certified teacher of English and a passionate reader, writer, and thinker, I believe I have several pieces of theoretical and practical advice that, if included in the revisions and changes to the writing curriculum in this country, will produce more effective, more enthusiastic, and more engaged student writers.

First and foremost, we must stop pressuring our children to be, above all else, “the best” writers and students in the world. More and more in our current global climate, students in the United States are compared to their peers in other classes, other programs, other schools, and even other countries. We need to help our students understand that writing is neither a competition nor a marker of success or failure, but a process, an exploration, and an examination that can be both fascinating and rewarding. This change begins with the hearts, minds, and lesson plans of our teachers, and I believe this beginning is in place now. As President, one massive, influential way you can reinforce the view of writing as a process and a discovery is reducing the number of standardized English language and literature tests for which students must sit throughout the school year. These standardized tests do not consider or reflect the mindset that writing develops with care and detailed thought; instead, they force students to produce a single piece of writing in a limited amount of time and in circumstances that are less than ideal. To evaluate students more effectively and to encourage the perception of writing as a series of steps in a quest for learning, have students write several drafts that they develop over the course of a few weeks within the school year. This will give a more accurate sample of the level of student writing, support educators in their value and teaching of the writing process, and show students that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged to continue to develop and improve writing skills over time.

Similarly, please encourage educators to require multiple drafts of pieces of writing in their classrooms and curricula. Teachers can and should organize their students’ schedules and due dates with multiple drafts in mind, and should require students to submit at least one full draft of their writing before the final draft. This policy will help students avoid “night before” writing, wherein process and discovery are neglected and forgotten under the panic and pressure of time constraints. Further, the requirement of the submission of multiple drafts of a piece of writing allows teachers to provide more feedback and advice earlier in the process, and to help students develop stronger texts as a result. As teachers stress the role of writing as a process in the structure of their classes, students will produce better texts, practice revision techniques, and understand the gradual, more effective development of their own thoughts at a slower pace.

Further, in terms of including and emphasizing the importance of revision within the current educational structure, I believe it would be incredibly effective for educators to instruct their student writers often and in detail on techniques for peer discussions and revisions. Classroom writing centers and peer-to-peer tutoring have been useful and schools, and, with the proper scaffolding, implementing these structures for revision from student to student helps  all members of the classroom continue to grow and learn. We know that spoken discussion and explanation between writers creates stronger writing, and, as a result, stronger thinking.

Finally, regardless of age or ability, I believe we should provide opportunities for students to write beyond the traditional analytical essay. Teachers should assign prompts that ask students to write creatively, which, in turn, give students the chance to write in non-standard English. Overall, teachers should encourage students to explore and find joy in the nuances of language, and should use all the tools and skills at their disposal to do so.

I hope these suggestions have been both encouraging and thought-provoking. As long as the President of this country continues to prioritize discovering the most meaningful methods for educating our students, I am confident that we will improve both the skills and the minds of our writers.

Best,
Claire Davanzo.

 

Audiences

All of my writing is aimed at an audience: I always have a reader in mind, even if the product is not for publication. I have written for the following audiences: readers of my newsletters and annual reports for nonprofit organizations working in international development; black South Africans seeking information on resources, training and financial, in my directories; student researchers in libraries for my literary life-and-work essays in reference books; general readers for three guides to fiction set in Vermont; and scholars reading my doctoral dissertation online.

Let me elaborate on three examples from that list. First, as director of communications for several nonprofits in Manhattan, my goal was to provide new and appealing information about our activities to interest our donors—individuals and foundations—in further financial support. My tasks were to produce flawless copy, plan the layout, and paste up the mechanicals in consultation with the printer. The responsibility was crushing, because the onus was on me to raise sufficient funds to aid the needs of vulnerable people in developing countries.

Second, producing a series of directories (over 35 issues) as head of a project to research and identify donors to aid black South Africans during the State of Emergency (the late 1980s and early 1990s) required my traveling to the country frequently to interview heads of foreign missions, international companies, foundations, and local philanthropists about their activities in aid of black South Africans. This information had to be informative enough to help my black South African readers find funds; at the same time, I needed to be careful not to reveal information about the recipients of these funds.

Third, writing and publishing the two literary articles was, in a sense, like being a writer at the CWE. After I had done my research about each author and written the best article of which I was capable, I sent each off to the publishing firm Cengage, which produces, among many other titles, supplements every three years to the large reference book called American Writers. My contact with my copy editors was solely through online track changes on my manuscripts. We never spoke or exchanged names, but the work they did was sharp-eyed, helpful, sensitive, and polite. They never made criticisms; they subtly suggested alternate ways of phrasing; they questioned certain sequences whose order might be reversed. Instead of being annoyed when they offered these changes, I felt privileged and happy that they had devoted so much time to thinking about and improving my essays.

For my unpublished studies of themes in fiction, I am the audience. All the time that I was traveling to South Africa (three trips a year for twelve years) and spending long hours alone on air planes and in hotel rooms, I researched and read fiction by theme. I wanted to find out the cumulative effect of reading every novel I could find on topics such as island settings; campus fiction; corporal punishment; fictional utopias; serial detectives; and unwanted pregnancy. The project became an absorbing treasure hunt, seeking titles that would fit into my categories (over twenty). I arranged the summary descriptions under each theme alphabetically by author and wrote extensive introductions to each, analyzing what I had learned from the themes in each study. I am the only audience for this project.

A Proposal for Process

Madam President,

In regards to your plan for overhauling the U.S. education system, I have some ideas for how to enhance writing curriculum in our public schools.

First, and most importantly, make it common policy that process drafts are not graded. This will allow students to see writing as a true process–one that takes time and includes trial and error. When a work-in-progress is graded, it is hard for students to see it as anything but a product and this inhibits their ability to take risks. Taking risks and trying new things in the writing process can be a highly rewarding learning experience that will ultimately help our students become better writers.

In keeping with the idea of reinforcing process, more schools should work towards a flipped classroom approach in which students are given ample time to work on composing and revising in class and not just at home. Regular class time working on a project shows that writing can take a long time and require multiple sittings. This will give the message to students that it is OKAY to not finish a writing task in one sitting. Professional writers do this regularly; why shouldn’t we allow our students the same courtesy?

In general, curriculum should include more long-term reading projects of the student’s choice. Reading takes time and patience, just like writing. We need to build up students’ endurance to stick with a project (reading or writing) long-term. The students should have a say in what they read–let’s get back to fiction. Reading non-fiction is good for students’ exposure to new ideas, but not at the cost of reading things they enjoy. This recent move away from fiction not only does a disservice to our students, but it seems to send a message that creativity and imagination is somehow inferior to facts and reality.

Finally, as all adults know, real-world writing entails a lot more than 5-paragraph essays. I propose a mandatory genre-based approached. Students should learn how to write essays, but also how to view OTHER types of writing with equal gravity. Professional emails, memos, appeals, and blogs are all worthwhile and relevant writing tasks for students to explore. We must teach them how to code switch and be multi-modal writers who know how to adapt to different writing situations by assessing the goal and audience for each task.

Thank you for your time and I hope these suggestions help you finalize your proposal. Please feel free to contact me for further discussion on the advancement of writing in our public schools.

Sincerely,

Nikki Bosca

Dear Madam President

Dear Madam President,

I am writing to you on behalf of public grade school and high school students in America who face difficulty speaking, reading, and writing Standard English. Today, this last phrase is fraught with misinterpretation and political undertones because no common definition exists for Standard English, beyond the notion that public leaders accept “correct” usage as the national norm.

The problems of adhering to Standard English are manifold for students who grow up not speaking English at home as well as for students who endure poor English tutelage in struggling inner-city schools. The underlying challenge is to assist students to speak, read, and write Standard English competently by the time they finish high school, some bound for college and others for technical training.

The point of knowing how to use Standard English is not to receive class status; instead, the point is to provide a practical advantage in written and oral communication that should be available to every young person in America. Addressing this issue is crucial, especially in two early settings: colleges application officials judge students by their ability to use Standard English; employers appraise job applicants by their fluency in it.

In colleges and universities, writing centers are places where tutors—often graduate assistants—help students to become better writers. They do not use scores or tests, but friendly coaching approaches in writing and cognitive-thinking skills to produce a literate and persuasive piece of writing. In grade schools and high schools, few are united on the best approach to teaching good writing skills, although most agree that hammering grammar rules into children’s heads is not productive.

My recommendation to your new Secretary of Education is to incorporate the concept and practice of writing centers into the lives of students in grade schools and high schools. Let us provide them with a friendly environment where they are not judged or graded on their writing and reading skills but encouraged and rewarded for learning to express themselves. Let them meet one-on-one, ideally, or in a workshop setting, with a tutor or rotating staff member, who can teach them transforming skills: What is the question we are addressing and how do we examine and solve it? What is a sentence? How do we break it down and build it up again so that we understand the role of each part?

If, Madam President, you plan, during your first term, to engage America’s young people in helping you to solve the problems of this country, please allow them to learn to express themselves, to communicate in thoughtful and meaningful ways, and to find and analyze solutions to problems. I believe that writing centers can make a crucial difference in meeting your administration’s educational goals and would be glad to send any supporting materials on writing centers to the new Secretary of Education.

Most sincerely,

Ann McKinstry Micou, D.Litt.

Center for Writing Excellence, Montclair State University

Kicking and Screaming

worst

ding

jane

idiots

What will follow is the ending to my favorite movie.

Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler.

The movie is Kicking and Screaming, the 1995 film directed by Noah Baumbach, not to be confused with the Will Ferrell movie, Kicking & Screaming, from a decade later.

My favorite film is about a group of friends who graduate from college, but don’t move on with their lives, physically or emotionally. Max and Grover keep their apartment together, Otis puts off going to grad school in Milwaukie, Skippy spends most of his nights with his college girl friend and re-enrolls in school to audit the classes he feels he missed, and the wise bar tender Chet is rumored to have taken every class that the University offers, but is somehow still struggling to finish the third chapter of his thesis.

This movie was made in the 90’s and was allowed to exist, I think, in part because of the success of the sitcom Seinfeld. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing then Kicking and Screaming is a film about nothing. Of course, that isn’t exactly true; it wouldn’t be my favorite movie if nothing happened, which coincidentally is said about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, except it’s a two act play, so nothing happens twice.

Kicking and Screaming is a film about emotional paralysis. It’s about the main character Grover, and his inability to move on with his life when his girlfriend Jane leaves him to accept a position in a writing program in Czechoslovakia, it is never made clear if it’s Slovakia or the Czech Republic, Grover never had a chance to keep up on the news in college. Grover discovers Jane’s change in plans during the opening scene of the movie and what follows is an hour and thirty-six minutes of Grover and his friends making the occasional bad choice, but mostly refusing to choose, which prevents them from moving on with their lives. Interspersed in this nothing, are the well placed flashbacks Grover has of Jane, who he first encounters in his writing class.

Jane says,”I’d like to say first up that, uh… the prose is remarkable. It’s beautifully written. Uh, however, I’ve noticed that, uh, the characters in Grover’s stories… spend all their time discussing the least important… things. Uh- You know, like what to have for dinner or… who’s the best-looking model in the Victoria’s Secret catalog. I don’t know. To me, the story just seemed slight. It had the feeling of being written in – in one night.”

Grover responds, “I – I think I said plenty. Uh, perhaps something rubbed Ms.” “- Hayworth-” “Well, it seems I must have done something right if Ms. Hayworth has reacted so strongly. And this was a particularly hot issue of Victoria’s Secret. They had to make some very tough decisions.”

Jane counters, “You -You joke, but I really see nothing wrong with dealing with the important subject matter. All that thought and energy put into Saturday morning cartoons. I – I think its depressing.” Despite this exchange, somehow the two fall in love. So you see, giving you the ending of the movie where Grover and Jane are about to have their first kiss can’t be a spoiler because they break up in the opening scene, so they had to have been together at one point.

Here’s the scene
The Scene opens with Grover running toward Jane who is walking away and taps her on the shoulder.

Grover:
Sorry.
This is for my confession in the bar.

I’m – I’m a little drunk.
But I didn’t mean to scare you.

Jane:
– That’s okay. I’ll take 50 cents.

Grover:Thanks.

Grover:
– You still find your name weird?
– Oh. No.

Jane:
Just happens to me occasionally.
Jane touches her retainer, with excitement.
Oh, I came up with a great comeback
to something you said to me yesterday.

I can’t remember it now, though.

Grover:
How come I never saw you
before writing class?

I guess you didn’t look.
I mean, I’ve always been there.

Grover:
Just to think, for four years
we were catching the same colds…
being bit by the same mosquitoes.

Jane:
To think!

Grover:
So, what’s your sign?

Jane:
I’m a Scorpio.

Why?

Grover:
– I’m a Libra.

Jane:
– Oh, really? What does that mean?

Grover:
-I don’t know. It should mean something,
though. It sounds like it does.

Jane:
Yeah, it does.

Grover:
– It must.
Jane takes a pad and pen from her purse and begins to write.
– Some story ideas?

Jane:
No, something occurred to me.

Grover:
That’s good to do that.
I always forget to carry writing materials.

Jane:
Is it really obnoxious?

Grover:
No.
Okay, the way I see it…
if we were an old couple
and dated for years…

graduated away from all these
scholastic complications…
and I reached over and kissed you…
you wouldn’t say a word –
you’d be delighted… probably.

But if I was to do that now
it would be quite forward.
And if I did it the first time we ever met,
you probably would hit me.

Jane:
What do you mean?

Grover:

I just wish we were an old couple
so I could do that.

Jane’s hand reaches to her mouth and touches her retainer, but then puts her hand back down. She smiles. Grover laughs with big love struck eyes.
Jane:
What?

The screen fades to black and Freedy Johnston’s Bad Reputation plays as the credits roll.

On the one hand, Jane touches her retainer because she wants to take it out to Kiss Grover, but like Grover, she realizes her actions as well as his are “too forward,” but on the other hand, she touches it because she has thought of something witty to say as a retort to Grover’s heart felt, albeit awkward speech. Throughout the film, she removes her retainer to deliver punchy quips. And yet she stops herself from saying it. Grover is totally vulnerable. Jane could destroy him with a word, but she chooses not to. She chooses the kiss, a kiss the audience doesn’t see, but nonetheless knows of its occurs. This is one of the reasons I love this movie: Baumbach’s choice to leave the kiss out of view is telling of his gift as a young director. The entire love affair and heart break that follows, i.e. the entire movie depends on the perfection of that moment we don’t see, that we imagine, and I imagine we are left to imagine it because we all imagine it differently.

There are lot more reasons I have loved this movie and a few for why I have continued to love this movie. I have been some of these depressing and depressed characters. I have been Grover, heart-broken and heart breaking, living my story in my mind instead of writing it. I’ve been max who wanted to get “I hate it” tattooed in his mouth. I’ve been skippy, who’s thought he was an integral part of a group, when in reality I was an outlier. Heck, I dress like Grover. For a time, my drink of choice was Scotch, “these drinks that we’re drinking here, Scotch, affectations that become habit,” not to mention how

Grover:
Twenty years I make it
through all that peer pressure.
– Suddenly, my senior year, you get me addicted.

Jane:
– Because you smoke now, I should too?

Grover:
No. But what you did was sneaky –
Yes, you should smoke too!

and I have even fancied myself, the mystic bar tender Chet, handing out wisdom in dimly lit rooms: “I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I’ve always said, ‘If Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini.’” But more than that, I love the way the film is so eloquently crafted, the way the present reminds Grover of the past, and how the characters in the background affect the characters in the foreground, something that seldom occurs in most films, but happens in our everyday lives, the pieces of conversation we pick up, as we walk silently by affect us, and so in the film, they affect the characters, we wander with Max across the campus he claims to hate, shaking his head at the things he hears although he’s “here now by choice”, as if there were a time when there wasn’t a choice, as if we couldn’t at any moment, run up to the counter of an airline and say,

Grover:

Everybody else in America has been to Prague.
What’s the big deal, you send one extra?

Sorry.

You see, I’ve been needing to go there
for a long time now.

I mean, there’s Czech and Slovakia
and a big Jewish cemetery…

and the opera house and –

Maybe that’s Vienna where the opera house is.
But that’s nearby, you know.

Given the opportunity,
I’d hit Vienna too.

Hell, I’d do all of Europe,
given a chance.

I can imagine Jane and some Praguian idiot
dancing the night away.

A horrible image.

And the coffee –
See, all I know is American coffee.

Or the beer.
Whatever’s good over there.

It’s gotta all be better over there.

And nothing I eat has any taste.

This has been such a strange time.

I wonder, if I was there now,
how would things be different.

Isn’t there a big bridge with statues on it?

I seem to remember that
from a history class.

Jane and some guy
kissing on the bridge…

in public.

No, it’s Jane
and some Czech writer.

Image kills me.

Just great. This is so frustrating,
because I’m terrible at conflict. I hate it.

And if I’d imagined this problem
while falling asleep last night…

I don’t think I would have
spoken up to you.

Even in my fantasy life I just would
have accepted it. That’s who I am.

But today I have to go.
I have to.

And when I tell people about this in the future,
I know that –

it’ll be the time that I went.

And I know that when I review
this whole episode in my head…

I’m not gonna know what I did
or why I did it.

I think they’ve done something
with the real Grover.

But it’ll make a good story
of my young adult life.

You know,
the time I chose to go to Prague.

I’ll look back on it and I won’t believe
that I actually went, you know. I went away.

So let me go.

I have to. I need –

Just put me on the plane.

Let me go.

Story-telling

Metafiction is nontraditional story-telling that departs from conventional fictional forms. In metafiction, the author comments upon the story, addressing the audience directly to discuss the characters or intervening in their plans and dreams. This practice evokes Wilder’s play Our Town, in which the stage manager appears from behind the curtain to provide authorial comment on the plot and the characters. A particular device found in metafiction is the use of footnotes to guide readers toward the author’s point of view on a variety of issues.

Two examples of the use of footnotes in metafiction are Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Life (1971) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Sorrentino’s novel contains a series of episodes and anecdotes about a group of writers and artists living in New York City in the sixties. By means of sarcastic and pseudo-literary remarks set in footnotes, the author satirizes the social pretensions, serial infidelity, and literary conventions of the characters. Toward the end, the author shifts the setting to Vermont. To show he is in charge, he “gives” one couple a “sophisticated” house in Vermont: “Right out of Robert Frost, the old well, the barn, the stone fence, the cemetery with the Revolutionary dead—the birches, the pond, I give them Vermont.” He poses his self-conscious characters in “a portrait of the poet and his wife: you and I and moonlight in Vermont.”

The narrator in Díaz’s novel is his familiar alter ego, Yunior. Díaz, too, turns to footnotes, because no fictional language can recreate for the reader the horror and tragedy of the Trujillo regime; no novel can demonstrate the brutality of the U.S role in backing the dictator. Díaz knows the “emptiness and silence and abstinence in the historical record of the Caribbean”; in a tone both comic and tragic, he fills in the blanks so the reader can begin to grasp the reality. The footnotes also give Díaz the opportunity to discuss his love of science fiction. When Yunior calls Trujillo a Sauron, for example, he compares him to the tyrannical antagonist in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Only through metaphors like these can the reader comprehend the enormity of the injustice done in the Dominican Republic.

Readers passionately defend or dislike narratives styles. I remain neutral on the question of metafiction, but I would point out that, while Melville did not use footnotes, he allows his interpreter, Ishmael, to step out of the drama to address the audience directly in a series of apostrophes.

The Guitar as Writing Consultant

Inspired by a few of my colleagues’ music posts, I will discuss the writing relationship I have with my acoustic guitar.

I was a late-comer to the world of performing music.  In fact, I didn’t even know how to strum a chord on a guitar until I was around 36 years old.  Before that I was the guy who frequently said that in my next life, I’m going to learn how to play guitar. Well metaphorically, that became true.  As I made drastic life and identity changes, my first acoustic guitar, a $150 left handed Ibanez that I bought from a music store in Rutherford, NJ with the assistance of my little sister’s boyfriend, became the primary vehicle for my transition from firefighter to songwriter.

Having never taken a music lesson in my life, if I was going to learn how to play songs with that guitar, traditional lessons wouldn’t have been practical.  I wasn’t going to learn the Circle of Fifths or any of the mathematical nuances of music theory.  Music is a language.  So just like written and spoken alphabet languages, its much easier for a child’s mind to absorb the language in the developmental years.  My route to learning guitar was different; more practical but with less of a knowledge base that will hinder me in certain aspects of music making for the rest of my life.  And that’s fine.  My role in music is to write and strum songs.  I have managed to surround myself with a group of musicians who help me build the songs into bigger, more layered music.

My first guitar teacher was a neighbor and bar-buddy, Jeff “Fex” Eklund.  He understood the limitations of a late learning student like myself and developed a practical strategy for giving me lessons.  First he taught me 3 chords. E-A-D.  He drew me chord charts and sat with me and placed my fingers on the correct Frets and strings. He explained to me that certain groups of chords work well to make progressions that turn into songs.  It took me a while to be able to comfortably transition and strum through those three chords. But in time I got it. Then he taught me three more; C-F-G – After every two weeks or so, I’d return and pick up a few more chords.  Some minor chords – then onto bar chords.  After approximately four months, Fex got sick of the process and gave me the best guitar lesson of my life. “You have a lot of chords. Write a few songs.  You listen to alot of music.  You know how songs are structured. I ain’t teaching you know more chords till you write some songs.”  He gave me a talk about bridges, choruses, melodies, verses, stanzas and the relative minor of a major chord.  I took some notes.  Some of this stuff was ingrained in me through osmosis from a lifetime of listening to music.  But putting terms to the music helped me understand a bit more of what it would take to write a song in Western Music, or in my genres folk and rock and roll.

I had fancied myself a writer for many years.  I got my BA in English with a minor in journalism and was getting my MA in English and Writing Studies when I purchased the guitar. Yet school papers were academic and tedious.  I didn’t see myself pursuing a career in journalism.  Most of the writing that gave me the most pleasure was written in journals that were meant to sort out my mind during a tumultuous, transitional time in my life. So although I greatly valued my journal writings, they weren’t meant for an audience and there wasn’t any structure or discipline to them.  The Ibanez acoustic guitar changed all of that in a big way. Within weeks writing ideas were turning into songs with verses and choruses and sometimes with bridges. Strumming chords magically sent words into my head.  I jotted down catchy phrases in a notebook and saved them for later songs.  The Ibanez became my assistant in writing.  It gave me a voice that I always knew I had, but didn’t know how to access.

Songwriting has since become my primary mode of writing.  My guitar skills have continued to improve and always will I imagine.  But I will never be what is considered a great guitar player. My role in music is as a writer and as a guitar player my role is to hold down the rhythm of the songs that I write.   I’ve become one of two songwriters in The Porchistas a busy and notable rock band.  None of this would have happened if not for the magical relationship I have with that beat up Ibanez guitar.

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That Which Quickly Became a Ode to Hamilton

At the age of 26, I can say that I have spent the last 21 years of my life being a professional student. The first 16 of these were fine, great even, but I’ve quickly become restless. I want a career. I want to ascend. I want to leave the perpetual purgatory that is pupilhood.

I think of my friends. Once we were comrades, commiserating over the struggles of undergrad, writing papers at three o’clock in the morning, cramming for exams. Now they’re lawyers, epidemiologists, athletic trainers, general managers, and EMTs. Me? I’m getting there. In just a year’s time, I will be graduating with my Master’s in Teaching. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Money to be made. A purpose to be fulfilled. But – and I apologize for going all Veruca Salt on you –

I’m a good egg, I swear, but in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda

And I know that I should

Wait for it (2)

But I’m antsy. I’m itching for the moment when I can enter the classroom and take my place at its front. I’m clawing at the chance to nurture a new generation and watch them graduate and move on to bigger and better things.

I ask myself, “Will I move onto bigger and better things?” Is teaching the highest rung of the ladder of ambition or does it reach higher? I can’t be sure. There’s a million things I haven’t done but just you wait.