An Introspective Analysis of My Relationship with Pens and Journals

I was on one of those mental rabbit trails where you suddenly look up and have no idea how you got here.  The track behind me veiled in the mist of forgetfulness, I found myself in a clearing contemplating why I don’t like using pens.  Uh-huh.  Pretty fascinating, right?

Believe it or not, I managed to turn this random thought process into an introspective analysis of myself.  But perhaps that isn’t too surprising to those who know me well.  As I started to inspect my dislike for pens, I noted that I don’t mind using them for things I plan to throw away, like sticky notes and to-do lists.  I also realized that I don’t like using beautiful notebooks or journals for anything permanent either.  I never feel anything I write is worthy of them.

One elegant red and gold journal exhibits faint signs of use on its first two pages where I wrote something down in pencil, deemed it unworthy, and erased it.  That’s about the closest I’ve ever gotten to using my favorites of the many notebooks people have given me over the years.  I can use most of the pretty (but not gorgeous) notebooks without qualms, but the special ones are just too special.  I don’t want to ruin them or fill them with something that I will want to throw away in five years.  Childhood experience in such matters has scarred me a little, I think.  And talk about a high bar, one pale blue journal with gold stars scattered on it says in gold letters on the cover “My Bright Ideas.”  Even someone without my authorly commitment issues would probably find that a bit intimidating.

Once I made the connection between pens and notebooks, I looked around the mental clearing and began to notice other patterns around me that all point to a hesitation to commit when writing.  I don’t want anyone else reading what I might write in these journals, and I can’t just delete or revise the content like I can in a computer document.  In fact, I’m even a bit scared of what my future self will think of what I write.  Have you ever read a childhood journal and thought, Why did I write this, or My handwriting was terrible (or worse, My handwriting was better when I was eight)?  Finally, if the content is on the border between awful and sentimentally valuable, you must decide if it’s really worth keeping that notebook as you try to downsize your stuff.  Why set myself up for hard decisions like that?

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, let me stop you right there.  I do not intend to set any grandiose personal goals.  While I’m fond of making lists and setting goals, New Year’s resolutions have never appealed to me, so don’t even think about it.*  I’m going to start small because, as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a bit scared of committing to something in writing that I can’t erase or edit.  But I also know the value of pushing my limits and learning from all the mistakes that come with simply trying, so I want to push my limits at least a little.  After all, isn’t that what Thousand Mile Walk is all about?  We didn’t call our blog Writing Epitome or make any claims that everything we post will be gold standard.  “Writing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey” is our motto, and I should remember that more.

As I headed out from that mist-veiled clearing to explore new rabbit trails, and as I return to the clearing to write this introspection, I have decided to write in pen at least some of the time for things that matter and consider using my beautiful journals if I can come up with a convincing plan for how I can create content that will be at least moderately timeless.

I resolve to be a braver, bolder writer.  At least a little bit. 🙂


*(Side note: Why wait till a new year to start your new project?  If it’s that worthwhile, why not start right now?)

Photo credit: by Jaymantri from Canva.com

How Victor Hugo Writes Transitions

Writing effective, natural transitions is difficult, as anyone who has ever written an essay, agonizing over how to move from “Firstly,” “Secondly,” “Thirdly,” and “In summary,” to more original expressions, knows.

So how does a classic writer approach paragraph transitions?

I am reading (slowly) Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, right now – the 1976 Norman Denny translation – and think it is interesting how Hugo tackles transitions (aside: Norman Denny seems to have updated some of the English to be more readable to a modern audience, but cross-checking the below excerpt with Isabell Hapgood’s 1887 translation seems to confirm that the paragraph structures are still similar). Below is a passage, and alongside the passage I have explained my understanding of how the transitions function.

Hugo Transitions

What we see is that Hugo uses ideas to transition. The progression of thought between paragraphs is apparent—the topic or concluding sentence of the previous paragraph can be used as a springboard to guide the reader into the following thought (the topic of the current paragraph). Focusing on transitioning between not the bare words on the page but the underlying thoughts make the paragraphs blend together more naturally.

ebcosette

Addendum

This transitioning technique is on display in the quoted excerpt, but I also chose the passage because of Hugo’s insight here into the realities of being a thought-worker. My profession as a software developer is very much a thought-worker position. I do write, and there are real outcomes to the work, but unlike roofing a house or fixing a toilet, the real brunt of my profession is done in the mind. This is true of writers, scientists, and many other vocations in today’s society. As a result, this passage from Hugo – also a knowledge-worker (or “brain-worker” in Hapgood’s translation) – is apropos.

Counting Every Word

Scrutinizing my computer screen, I read another sentence aloud.  I heaved a sigh.  None of the words seemed superfluous; I felt like I had trimmed off every spare word I could without weakening my essay.  I continued reading the paper, wondering how I was ever going to get my word count below my professor’s limit of 500 words.

Picture me at ten or eleven o’ clock at night going through this exact same routine once a week for eight weeks, and you will have an idea of my experiences while taking a course on American history this past spring.  I have a problem most students would envy.  I struggle with word count rules, not because I have trouble reaching the minimum, but because I always overshoot the mark—usually by a lot.  No matter how much I curbed myself as I typed my rough drafts, I always had too many thoughts, too much supporting material, and too many quotes I wanted to include.  Most of the essays were about American war novels, each of which was full of important and interesting information that I felt I needed to mention if I was going to write a thorough paper.  I also needed to include as much historical context and analysis as possible to satisfy my teacher.

While my professor’s word count rule felt constricting and chafed against my urge to write more, the limitation challenged me to become a better writer.  Because of this restriction, I had to make every word count, to reexamine how I organized my paper and structured my sentences.  I experienced what every child hates:  that frustrating time when your parents tell you, “Do it.  It’ll be good for you.”  Except this time, I was the one having to remind myself of the advantages of this word count rule while simultaneously becoming annoyed with it.  I was trying to see the bright side of the matter as I attempted to find another 20 words to excise.  Facing character-building challenges is so frustrating.

Character Building C&H

In the end, somehow, I always managed to chop the paper down to size without making it sound like Procrustes had gotten to it.  And now the ordeal is over, I am able to fully appreciate how it challenged me.  Writing those essays helped me spend my words wisely and more thoughtfully than I would have otherwise.  As I worked my paper down to 500 words, I felt like I was condensing it into something stronger, boiling out excess material and making it more potent in the process.  My success each time also encouraged and continues to encourage me, reminding me that I can overcome writing obstacles, even when they prove to be extremely challenging.

I have to admit that oftentimes as I worked on those history essays, I wished for 750 or 1000 words to work with.  (I’m guessing that desire was really strong on the papers that ended up 499 or exactly 500 words long).  However, as I think about that wish now, I can see the long paper being a different but equally demanding sort of challenge as the short one.  Would the paper have been as powerful?  Would I have wasted time and ink on insignificant words, quotes, or ideas?  Would I have been able to make every word count in that long of a paper?  Perhaps that should be my next challenge.  Maybe we writers would all benefit from counting every word.

Writing Words (Is Really Hard)

 

“Writing Words (Is Really Hard)”
by JABBA

No more flashy phrases.
Lots of empty pages.
Staring at an empty screen, tears in my eyes.
I know I’ve got a deadline soon, but what to write?

Writing words is really hard,
But there is nothing I can do.
Writing words is really hard.
I just have to face it this time; it’s true.
Writer’s block is always hard to resist but consider this:
With a deadline in sight,
I just need stuff to write.

Run-on sentences.
Split infinitives.
The old familiar rules, I must break,
And also skip the editing, all for time’s sake.

Writing words is really hard,
But there is nothing I can do.
Writing words is really hard.
I just have to face it this time; it’s true.
Writer’s block is always hard to resist but consider this:
With a deadline in sight,
I just need stuff to write.

A Digital Literary Critic

heminway
Ernest Heminway, the app’s namesake

Hemingway is a quite unique web application. Instead of a simple spell-check of text you type, this app analyzes your writing and points out areas you may want to revise–usages of the passive voice, sentences that are wordy, etc. Plus, the app calculates what grade level your writing is suitable for (for example, I pasted my last TMW post into the app and it told me my writing was Grade 9).

The next time you’re writing an essay and the draft feels boring, think about dropping by Hemingway to see what it suggests!

 

Learning Vocabulary from “The Raven”

Edgar-Allan-Poes-The-RavenWhile surfing the internet the other day I came across a shirt with the image of a raven spelling the word “nevermore.” I immediately recognized the reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem The Raven, and being the owner of the complete works of Poe I went and grabbed my copy off of the shelf. However, whenever I opened up the book a small piece of paper fell out, and upon looking closer I realized that I had written a bunch of words on it. The paper was a list of vocabulary that Poe had used in his various short stories that I did not know the meaning of and had meant to look up later.

Long-words

One of the great advantages of reading older books is the expansive use of vocabulary found in them. While by no means a universal truth, many older authors had a much stronger mastery of the English language than people do today. This makes old books a great way to learn new English words. However, like with just about anything, vocabulary growth cannot be obtained in a desultory manner, because then we end up writing words down to reference later and stick them in a book (like I did with Poe).  After discovering my neglected list of unknown words I have decided to be more intentional about reading, and thereby learning, new words, and I would encourage you to join me in this venture. Words are the way the world communicates, and the more accurately and efficiently we can communicate the better chance we have of being successful in our interactions with others. In fact, it has been said that CEO’s of major companies have a very high vocabulary knowledge, and although correlation does not equal causation by any means, it is generally understood that the better a person can communicate the more successful they will be professionally.

After rediscovering my list of vocabulary from Poe’s book, I continued on to reread The Raven. It took me all of 5 minutes, but in the process I discovered several more words to add to my small piece of paper. So, find a good book, and whenever you get a chance, read and learn. There’s a whole wealth of words out there that the majority of people do not know, a whole treasure chest just waiting to be discovered. Here are some of the words that I found on the small piece of paper inside my Poe Anthology:

  1. Quiescence –adj. in a state or period of inactivity or dormancy
  2. Asphodel –n. an immortal flower said to grow in the Elysian fields
  3. Desultory –adj. lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm
  4. Nepenthe –n. any drug or potion bringing welcome forgetfulness
  5. Castellated –adj. having battlements
  6. Surcease –n. cessation; relief or consolation

TMW: A Year in Statistics

statgraphA break from all things esoteric or literary, today is about serious business–statistics, demographics, and highlights from the past year.

This blog began on April 13th of this year, and since then the post count has climbed to 49–not a shabby number given that we originally intended to only post once a week. This blog has seen all kinds of posts, ranging from poems to short stories to essays. Initially staffed by a group of five writers on a 5-week rotation, TMW grew in August with the addition of contributing writer myladygrey.

map

Most of our visitors hail from the United States, while the United Kingdom and Canada account for the other two majorities. In all, TMW has had over 2700 visits since its inception in April. What’s more, TMW has 30 followers–subscribers who receive automated updates every time we publish a new post. Brave souls… 🙂

The “Most” List

Most Viewed Post: Silence – A Fable

Most Commented Post: Here’s a Speed Bump for Your Summer

Most views on a single day: June 4, 2013. Bringing Back Shakespeare

Most active day: December 20, 2013. Books for Christmas, Mary Poppins vs. Nurse Matilda

Most trafficked month: July 2013. The Dark Side of Gaming, Ah! Summer and others

See you in the new year!

Jack M.

An Evening Writing Project…

Last Autumn I set a goal to try and improve my ability to write by setting aside some time to write every night, and although I am not currently following this routine, here is a short story I wrote one of the nights last fall. I wrote it using a “stream of consciousness” approach where I jumped in with just a basic idea (proud blacksmith) and tried to write the whole thing in one go. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to drop any comments or critiques below.

Clang. Tang. Bang. The hammer blows fell in measured time. A shower of sparks exploded with each impact of the hammer’s cold face on the red hot iron. As each blow fell, the muscles of the blacksmith’s arm could be seen to ripple with energy beneath his soot weathered skin. His hair was black, and he wore a thick beard that nearly hid his mouth from view. Bushy eyebrows overshadowed eyes which shown like coals. Called Jakall, he was the great smith of Amverdale, known for creating the arms and armor of such heroes as Merasmus, Ophis, and Bilthar: men who were known for great skill with sword and spear.

It so happened that on this particular day in early spring, before the heroes went out for the summer campaigns, that a certain stranger came to Amverdale. He wore a rough tunic that had once been white, but was now soiled by the dirt and grime of the road. His only possessions were a haggard looking horse, meager rations of food, and a sword at his side.  He approached Jakall, and Jakall, assuming the stranger to be a penniless knight of little worth said:

“Ye may as well pass on stranger, for you’ll find no labor here that can be hired without any coin.”

“Well,” replied the stranger in a dry and raspy voice, “I have no money to pay at the moment, but in some short time I should be in a situation to repay you ten times over.”

“I don’t do work on credit for men of no reputation,” Jakall said, spitting into the fire as he turned away from the stranger.

During all of this interchange the stranger had been bringing out a parcel wrapped in heavy cloth, and begun to unfold it upon Jakall’s bench. After he was done, he drew the hilt of his sword from its sheath and set it on the bench top, saying:

“And what makes you think that I am a man of such little renown? Is it my garb? Or the fact that my horse is worn and thin?”

“Sir…” began the blacksmith spinning toward the stranger angrily, but he was cut off in mid-sentence as he viewed the sword –or more precisely “pieces of the sword” –that lay on his workbench. The hilt and handle were intact, but the blade had been broken above the point of balance, and lay in several shards across the workbench. However, this is not what caught his attention, but rather the insignia that the pommel of the blade bore: a leaping leopard. Only one knight bore that insignia, and he had not been home from the crusades in the wilderness for many years.

“Sir Hector,” the startled blacksmith blurted out, “please forgive my impudence and my harsh words. But sir, please let me forge anew your sword to repayment the hurt that I have done your name.”

“The slur you have cast cannot be rescinded my good sir. Your fiery tongue makes you most unjust and will do you much harm if not kept in check. I wish to have my sword repaired. Can you do it? I am willing to pay you as I said before, no different; but if not, I shall have to find a better blacksmith than yourself who can do the work for me.”

“I will do it, and all else that my Lord commands, should my Lord forgive my rash and disrespectful speech.”

At this the stranger turned to go and said,

“You were forgiven before you asked. Now bear no guilt in your mind about past wrongs, but go forward a better man. Forgiveness heals all wounds, but anger only creates new ones.”

Writing with Wings

Years ago, while I was contemplating what made certain movies great and others not-so-great, my thinking went like this: good stories need to have a message—they have to teach the viewer something. But they’ve also got to be entertaining, because if the story isn’t interesting then nobody will care about the message.

Horace
Horace (drinking something dulce, perhaps?)

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was articulating the age-old purpose of literature as expressed by Horace in the Latin phrase “utili et dulce,” which means “useful and sweet.” The “useful” bit is the teaching aspect and the “sweet” bit is the part that entertains.

This two-fold purpose is almost everywhere one looks, so in this article I’m going to use the word “literature” to mean “a story told in an artistic way.” Notice that this definition of literature does not demand any definite form—it can be fiction, non-fiction, a poem, a movie, etc. Not an ordinary definition, and not one I typically use, but it may be helpful for this discussion.

Instructing and Entertaining

Why should literature be both instructive and entertaining? To find out, let’s not trust to the word of an ancient Greek alone. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, points out that an even older source than Horace expounded this viewpoint: The Bible. Ecclesiastes 12:10 says:

The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly (NASB).

The first part of this passage “delightful words” corresponds with the “delighting” bit, while “words of truth” corresponds to the “teaching” bit. So we see that even the Preacher sought to write what was both true and beautiful!

This is an important connection for writers to make, and I have found both in my own experience and through observation that emphasizing one side of this balance too heavily is very easy to do. Teach too hard and a Christian work of fiction becomes little more than a jazzed-up sermon. Tell a story that entertains exclusively and the reader may experience thrills but ultimately find the story forgettable.

However, I believe that in particular the “delighting” aspect of literature is neglected in Christian writing (although lately I haven’t noticed it as much. Perhaps we’re improving?). I used to be this way: I would come up with a good moral that I wanted my story to have, and then I developed a story that reflected that moral. I focused entirely on the teaching component of literature and completely ignored the entertaining part. The results were contrived, lifeless characters who did things not because certain actions were part of their character but because that’s the way it had to be for me to get my message across. Needless to say, this is not an effective (or affective!) way to write.

Much more could be said (and has been said) on this topic, but the essence is still this: the purpose of literature is both to instruct and entertain. They’re like the two wings of an eagle, and both must function together for the eagle to soar.

There are other reasons why writers should embrace the two-fold purpose of literature, and to gain a fuller picture I would recommend reading The Christian Imagination. It is a collection of essays (most, but not all, of them very thought-provoking—that’s the problem with collections) by Christian writers about reading and writing that fueled the ideas in this post, particularly the essay entitled “’Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature,” by Leland Ryken.

Be A Better Writer By Doing Nothing!

fruitWriting can often be a daunting task, yet so many authors seem to do it well. They manage to churn out 70,000 word novels every year, and sales figures indicate that audiences like their stories. On the other end of the spectrum are ordinary people (like me)–people whose longest piece of writing was probably a research paper they wrote in high school or college–and that’s maybe 3,000 or 4,000 words at the most. The idea of tackling a writing project over ten times this size understandably can seem impossible (this site gives a breakdown of the word counts of several famous books–an interesting tangential topic).

But it’s not impossible. Obviously there are multiple reasons that a writer becomes successful, but one piece of advice stands out in particular, wisdom I learned from a writer named John R. Erickson in his book Story Craft (who, regardless of what you think of the literary merit of his Hank the Cowdog books, has an excellent no-nonsense understanding of writing as a profession). Erickson’s advice is this:

producers can’t be consumers

StoryCraft

To put Erickson’s advice another way, those who successfully create can’t consume large amounts of what other people create.

In my own experience this principle has proved true. When I find myself at a loss for words it is usually because I’ve spent my time surfing the web or (more likely) watching movies or TV shows. These activities seem to drive out original thought as they are a mostly passive experience. This sounds counterintuitive, I know—in order to write well, stop listening to other stories? That sounds crazy! Yet I think Erickson makes an important point here—silencing outside voices allows us to find our own voice. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it gives us the time to actually sit down and write.

Is this principle of consumer/producer always true? Well, no. That would be silly, but this emphasis can be helpful in counteracting natural tendencies…the real question becomes: do I have the time to be both an avid consumer and fruitful producer? In the end, there is a balance to be made…

Perhaps this is what holds many writers back. I think that there are hundreds if not thousands of stories in people’s heads on this very day that, if realized, would exceed the best work of the most sterling published author of today. But I’m afraid that doesn’t matter, because the successful writer isn’t the one who has the best idea; the successful writer can only be the one who finishes his idea. And the one who finishes is often the one who makes time to complete his work, the one who produces (bountifully!) and doesn’t consume (gluttonously!).

Note: In my introduction when I mentioned word counts I did not mean to imply that a writer should be overly concerned with how long a story is. I remember writing stories when I was younger where I would attempt to make the story as long as possible…for the sake of being able to say that the story was “x” pages long. This attitude tends to produce junk. The proper worry of writers shouldn’t be length but characters and plot instead…but that’s a tale for another day!