Information Sheet #97

January 23, 1996


[One of my favorite publications is Context, written and edited by Martin E. Marty, the University of Chicago theologian who received an honorary doctorate from Coe several years ago. Twice a month Marty sends readers an anthology of quick summaries and quotes from books and articles he's recently read. In a crude way this Word Shop fits a similar genre: I'm simply passing on excerpts from texts one "bucolic college professor" has read in recent weeks: some because of their insight, some--as with Erasmus and shipping vowels to Bosnia--just because they brought a smile. --Bob Marrs]

God does not much mind bad grammar, but He does not take any particular pleasure in it. Erasmus


You don't suddenly become another person when you sit down to write, though that may be what it feels like sometimes. Composing means putting things together--and that is something you do all the time. When you take in a scene or an event or a piece of news, you are interpreting, putting things together to make sense. When you see what is happening or understand what has happened or imagine what might happen, you are composing: figuring out relationships, working out implications, drawing conclusions. What is currently called "getting your head together" used to be known as "composing yourself."

When we think, we compose: we put this with that; we line things up; we group and classify and categorize; we emphasize or pass over, start and stop and start up again, repeating ourselves, contradicting, hedging, declaring and questioning, lying and denying. Even in dreaming we are composing, although for different purposes and in a mode different from the ones common to waking hours. When we read, we re-compose, juxtaposing this character with that character, the theory with the supporting evidence, the argument with the alleged facts, etc. We compare premises and conclusions, ifs and thens, the beginning of the story with the ending, seeing what goes together to make up the whole, seeing how the composition is put together, enjoying it, learning from it.

Composing--putting things together--is a continuum, a process that continues without any sharp breaks. Making sense of the world is composing. It includes being puzzled, being mistaken, and then suddenly seeing things for what they probably are; making wrong--unproductive, unsatisfactory, incorrect, inaccurate--identifications and assessments and correcting them or giving them up and getting some new ones. And all these things happen when we write: writing is like the composing we do all the time when we respond to the world, make up our minds, try to figure out things again. We aren't born knowing how to write, but we are born knowing how to know how.

Although writing has a lot in common with that composing we could simply call consciousness, writing doesn't just happen as a matter of course; the writer has to make it happen. Writing is not a "natural-born" capacity that we normally and necessarily develop, the way a child learns to walk and talk. Nor is learning to write like learning the facts in an anatomy text or making a Shaker footstool out of a kit. When you write, you don't follow somebody else's scheme; you design your own. As a writer, you learn to make words behave the way you want them to.

Up to a point, writing can be explained and taught as a skill. And it can be demonstrated, as dovetailing the joints of a drawer can be demonstrated. Composing means working with words, and, in some ways, that is a skill comparable to working with wood. But woodcraft is not just assembling some pre-cut forms, nor is wordcraft gluing statements together. Composing is more than a skill, though the writer must be skilled with words and syntactic structures, just as a cabinetmaker has to know how to use a gimlet and an auger. Composing is more than craft, and it requires more than skill, because working with words requires working with meanings, and meanings are not like walnut planks or golfballs or bulldozers or typewriters or anything else that simply requires skilled handling. Learning to write is not a matter of learning the rules that govern the use of the semicolon or the names of sentence structures, nor is it a matter of manipulating words; it is a matter of making meanings, and that is the work of the active mind.

--Ann E. Berthoff, Forming, Thinking, Writing


With precious few exceptions, all the books on style in English are by writers quite unable to write. The subject, indeed, seems to exercise a special and dreadful fascination over school ma'ams, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudoliterates. . . . Their central aim, of course, is to reduce the whole thing to a series of simple rules--the overmastering passion of their melancholy order, at all times and everywhere.

--H. L. Mencken

English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street.

--E. B. White


Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'

--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird


In December I was searching through my library, looking for possible texts for this spring's Honors Composition. One book I bought in grad school but had never read was Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading. Though it didn't fit my needs for the class, it has some marvelous passages, including these paragraphs which open the book:

We live in an age of science and of abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.

The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one 'slide' or specimen with another.

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: 'That's only a sunfish.'

Agassiz: 'I know that. Write a description of it.'

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it. --Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading


The following Freud quote might prove handy when talking with students about the role of revision, the importance of returning to a subject and looking for what is missing in a first draft:

It often happens that the account first given of a dream is incomplete and that the memory of the omitted portions only emerges in the course of analysis . . . a part of a dream that has been rescued from oblivion in this way is invariably the most important part. --Sigmund Freud

The Freud passage is quoted in Bonnie Friedman"s Writing Past Dark, in which she counsels writers to not fear failure:

A writer"s concentration is not only like mercy, it is mercy, mercy toward oneself. It is allowing imperfection. It is allowing mess. Even what stinks must be allowed into one's heaven. Even what has been considered paltry, contemptible, must have its place. But the lowly, and no one worthwhile will enter. Accept, and a teeming crowd appears, a whole mixed multitude of beggars and billionaires, quiet louts and loudmouth saints. The mutter, the cracked voice, the false start, the false start again, all precede the song. Those who write do have a trick. They lean on the process of writing the way an unsteady person leans on a cane. Not by sheer genius alone does the work advance. Not by an inchoate blaze from the head.

Friedman"s point reminds me of this passage from an essay by William Stafford, who died last year after a distinguished career as poet, teacher, and pacifist.

I believe that the so-called "writing block" is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance. . . . One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It's easy to write. You just shouldn't have standards that inhibit you from writing. . . .

I can imagine a person beginning to feel he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now. . . . You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn't make any difference if you are good or bad today: the assessment of the product is something that happens after you've done it.

I tell students that writers can't wait for inspiration. My Dad milked cows two times a day for over 40 years. As far as I can ascertain, he never believed in "cow milker's block," which should have been triggered when the temperature in the barn slid below zero. Writer's block deserves a similar disdain. As the shoe ads say, "Just do it."


And, finally, some recent Internet humor: CLINTON DEPLOYS VOWELS TO BOSNIA: Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients. Before an emergency joint session of Congress, President Clinton has announced US plans to deploy over 75,000 vowels to the war-torn region of Bosnia. The deployment, the largest of its kind in American history, will provide the region with the critically needed letters A,E,I,O and U, and is hoped to render countless Bosnian names pronounceable.

"For six years, we have stood by while names like Ygrjvslhvand Tzlynhr and Glrm have been horribly butchered by millions around the world," Clinton said. "Today, the United States must finally stand up and say 'Enough.' It is time the people of Bosnia finally had some vowels in their incomprehensible names. The US is proud to lead the crusade in this noble endeavour." The deployment, dubbed "Operation Vowel Storm" by the State Department, is set for next week, with the Adriatic port cities of Sjlbvdnzv and Grzny slated to be the first recipients. Two C-130 transport planes, each carrying over 500 24-count boxes of "E's," will fly from Andrews Air Force Base and airdrop the letters over the cities. Vanna White will parachute in with the deployment as the US "Vowel Ambassador".

Citizens of Grzny and Sjlbvdnzv eagerly await the arrival of the vowels. "My God, I do not think we can last another day," Trszg Grzdnjkln, 44, said. "I have six children and none of them has a name that is pronounceable by me or to anyone else. Mr. Clinton,

please send my poor, wretched family just one 'E.' Please." Said Sjlbvdnzv resident Grg Hmphrs, 67: "With just a few key letters, I could be George Humphries. This is my dream."

The airdrop represents the largest deployment of any letter to a foreign country since 1984. During the summer of that year, the US shipped 92,000 consonants to Ethiopia, providing cities like Ouaouoaua, Eaoiiuae, and Aao with vital, life-giving supplies of L's, S's and T's. The consonant-relief effort failed, however, when vast quantities of the letters were intercepted and hoarded by violent, gun-toting warlords who sold them to wealthier sister-nations via the black-letter market.

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