Category Archives: Reviews
“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard – how had I not read these outstanding books? But maybe it’s better that I didn’t read them before this summer. I suspect I would not have appreciated them as much.
These authors not only taught me some excellent stuff about how to write, but reminded me that, as a writer, I am not alone. Every writer struggles. Writing – forcing yourself to sit down and make something out of nothing using your own difficult brain – is really, really hard, even for people who are very successful, excellent writers.
Leading up to my two-week writing retreat in June 2018, I started “Bird by Bird,” Lamott’s presentation of what she shares with students in her writing seminars. It’s hilarious, touching, and hits the insecure nerve of anyone who has ever fought to generate the shitty draft. I set the book aside half-read, though, because I needed to focus on research for my retreat. I picked it up again on our August beach vacation and found myself laughing out loud while sitting by the ocean. Her chapter on jealousy is one of the most affirming things I’ve ever read.
Coming to Dillard’s “The Writing Life” right after two weeks of self-imposed isolation and immersion in a huge and difficult topic was powerful. “Yes!” I kept exclaiming. “That’s exactly how it is!” Again, writing is just hard. And when you’re in it, you walk the tightrope between the inescapable draw of the subject (I found that my brain kept on thinking about the work no matter what else I was doing) and the constant temptation to do anything – anything at all – to avoid it.
Although Lamott’s book in particular is geared toward fiction writers, which I am not, the truths she and Dillard share about writing in general are so valuable. And either book simply makes for an enjoyable read, even for a person without a writing agenda.
I suspect I am not the only self-employed person who finds focus and discipline significant challenges at times. This summer, I turned for assistance to “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living,” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. If “stoic” only makes you think of unemotional endurance, read this. It’s actually a complete philosophy that has tremendous relevance for us right now.
Divided into three disciplines—perception, action, and will—the book offers a daily quotation from a stoic philosopher such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus, then gives a paragraph or so exploring how the text relates to our lives and our work.
I’m using these short daily readings to ground myself and start the day well. I’m flagging the meditations that I really like, but I’m happy to know that I’ll come back around to all of them next year.
Here are portions from some selections that resonated strongly with me.
Love the Humble Art
“Love the humble art you have learned, and take rest in it. Pass through the remainder of your days as one who whole-heartedly entrusts all possessions to the gods, making yourself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any person.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.31
Are you making time to practice what’s really important to you? Love the craft; be a craftsman.
Take Charge and End Your Troubles
“You’ve endured countless troubles—all from not letting your ruling reason do the work it was made for—enough already!” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.26
How often does what we fear actually come to pass? How often have we let jealousy, frustration, or greed lead us down the wrong path? Let reason rule—it will save so much trouble. Your brain can separate what is important from what is senseless.
Corralling the Unnecessary
“Do what you must and as required of a rational being created for public life. This brings not only the peace of mind of doing few things, but the greater peace of doing them well. … We shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24
Ruthlessly expunge the non-essential from your life—what vanity, greed, poor discipline, or lack of courage add to our lists. All of this we must cut.
Preparing on the Sunny Day
“Take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress scantily in shabbly clothes, and ask yourself is this is really the worst that you feared. It is when times are good that you should gird yourself for tougher times ahead.” Seneca, Moral Letters, 18.5-6
Practice potential misfortunes—a broken hot water heater, a stolen wallet, not having a car. Don’t just think about them, live them, and do it now, while things are good. This will teach us that these things are not as scary as we imagine.
My son is a statistics major, even though his father and I have always been theatre and communications types. We wonder where this math and data inclination came from, but every now and then, something gives us a clue about his data-driven genes.
One such clue was my excitement about a recent blog post from Oxford Dictionaries. (Their slogan is even “language matters,” which right in line with mine, “Your words matter.”) In “Are 52% of words really not included in dictionaries?” Elyse Graham takes a look at a study in Science magazine about English word usage in books. She is also writing a book I can’t wait to read, about the history of the English language in New York City.
In the “52%” post, Graham explores the “dark matter” of this majority of English words and looks at the importance of considering a word’s frequency. She discusses when and why dictionaries include or exclude derivatives of core words (known as lexemes), such as deletable or aridification. (Microsoft Word does not approve of these words, for the record.) Best of all, she encourages adding “color and whimsy” to our lives by creating new derivatives. Her examples, such as “invisibilized” would not go over well with many of my editor colleagues, but I like to play with coined words myself.
When is the last time you added -iferous to anything? Give it a try!
Review of “Founding Grammars”
Taking sides in politics based on how a candidate speaks is nothing new, it turns out. Throughout American history, some citizens have embraced politicians who use the informal language of everyday people, considering this a sign of authenticity and understanding of the voters. Others have pointed to skill and refinement in speaking as indicators of intelligence and capability. I found the exploration of this dichotomy to be the most compelling aspect of “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” by Rosemarie Ostler.
The buyers of grammar books in the 1700s and 1800s aimed to improve themselves and sound educated. Ostler calls such books “the self-help manuals of their time,” and they allowed Americans to elevate the impression they made by refining their skills in speaking and writing.
Elected in 1828, Andrew Jackson was the first president from a working-class background. He was mocked throughout his campaign for the poor spelling and grammar that stemmed from his limited education in a “common school” of the time, where he learned only basic reading, spelling, and arithmetic. Although he went on to study law, Jackson made “no pretense of being scholarly…and tended toward folksy rather than elevated,” Ostler says. And people loved him for it. Many of his supporters—laborers, small farmers with minimal schooling, and new immigrants—were only recently allowed to vote thanks to a change in the law that removed the income level barrier to voting. These supporters were interested not in spelling or grammar, but in a man of action from an ordinary background, like themselves.
Ostler also discusses the election of Davy Crockett, another legendary plain speaker, in 1827 as a Representative from Tennessee. Crockett dismissed artificial correctness, saying, “As for grammar, it’s pretty much a thing of nothing at last, after all the fuss that’s made about it.”
Despite the rise of such politicians, Americans in the 1800s did not reject standardized grammar and spelling rules. “The art of speaking and writing with propriety remained a powerful ideal goal,” Ostler says. Using eloquent language had clear benefits and education was seen as a patriotic duty: a government representing all people required educated (male) citizens who could make informed, rational choices. What also reinforced grammar as a valued skill was that some were excluded from education on that subject, notably women and African Americans.
Ostler compares Lincoln, another president with minimal formal education, to Jackson in terms of their limited early education. Lincoln “realized that a knowledge of standard grammar would give him an advantage, no matter what direction he chose to take. Standard writing and speaking skills were always valuable,” she writes, so Lincoln walked miles to borrow a neighbor farmer’s copy of a popular grammar guide of the 1830s. Despite his extensive self-education and speeches that are so deeply admired today, Lincoln was lambasted by opponents during the 1860 election for “bad grammar.” This, Ostler explains, was not literal but a code phrase meaning that Lincoln was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.
Teddy Roosevelt is the third president that Ostler discusses as having an impact on American speaking styles. He was highly educated and a life-long writer, but used down-to-earth language and copious slang. Roosevelt also was critical of the formal language of his opponent, Woodrow Wilson. Ostler refers to the Roosevelt era as “a moment when slang and casual speech came into their own.”
We still care how we speak and the impression that our speech gives others. Just as Americans in the 1820s wanted to speak well even when their president used a folksy style, people today need language to do a job for them that is different from what political language must do. Most of us need to impress not an electorate, but a boss or a client. We are speaking not to convention crowds or TV cameras, but to individuals, or perhaps a group of peers or attendees at a conference. Speaking well—using correct grammar—helps us look smart and competent in 2016 just as it did in 1816.
Review of “The Elements of Eloquence”
Sure, you know what a rhetorical question is and perhaps using alliteration is a particular personal preference. But did you know those are two of the figures of rhetoric? I didn’t, and I certainly never learned the names and definitions of the other 37 figures. I even attended Catholic high school (supposedly known for old-school methods, rote memorization, and emphasis on English) but neither Sister Mary Donald nor Sister Marie Immaculata ever brought up rhetoric. Until I read “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth, rhetoric was Greek to me. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The figures of rhetoric have delicious Greek names, many of which are essentially unpronounceable to your average American. Epizeuxis or aposiopesis, anyone?)
I won’t spoil your enjoyment of reading Forsyth’s delightful and funny examples to illustrate each of the figures—he draws on classical and modern literature, the Bible, recent movies, and lyrics from pop songs. But here are a couple of my favorites to whet your appetite.
An old friend used to say that when you want to make something sound important, you should say it twice. Say it twice. Various forms of repetition loom large in “Eloquence.”
We encounter anadiplosis, well illustrated by Yoda: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, hatred leads to suffering.” In this figure, you begin each phrase with the last word of the previous phrase. “There’s simply a satisfaction, half logical and half beautiful, in seeing the same word ending one phrase and coming back to life at the start of the next,” Forsyth says. St. Paul did it, Jesse Jackson did it, and Shakespeare did it.
And like my repeated use of “did it” just now, which brings up our next figure, epistrophe, Forsyth cleverly ends each chapter with an example that links to the next figure. Another player on Team Repetition, epistrophe happens when you end each of several sentences, clauses, or paragraphs with the same word.
When you begin and end with the same word, that’s epanalepsis. John Lennon used this in his song that starts “Yesterday…” and then ends, “…yesterday.” Forsyth says this figure’s act of taking us back to where we began “gives the impression of going nowhere, and it gives the impression of time moving inexorably on.” For circularity and continuation, use epanalepsis.
Forsyth works his way through all 39 figures of rhetoric, with a brief nod to scholars who dispute precisely how each figure is defined. “Eloquence” is not a textbook and won’t leave you with ready-to-use figures to whip out at your keyboard. The jacket promises to reveal stylistic secrets and show you how to write like Shakespeare or deliver the perfect one-liner. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, this book is a linguistic dessert, an exploration of these ancient techniques that can enhance modern writing. We use many of these without realizing it—at least, when we’re writing well—and it’s fun to spot them in your own work.
For me, a special side bonus was the source of this book. That my not-quite-21-year-old son thought to pick out an entertaining language book for his editor mom warms my heart. The fact that he found the book amusing himself gives me hope for future generations of language lovers.