Q&A #2: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Press clueless as to “whom” should take over . . .

http://callingextra.com/blog/

Calling Extra_NY Times

Recently I received this cry of outrage and a request for clarity from a fellow book lover and avid reader of magazines and newspapers who is dismayed at the state of English usage in the media. A summary of her complaint, and my thoughts, follow. Comments are welcome.


QUESTION

Hi, Pam.

Tell me if I’m wrong to object to the state of English usage in print and online media. I realize that I am either getting old or that I have read so much grammatically incorrect material that I don’t trust my own judgment anymore.

Case in point: I recently read this headline on the front page of the Star-Ledger: “Poll: Clueless as to whom should take over after Christie.”

My reaction when I read this was that when the paper reorganized they must have fired every editor. Did I overreact? I never thought I had trouble with “who” and “whom,” and my gut says “who” is correct because it’s the subject of “should take over.” But, again, the errors that make it into the media these days have become so prevalent that I’m no longer confident.

Obviously, I’m turning into a grump when I read, but I have found a few examples of sentences that are so bad they are incomprehensible. Here is another marvelous example, also from the Star-Ledger: “…the conviction should be reversed because the trial was wrought with errors.” This is a case of a “big word” heard somewhere that was not distinguished from the correct one it sounds like. I have been keeping little notes of these. In yet another example, it seems as if the CNN anchors have a particular predilection for trying to sound educated without knowing what the words they use mean.

Yes, I have become a curmudgeon, and I “hone” right in on the mistakes! (This error is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning—or is it?) Publications today are not only poorly edited, but they may not be edited at all. It seems the Star-Ledger is copying articles from its NJ.com site verbatim to the next day’s print edition—it’s fun to see first thing in the morning that there was flooding in North Jersey this afternoon. No editing is done for the transition to print, and since the material was first hastily prepared for online news, probably none then either. Increasingly, I wonder why should I waste my time reading what these uncaring journalists produce.

At some future date I plan to write a blog rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or online, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. When I went to school and they told us to read newspapers and magazines to improve our English usage, the teachers could never have foreseen that this would become disastrous advice.

But before I make a fool of myself in my own rant, tell me if I’m wrong. Sometimes I am afraid I may be out of touch with the times.

Thanks for your help!

~ M


Leonard Cohen_New Skin for the Old Ceremony
In “Who by Fire,” Leonard Cohen got it right on 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony

ANSWER

Dear ~ M,

Oh, my. You address so many worthwhile examples of deteriorating language usage that it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with your first example: “who” versus “whom.” You are correct: “who” is the subject of the sentence, the one that “should take over.” Kudos (which, by the way, is a singular noun, not a plural—but I’m sure you knew that) to Leonard Cohen, who got it right in his lyrics to “Who by Fire” from the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony: “And who shall I say is calling?”

The use of the objective pronoun “whom” in place of the subjective “who” is a case of overrefinement, or the incorrect use of grammar or terminology because it seems to “sound better” or “sound right” to the uninformed writer. This is somewhat surprising in the case of “whom,” which sounds almost hopelessly archaic and stilted in most contexts. Yet we have Tony Soprano’s Jersey paper trying (albeit not succeeding) to sound refined!

Another example of misguided overrefinement is, “I feel badly whenever I read a sentence with incorrect grammar or word usage.” No, I don’t—I feel “bad” because “feel” is a statement-of condition-verb and therefore takes an adjective, not an adverb.

You may be interested in reading the lengthy discussion of “who” and “whom” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (which is available online via subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries). Similarly, reading Leonard Cohen’s explanation of his “Who by Fire” lyrics should drive the point home that “who” is subjective. But, briefly, “who” is equivalent to the nominative pronouns “I, he, she,” whereas “whom” is equivalent to the objective pronouns “me, him, her.” But “you” can never go wrong (at least in English grammar) by resorting to “who” in contemporary usage. It’s much better than making an “arse out of oneself” by sounding archaic and overrefined.

As to your other examples, and more significantly your general complaint about the sad state of English-language usage, I can but sigh in commiseration. I understand very well through my brief study of linguistics (and by just being alive) that language does and must change. But “change” is not a synonym for “deteriorate.”

As amazing and wonderful as electronic media are, they make it so easy to create errors and to not care that you’re doing so. Even our smart phones auto-correct—or at least auto-retype, and not always correctly. (And we won’t even mention spellcheck. My spellchecker wanted to change “whom” to “who” in the title of this post, which is good; but later it wanted to change Leonard Cohen’s song to “Whom by Fire”—although maybe this is understandable out of context because of the use of “by.”) But the print media are not off the hook. For example, I just started reading a contemporary mystery book that was gorgeously produced to be a visual treat, designed with lovely typography and even printed on fancy patterned and deckled paper. Yet I found this on pages 17–18:

“. . . what is the matter?”

“THREE MURDERS ARE THE matter.”

Why on earth would they have capped everything but the last word? All you need to do is read this aloud to hear how the emphasis is totally lost in the error. I found other mistakes as well, and even though they were likely proofreading oversights, they marred what otherwise is an enjoyable book. These things distract me terribly, and just about every book I pick up is fraught with errors.

The one thing slovenly writers and careless editors don’t get is that their work loses credibility when they degrade language instead of elevating it. I try to be careful in any medium in which I write, including texts and emails—and of course this blog. Yet I recognize that the sheer speed that is available to us electronically is contributing to haste and sloppiness. Back in the day when you and I were in school, we were taught handwriting with fountain pens and typewriting on manual machines, both techniques requiring care and precision. Say “cursive” to kids in school today and they’ll likely think you’re swearing because your touch screen has you writing “Love to my little duster” when your phone attempts to “correct” your mistyping of “sister.” (To this day, my sister calls me “Big Duster.”)

The last bastion of good writing in print and online may be the remaining premier newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and certain high-level magazines, such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The Economist.

Let’s home in on this in a future post. I hope you will contribute further examples not only of mistakes, but of excellence in writing. I know it’s out there somewhere. And we can at least set a good example in here.

Serenity . . . & Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Reposted from The Patient Path January 16, 2015

Tian Tan Buddha_Cheri Lucas Rowlands on WP_2015-01-16

“Serenity” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands, WordPress Staff Member

Mid-January already! So much to write, so much not written. But I am being patient on the path as I sort through my list and take my to-dos all the way to dones.


While I gather my thoughts, I thought you would like to hear from someone who is showing great grace under health pressure. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things (signed copies are available through her Two Buttons online shop), posted an update on Facebook the other day (1/14/15) about having to cancel a trip to India to take care of herself—take a look: “Trust the Timing of Your Life.” She was planning to attend a literary festival in Jaipur, a city I have visited. Not only did the title of Elizabeth’s Facebook post arrest me—because I can so relate to her message on several levels, having canceled my own trip to India last year to take care of myself (story here)—but today I saw this lovely image of Buddha by WordPress staff member Cheri Lucas Rowlands, taken on her recent trip to Hong Kong, where she visited Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. I thought of Elizabeth as soon as I saw Cheri’s post today. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert would approve, and love, this image. She has quite a wonderful marble statue of Buddha outside her Frenchtown, New Jersey shop, Two Buttons (that’s me with the Buddha below), which contains troves of treasures from Asia, as well as signed copies of her books. And it’s right in my own backyard. I have visited the shop several times and brought home a few lovely items. My husband, who is from Mumbai (Bombay) and travels throughout Asia frequently,* was also very impressed and heartened by the authentic collection of mostly handcrafted objects from his favorite parts of the world.

Two Buttons Buddha & Me_2014-10-10

Last summer, I also had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak during our Hunterdon County, NJ, tricentennial celebration (check the calendar for August 9, 2014). Now that we know the title of her next book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, due out in September, I think she was giving us not only a glimpse into her creative process, but a peek into her near future. She gave an inspiring, heartwarming, magical-yet-down-to-earth talk, adjectives that describe Elizabeth herself. Soon after, I read and very much enjoyed The Signature of All Things. You can follow Elizabeth on any of her many social media sites. Do so—it’s worth bathing in the glow of her life, even when she is facing challenges. Her brand of serene joy leaps off of each page. And if you’ve ever had the delightful experience of hearing Elizabeth speak, you, too, will believe in magic. . . . Oh, yes—and read her books.


*In fact, he is leaving on Sunday, 1/18/16, for India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I opted to wait until the next trip to accompany him to India—more about this later.

Reading & Writing as Therapy

Magic Book_27%   The Magic Book…A True Treasure

 The Silver Pen Pin…A Lovely Gift Silver Pen Pin

As you recover from a serious illness, all things therapeutic become achingly important. One of the most vital is reconnecting with who you feel yourself to be, beyond the reaches of cells gone bad.

Reposted from The Patient Path March 14, 2014


The question of identity arises for each of us at some time, or times, in our lives. Soon, I will be writing the story of what happened to my once fascinating and lucrative career. It was a terrible loss, one that, almost more than any other life event, has affected my sense of who I am.

But before I explore my working girl story, I think I need to ground myself in my life girl story. Although these stories seem to intertwine like yin and yang symbols, one thing I’ve learned is that this is an illusion. What is real is what you love; if you’re fortunate, your yin-yang endeavors will blend beautifully.

Book & Pen Composite

You’ve probably heard many people say they’ve always aspired to be a writer. I have always aspired to be a reader. In fact, one of my main regrets in life is that I haven’t read more.

But, in truth, like so many others, I want to write. Why? Because expressing myself this way just seems a whole lot safer than being a live performance artist. Writers can express thoughts, notions, inspirations, intuitions, feelings, impressions, insights, experiences, and maybe even profundities from the other side of the stage or screen. Sometimes, releasing your ideas will be good self-therapy. Other times, your efforts may resonate with others and do some good in the wider world.

My point is that whereas I said above that the yin-yang intertwining of career and life is an illusion, the interconnection of reading and writing is not. I know many people read who do not write. I have even heard of writers who do not read. But my sense of it is that these two things that are so dear to me are two halves of a whole.

In the December 19 and December 24, 2013 posts, I mentioned “the coin of life”:

. . . every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we.

Similarly, I cannot imagine writing without reading, as if they were two sides of a postcard from the universe. And for some of us, it isn’t possible to read without also writing. I myself am always flipping that card in an effort to see the beauty of both sides as often as possible.

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

Although I’d been an editor and technical/medical writer for many years, as well as an English major in college, I am ashamed to say that I never seemed to have the energy or focus to read very much. Oh, I dabbled. I would take armloads of books from the library each week, buy books from bygone bookstores (sigh), order books online. . . . But I rarely did more than browse them or, worse, let them sit around me in piles as if I could absorb their magic by some sort of psychic osmosis. They did make my rooms look inviting, lived in, and important somehow. But using books as decoration is good only if this inspires you to actually read them.

After I lost my career back in 2011, I was very fortunate to have found a reading group at a local bookstore in Flemington, NJ—Twice Told Tales–Moonstone Mystery. Our group met yesterday to discuss The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. And, yes, we did discuss it. I’ve heard others say they’d given up on book clubs because people did almost everything but talk about the books. I’m not saying we don’t talk about other topics. I’m also not saying we don’t eat and drink. And I’m certainly not saying we haven’t formed friendships. (In fact, the ladies from this group have stepped up to help me during my health crisis almost more than anyone else in my world. And one of them, Susan, gave me the pen pin pictured above.) I am saying that we talk about the books. And, lucky me, I’ve read books I wouldn’t otherwise have been inspired to read, many I’d never even heard of. And, double lucky me, we have not one but two groups—a general-interest group and a mystery group. Heaven.*

Book & Pen Composite

Another serendipitous event occurred in 2012, when I stumbled into a writing group.† I’d never intended to join a writing group, but I wandered in on someone’s invitation and decided to stay a while. After participating in some presentations, writing exercises, and administrative activities, I ended up in two small offshoot groups. It was in the smaller groups that I actually started writing. Since then I have remained in only one of the groups, and it’s been such a delight. All of it was a learning experience. But in our small biweekly group, we’ve experimented, explored, and exploded with ideas, and it is a great pleasure to see the creativity blossom in my fellow members. Although I really have barely started despite several efforts, since my health setback I have found renewed interest in the writing side of the card. Currently, I am writing a story about identity.

I began this blog in November 2013, just days after discovering my diagnosis of uterine (endometrial) cancer. Initially, my intention was to let others know what was going on and also to encourage people to be their own best advocates as they negotiated the healthcare system. The blog has gone in a few tangential directions since then, although the primary goal is still to reach out to “patient patients” as they embark on healing journeys of their own. Lots of topics remain to be explored, and as my energy increases I will be getting to them. But it has been my happy discovery to find a way to communicate and connect with others through writing—this blog, other blogs (more on those later), stories for the writing group, and professional material (in the near future, I hope).

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

It is my love of reading and writing that is helping me (re)discover some of the most important facets of myself. No disease, job loss, or other trauma can separate me from them. What a powerful lesson this has been, and I’ve found no better therapy. At its best, reading lets the whole world—the whole universe—in. At its best, writing lets your whole world—your whole universe—out.


P.S. For those who have trouble reading print books, I highly recommend unabridged audio books, especially by single narrators. They’re marvelous. Sometimes I both read and listen to a book, alternating chapters, which lets me continue with a story while walking or driving—or even while trying to fall asleep in the dark.


*One genre of book I have always managed to read more than others is mysteries, and I will also be writing more about them in the near future. I have have written about two authors previously: Anne Perry and Tana French.
†I’ve written about the writing group previously here.

You Can’t Unbreak Glass…but the Fragments Can Be Contained

Aqua Glass Desk Lamp - 2_50%

Reposted from The Patient Path March 6, 2014

Lessons from a pretty, but fragile, aqua bulb lamp


Shattered Glass & Fragmented Spirits

Part of my personal treatment plan is to sort through all of my possessions—mounds of them, many of them paper records and memorabilia—and consolidate and clear out as much as possible. This is excruciatingly difficult. I am a collector of personal and business organization books and have poked my nose in most of them, but practical advice disintegrates in the face of emotional attachment to the things that give silent witness to your life. Coming face to face with the reality that our time here is finite has had the effect of making me yearn to locate, categorize, and memorialize “lost” mementos from a past that is quickly slipping away while simultaneously making me want to travel lighter and more open into my future. Most of my efforts thus far have been on the order of redistributing, rather than discarding, these things. But I feel the need to know what I have, and where I have it, before I can take bolder steps—I’m not quite ready for big leaps just yet.

I had just managed to clean up my home office to the point that I wanted to prettify it a bit and get it ready for whatever is next. The story of my career is difficult and painful and will wait for another time. At present, my work—my most important job—is to continue to heal and take care of myself while better managing my immediate environment, not only my physical home, but my personal world. So, despite not having an income, I decided to make a few small investments around the house to raise the level of order, calm, and attractiveness a little. Clearing out one small space or adding one fresh touch has powerful cleansing and lightening effects, and the more I do the better I feel. (That is, until I unearth yet more boxes of stuff—my things from my past and my grown son’s things from his past that he swears he doesn’t want—but I don’t quite believe him.)

A week or so ago, I wandered into Pier 1 and found the desk lamp pictured above, which has a white shade lined with the same aqua color as the pretty glass bulbs. I might not have chosen this lamp in isolation, but I knew it would look good in my existing office, which is painted in calming aquamarine colors. It looked so good in the office that I was then inspired to replace a utilitarian black pole lamp with one that matched the desk lamp. Then I looked at the “light naked” second desk in the office and thought I’d better buy a matching desk lamp while it was still available. So I ordered the second aqua desk lamp online and went to Pier 1 yesterday to pick it up, happy with my decision (a rarity).

Well, maybe because it was Ash Wednesday (although I’m not Catholic or a practicing Protestant), or maybe because I was overwhelmingly fatigued (although I’d slept OK), or maybe because I have a lifetime of careless habits (no “althoughs” here), I came home empty handed. I had expected the lamp to be boxed up, as the others were. But it was bubble-wrapped. The saleswoman gave me an explanation I didn’t quite follow, but assured me it wouldn’t have been wrapped if it weren’t in good condition. Nevertheless, she offered to unwrap it and let me inspect it (they don’t offer discounts for floor models). Everything looked good, and the sales clerk rewrapped it and handed it to me over the counter. I put it on the floor as she came around the counter carrying the shade, asking me whether I needed help getting the lamp to the car. As I was rapidly trying to figure out how to manage the lamp, the shade, and my purse, I turned toward the clerk, and the purse hanging from my left arm knocked the bubble-wrapped glass lamp to the floor, shattering those pretty aqua bulbs.

The clerk called her manager over, and they were very nice about it and ordered me a new lamp, returning this one to inventory as “damaged.” This could have gone another way, but I was grateful that these ladies were so gracious and professional about the situation. I apologized and told them I felt terrible, not because I was leaving empty-handed, but because I had “laid to waste” such a pretty lamp. It had felt so heavy and looked so sturdy with its solid metal square base; but in the end, it was quite fragile.

While thinking with sincere regret about being so impulsive and careless, I reflected on the paradox of sturdiness and fragility—this solid-based lamp had survived the handling of manufacture, transport, and store display for who knows how long and had remained upright and intact until circumstances (me) caused it to come crashing down, shattering its delicate heart. It was painful seeing those aqua shards inside the bubble wrap; but as the sales clerk said, at least the fragments were contained.

This seemed like a good analogy to human circumstances, but with a twist: as strong as life may have made us, and as sturdy as we may be on our own feet, some quirk of fate can knock us down at any time. The difference between a shattered lifeless object and a fractured living soul is what we do about it. The lamp had fallen and couldn’t get back up; it couldn’t be repaired—but I could order a new one. I, too, had fallen, but could get back up; I couldn’t order new body parts—but I could repair my spirit.

Maybe we all have a sort of spiritual bubble wrap around our own fragile parts–we may fall, we may crack; but the fragments can be contained, and our essential selves can remain intact. Our attitudes can shift. Our hearts can heal. Our spirits can revive.

Notes of Gratitude 

As I sort through my past, I feel keenly what I have lost. My physical losses are internal and invisible. My nonphysical losses are ephemeral and unseen. But I am thankful that all of these things have been a part of my life. Contentment may not be mine, but as spring approaches and I continue to mend, I realize that although I can’t restore what I once had, I can refresh my life. This is a solitary and mostly lonely process. The flood of support and attention I received at the beginning of my health crisis has become somewhat less as the situation has become the new normal and has been absorbed into my changed life—and other people’s perception of it. But as with the bereaved after a funeral, we are all left alone to cope with grief, loss, and an altered life after everyone goes home, back to their own lives and their own challenges.

Yet support still comes, now in an occasional gentle wave. Any act of kindness or caring is balm to the spirit. My hope for us all is that we can journey through life knowing we have our fellow travelers’ hearts in our hands . . . and that they can be shattered like glass lamp bulbs when knocked off of their (apparently) sturdy base.

Pictured here are two symbols of gratitude:

In an eerie portent of things to come, for my 60th birthday in 2012, my sister, Vicki Sue, gave me a “Kohl’s Cares” package of coordinated pink-ribbon birthday gifts—Kohl’s donates 100% of the net profit to support breast cancer. By doing something caring for me, she was doing a kindness for unknown others. The strange thing was that this scarf wasn’t so “pink,” but more a peachy salmon, the ribbon color for uterine (endometrial) cancer—with which I was diagnosed a year later:

Peach Ribbon 1_50%

And last week, friend Kathryn and I had a lovely lunch in a local teashop, a very special place, at which she presented me with my first and only official uterine cancer ribbon pin:

Peach Ribbon 2

Finally, a special thanks to the ladies at Pier 1 for ordering me a new aqua glass lamp. I promise to treat it with care.

A Bit More about “The New York Way”

In my February 20, 2014 post, I described “The New York Way” of delivering radiation treatment post-hysterectomy for uterine (endometrial) cancer and also discussed some side effects of vaginal brachytherapy. My short-term side effects are now subsiding, but about a day after the last post and a week after my third and final brachytherapy treatment on Valentine’s Day, I developed full-blown cystitis (constant irritation and burning on urination) and increased bowel changes (gas, frequent BMs, and some leakage). Apparently, these effects were right on schedule according to some of the online patient information I’ve come across. (I’ll update the technical information in a future post.)

Back around the winter holidays, starting a week after my hysterectomy, I had a bout of lymphorrhea, as discussed in the January 10, 2014 post. To make sure I didn’t have a fistula between the bladder and vagina, my surgeon had prescribed a “dye test” using phenazopyridine (Pyridium), pills that turn urine orange—and are also used to soothe the urinary tract for patients with an infection. (I passed the test—no orange showed at the top of the test tampons, and the lymphatic leakage stopped soon after.) I don’t know why, but he had given me several refills of the pills, so (without calling anyone) I went to the pharmacy and got more Pyridium to treat my cystitis. Note that these pills do NOT kill the microorganisms that cause UTIs, but I didn’t have an infection, just burning from the radiation. I took the pills for a week, and they did indeed help. I no longer have burning. The bowel issues have also improved.

What hasn’t improved much is the fatigue, which is worse some days than others. Often, it is related to exertion as I become a bit more active, but not necessarily. I am also waiting for the longer-term side effects to set in and believe I am just starting to notice some of those effects now. But I will discuss these in detail after my first post-radiation checkup, which has been pushed back from March 17 to March 25, when I will also have my first three-month surgical checkup. At that time I’ll know more about radiation effects and how to manage them and will also discuss more of “The New York Way” with my doctors as I continue to read and learn more about different treatment models.

But what’s on my mind now are effects that aren’t physical and healing that isn’t allopathic.*


*A system of medical practice that aims to combat disease by use of remedies (as drugs or surgery).

Part 2, Update: March 19, 2014


Radiation-Related Posts on The Patient Path:

January 10, 2014 (“Orange Pee & Radioactive Tampons”)

January 16, 2014: Preparing for Radiation (“Looking Back & Forging Ahead to Radiation”)

January 24, 2014: 1st Treatment (“My First Encounter with a Radioactive ‘Pig’”)

February 5, 2014: 2nd Treatment (on 02/04/14–“The “Demon Seed”)

February 12, 2014: A Postponement (“A Glowing Valentine’s Day–02/14/2014”)

February 15, 2014: 3rd Treatment (on 02/14/14–“21 Shades of Gray for Valentine’s Day”)

February 20, 2014 (“Radiation ‘The New York Way’”)

The (L)On(e)ly Editor: A “Rewriter” Among Writers

writers_crop380w

It started in May 2012 with a tap on my shoulder after an author talk at the local library. At the end of the session, I raised my hand and boldly mentioned to the new author, a local fiction writer, that I was an “out of work editor.” She wasn’t particularly interested, but the man sitting behind me apparently was.

Something about the word “editor” must have resonated with the shoulder tapper, who explained that his creative writing group met every Friday afternoon at the library. Would I be interested in joining them? He didn’t exactly say why he’d invited me, but now that the world of academic editing didn’t seem to want me to rewrite (I use the term very loosely) anymore, an invitation to actually write caught my attention. At first, I was only mildly interested in being the token editor in a group of adult nonprofessional (unpublished) creative writers and wasn’t sure  I was ready to join their ranks as a writer. But I decided to try it and find out.

What had begun a year or so earlier as a fiction and memoir-writing group, the project of a creative writing student who had since moved on after graduation, had become a spinoff in which a few people were writing, but many were not. We continued to meet and tried various ways to inspire ourselves to write through DVD courses, in-person exercises, rotating facilitator-led sessions, and the like. I occasionally presented some editor-type input. But except for a few people who submitted writings now and then (at least since the time I joined), this was more a gathering than a group.

Some months later, at a time when most members apparently felt the need for change, we elected a steering committee (of which I found myself chair for a while) and split into subgroups according to writing form: long fiction, short fiction, and memoir/anything goes. Suddenly, these smaller groups—four or five members in each—were actually and enthusiastically writing. And now I faced a double challenge. Wanting to seamlessly transform myself from academic editor to creative writer, I was eager to start writing fiction. But finally finding myself one among other writers, here I was with my purple editing pen ready, but my own writer’s fingers suspended over the keyboard—I was fearful of making the transition. Being the only editor in a group of writers was confusing, creating a dilemma born of the ability to see the value and potential in the work of others combined with the humility—and fear—of finding out what others might see in the work I would do when I finally found the courage to start.

Despite my identity crisis, I began to write and turned in a couple of chapters from my new historical mystery novel and a few sections of a historical mystery novella, seeds planted in unfertilized soil. But unable to remove my tight-fitting editor’s hat, I stumbled over my  efforts, getting in my own way as I wavered between fact-finding and free-flowing thought. Roughly mashing together hasty research and stories with no clear direction because I couldn’t decide on the genre or what I wanted to happen in the worlds I was creating, I realized my yarns were actually twisted balls of threads—but, judging from reactions, evidently yarns with merit, and maybe even a little magic. So much to write, but so much to learn. . . .

As if teetering on the razor’s edge between editor and writer hasn’t been difficult enough, I am still learning the subtle differences between editing in a professional environment and critiquing in a nonprofessional peer setting. Beyond that, I need to understand how critiquing induces good writing. But as an editor-cum-critiquer, how could I possibly stop being authoritarian? Even though I know creative writing has somewhat fluid rules, I can’t not see things that editors are taught to home in on. Yet I know this isn’t exactly what beginning authors are looking for from peer reviewers—they want to create good stories and interesting characters. They seek critiques more than tweaks, impressions more than prescriptions.

At one meeting, I asked my writing colleagues how they thought critiquing creative writing differed from editing it. Someone said these were right- (critiquing) vs. left- (editing) brain activities. This begins to get at the differences, but distinctions remain somewhat difficult to articulate. The repertoire of editorial skills I’d acquired as an academic editor had left me ill equipped to answer my own question—or even to ask it in the first place.

After further reflection, however, here’s what I think I know: Critiquing is not synonymous with editing, by which I mean the hands-on reworking of text, one eye on the details, the other on the whole picture. Critiquing is reacting—not redacting—by asking questions and suggesting other approaches. Yet the two functions have significant overlap, not the least being their primary purpose—to help authors improve their writing. And the fastest way to learn what critiquing is? Submit your own work for peer review.

As a newcomer in a creative writing group, you need to leave your biases at the door and recognize that—unless you are a published author—the others in the room actually are your peers. You can’t stand apart as an editor, as a teacher, or as a competitor. You’re laying bare part of your soul and inviting virtual strangers and incipient friends to comment on it. Remembering what peer reviews were like in my technical writing classes in graduate school, I feel lucky to be among gifted amateurs who haven’t learned or been exposed to the vitriol of aggressive, cold judgments. Sitting in an intimate group of fellow writers talking story, character, and craft, while sometimes tedious and stressful, has been overwhelmingly some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

An editor in a professional situation stands apart from authors and their brainchildren, coolly observing how well the work has been rendered. Being removed makes this kind of work possible, even if one is passionate about the editorial process. (I am not exploring here the various editorial roles one finds in publishing houses, but generalizing based on common notions of what hands-on editing is.) Critiquing in a nonprofessional peer-to-peer setting is more personal, more interdependent. It is also, to some extent, more subjective than editing—critiquers are often blatantly contradictory. Critiquing is also more emotional, dare I say it, and somewhat less cerebral—but no less thoughtful—than editing. Those who critique, unlike those who edit, have more responsibilities to authors’ dreams and fewer rules about how authors express them.

What do writers want from peer reviews? Accolades, of course, oohs and aahs, hearing that the reviewers couldn’t put the writing down—that it made them cry, or laugh, or relate, or change their lives—or, best of all—write better themselves. Short story, novel chapter, memoir . . . it doesn’t matter. Authors want to wow those who read them. Then real life happens. An author might submit something for group review only to be greeted with silent stares—how deflating!—or serenaded with earnest comments about what could have been better—damn, they’re right!

In a supportive environment, authors may feel a bit chagrined when their reviewers seem bemused rather than bedazzled, but they will go home and write better as a result of insightful reactions to their work. Good editing may achieve a similar result, but it feels very different to be instructed rather than inspired, revised rather than reinvigorated, edited rather than enlightened. Hands-on editing puts the final burnish on good writing. Heart-to-heart critiquing fuels the fire that creates it.

My group members and I are not all that different as writers, so we can nurture one another’s talent, expressed or latent, without class distinction. As students of writing, we are self-taught. Amateurs we may be, but in some cases gifted ones. Who knows? We may even incubate something publishable, although what that means in today’s changing world of publishing-house mergers and self-publishing technologies requires a lot of educated guessing and adventurous exploration to figure out.

Having reviewed my group members’ work and experienced their critiques of mine, I am convinced not only of their evolving talent, but of their good intentions. Undoubtedly, whatever I continue to produce as I learn to translate the inner world of my imagination into shared experience through writing will be flawed in some way or another. But in my group, the review process is handled with kindness, humor, and a sense of mutuality. Gradually, this editor is becoming a writer who critiques and a reviewer who is critiqued.

At this stage of life, moving toward the creative side of the writing world is beginning to feel liberating. And doing it in an environment where people care as much about others’ work as they do their own (well, almost) is truly enjoyable. If any of my stories ever make their way from my head into others’ hands, that will be the ultimate critique—and proof that writing isn’t necessarily a lonely enterprise.

Book & Author Review: Tana French

author_photo_tana french

Reposted from the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room: Part 1, Overviewappeared on September 22, 2012. Part 2, In the Woods, followed on September 29, 2012.


BOOK & AUTHOR REVIEW: TANA FRENCH – PART 1: OVERVIEW

Young, talented Tana French (born 1973) is an Irish novelist whose debut psychological murder mystery/crime thriller won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards for best first novel. To date, she has written four books,* all published in the US by Viking Penguin (the abbreviations are used within the blog posts; the page numbers refer to the hardbound editions):

In the Woods (TW, 2007—award winner for best first novel)

The Likeness (TL, 2009)

Faithful Place (FP, 2010)

Broken Harbor (BH, 2012)

All of French’s tales, which we will look at in more detail next week, probe the underbelly of a society known to Americans only as the stuff of St. Patrick’s Day and The Quiet Man, enabling us to peer into the heart of Ireland through the eyes of its troubled inhabitants—yet with the perspective of an outsider. The daughter of an economist father who worked on resource-management projects in the developing world, French grew up in Ireland, Italy, the US, and Malawi before settling in Dublin in 1990. Because she did not grow up in Dublin, French has said that her relationship with her new hometown is the perfect vantage point for revealing the lifeblood of a place she loves without having actually been molded or enfolded by it, as her characters inevitably are.

French also acknowledges that her actor’s training at Trinity College, Dublin, was excellent preparation for her meandering, this-is-my-story narrative structure: the tales are all told by a central character, each successive book’s story-teller pulled from the ranks of the preceding novel. Her dramatic dialogue, both interior and interlocutory, captures the essence of relationships that are often twisted, but sometimes tender. And her settings are frequently the lurid, phantasmagorical interior landscapes of her protagonists, offering up worlds that seem to have been designed and sketched in blood—almost as dark, viscous, and brutal as the murders that provide the framework for the stories. In the course of pursuing their ruthless, sometimes perverse brand of justice, the policemen/women of the fictitious Murder and Undercover Squads attempt to create order from the chaos they find in the external world while battling the demonic dimensions of their own internal lives:

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. . . . What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [TW, pp. 3, 4]

These novels are masterful explorations of the human psyche, which endures repeated collisions with an unholy reality populated by untrustworthy beings. The stories become eloquent contemporary explorations of the human soul as it struggles to survive the ravages of life that too often leave its victims broken and bereft. Whether scenes and events are exterior or interior (or somewhere in between), they contrive to give us glimpses into lives so traumatized by circumstances—and the hell that is other people—that it becomes difficult to know whether the relentless clawings and scratchings that drive the characters mad live in the walls of their houses or in the corridors of their minds. Yet the world French creates is not so much psychotic as it is labyrinthine, a frightening, near-hopeless maze of devastating experiences and eerie perceptions:

I kept staring at my hands, till they slipped out of focus and turned into strange white things crouched on the table, deformed and maggoty, waiting to pounce. Finally I heard the door close. The light raked at me from every direction, ricocheted off the envelope’s plastic window to spike at my eyes. I had never been in a room that felt so savagely bright, or so empty. [BH, p. 384]

French’s writing style is much like Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic technique: both are laden with suspense, suggesting almost otherworldly planes of existence through evocative, atmospheric story-telling; yet nothing supernatural ever happens. It is the workings of the characters’ minds—their impressions, interpretations, moods, emotions, associations—that invoke a sense of what lies beyond the deceptions of surface life, a world creeping with menace and things unfathomable. Dark and tangled woods, obsession-driven archeological digs, ragged claw marks in children’s shirts and attic beams, mysterious doppelgängers (“evil twins”), and the strident shrieks and ugly betrayals of families and friends conjure up a bleak, richly metaphorical world that works on us, blurring our sense of reality. Whether French is describing shadows in the environment or the specter of what the external world conceals, her images take us to places we must see with eyes that have grown accustomed to the dark.

Adding to the pervading sense of unreality, French plays with time sequencing. Her story-tellers give us generous helpings of hints about the outcome of their tale right at the outset. The narrator is still alive at the end; we know that. But how much of his or her mind survives the ensuing events? By midway through each book, we know that something is going to go very, very wrong. Witness the defeated, sagging spirit of a narrator consumed with self-loathing before he ever tells us why:

When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. This is the one I clench tight because of how sharp it slices. . . . I knew Richie was lying to me. [BH, p. 225]

But do not be put off by French’s benighted tales of human travails. Despite all of the desperation and torment of her characters’ lives, we often see a dim light at the end of the tunnels they are pulled through. We hold out some hope that the protagonists’ higher natures will beckon them to some kind of better future, that the noble will emerge from the feral. Even in the densest woods, leaves part to allow light to filter onto the footpath, revealing a new way home. And for all of French’s digging around in her characters’ murky minds, she loves them. Some of them even love each other. For almost every character that sacrifices a family member, friend, or stranger to the forces of uncontrollable impulse and self-preservation, there is another that selflessly protects a loved one:

Let me tell you the biggest secret I’ve ever learned. . . . All we really need in life is to make the people we love happy. We can do without anything else.  . . . [BH, p. 193]

Next week in Part 2, we will take a closer look at the four novels and how French takes us on her precarious journeys with one eye trained warily on her disturbing situations and the other focused laser-like on their profound effects on her characters. Although all of the stories are set in and around Dublin, which colors and texturizes the dialogue and setting, the themes are universal. Many of us will never give voice to the churning emotions that underlie our lives. But stark novels such as those of Tana French do this for us. Reading them from the safety of our beds and chairs, such tales save us some of the pain of confronting the sins and sadnesses of the outside world as we go through our daily lives. With the help of a perceptive author, we can vicariously gather needed insight into human nature. Thus enlightened, perhaps we can protect ourselves from a few more bumps in the night while we rest before confronting another day.


*Her fifth book,The Secret Place, was published in September 2014.


BOOK & AUTHOR REVIEW: TANA FRENCH – PART 2: IN THE WOODS

This marvelous first book, one of the selections of our reading group at Marilyn’s Flemington, NJ bookstore, explores the treachery of memory. The protagonist-narrator, Rob Ryan, along with his joined-at-the-hip partner and friend, Cassie Maddox, are Dublin Murder Squad detectives in pursuit of the killer of a young girl whose body was found near an archeological dig. Both the dig and, especially, the woods become a metaphor for the protagonist’s arc in the novel: Rob has a very strange and troubling past that he seems to have completely repressed, but that beckons to him with skeletal claws from deep within his subconscious mind (page numbers refer to the hardcover edition):

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye.  . . . [p. 2]

It is Rob’s fractured voice, heard in last week’s post (What I am telling you . . . is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [p. 4]), that takes us on a journey exploring memory and its connection to truth. About 20 years before the current action of the novel, Rob was found catatonically hugging a tree after the disappearance and presumed killing of a small group of children in the woods near their home. Because he remembers nothing, he reads to us from his own case file that when he was found he was wearing white cotton socks that were soaked with blood from the outside in, white lace-up running shoes that were more heavily blood-soaked from the inside out, and a white cotton T-shirt with four parallel tears running diagonally across the back. He does not remember what happened to him or to his three friends, with whom he was planning to run away from the adult world and “into legend.” And he doesn’t want to.

As the lone survivor of an apparently horrific crime, Rob (whose childhood name was Adam) has locked the black box of his childhood memory—and thrown away the key?—as he and Cassie set out on Operation Vestal, hiding his identity from even her. Yet despite the power of Rob’s conscious mind to defend itself against the ravages of the deep past, his subconscious mind has a potent urge to regurgitate what he has long repressed. His cause—to protect himself from the truth, whatever the cost—requires him to evade honesty in the present as he compromises the current investigation and sacrifices his relationships. The damage to his psyche is so severe that he cannot relate to anyone on anything like a vulnerable human level—relationships require, at minimum, emotional honesty. The child still alive within the man scorns not only human companionship, but often human decency. He both loathes and longs for the irretrievable aspects of himself, becoming surprisingly unsympathetic. As he grapples with his need to shelter his tender, authentic self, he expresses the hateful, uncompromising coldness of his ego-self:

“. . I’ve been trying to reach you all evening,” Cassie said.

“I really can’t talk now. . . .”

“Rob . . . this is important—”

“I’m sorry . . . I’ll be in work at some point tomorrow, or you can leave me a note.” I heard the quick, painful catch of breath, but I put the phone down anyway. [p. 355] 

Even a sociopath, whom French draws expertly in this book, seems to offer greater human connection for Rob than anyone he cares for or respects—especially his beloved Cassie. And even she becomes acquainted with duplicity, both in her professional life and in her deeply personal world. But sometimes, from the morally bereft, clear and calm mind of a criminal who is permanently dislodged from honesty, our own struggles with the truth are mirrored back to us:

“. . . if hearing the truth puts you in an uncomfortable position, that’s really your own fault, isn’t it? You shouldn’t have got yourself into this situation. I don’t think I should be expected to make allowances for your dishonesty.” [p. 398]

By the end of the tale, Rob appears to be a lost soul damned to keep running within his own mind, endlessly evading the awful memories buried deep within it that want to chase him to the death. We both ache for and hate him for his inability to come to terms with the reality of who he is—and was. But cleverly, French employs the sociopath as a neat device for pulling the other characters—and us—into his world, perhaps evoking empathy:

I am intensely aware . . . that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light. . . . But before you decide to despise me too thoroughly, consider this: [the sociopath] fooled you, too.  . . . I told you everything I saw, as I saw it at the time. And if that was in itself deceptive, remember, I told you that, too: I warned you, right from the beginning, that I lie. [p. 409]

All of the characters, Rob especially, evoked strong feelings in our book group and left us wanting more from the troika of Rob, Cassie, and their other partner, Sam. Beyond even that, though, like almost all other readers (see the various forums on the Internet), most of us had a powerful reaction to how it ended. Some felt frustrated; others, perhaps fewer, were intrigued. Both groups, take heart: in Tana French’s interview with Goodreads, she said she may be bringing back some of her characters, including Rob and Cassie.**

This is a story of loss of one kind or another, which I will leave readers to explore for themselves. But perhaps I can say that while we might not get to puncture the veil that surrounds every straggling mystery, we retain a hope that somehow, someday we will get not only resolution, but redemption.


**French’s interview with Goodreads also discusses her other books and aspects of her writing.