One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

August 2, 2009

Story-telling vs. essay-writing

Filed under: Education,Writing — alancochrum @ 3:08 pm
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Quote for the day for English teachers and would-be English teachers like myself:

“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”

— C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

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April 25, 2009

A pause for thought at the wordsmith’s anvil

“We are all like the Word himself — we might say that we are ‘little words,’ made to be communicators in words just like our Creator. God is the One who called all worlds into being by his creative word, who sustains and rules over all things by his powerful and law-giving word, who reveals himself by his truth-giving word, who communicates by his life-giving word. We are to use language in imitation of him by exercising the gifts of creative imagination, by understanding and naming the world around us, by revealing ourselves truthfully in all we say and write, by communicating with our Creator and with one another to build trust and to give life to all our relationships.”

— Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible

November 20, 2008

The writer’s constant difficulty

Filed under: Books,Writing — alancochrum @ 10:57 am
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“You are absolutely right to consider nothing but major problems. My major problem is finding the next word.”

— Flannery O’Connor, June 1963 letter in The Habit of Being

October 27, 2008

Cloaked in shadow

Filed under: Books,Work,Writing — alancochrum @ 10:10 pm
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Late in Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, the psychic Paul Atreides spots an unfamiliar face in the entourage of a galactic ruler.

The Emperor’s errand boy, Paul thought. And the thought was a shock crashing across his consciousness because he had seen the Emperor in uncounted associations spread across the possible futures — but never once had Count Fenring appeared within those prescient visions. …

“Something in his own secretive depths stayed the Count [later], and he glimpsed briefly, inadequately, the advantage he held over Paul — a way of hiding from the youth, a furtiveness of person and motives that no eye could penetrate.

“Paul, aware of some of this from the way the time nexus boiled, understood at last why he had never seen Fenring along the webs of prescience. Fenring was one of the might-have-beens, an almost-Kwisatz Haderach … his talent concentrated into furtiveness and inner seclusion. A deep compassion for the Count flowed through Paul, the first sense of brotherhood he’d ever experienced.”

I identify with the count. In some ways, I am always more comfortable in the background — if I’m going to be out in front, I like it to be on my terms. (And yes, it is sort of counterintuitive for a sometime columnist and book critic to be that way, but … what can I say? There it is.)

And oddly enough, I find this trait to be handy when I put on my blogging hat these days.

The Internet seems to bring out a certain mental incoherence in some people, particularly younger ones. They metaphorically (and sometimes literally) strip down to their birthday suit in terms of personal revelations, leaving the rest of us slack-jawed and thinking: “They do understand, don’t they, that a gazillion people can see this? And that once it’s out there, you can never erase it?” Apparently discretion is not the better part of valor in some people’s books.

At the moment I find myself caught between two imperatives. On the one hand, I am blogging, tossing my two cents out onto the street like alms in reverse. On the other hand, I am looking for a new job in a professional world in which I must assume that one of the first things that any halfway interested employer will do is run my name through an electronic search and see what pops up.

So I am forced to think twice — yea, thrice — about anything I might post. If I gripe about an unpleasant job-search experience, well, the person responsible might see it. That might come back to bite me. On the other hand, a specific reference to a pleasant experience might tip a different party off to the fact that I’m interested in some other job.

So it’s actually rather handy to be someone with a liking for being only half-seen, with no urge to lay it all out for everyone. It makes blogging harder but restraint much easier.

October 14, 2008

Tell us what you really think, Miz Flannery

Filed under: Books,Writing — alancochrum @ 4:16 pm
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So I’m about two-thirds of my way through The Habit of Being, the several-times-previously-referred-to collection of letters by Flannery O’Connor, and I run into this in a missive from May 1960:

“I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

O’Connor doesn’t elaborate — at least in this collection — on what she found so offensive about Rand’s writing. They certainly were of differing minds about religion, O’Connor being a devout Catholic and faith being an F-word to Rand.

The ironic thing is O’Connor’s comparison of Rand to Spillane, given that the latter two liked each other’s work. Nathaniel Branden writes in his memoir Judgment Day about the period after the 1957 publication of Rand’s massive novel Atlas Shrugged:

“Ayn admired the ‘black-and-white moral absolutism’ of Spillane’s writing and also felt he was underappreciated as a stylist. ‘Granted his writing is uneven,’ she said, ‘and some passages are crude, but his descriptions at their best are excellent. Compare his descriptions of New York City in One Lonely Night with Thomas Wolfe’s descriptions — and you’ll appreciate the difference between a writer who knows how to make you see and one who just throws adjectives at you.’ I agreed with her, at least to some extent, but I was uneasy about the degree of praise she heaped on him publicly, as if she enjoyed shocking everyone — or as if she wanted to do for him what no one had done for her. At that time liberal reviewers went literally berserk on the subject of Mickey Spillane; I would not have imagined that a writer of thrillers could push so many hostile buttons.”

I have yet to read O’Connor’s fiction. But after reading a good number of her letters and a considerable amount of Rand’s work, I know which of the two I find more congenial.

September 12, 2008

A Flannery blouse for the spouse

Filed under: Books,Creativity,Writing — alancochrum @ 11:35 am
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“Writers write!” my wife reminds me occasionally. This is probably wise of her, considering that in some ways I am particularly susceptible to Sloth among the Seven Deadlies. (Not that this is the only one that I’m susceptible to, but that’s a discussion for another day. Maybe. When I get that “round tuit” that everyone talks about.)

She probably would agree with this thought from Flannery O’Connor:

“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. … I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have [because of ill health], but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. … Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”

— Letter of Sept. 22, 1957, The Habit of Being

August 8, 2008

Author! Author!

Filed under: Creativity,Newspapers,Writing — alancochrum @ 9:13 am
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I finished a consulting job yesterday. A family friend asked me to analyze a weekly newspaper in which he’s considering investing. He thought it might be handy to have an ink-stained wretch take a look at the product, and I was happy to oblige him.

The sense of relief/accomplishment that I felt when I mentally typed “30” on my report — don’t worry if you don’t understand; it’s a newspaper thing — merely confirmed something that I’ve long known about myself: I enjoy the writing process much more when it’s over.

When I was working years ago at the Waco Tribune-Herald, one of the opinion writers whose work I copy-edited was Lewis Grizzard, a longtime humorist for the Atlanta paper. (For those who are too young and/or insufficiently Southern, Grizzard was the Jeff Foxworthy of his day, with his roots in newspapers rather than TV.)

In his 1982 book They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat, Grizzard wrote: “I was back at my typewriter writing newspaper columns eight days after my [heart valve] surgery. … [I]t’s what I do for a living. I hate it. I curse it. But without it, I’m somebody else.”

Unlike the late Mr. Grizzard, I don’t really detest the creative process.  But as Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman noted once about herself (long after I had decided the same thing, independently), I like having written much more than I like writing.

August 4, 2008

Wearing a Flannery shirt

Filed under: Humor,Spirituality,Writing — alancochrum @ 3:35 pm
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I am working through The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald. An excerpt:

“I read [Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica] for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.”

Not everybody would find that amusing. Actually, not too many people would. But I do.

July 22, 2008

Closing the books

Filed under: College,High school,Journalism,Writing — alancochrum @ 2:42 pm
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Theresa Cloer helped get me where I am today.

Not that I’m blaming her for that, you understand.

There I was, a junior at a suburban Texas high school with delusions of writerhood. I had (successfully) submitted some poetry to the school newspaper, the Scroll, and Cloer suggested that I join the staff of Quadrus, the barely-out-of-diapers campus literary publication.

I did, and then she suggested that I try out for the yearbook staff. So in the spring of the year, I received a nice little note — which I still have stashed away — that I would be part of the Valhalla staff the next fall. (In what a local talk-radio host used to call a Brush With Fame, also on that staff was a lass named Laura Lane, who eventually would become actress Lauren Lane of the TV show The Nanny.)

And then the blow fell: Our teacher-sponsor, whose students had affectionately dubbed her “Darth Cloer,” left for greener pastures. No sooner had I stepped through one journalistic door than my recruiter stepped out the other.

True, our new teacher soon arrived and guided her motley crew through the year. I went on to a journalism major, two-plus decades at a couple of newspapers and now other horizons. But it was an interesting prelude to a career.

I read in the July 21 Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the college yearbook is facing a cloudy future. Writer John Austin reports that the 2008 Aerie will be the last for the University of North Texas; the story is the same at Mississippi State and Purdue.

I must admit that I carry no particular torch for collegiate yearbooks. (I bought all of my high school annuals but none from my university.) But I think that Kansas State yearbook adviser Kathy Lawrence had a point in Austin’s story: “They’re losing the only written history of the year prepared by the students who lived it.”

P.S. — Dear Mrs. Cloer: I’m still glad that you recruited me.

July 8, 2008

1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration

Filed under: Creativity,Writing — alancochrum @ 2:36 pm
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Thought for today:

“Every few weeks [Jo March] would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and `fall into a vortex’, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul …. [Her] cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, ‘Does genius burn, Jo?’ … If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo.”

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

“Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. … You can’t simply say, ‘Today I will be brilliant.’ ”

— Capt. James T. Kirk, “Star Trek”

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