Listening for Inspiration

The ability to listen is a skill we are honing. … Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.

If we are trying to think something up, we are straining to reach for something that’s just beyond our grasp, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives on high …”

When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing; we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening.

When an actor is in the moment, he or she is engaged in listening for the next right thing creatively. When a painter is painting, he or she may begin with a plan, but that plan is soon surrendered to the painting’s own plan. This is often expressed as, “The brush takes the next stroke.” In dance, in composition, in sculpture, the experience is the same: we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express.

Art is an act of tuning in and dropping down the well. It is as though all the stories, painting, music, performances in the world live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like an underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap down into. As [creatives], we drop down the well into the stream. We hear what’s down there and we act on it—more like taking dictation than anything fancy having to do with art. …

Most writers have had the experience of catching a poem or a paragraph or two of formed writing. We consider these finds to be small miracles. What we fail to realize is that they are, in fact, the norm. We are the instrument more than the author of our work. …

The same may be said of all art. If painting and sculptures wait for us, then sonatas wait for us; books, plays, and poems wait for us, too. Our job is simply to get them down. To do that we drop down the well.

Some people find it easier to picture the stream of inspiration as being like radio waves of all sorts being broadcast at all times.

With practice, we learn how to hear the desired frequency on request. We tune in to the frequency we want. Like a parent, we learn to hear the voice of our current brainchild among the other children’s voices. …

Be alert: there is a second voice, a higher harmonic, adding to and augmenting your inner creative voice. This voice frequently shows itself in synchronicity.

You will hear the dialogue you need, find the right song for the sequence, see the exact paint color you almost had in mind, and so forth. You will have the experience of finding things—books, seminars, tossed-out stuff—that happen to fit with what you are doing.

Learn to accept the possibility that the universe is helping you with what you are doing.

Julia Cameron

Transcribed by me from pages 117–119 of my tenth anniversary edition of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity © 1992, 2002, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, NY.

 

Tweet: Learning how to listen for inspiration, by Julia Cameron.
Tweet: “With practice, we learn how to hear the desired [creative] frequency on request.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Study This: A Spool of Blue Thread

I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Anne Tyler, “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” (in 1989 for Breathing Lessons) as the cover of my hardback copy says, conveniently leaving out a host of other prizes and details, including that her first college prof, Reynolds Price, once said she was almost as good a writer at sixteen—when she entered college—as she was twenty-five years later.

Her latest novel is about family myths—you know, those stories we think know, because, hey, we were there—and is, you might say, the same Anne Tyler novel we’ve been reading for years:

  • a Baltimore, Maryland, setting
  • human relationships, particularly families and marriages
  • comedy juxtaposed against tragedy
  • eccentric characters that seem so familiar and real

Which is precisely why there’s something to learn here.

I’ll suggest just three things you should pay attention to.

First, the jacket blurb tells us,

From Red’s father and mother, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.

Yes, it’s a big story—lots of years, lots of characters, lots of details—but Tyler manages to wrap it up in 358 pages, which is a perfectly delightful length for a novel. (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt.) Think about the things she must have done to keep the sprawl in check: ruthless editing, and a good device to hold it all together (in this case, the house).

Second, Tyler is on record saying character is everything, and this is easy to believe if you’re familiar with her work. And yet—in spite of the fact that her characters are sometimes described as quirky or eccentric—they are utterly believable. The Guardian says, “The extraordinary thing about all her writing is the extent to which she makes one believe every word, deed and breath”—even when they are odd ducks. Why? It’s the telling details, the characters’ inner lives, and our common humanity—we all have jobs, all have mothers, all must eat, and so on—that make them so real and relatable.

Finally, the thing that knocked me out in A Spool of Blue Thread is the simplicity—the plainness—of Tyler’s writing. Unlike many less experienced writers who feel like they have to produce writerly, literary sentences to be sure we’re impressed with The Writing, Anne Tyler’s prose is quiet, unshowy. It’s “prose that never draws attention to its graceful wit,” says the Washington Post. Regardless of how you feel about Tyler’s body of work—and she has her critics—if you are a writer, you should study her prose. I am a big fan of simplicity in writing.

There’s much, much more here to enjoy than I have mentioned. But if you’re a student of craft, there’s plenty to see. Have a look.

Tweet: I’d forgotten how much I enjoy reading Anne Tyler.
Tweet: Anne Tyler’s prose is quiet, unshowy—and I like that about her.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Authors & Other Writers, The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , ,

Short Saturday: Writer, Take Care of Yourself!

You know about eating right, getting plenty of sleep, getting up from the desk every once in a while (better yet, get one of those cool standing desks) … but because you are writers, there are other hazards you need to keep your eye on.

Author Chuck Wendig should know. He puts himself out there, and reaps the benefits and the criticism that comes from that. He gets it. He gets us.

So when he writes a post called “Self-Care for Writers,” you should pay attention. Here are ten tips in straight talk (language warning). I like number eight—

8. HAVE SOMETHING THAT ISN’T WRITING

Doodling. Quilting. Theater. Political assassinations. Have something that is not writing. For me, it’s photography. It breaks my brain away from the wordsmithy. It gives me an opportunity to stretch my legs in a different direction and it’s a healthy distraction, not a toxic one.

—but they’re all good. So read up. And be careful out there. :)

Tweet: You know about eating right, getting plenty of sleep, and so on, but—
Tweet: Take care of yourself, writers!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Go On, I Dare You! (Sound Familiar?)

Somewhere around the early seventies, I was regaling a hugely motivated friend with some wild story pertaining to my recent life experience. She said, “You know what drives me crazy about you? You dissipate all this talent talking out stories over the kitchen table. I want you to stat writing it down. Go on. I dare you. Stop being so lazy.” So I sat down and I dreamed up the Goldman family. …

I began to revel in the discovery that breathing life into pretend people and talking in their voices was the best fun in the world, like recovering that heavenly form of playing-by-myself that I’d done so much of in early childhood. It became a very audial thing, as I rapped out the different rhythms of my various characters’ speech and honed these sequences, making them more taut or more expansive, even sometimes changing the patterns they made on the page. And, whereas the sequences with the single first-person narrative voice were simpler, more like making music with one instrument, having lots of people talking was like making a more complex music.

Barbara Trapido, quoted in Maria Semple’s introduction to Trapido’s reissued first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack

Transcribed by me from my Kindle edition of Brother of the More Famous Jack, originally published in 1982; Bloomsbury USA edition © 2014.

 

Tweet: Barbara Trapido says writing is audial—she hears it first, then writes it.
Tweet: Go on, I dare you—get started writing!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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What’s In a Name? That Which We Call a Pudding …

I grew up the child of two Midwesterners of modest means, so I knew from an early age about pudding—it was that powder Mom mixed with milk on her old Kenmore mixer until it thickened, then put in the fridge to cool and thicken a little more. You know—like a soft custard.*

But … not so fast, there, cowgirl. The meaning of this word depends on where you’re from, a phenomenon we’ve discussed before. It’s interesting to me that pudding can have several so very distinct meanings, all food-related. My Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists many of them (though not all—because, well, it is an American dictionary).

First …

The first and oldest meaning (thirteenth century) is sausage, and more specifically, blood sausage. I’ve seen this usage predominantly in Ireland, where at breakfast one is served both black and white pudding—ground pork mixed with oats and, in the case of black pudding, pork blood. They’re delicious.

Related to this first, old word—the Middle English poding perhaps having derived from Low German puddek (sausage) or puddig (swollen)—was a sausage stuffing for roast meat (Shakespeare wrote about “that roasted … ox with the pudding in his belly”**) and from there you get a slang usage of pudding that means, in England, guts. I’d like to see that in a sentence. Or maybe not.

Second …

I am not sure how we moved from meats to sweets, but that’s what happened. The second meaning in my American dictionary is four-part:

  • A boiled or baked soft food usually with a cereal base, like corn pudding or bread pudding, eaten as a main course or a side dish; sometimes, long ago, called porridge.
  • A dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency, like chocolate pudding or rice or tapioca pudding. This is the sort of pudding Americans think of first, I believe.
  • An unsweetened dish often containing suet or having a suet crust and originally boiled in a bag but now often steamed or baked in a mold, like a kidney pudding. You would often cut it with a knife, rather than spoon it.
  • Something that resembles a pudding, like a pudding bolster (a long thick pillow; looks like sausage) or more poetically, anything churned up or mixed up, like clouds or tilled soil—though I don’t think the latter is particularly common.

The differences here can be boiled down to milk puddings and cake puddings.

An Aside …

I emphasize that these definitions are from my American dictionary because M-W makes absolutely no allowance for the British use of pudding, which has two meanings, as best I can tell:

  • It’s a generic word for what Americans call dessert, i.e., that sweet course served at the end of the meal.
  • A very specific cake-like dessert, such as Christmas pudding or something like (yes, Virginia, it’s true) figgy pudding.

The latter usage is related to the savory (unsweet) pudding mentioned above, in that it is firm and cakelike. I got to experience it when the Boy and I visited an English friend one Christmas. We had a very traditional English Christmas dinner (including, appropriately to this post, Yorkshire pudding, which is nothing like anything I have described so far). And then we had dessert: eight weeks in the making, the oh-so traditional “Christmas pudding”—which you may also know as plum pudding or figgy pudding. Americans might call it fruitcake, and it’s similar (an Irish tea brack would be even closer in spirit), though it is made in a mold and steamed rather than baked. Doused in brandy and set alight, it was a spectacular conclusion to the meal.

Another Aside …

Merriam Webster suggested I “compare” hasty pudding (cornmeal mush); Indian pudding (cornmeal mush with butter, molasses, and spices); Yorkshire pudding (batter of eggs, flour, and milk, baked in meat drippings); and plum pudding (bread crumbs, raisins, currants, suet, eggs, and spices, boiled or steamed).

It also suggested I have a look at:

  • Pudding grass: a pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) formerly used to flavor stuffing for roast meat.
  • Pudding stone: conglomerate, from 1752.
  • Pudding time: 1 archaic : dinnertime (“as it was pudding time with us, our visitor was invited to sit and eat”), and 2 archaic : an auspicious moment (“here he comes in pudding time to resolve the question”).
  • Bag pudding: a dessert pudding boiled or steamed in a bag, from 1598.
  • Batter pudding: an unsweetened pudding of flour, eggs, and milk or cream baked or boiled (for example, Yorkshire pudding).
  • Black pudding: blood sausage, from the fifteenth century.
  • Blood pudding: blood sausage.
  • Cabinet pudding: a pudding of bread or cake, candied or dried fruit, milk, and eggs often molded and usually served hot with a tart sauce, from 1821.

I love the word pudding so much I’d love to see a revival of pudding time to replace, say, the knick of time. Let’s work on that!

Third …

Even M-W’s third definition has a connection to food, because it describes something that looks like a sausage: a fender made of rope yarn or canvas attached to the stern of a boat or ship—in other words, a boat bumper. :)

Finally …

You’ve been waiting for this one, I’m sure: pudding can also mean “inherent quality; ability to measure up to expectations.” As in, “He proved his pudding with that magna cum laude.” Or, of course, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

This little saying goes way back to the fourteenth century; by the 1600s it was appearing in proverb books. In Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes wrote, “You will see it when you fry the eggs,” which was translated in one 1701 version as, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” These days, we often say, “The proof is in the pudding” (it dates to the 1920s) and mean something was worth it because of its discernible quality. But unless the shortened phrase is in your frame of reference—my parents used it—you won’t quite know what it means.

And there’s your pudding lesson for today. :)

* Not a pouring custard, though.
** Henry IV.

 

Tweet: What’s in a name? That which we call a pudding …
Tweet: The meaning of this word depends on where you’re from!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , ,

The Irony of Books for Everyone

The first half of the [eighteenth] century had witnessed a massive surge in printing and the appetite for print. Books circulated freely thanks in part to the new commercial lending libraries, and second-hand copies could be picked up cheaply from dealers who traded from stalls or barrows. Even those on modest incomes could afford chapbooks, the contents of which might include recipes, jests and reports of sensational events. The most notable new form of literature was the novel; Daniel Defoe was a trailblazer, creating his plot lines in accordance not with history, myth or legend, but with his own sense of what his invented characters might plausibly do. Original fiction had a sizeable female readership, and creating it became a way for women to earn a living, although anonymous or pseudonymous publication was in many cases deemed necessary in order to get the books a fair critical hearing. By mid-century it was normal to think of women as the likely readers of these works and this prompted comment—applause, certainly, but also sneers—about the democratization of literature.

At the same time there was a wealth of other printed material: newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, in addition to calendars, posters, price tags, labels, tickets and maps. Readers became consumers of words—often silently and in private—and society was seized by a mania for ink and paper. As this happened, printed matter became to seem less precious. Books became commodities. The increased public visibility of books, and the busy trade in them, created opportunities for writers to set themselves up as instructors of popular taste. The entire system of literature seemed new. The society in which Dr Johnson [Samuel Johnson, 1709–1784] lived experienced a ‘literary crisis’ that was the opposite of the one we worry about today. There was immense anxiety that the increasing literacy of people outside the social elite would upset the established cultural and political order. …

There was, fundamentally, more sharing of the written word. In the nineteenth century this would escalate—for instance, the Penny Post was introduced in 1840, and within thirty years almost a billion letters were being sent annually in Britain—but it was in the eighteenth century that attitudes to this word-traffic crystallized.

Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 84–5 of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English © 2007, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 

Tweet: The rise of fiction in the 18th century made readers of women.
Tweet: Printing technology improved in the 1700s & made books accessible to all—not just the rich.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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My Favorite Book v. 2015 (#MyReadingYear)

Back in 2012 I wrote an article called “My Favorite Book … This Year.” I do track what I read, and I know my reading tastes well enough that I generally end up with a year’s worth of excellent books. They should all be favorites—but there are always some standouts.

The year past is no exception. Man, I read some fabulous books this year, books that made me think or cry or laugh, books that knocked me out with the author’s craftwork, like …

Anne Enright / The Green Road
Ben Fountain / Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Alexandra Fuller / Leaving Before the Rains Come
Roxane Gay / Bad Feminist
Marilynne Robinson / Lila
Donal Ryan / The Thing About December

I heartily recommend these titles to you.

But you want to know my favorite, so I won’t linger. It’s Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, and not normally the sort of book I would choose. I’m still a little surprised at myself. But I can tell you what hooked me in the reviews: the protagonist, Pete Snow, a social worker with a thirteen-year-old daughter and a marriage so troubled he tells his wife, “I take kids away from people like us.” That. Right there. One heartbreaking line that hinted at so much story …

And Pete’s problems with his family are only the subplot. He’s got other families to save, too, though (as the EW blurb tells us) he is “covering vast rural areas where the best he can hope for is to bring some aid and comfort to the children of parents who are living on the edge.” The book opens with a scene from a case Pete’s been working for months. Then there’s another one.

Pete gets a call from a local school. An unknown eleven-year-old boy has wandered up; he’s clearly undernourished, nearly feral, wearing strange, homemade clothing. Pete feeds and clothes him and takes him back to the forest where he says he lives. It’s dusk, and they are met with a warning shot and a spotlight.

The boy started to walk toward the light, and Pete was trying to decide if he should reach for him, hold him back—of course not, you’ll be shot—when the man spoke: “Stay right there.” …

“Mr. Pearl? I’m from the Department of Family Service.” His voice sounded high and fearful in his own ears. He carried on and hoped that his timbre would improve: “I’m not law enforcement or anything like that. May I show you my badge?”

The light offered no response.

“I just come across Benjamin in town and he said you all were living up here and so I brought him back.”

The light swept over to the boy.

“Take off those clothes,” the man ordered. Benjamin immediately complied and the light swung back into Pete’s eyes.

“Wait,” Pete said. “It’s gotta be thirty, forty degrees out. There’s nothing wrong with the clothes. They’re new. Look, you’re not on the hook for them. They’re gratis. Free.”

“I know what gratis means.”

“Of course. I just meant that it’s my job. I have a budget for this sort of thing.”

The boy had dropped the coat and the shirt into a pile in front of him and was undoing the pants. An insistent logorrhea poured out of Pete as the kid pulled off a brilliant white T-shirt.

“Look, if it’s a matter of you wanting to not take a handout, that’s fine. I can certainly arrange to, you know, accept payment for the clothes. I, I didn’t mean to offend you or overstep my bounds. Benjamin didn’t ask for the clothes. I insisted that he take them.”

The boy unlaced and kicked off his new boots and tugged off the new socks and then pulled down his pants and stepped out of them onto his wounded bare feet.

“Mr. Pearl. Please. He’s just a boy out here in the cold. I wouldn’t have—”

The light swung over to the boy and then back into Pete’s face and stopped him short. The boy gingerly stepped in place on the pine needles, wincing.

“Please, sir. Mr. Pearl. Your son’s got giardia poisoning from drinking out of the streams up here. I figure you and your family might have it too. I have some medicine right here in my jacket. Enough for all of you and I can bring some more. In fact, I was hoping that you might let me bring up some oranges. He’s got bleeding gums and we think …”

He trailed off. Benjamin was naked. All knobs and knots, white and gaunt, and he put Pete in mind of creatures that lived in caves, albino spiders and eyeless fishes and newts.

It’s pretty bleak stuff, but the milieu (it’s set in 1980 Montana) and the characters are so finely drawn and the plot parceled out in pieces so irresistible, I found myself in the middle of the book, holding my breath, filled with dread—all good stuff, really, in spite of the way it sounds—flipping the pages as quickly as I could read them.

Without, of course, skipping through any of the gorgeous, brilliant writing. It’s Pete’s story, but occasionally Henderson transitions to other points of view, and from past tense to present tense. Pete’s thoughts are in second person, and we follow his daughter’s story from a series of social worker reports. It all works.

Oh, and the ending: Horrifying. Heartbreaking. Perfect. And so it goes.

Fourth of July Creek is a first novel (published 2014), but don’t be misled by that “first.” Henderson’s bio tells us he “was awarded a 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction, and a 2011 Philip Roth Residency in Creative Writing at Bucknell University. His short story, ‘Number Stations’ won a Pushcart Prize and a finalist honors for the University of Texas Keene Prize, where he was a Michener Center for Writing Fellow.” Which is to say, he’s been working on his craft for years.

And which is surely why I loved this book enough to call it my favorite of 2015.

Tweet: My favorite book of 2015. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson.
Tweet: Oh, and the ending: Horrifying. Heartbreaking. Perfect. And so it goes.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like | Tagged as: , , ,

Short Saturday: Your Children’s Intellectual Life at Stake

You’ve heard me say this before: I grew up in a home filled with books and magazines, music and musical instruments. I have known from my youth that exposure to this made a huge difference in my intellectual life. (That I cared about having an intellectual life at all I owe to my parents too.) As the author of this article (“Our [Bare] Shelves, Our Selves”) from the New York Times did, I sat on the living room floor with my mother’s books and my father’s Thelonius Monk record albums—art I would not have encountered any other way.

I can’t imagine another life. But the way we live is changing. We carry our books and records around on our phones (sort of). It’s something to think about. There’s more to this article. Read on.

After G.N.P., the quantity of books in one’s home was the most important predictor of reading performance. … Libraries matter even more than money; in the United States, with the size of libraries being equal, students coming from the top 10 percent of wealthiest families performed at just one extra grade level over students from the poorest 10 percent.

The implications are clear: Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically. It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as décor. …

Will parents go out of their way to grant access to their latest book to their 9-year-old? True, the 9-year-old is unlikely to pick up a physical copy of “Between the World and Me” on his or her own, either, but at least the child sees that tome on a shelf and incorporates it into an understanding of what a life of the mind entails. As an unshared e-book, it is never glimpsed, let alone handled and, possibly, someday read.

It’s an interesting article—something to make you think before you declutter. Check it out.

Tweet: “To a child, a parent’s dog-eared book is a sign of a mind at work.” Yes.
Tweet: Exposure to books & music made a huge difference in my intellectual life.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Miscellany | Tagged as: , , , ,

Learning How Fiction Works

I learned to read—I mean learned to read carefully—in 1969. I was in graduate school then and trying to figure out if I should begin to write short stories. … I did not know very much. …

Part of my school training as a writer, however, provided that I could learn how to teach. It was felt by my teachers—writers themselves—that if we students ever became the real things, we would probably never be able to support ourselves that way and so could teach as a fallback …

What exactly this teacher training entailed was going before a class of undergraduates, asking them to read several short stories and novels chosen and discussed among us assistants by an overseeing professor, and then, for three days a week, teaching. Teaching fiction. And what I found my problem to be was that I couldn’t imagine the first thing to do, because I didn’t in any way I could convey to another human, know how to read. … Even more awful was that I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know.

[So I approached one of my professors.] What I said was this: “I am having trouble knowing exactly how to go about teaching this Anderson story.”

“Tell me, Mr. Ford,” [he] said, still softly, when he’d sat in silence for a while, flipping pages thorough the story in my anthology, glancing at my underlinings, raising his eyebrows at my notes … “Tell me just this,” he said again, and looked up at me quizzically, then at the ceiling, as if he’d begun rehearsing some life of his own from years ago, which the story had pleasantly revived. “What, um, what do you think is the most interesting formal feature of this story? I’m, of course, not talking about anything particularly complicated. Just what you think about it.”

… I understand now that he was certain I had no idea in the world what he could be talking about, and that our tasks would begin from that point—the perfect point of origin. Zero. The place where all learning begins.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘formal feature,’” I answered in a good, clear voice. And with that I gave up some large part of my ignorance. I must’ve sensed I’d learn something valuable if I could only do that. And I was right.

“Well,” he said, bemused. “All right.” He nodded and sighed, then turned in his swivel chair to a green chalkboard on the wall, stood, and with a chalk wrote this list.

Character
Point of View
Narrative Structure
Imagistic Pattern
Symbol
Diction
Theme

These, of course, were words I’d seen. Most of them had been swirling around my thinking for days without order or directive. Now, here they were again, and I felt relieved.

These expressions, [my teacher said], sitting back in his chair but still looking at the list, described the formal features of a piece of fiction. If we could define them, locate them in a particular piece of fiction, and then talk about any one of them in a careful and orderly way, reliant on the words of the story and common sense, asking perfectly simple questions, proceeding to deductions one by one, perhaps talking about other features as they came to mind—eventually we would involve ourselves in a discussion of the most important issues in a story, or in a novel. In every story he himself read, he said, some one formal feature seemed to stand out as a conspicuous source of interest, and he could investigate the story that way. …

[My professor], naturally, never told me exactly what to do, and our talk never left the plane of the hypothetical/conditional (“one might ask this; isn’t it possible to wonder that? surely this is not completely irrelevant …”). But he taught. He taught me not only an orderly means to gain entry to an intimacy with a complex piece of narrative, but also that literature could be approached as empirically as life, to which after all it was connected.

Richard Ford

From the essay “Reading,” transcribed by me from pages 55–56 and 60–64 of my hardback copy of Writers on Writing, © 1991 Middlebury College Press, Hanover, New Hampshire.

 

Tweet: Author Richard Ford on learning about fiction.
Tweet: What are the formal features of fiction? You know this.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like | Tagged as: ,

Is That a Flaute, Good Sir?

Recently I was editing a manuscript whose author had used the word flautist. Having been raised in a musical household and taken classical piano lessons for many years, I am familiar with the word; as a child I was informed flautist was the appropriate [English] word for someone who played the flute.

But … why? I’ll come back to that question.

When I started in this business—and by this I mean writing, reading, paying attention to grammar and syntax and spelling, and, much later, editing—I was pretty hard-core about what was right. (Me. All the time. Ha.)

But I’ve been around long enough to know, now, that some of my most closely held notions about the word biz are based not on fact or research but on where I grew up (with Midwestern parents) or (probably more importantly) when I grew up. Because things change, tastes change, the Chicago Manual of Style changes (regularly).

And sometimes things we hold very dear, for one reason or another, are based on nothing more than something the Victorians thought was cool and propagated until it was taken as the right and proper thing.

Like, perhaps, flautist.

I texted my son, who has a lot more musical education than I ever had (and who is, actually, a professional musician and educator). I also raised the question on Facebook. Then I checked the dictionary, which started informing my opinion before I heard from anyone.

Origin of the word flute:
Middle English floute, from Middle French flaute, flahute, fleute, from Old Provençal flaut, perhaps alteration (influenced by laut lute) of flaujol, flauja, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin flabeolum …
First Known Use: 14th century
Flutist, first known use: 1603
Flautist, first known use: 1860

So we can see the etymology of the English word flute.

When my musical friends started weighing in from various parts of the world (that’s the beauty of Facebook), I got a lot more information. After I’d processed the comments and filtered opinion and pedantry from fact, this is what I deduced: it’s a regional thing.

Let’s break it down further.

  • Flautist seems to be preferred by Commonwealth English speakers (Britain, Australia, Canada); Americans tend to prefer flutist.
  • Some music teachers in America are still teaching the word flautist. This comes, perhaps, from an attitude you see in the classical music industry (you see it in the publishing industry too) that exclusivity and the mystery of things only “we” know makes us special. That makes it sound like jargon to me.
  • Many current professional musicians in America have never heard flautist used professionally. Reactions among my younger American musician friends ranged from “in practice, I have never met a professional who insists on being a flautist, although I’m sure those people do exist” and “I’ve never heard anyone use flautist with a straight face,” to “secretly I judge people who use flautist, and not in a good way.” Some reacted even more vehemently. :)
  • To avoid controversy, many professionals call themselves flute players.
  • The American musicians I spoke with were willing to accept either term, but as noted, most considered flautist to be (ahem) a little silly, perhaps even a little snobbish.

A lot of things from an older age can seem that way. Remember, flautist dates from just 1860—when Nathaniel Hawthorne used the word in his novel The Marble Faun. The story is set it Italy and Hawthorne had been living in that country for a year or so. Europe in that time was seen as more glamorous, more authentic, classier. Hawthorne’s use of an Italian word in his English-language novel was a Victorian-era affectation, basically.

But as is the way with all things linguistic, the pendulum continues to swing. Nancy Toff, the leading American flute historian, notes that she is asked about the word regularly. In her classic The Flute Book (Scribners, 1985, pp. xiv–xv), she declares her preference: “I play the flute, not the flaut; therefore I am a flutist not a flautist.” And international virtuoso flute player Sir James Galway has echoed this sentiment as quoted in the Guardian: “I am a flute player not a flautist. I don’t have a flaut and I’ve never flauted.”

Again, I used to think that my word use was the right way, but I’ve been around the biz long enough now to realize that my way of using a particular word is, usually, the Midwestern way (both my parents were Midwestern born and raised). I have wordy friends with different word ways, and when we compare notes, we usually conclude it’s simply a regional difference. It’s only natural for us to believe the definitions, pronunciations, slang, grammar, “rules” we grew up with are the right and only way.

But language—no matter which one you’re using—is a living, breathing thing. Words fall out of favor; they change or add meanings. Writing styles change, grammar rules change. New generations come along, new technology comes along, and all of these things affect the word biz. Those of us who work in it every day understand this, but many of you still think you are supposed to double space after a period—and you get all huffy with me when I suggest otherwise. Don’t shoot the messenger, kids. Let it go.

In the end, I changed my author’s word to flutist. Though either word could be used, this was an American author writing for an American publisher; using flautist, it seemed, would be like putting on a British accent, and might sound pretentious. And we don’t want that.

Tweet: Is that a flaute, good sir?
Tweet: Flutist or flautist? I won’t judge you for your answer. It’s a regional thing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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