Tag Archives: writing

A Poetry Interlude

I never know how much context to provide preceding a piece of poetry, but here is all the context I’ll give you for this one. This poem was inspired by a friend who loves poetry and is herself a prolific poet. I myself do not do much dabbling in poetry, whether reading or writing, but I sent this poem to the friend whose post inspired it, and she compared it to an ee cummings poem, and that made my day. So here it is; I hope you enjoy it.

Safety First

Facebook tantalizes me with temptation: “Check out your memories!”
No warning label. Proceed without caution of any kind.

What is in my memories?
Sometimes pure, nostalgic fun
Tendrils and wisps of a more innocent, more slim, more confident, past self
Less weathered.
Less care worn.
Less filtered.
Less experienced.
Less empathetic.
Less everything, it sometimes seems.

Most often, though
the things that crop up are not things at all, but people.
Former friends. In the comments.

I went through a phase, you see,
in my younger days, when I realized
that Jennyfromthesecondgrade
didn’t really need
to see my every thought, picture, fear, or confession.

Facebook tantalized me back then too.
Unfriend, it whispered.
Annoying? Unfriend!
Over-Emotional? Unfriend!
Too Republican? Unfriend!
Too girly? Too sexist? Too liberal? Too Christian? Too atheist? Too cryptic? Too verbose? Too serious? Too silly?

 I created the perfect echo chamber,
full of those wonderful creatures who only think the way I do,
and now my feed is clear, concise,
. . . somewhat empty, and . . .
a little redundant.

My old friends show up faithfully, but only in my memories, and
Facebook tantalizes me still:
“Add friend!”

Oh, but Facebook. That’s one temptation to which
I won’t succumb. I’d choke
trying to swallow that much pride.


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Filed under bloggy, experimental, irreverent, writing exercises

Forgiving the Dead

My paternal grandmother died in 2009, and I struggled less with the fact of her death than I did with the way her death was treated in my family. I loved my grandma, had a good relationship with her, and was certainly sad over her passing. However, she had been hospitalized for six months before her death, so it had been rather a long time since I’d really had my grandma anyway. For me, her death provided relief. I was relieved to be free of the emotionally difficult and physically tiresome nights of hospital duty we all shared (though, admittedly, I’d been doing it for only one month of the last six because, before that, I had lived in Oklahoma, five hours away from the entire situation). But, more than that, I was relieved that she could no longer feel the pain she had been plagued by for the last half a year. One of the more difficult things I’ve ever done in my life is stand helpless in a hospital room while my grandmother cries out for someone to stop the pain, or for more meds, or for the nurse to be called for the fifteenth time in an hour; and then to watch her become completely crestfallen as the nurse tells her for the thirteenth time in an hour that, legally, she is not allowed to administer any more medication just yet. So yes. Her death, her release from her pain and suffering, was a relief to us all.

I knew – I think we all knew, in fact – that my grandmother was not a perfect, flawless angel. But her death elevated her to a level of sainthood in my family that no one else has ever attained. I wanted to remember my grandmother fondly, and I wanted to miss her, but the way some others in my family spoke about her as if she had been the most unerring, completely sinless human being they’d ever known was a difficult untruth for me to swallow.

I know reverence for and special pedestal placement of the dead is not uncommon. I know it’s the norm, in fact. Long has it been tradition not to “speak ill of the dead,” a precept likely based on the idea that people who cannot defend themselves should not be badmouthed. But my grandma is the closest person to me whose death I’ve experienced, and rather than mourn her with happy memories the way the rest of my family seemed to be doing, I chose to focus on her flaws, the things she got wrong in life, the ways she failed. I think this was a psychological attempt on my behalf to bring balance to what I viewed as sentimental, inauthentic blathering from my family members about what a wonderful person my grandma had been. I have never thought my grandma was not a good person, but it bothered me endlessly that many flaws we all knew about were suddenly brushed under the rug upon her death. I was angry and irritated by actions I perceived to be dishonest and fake. “DEATH DOES NOT A PERFECT PERSON MAKE,” I would write angrily in my journal, or shout to my empty house.

I did not understand why we couldn’t mourn her as she was – a loving wife who often kept her husband’s erratic behavior in sharp check; a meticulous keeper of house whose home was always clean but sometimes felt like a museum for all the breakables you weren’t supposed to touch; a fun grandmother who loved to laugh but also a stern disciplinarian of any of her grandchildren who behaved in ways she didn’t deem decorous; a devoted member of a pastor’s family who never gave up on her loved ones but sometimes did lose her temper with them; a woman who could appreciate a good practical joke but not an irreverent one; someone who loved to play games but stuck to a rigid and legalistic understanding of what the “sin of gambling” was (no playing cards allowed, but all dice games were, for some reason, allowed).

My intent here is not to paint an unbecoming picture of my grandmother. My intent is to depict a human being who was complex and flawed. Basically good? Yes, I believe so. But imperfect? Yes, certainly, if only by default of her species label.

But, after her death, my family appeared to have a tacit agreement that her shortcomings and flaws not be discussed. We must all pretend they didn’t exist, and that was not something that came easily to me. Yes, I loved my grandmother. Yes, I missed her. Yes, I would have her back on this earth and alive and healthy today were such a thing possible. But she had faults, and in the wake of nobody else acknowledging this truth anymore, I began to over-acknowledge it whenever I thought of my grandmother. Any time someone spoke of her in an overly sentimental way, I felt the need to combat the inauthentic-feeling emotion by remembering (to myself, not out loud) one of her mistakes. Over time, this unhealthy practice began to have the unsurprising effect of building resentment and bitterness in my heart toward my dead grandmother, mostly over tensions that lay between us while she lived but that I either never addressed with her or never forgave her for.

One such incident occurred when I was only nine years old. At that time I was the youngest of three grandchildren in the family, and the only girl. My family often joked that I was “the favorite granddaughter,” and even though I knew this was only by technicality of me being the only granddaughter (age-old joke that it is), I still took pride in being the favorite something, even if we all knew it was a jest.

The year that I turned ten, though, a new grandchild was born. Nobody knew the sex of this grandchild until the delivery day, on which my family received a phone call to let us know the news. My grandma was the one calling, and she asked whoever answered the phone (one of my parents, I presume), if she could speak to me. I, excited at the prospect of a new baby in the family, eagerly took the phone and said, “What is it?!”

My grandma’s voice came clearly over the phone, “Audra? Guess what?”

“What!” I could hardly contain my excitement.

“You’re not our favorite granddaughter anymore.”

I don’t remember what happened after that; I only remember the pervading emotion I felt.

What my grandma should’ve said, and what she meant, was, “We can no longer claim that we have a favorite granddaughter anymore because now we have two we love equally.”

But what an emotionally underdeveloped, nine-year-old, favorite-by-default granddaughter heard was, “You’ve been usurped. The new baby is now our favorite granddaughter, and you aren’t.”

Now, as I approach the age of thirty, I know that my grandmother meant no ill by her statement. I know she didn’t mean for me to be hurt, to take it the wrong way, to cry privately about it and build resentment toward both her and my poor, innocent baby cousin over the fact that I had been – as I felt, anyway – replaced. I also know that in her excitement over the birth of a new baby, and her desire to share with me the celebration of gaining another girl in a male-majority family, she did not take adequate time to ponder exactly how to word what she meant to communicate. Or maybe she did, and got too flustered to remember it correctly, who knows.

But I was nine, and I didn’t know any of that (at least, not for sure for sure) back then. And so the hurt festered, and the resentment and bitterness toward both my grandma and my only female cousin grew. My instinct now is to feel ashamed that it happened that way, but again, I was nine. I had no tools by which to process my hurt, or to articulate it. And thus was planted what may have been my first experience of my grandmother as imperfect.

There were other experiences along the way, and I wasn’t the only one to notice them. It’s not like there was a long list, and we certainly didn’t have grandma-bashing sessions; I’m just saying, I’m not the only person in my family who had tension or conflict with her over the course of our lives. My grandmother was a matriarch in every sense of the word. We all at intervals adored, respected, and sometimes feared her.

When I was between the ages of twelve and fourteen I had another experience that later cast my grandmother in a negative light. She was a pastor’s wife for almost the entirety of her life with my grandpa. And she was a very good one for her generation. She kept an immaculate house, she played the piano during services, she stood around greeting parish members after church until the sanctuary had all but emptied out, she was friendly and kind and remembered small details about the lives of the parishioners, her clothes were always pressed and clean, and she regularly entertained guests of all kinds in her home. She was truly the picture of a perfect pastor’s wife, adroitly executing her half of the “Pastor and Mrs. Marvin” career package.

But she didn’t always do it without complaining. Once, during a summer visit I was making to their home, I was following her around like a puppy after a Sunday morning service. I was ready to go back to the parsonage to sit around and do nothing (and get out of Sunday church clothes, of course), and I wanted to be sure I was by Grandma’s side when she decided we could go. I remember she ushered me out of the church building more quickly than usual that particular Sunday, not sticking around until every last person had been greeted, not running around cleaning up abandoned Sunday school rooms or dumping half-full pots of coffee in the kitchen sink, not bustling around and turning off lights as she exited each room.

I don’t remember if I asked for an explanation of her hurried behavior or if she offered it unprompted, but I remember what the whispered explanation was: “Let’s get out of here, quickly. If [church parish member’s name] sees me, she’ll want to talk, and then we’ll never get out of here, and I’ll have to invite her to dinner, and I don’t want to do that today.”

At the time, I remember feeling I had been given a reprieve. For the first (and last) time I could remember, I didn’t have to idle around the church building, waiting for one or both of my grandparents to wrap things up. We were going straight home, like normal people did after church! I had won a small but important victory, for I was on summer vacation as a young teenager. Wandering around church buildings waiting for my elders was not on my summer vacation agenda. Sitting around watching TV or movies at their house, though, was.

But I’ve never forgotten my grandma’s words or attitude from that day. They were distinctly inhospitable, and I’ve thought of that moment often over the years, most usually when internally searching for those negative ways to balance out the excessive sentimentality that followed her death, which I mentioned before. Never, I’m ashamed to say, did I also consider the fact that her behavior that day, inhospitable though it may have been, was also supremely uncharacteristic. Never have I considered why she might not want to get drawn into a conversation with a particular parish member, but as an adult who has been drawn into numerous conversations that I did not wish to be part of with fellow churchgoers, Twitter users, or coworkers, I can certainly understand the involuntary cringe that occurs when a person who is long-winded, or difficult to be patient with, or particularly rude, or socially awkward, initiates a conversation.

As a pastor’s wife, my grandma probably had few to zero outlets for her tiredness or inability to handle certain situations on a given day. Perhaps that Sunday she was extra weary. Perhaps she was thinking of the fact that her teenage granddaughter, whom she only saw a couple times a year, was in town, without parents or brother, and that she wanted to maximize the quality time we could have instead of spending it entertaining someone she knew would probably drive me to another part of the house in boredom. Who knows. As I admitted, I’ve never until recently considered what might have been her motivation. I’ve only taken what was most likely a weak, uncharacteristic moment on her part, and have mentally used it against her in the days and weeks and years following her death.

All of my built-up, unresolved resentment toward and frustration with my grandma reached a climax a few weeks ago when a few of us were cleaning out some of her things one Saturday at the house she shared with my grandpa. (We’ve cleaned her things out slowly over the years, it being both too painful and too much volume to do it all at once.) One of the things we found this time was an article she had written for and gotten published in a now-defunct publication called Nazarene Preacher. None of us in the party (made up of my parents, my grandpa, and myself) even knew she’d had anything printed in that publication. We’d never seen these articles before. My grandma was known by everyone in the family as an excellent writer, but it occurred to me when we found these articles that I’d never really read anything she’d written.

I sat down on the bed my grandparents used to share, opened the publication to the page where my grandma’s name was printed, and began to read. To be perfectly honest with you, the publication being called what it was, and my grandma being featured in a column specifically for pastors’ wives, I did not have high hopes for the article. But I was quickly captured by a voice that felt familiar, intrigued by a personal life story I’d never heard. This article, published in 1970, related the personal struggles of a young pastor’s wife, who worked outside the home to supplement the family income, and was also raising four boys, the eldest two of whom were teenagers in 1970. The article, in a very short space, contained a raw and honest account of my grandma’s assessment of her own shortcomings, her misgivings about her duties as a pastor’s wife, her self-doubt about her ability to meet the expectations of that particular and demanding life role. The farther I read, the more familiar the article felt. Even though I’ve never raised children and have never been a pastor’s wife (or even a regular wife, for that matter), I recognized the genuine reflection and introspection I saw unfolding before my eyes. It was the kind of honesty I usually only see…where?

…In my own writing, I realized.

The article ended on a hopeful note; one of encouragement to herself that also served as encouragement to any other wife or mother who might find herself in the same predicament of doubt on a given day.

When I reached the end, tears having welled up in my eyes, I was struck by the overwhelming realization of how alike my grandma and I are, both as writers and as people. Her familiar, inviting voice was my writer’s voice. Her honest, informal, good-naturedly self-deprecating, lay-everything-bare style was my style. And yet, I’ve not been externally influenced by her as a writer because that was the first time I’d ever read anything of hers. I’ve developed those traits naturally over the years. They’ve always been in me. I didn’t know until that day that they were in her too.

I took that article home with me, and I tear up every time I think about it or look at it. I forgave my grandma that day, for all her shortcomings, flaws, and general stains of character. And I gained a new understanding of why we don’t discuss them anymore. It’s not that we’re ignoring them. Nobody thinks my grandma was perfect. But she was part of us, and pieces of her are in all of us, and maybe the best and most faithful way to honor her memory is to cultivate those best parts of her that we find in ourselves.


Filed under bloggy, sentimental

Pine Tar Press Feature

Today I was published on the esteemed Royals blog Pine Tar Press. I rather liked the article I wrote, though, so I wanted to make sure it made it into my personal blog archives too so I can keep track of it.

So hop on over to where I wrote about the relationship between new Royals beat writer Andy McCullough and Royals manager Ned Yost. For those disinclined to click because it sounds too baseball-y, there’s very little baseball discussion in there. It’s more of a candid discussion of public personalities.

Enjoy. I’m grateful to PTP for giving me the opportunity to write for them. Love those guys.

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Filed under baseball, irreverent

I Am Not a Turtle (Or, Lemme Outta This Box)

I no longer want to be forced into the introvert/extrovert boxes. 

I am way too much of both to feel comfortable choosing a side.

So please stop generalizing and cramming me inside those parameters.

Please and thank you.

I posted the above text recently on Facebook because so much conversation seems to revolve these days around the introvert/extrovert debate, and so many people excuse or explain away behaviors and mannerisms by slapping one of those labels on it.

However, I, for one, don’t feel comfortable being labeled and dismissed. I am not one dimensional. I am complex, and so are you. Sometimes I display introvert tendencies, and sometimes I display extrovert tendencies. Either way, though, everything I do overall is just an Audra thing. I do what I do because I am who I have become. Sometimes that matches up with introversion and sometimes with extroversion and sometimes it’s a combination of both and sometimes it’s something way out of left field that nobody has bothered to define yet.

I’m also tired of the fact that (as this Gawker article so hilariously pokes fun at) introverts want to be left alone but whine about being understood. Introverts scream for space but post a million things a day online about how to understand them. Introverts have more of an online presence than most extroverts I know (myself excluded), and yet they whine about needing to be left alone. What I’d really like to say to introverts is, if you want to be left alone, don’t remind us all that you’re still around by posting online forty times a day. Out of sight, out of mind. If you disappear, we’ll leave you alone. Promise.

The reason a lot of extroverts don’t have an engaging online presence is that they’re out in the world, doing something, being their extroverted selves. Introverts, on the other hand, stay home – because “that’s where they get their energy,” but then they apparently use up all that energy arguing with people on the internet because, by the time I ask them to hang out next, they’re too tired, and need alone time.

Now, all of that is a little tongue in cheek. However, my friend Elizabeth wrote about her introversion the other day in a kind, unassuming, personable way. A way that made me want to try to understand introversion, and her, better. And in the comments she and I had an exchange wherein she said:

Now you’ve got me wondering what it is that introverts assume wrongly about extroverts, though . . .

So I decided, without being a researcher, to write some things about extroverts that introverts either don’t know or don’t seem to understand. After all, if introverts are allowed to publish eight internet articles in the last month about themselves, surely the web can handle two about extroverts, right? (We can’t produce more than that because we’re outside, though, doing things. Case in point: Once I click ‘Publish,’ I’m going out for a run.)

Without further circumlocution, here are ten things that the word extrovert does not mean.

1) Extrovert does not mean limelight.
Just because I’m an extrovert does not mean that I want to be the center of attention at the karaoke bar, or the regular bar, or the work party, or anywhere that a large crowd is gathered. Enjoying being around people does not mean enjoying having all those people look at you and expect something from you all at once. Now, it’s most likely that the majority of entertainers and performers are extroverts, but that’s not a two-way thoroughfare. Being an extrovert does not mean one wants to be or is an entertainer or performer.

2) Extrovert does not mean Energizer Bunny.
Introverts seem to think that extroverts never get tired and never need a chance to recharge, which is simply not true. Our recharge times and activities may look different, or not take as long, but they are needed and important nonetheless. At the same time, though, extroverts understand that time does not stop, and the world still spins, despite the need to recharge. They are more willing – and possibly more able – to continue to live life in normal ways, pausing occasionally to recharge but knowing that optimal recharge isn’t necessarily always feasible. Extroverts are willing to run on lower than full battery for longer than introverts are because they know that a world where everyone shuts down at once would not be a world worth living in. (Take Mexico, for instance. They place prime importance on the afternoon siesta. When was the last time you heard someone describe Mexico as having a “booming economy” ? Or even the last time you heard someone say, “Mexico. They’ve got it figured out.”)

3) Extrovert does not mean clingy.
Yes, extroverts enjoy your time and attention. Yes, they probably make you feel like they would take as much as you are willing to give, but there is a limit. Just because you haven’t found it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Extroverts are capable of being discerning, boundary-observing human beings, and they do not need your attention 100% of the time. It helps to establish clear boundaries so that they know when and when not to ask you for quality time. And quality time is, in fact, they key term here. When extroverts are engaged in activities they deem quality – meaningful conversations, fun outings, etc. – they do get excited by that, and energized. Whereas introverts seem to have a mercury thermometer that starts at 100 and goes down to 0 beginning when the activity starts – no matter what the activity is – extroverts are able to discard the thermometer as soon as any interaction enters into the realm of quality. It is not interaction for interaction’s sake that energizes the extrovert. Quality time feeds an extrovert’s “feeling loved and worthwhile” bucket, so extending those interactions only makes it overflow, and who isn’t a fan of that bucket overflowing? Extroverts don’t want to spend endless time with everyone, so if they continue to want to spend lots of time with you, take it as a compliment.

4) Extrovert does not mean afraid to be alone.
Extroverts do not fear solitude and silence, nor is it always necessarily viewed as unproductive. Extroverts are not afraid of the proverbial dark. They are capable of being alone, and lots of them even enjoy it. For me personally, I have learned that my extroversion is better served if I live alone. I enjoy being out and about in the world, and I take opportunities to leave my house as often as I receive them. (When I lived in Oklahoma, for instance, my dog learned to train his bladder for long hours alone. I think the longest I ever left him alone was 28, possibly 36, hours. No accidents in the house. But we did stand in the grass for a looooong time that day after I arrived home.) The point is, I might go out six days of the week out of seven (or not, at this age). But when I come home, that is my space, and I have no desire to invite anyone into it. I am going to take off all my clothes and turn up Pandora really loud and dance around the house completely naked. Or I won’t. I’ll make some tea and cuddle under a blanket and read a book. Or I’ll sleep in my bed. Whatever I do, though, it’s important that it be done alone because once I shut my front door, solitude is what I crave.

5) Extrovert does not mean Party Animal
When I was a younger, springier chicken, going out six days a week out of seven might have meant carousing around and painting the town red (but, knowing me, likely not). But more often than not, for the extrovert, it just means being out and about and participating in life and the world around us. Going to a library function, an art festival, the zoo, a baseball game, etc. These aren’t grandiose affairs to be experienced once every six months. These are Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday. Just because we can handle being busy doesn’t mean we want to attend and get drunk at every party at every bar in the city. It rarely (if ever) means that, in fact. Someone who wants to go out to the bar every night and get drunk every weekend is not an extrovert. That person is simply 22. (And if that’s the type of person you’re trying to avoid, then do what the rest of us figured out a long time ago, and stay away from Kansas City’s Power & Light District.)

6) Extrovert does not mean attention-deficit.
Extroverts are totally capable of finishing what they begin. It’s just that doing so does not always feel necessary or important.

I hope you’re able to take some of my sarcasm and some of my truth and come to a little more of an understanding about extroverts. One time, I complained that I was tired of reading about introverts all the time, and how come nobody ever wrote anything about what extroverts need, and I got a response (from an introvert) along the lines of: “Because, you’re too needy, and you’re loud, so everybody already knows what you need.” Or something like that. It was a joke, I believe, but it felt careless too. The implication was that introverts know everything there is to know about extroverts, and that extroverts are easily understood because they’re shallow, and loud, and obnoxious. It’s true that some extroverts are those things. But nobody likes to be generalized.

And maybe everything I’ve written here is wrong. I know that I have introverted qualities. Supposedly being a writer is a sign you’re an introvert. (Whatever.) Maybe my explanations here are more true for me, someone who tries to balance identifying with both sides, than they are for blue-blooded extroverts. Take from it what you will. But my main goal is to help introverts know that, just as they feel the need to be heard and understood, so do extroverts feel the need to be un-labeled, un-boxed, and un-generalized. Because as soon as you make a generalization, you dismiss someone. And as soon as you dismiss someone, you strip that person’s dignity and right to a complex personality.

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Filed under bloggy, irreverent, writing exercises

On Knowing a Published Author

It can be difficult to be a writer sometimes. Not just because one’s prolonged ability to stare at a blinking cursor seems to improve and lengthen with each looming deadline. What if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t have deadlines? you ask. I would venture to say that all writers have deadlines. Some are mandated by a publisher, like the end of the year, or month, or week, or day.

Other writers, like freelancers, or those whose income doesn’t depend upon their turning in (or even finishing) their work, have less concrete deadlines. These types of writers might feed their ambition by setting personal goals for themselves, like so many words per day, of anything, no matter what; or to finish a novel by the time they’re thirty. I am the type of writer who employs these more flexible deadlines for myself. My deadlines hover in the realm of, Write that blog post about the upcoming election sometime before whoever gets elected finishes serving his/her full term. Or, Finish your novel before you are dead (but maybe after Grandpa dies, so as not to offend him with your copious use of the d-word).

Yes, it’s difficult to be a writer. Especially when there are so many times that I come home planning to spend my evening writing but then am met with any number of obstacles that would wear upon my conscience and motivation until I shelve the laptop and succumb to temptation. These temptations, of course, manifest themselves in the form of tasks and responsibilities such as cleaning the bathroom, snaking the basement drain, clearing my attic of squirrels’ nests, or promising social enticements like the conversationally awkward, unable-to-grow-facial-hair guy in his mid-thirties who’s been pestering me for a date for the last six months, or going with Grandpa to pick out a cemetery plot.*

Last but certainly not least, being a writer can be difficult when you have friends who also fancy themselves writers. Because sometimes your friends end up being funnier than you, or more eloquent, or more concise, or more published. Such is the case with my recently acquired friend Katie Savage. Now, to be fair, Katie has managed to do a lot of things before me in life, such as be born, get married, have children, reach the age of thirty and still wear makeup, etc. So she’s obviously superior to me in many ways, and I shouldn’t take it personally that writing happens to be one of them.

But (as briefly as possible because I know I’m losing those of you who don’t even know me and are only here for what you thought would be but are now beginning to suspect is not a review of Whirlybirds) I did take it personally, at least at first. Before I even knew Katie, people were telling me I needed to know her. Mutual friends of ours told me on multiple occasions that we had a similar sense of humor and similar writing styles. I was not closed off to these comparisons or (what I would learn later were) compliments, but the fact remained that there existed no feasible way in the course of normal life to get an introduction to this mystery person, so I shrugged it off.

Until one day. On that day, I walked into my boyfriend-at-the-time’s apartment to pick him up for whatever we were planning to do that night. He was in a particularly good mood and couldn’t wait to tell me why. He had just finished reading his friend’s “thesis,” I think he called it. I’ll let you eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.

“Oh? You read someone’s thesis?” said I, mentally calculating how long a legit thesis would have to be in comparison to my fledgling and surely-not-thesis-length novel, which had been in his possession for some months now, and which he had not yet finished reading.

“Yeah, it’s my friend Katie Savage’s. It’s more of a collection of essays, really. I think she’s going to turn it into a book or something.”

Of course I recognized the name. I also felt slightly deflated by all this information but nodded, smiled, and did all the supportive-girlfriendy things a woman will do, as congenially as she possibly can, when her boyfriend is praising another woman.

However, I was also ready to drop it and move on. “So. You ready to go?”

“Yeah. You know, I really think Katie is probably the best writer I’ve ever known.”

And there it was. Heart: cracked. Balloon: deflated. Self-esteem: vanished.

Some of you might want to defend this mistake, but before you do, let me just try to explain why his parting comment was so hurtful.

My identity as a writer is everything to me. Absolutely everything. If I don’t have my writing, what do I have? Nothing. And if I don’t have the support of the person I’ve given my heart to, what do I have? Nothing. To be compared to a peer by mutual friends and thereby feel in immediate competition with her was bad enough, though tolerable. To be told, however, to my face, by the love of my life, that she was better than me was insufferable. Even if it’s the truth.

If you occupy the role in my life of Holder of my Heart, then you can tell me any truth you like except this one. Tell me I’m too short, too plain, too weird, too stubborn, too rude, too blunt, too emotional, too callous, too poor, too smelly, too unkempt, too attached to my dog, too crass, too analytic, too obsessed with baseball, too Democrat, whatever. I can take all those truths. But – and I’m sorry if this is asking too much of any potential suitors out there who might be reading – if you claim the title of my boyfriend (or someday husband) and don’t think I’m the cleverest, most articulate, most fun, most talented writer you’ve ever personally known, well, then, my heart just won’t be able to withstand that.

Now, I didn’t bring you through all of that to focus on what a poor decision that particular boyfriend made on that particular day. I brought you through it to help you understand the jealous, competitive obstacle I had to overcome in my heart when I actually, finally met Katie for the very first time. Luckily, to be concise, her writing is as good as everyone says it is, and she is as cool a person as I had been told, so it wasn’t easy to dislike her, even though I tried very hard. (Sorry, Katie – both that I tried to dislike you and that you’re finding this out for the first time in a public blog post.)

I’ve also brought you all this way to set up the proof that you can trust me. Katie and I have known each other for about a year now, and though I think we can legitimately be called friends, I don’t think we can legitimately be called close. Therefore, you know now that whatever I have to say about her book (which I swear I’m getting to) will not be driven only by my sappy desire to praise my friend.

So, if anyone besides the author-in-question herself is still reading, I shall thus commence my review of Katie Savage’s first published book, Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times: Reflections on Faith and the Changing of Seasons.

Quickly, I’m going to get out of the way the things about the book that did not particularly push my happy-reader (or, as the case may be, happy-editor) buttons. And then we’ll get to the flowery stuff. First, without knowing much about the book beforehand, I wasn’t exactly enticed by the vague, wordy title. Without the cover design (which I’ll get to in a second), I wouldn’t have even been able to deduce what the word whirlybird refers to. I’d never heard that word. On the cover, however, is a framed depiction of what I grew up calling a helicopter. Not an actual helicopter, mind you, but one of those seed-pod things you throw up in the air as a kid and watch as it twirls down to the ground, much in the manner of (duh) a helicopter. So there was that mystery solved.

But I didn’t particularly love the “ordinary times” part of the title either. It just seemed so bland, and to be perfectly honest, a book that purports to be written about one’s personalized reflections of faith already isn’t likely to be one I’m gonna pick up off the shelf unless I happen to know the writer in real life because I’m just not that interested in very many people’s personalized reflections on faith. That is an aspect about my personality and reading self that many may view as a character flaw, and I guess that’s fine. We all have our literary preferences. But the point is, I was disappointed with the term ordinary times. Until, that is, I received the book in the mail and opened it up to the table of contents, wherein I discovered that Katie has organized her essays in a manner that follows the calendar of the Christian church – a large portion of which includes something we call Ordinary Time.

Ah, of course! I thought. It’s a play on words! How clever! And so, I came to quite like the title, and all the more for the fact that I greatly respect titles that seem vague and meaningless until one has read some portion (if not all) of the book. It’s like a reader’s reward, or something. It’s nice.

As for the cover design, it’s cutesy and pretty-looking. But it’s not the most engaging, most compelling, most tempting cover I’ve ever come across. Part of the reason for this is that, though I’m not exactly a design specialist, I have had the luxury of knowing some really amazing cover designers. My former coworkers Joey and Tyler, and my personal friends J.R. and Arthur, are all better designers than whoever designed the Whirlybirds cover, and that’s not Katie’s fault at all. That’s the fault of Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), for not employing more creative, more talented designers. (If any representatives from Howard Books are reading this, please click the links from J.R.’s and Arthur’s names above. They really are very good designers, and you could use their help; I’ve seen your other covers.)

The last thing I was disappointed with (which, again, is not Katie’s fault) was some of the editing. There are a few minor, fairly inconsequential things I would’ve done differently, and that’s okay. But the one thing I could not abide through the entire book was the capitalization of pronouns referring to God. It is a common misconception in Christian writing circles that God pronouns (he, him, his, himself) ought to be capitalized. The truth is, they’re abysmally distracting, and nothing uglies up a layout faster than a page full of capital H’s. Plus, it’s a basic tenet of the Chicago Manual of Style.

So, Howard Books, you’re 0 for 2 on your book production staff. Might want to do some hiring in the near future. I am available, if you’re handing out jobs. Oh, and if you are handing out jobs, you might want to hire new layout designers too. The layout of this book employed a magazine-article style, which is intolerable. There are pull quotes on almost every page, which is, again, so distracting. Helpful in a magazine article – when you’re skimming because you only have five or ten minutes in a waiting room. But this is a book. People are reading every word. Release the pull quotes. (I did end up not hating them, though, at certain times when I wanted to write a long comment in the margin next to one and they afforded me extra space for doing so.)

Okay, so now we get to the stuff I like about this book, which is, honestly, everything else. Everything that Katie did herself, in fact. Since I am a woman, I can’t comment on an audience for this book. I mean, she does talk about things like the relative size of her breasts, and breast feeding, and breast pumping, and squashing her sore, milk-filled breasts with the strap of a heavy bag. (Don’t worry, if you think you’re sensing a theme. If I remember correctly, all of the breasty references are constrained to one chapter…two, max.)

Katie writes about other stuff too. Like a difficult summer she experienced as a teenager when a friend died at church camp. And a harrowing, riddled-with-misadventure trip through Europe one Christmas holiday. And the hilarious shortcomings she views in herself (such as the fact that, for a long time in her life, she never cleaned underneath her oven knobs). And an awkward evangelism experience she had to participate in one time, in which she was to play a drunken demon, even though she had never actually been drunk and wasn’t sure what it looked like.

The best thing I found about Katie’s book is that, despite the subtitle potentially scaring off certain readers, with all its mentions of faith and reflections, it’s really just a book about the human experience. And it just so happens to be written by someone whose experience includes believing in Jesus. It’s true, there are references and allusions to Christian-y things that might escape a non-well-read, non-Christian reader, but that won’t really detract from the quality of the reading experience. Katie writes with both a depth comparable to theologians and an accessibility that will invite and welcome anyone who isn’t actually interested in all the God stuff. She spends enough time talking about non-God stuff that anyone who is not drawn to those parts will still remain engaged and interested, but for those who are drawn to them, she also ties everything together beautifully in a way that any author I’ve edited could only hope to do.

The margins of my copy of Whirlybirds are filled with my notes, mostly of laughter. But there’s also a fair amount of assent and agreement because, as it happened, the further I got in Katie’s book, the more convinced I became that we are twins separated at birth (never mind the fact that she’s two or three years older than me). There were even a couple of times when I read my own thoughts on the pages. Sometimes I loved this. However, the third or fourth time it happened, I began to feel I was running out of material for my own future book. When that happened, I underlined the sentence and wrote in the margin: Dammit! She’s stealing all my lines!

Which brings me to the d-word I alluded to before. Which I finally feel comfortable admitting that I (sometimes) like to use in my writing, and Katie is the reason I’m finally willing to admit it publicly, in front of Grandpa and the world. See, Katie uses this word no fewer than four times in her book, and once, at the very end (when she must’ve thought we all stopped reading), she uses the s-word! So, I’ve succumbed to this self-inflicted peer pressure and have decided that if Katie can do it publicly, then by golly, so can I, dangit. Well… I’m still getting used to the idea.

Anyway, the point is, this book is really good, and if you know Katie, you should definitely read it. Heck, you need to buy it! If you don’t know Katie, I still think you would enjoy it. And if you are not a Christian and don’t know Katie, well, I still think you’d like it. If for no other reason than the abundance of one-liners, or, as stand-up comics like to call them, zingers. There’s a lot of them, and I’ll just give you one because one of the Amazon reviews quotes a whole bunch, and that made me mad because I felt that those particular lines were spoiled for me, even though they really weren’t, and even though the book is pages and pages full of them, so it didn’t really spoil anything at all.

The one I liked in particular is actually one of the ones having to do with breasts. It’s near the beginning, and Katie talks about the changes her body went through during her first pregnancy. It reads thus:

My pregnant breasts were as dainty as my regular breasts, and my delusions of bountiful cleavage – even cleavage that lasted only a few months – rapidly faded.

The reason I liked this line so much was that it produced this margin note: And now, so have mine! :(

And those delusions of mine have faded even more now that I’ve finished the  book and realized just exactly how similar Katie and I really are. So, that’s a bummer (about the breasts, not the similar personality thing). But here’s the thing: Katie’s a damn good writer, and everyone should know it. And now, I can agree with that old ex-boyfriend of mine. She probably is the best, most talented writer I have the pleasure of personally knowing. And, it’s actually pretty cool that now my shelf reserved for Authors I Personally Know has two books on it!

Thanks, Katie, for being brave enough to publish a book. You’re a great author. And thanks also for making it all the way to the end of the Most Tangential and Off-Topic Book Review Ever. By the by, can I come to dinner sometime soon? I’d love to get my book signed.

*Apologies to my grandpa, who took a few hard hits in this post. For the record, he neither bases his love for me on the foulness of my language nor lies at death’s door. On the contrary, he’s really quite genial and hospitable and still has an impressive spring in his step. I do hope he’ll forgive me.


Filed under bloggy, books, irreverent, nonfiction, reviews, the industry

The Rise of the Blog

The below is an article my good friend Amanda Reese and I collaborated on for CultureWest, but again, like the previous post, the whole magazine was axed before our article had a chance to be published/posted. This is not a funny post, and it is rather formal compared to what you’ve been used to getting here, but Reese and I worked hard on it, and it deserves to be shown somewhere. So here it is.

Facebook. Twitter. Blogosphere. Five years ago, most people had never heard of these words. A few people, perhaps aspiring writers or journalists, kept blogs, but Facebook was just starting up, and Twitter wasn’t even on the radar. In these days of instant updates and fast-paced media, the “state of the blogosphere” is becoming a new source of fascination that not even the most technologically advanced mind could have fathomed. To many, the rise of such outlets on the Internet is a frightening sign of the decay of our society. But for most, the newest wave of technology is refreshing and full of unending possibilities, continuing to find ways to bring people together faster.

The advancement of e-mail and texting continues to prove that human beings crave connection. What’s the point of writing a Facebook status update? Why the need to text? Because we all desire information, and the quicker the better. But before Facebook, before Twitter, before texting and e-mail, there was pen and paper. It’s interesting that putting a stamp on a postcard and placing it into a blue box is now considered snail mail. What was at one point the most effective way of receiving information is now almost a thing of the past. And much like sending an e-mail or updating your Facebook profile is preferred to mailing a letter, many people choose to keep an online blog rather than writing in a journal or notebook. Why? Because it’s an easier way to make a connection. It’s a faster way to write a story and get it out there for everyone to see.

In December 2004, almost five years ago, Technorati, a well-known source for quarterly “State of the Blogosphere” reports, tracked 23,000 new blogs daily. As of April 2007, Technorati was tracking more than 70 million weblogs; that’s 120,000 new blogs created worldwide each day. Or, to put it more simply, 1.4 blogs created every second (http://www.stephanspencer.com/blogging/blogging-stats).

Not surprisingly, the creation of and posting on blogs jumps up dramatically during the summer months. People are out doing things and seeing people and generally have more to write about (http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000493.html April 2007).

Blogs are also quickly becoming a viable source for news and other information on a broader level. While blogs are still used as a sort of personal diary, there are many other uses as well. Blogs have also become a place for commentary on current events and hot topics from around the globe—politics, celebrity gossip, religion and the newest president, just to name a few. It’s clear that we like things bigger and faster than the day before. Today’s news can spread with the push of a few buttons, and we no longer need a phone call to update someone on our current status, which poses the question: Does human interaction have to be face to face? Not anymore; and just as “snail mail” is being replaced by the convenience of e-mail, are blogs also replacing books?

Aside from blogs, the newest wave in book technology is the electronic reading device—the most popular of which is certainly Amazon.com’s Kindle—by which readers can download entire books electronically to a handheld device and read (virtually) wherever they are. With the rise in popularity of these devices as well as the rise of blogs, are we seeing the end of printed books as we know them? Are books being edged out slowly, eventually to become a rumored piece of history, a mere story the elders tell to enthrall the children? And what hand are blogs having in this online–physical-print struggle?

A cursory perusal of the most heavily trafficked blogs on the Internet may yield an interesting trend. At first glance, the shorter the post, the more comments a blogger seems to get. Since we are finding new and quicker ways to send and receive information, skimming and glancing are of the essence, and posts that get to the point appear to be what readers prefer. Is this a positive trend, or is it something that will eventually cause all English teachers to revolt? With emphasis on shortquick, are grammar, syntax and style being sacrificed? After all, blog and -post comments are rife with common text lingo, such as atm (at the moment), imho (in my honest opinion), b/c (because) and btw (by the way). Beyond that, concern over the correct use of your and you’re becomes obsolete because both are effectively communicated by typing ur. While grammarians and English teachers worldwide are cringing over such blatant disregard for a beautiful language that appears to be going the way of the once elegant and revered language of ancient Rome, there is no need to revolt just yet.

For yes, anyone who can manage to navigate a computer and the Internet can create and maintain a blog. But if one spends even more time perusing the blogosphere, one will learn something entirely different: Well-written blogs can become just as popular as short-post blogs. The sheer number of comments on long, well-written blog posts appearing on such popular blogs as Waiter Rant (www.waiterrant.net) or Attack of the Redneck Mommy (theredneckmommy.com) or Starting Over at 24 (startingoverat24.blogspot.com) proves that there are still readers out there (and many of them!) who prefer the intelligent use of language to speed.

So what do these popular bloggers write about? And how do they get so popular (besides a talent for writing, that is)? An even closer scrutiny may prove that themed blogs are generally preferred by readers over blogs that seem to have no specific purpose or focus.

To use the aforementioned examples, Waiter Rant is a blog dedicated to sharing what it’s like to be an underpaid, professional waiter in New York City. The blog was so wildly popular that the previously anonymous writer and maintainer, Steve Dublanica (formerly known as just The Waiter), was asked to emerge from the shadows of anonymity to compile a book, which he did—Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip—Confessions of a Cynical Waiter—and which was released in 2008.

Attack of the Redneck Mommy and Starting Over at 24 have not yet achieved that kind of fame, but they are both still prominent in their own right in the virtual world, amassing large amounts of followers and subscribers that most flash-in-the-pan bloggers could never hope to attain. Redneck Mommy keeps her audience entertained with humorous, cynical commentary on her frazzled but lovable home life, and the writer of Starting Over at 24 (who generally just calls himself SO) has gained his following (of mostly women) by writing on the perils of modern-day dating, while being able to make fun of himself and his own failures.

All of these blogs seem to thrive because they are real, well written and vulnerable. The writers willingly make themselves vulnerable by sharing intimate details from their lives, and vulnerability is the factor that creates human connection more quickly than anything else—save perhaps humor, which is also a prevalent element in each of these blogs.

In the end, people who actively participate in the blogosphere are still looking for only one thing—human connection. Status updates, Facebook friend requests and blogs. Where will we be five years from now? Odds are, we will all be still writing, still talking, still communicating with our fellow man. We won’t stop wanting to know what’s happening in the world around us, nor will we stop wanting to share our dreams, thoughts and daily lives with anyone who will listen (or read). And even though older generations might not necessarily understand what they view as the impersonability of the online social networking world, it remains clear that blogs, whether themed or un-themed, short or long, are just another (albeit much more high tech) avenue of feeding that connection we all inherently crave.

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Filed under bloggy, the industry

The Myth of the Happy Ending

For about three months I was part of a magazine called CultureWest. However, it didn’t survive. This post stems from an assignment I was going to do for the mag, but the mag was killed before the assignment was due. So I’ve decided to produce it here instead, probably in poorer quality and definitely at a shorter length than it would have been otherwise. So here goes.

If I could get on a soapbox (other than this one, I guess . . . which would be silly . . . because this truly is my soapbox, but whatever), here is one (more) thing I would say to writers and authors everywhere: Don’t fear the tragic.

Writers tend to avoid unhappy endings. They think that a happy ending equals closure, and that does not have to be true. They also think a happy ending equals a happy reader, and that does not always have to be true either. Yes, stories often need definitive closure, but closure doesn’t have to mean happily ever after. (Whether a story really needs closure is a whole other blog post.) Writers have gotten this erroneous impression about the “need” for happy endings from readers who think that they want happy endings.

But just as my authors don’t usually know what’s best for their own books, so do readers not usually know what they really want in a story. And I think that by giving them what they think they want, we are insulting their intelligence and allowing them to wallow in a mire of mediocre material where they don’t realize what kind of literary luxuries they’re missing.

Let’s take a look at one of history’s most revered and respected writers – Will Shakespeare. If given ten seconds to name as many of his plays as you can, I’d be willing to bet this computer I’m typing on that in ten seconds, you could (and would) name more of his tragedies than any of his works from other genres. Heck, Romeo & Juliet is the first play that springs to most people’s minds when they think of good ol’ Shakesey. (And don’t comment and tell me something different. That just means you’re the exception or you’re showboating, and I don’t care.) After R & J, the plays I can name the fastest are these: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though not all are tragedies, the first three are, which of course you should have seen coming because it proves my point, and why would I write anything contradictory to my point?

Shakespeare was a great playwright because his tragedies moved people (and still do). People get pissed off when they read Romeo & Juliet because anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that has lasted longer than a week knows that communication is the key element missing from Romeo and Juliet’s relationship and that their pathetic, dramatic, teen-emo-worthy deaths could have been avoided had they just had better communication or a little patience. (But then, where would the story be?) Still, it’s infuriating to watch these adolescent idiots moon over each other and make mountains out of molehills and end up dead because they let their hormones control them.

However, are not rage, annoyance, anger, infuriation – are they not emotions? Even if you’re sensitive (read: silly) enough to feel pity for the two lovers or mourn their deaths, is that not still a reactionary emotion? Has Shakespeare not stirred you? Of course he has! Which means he has written well.

I love the phrase character you love to hate because it describes a writer’s skill so well. There is a prime example of this technique in a movie I recently watched, He’s Just Not That Into You. In discussing this movie with a couple of my friends, I said there was a particular character (Gigi, in case anyone has seen it) in the movie whom I absolutely hated, and my friends both gushed that they loved her. I asked how they could, and they said “Because she’s so cute!” And I said, “But she’s so stupid and clueless and pathetic and annoying!” One friend argued, “But she’s supposed to be over the top. No one is really like that in real life.” Whether the character traits were exaggerated intentionally or not, the character still got under my skin and I still hated her.

Which means that the writers did a brilliant job with that character. Not to toot my own horn (but then, why would I have my own blog if I didn’t intend to do just that), but I think that my reaction to the character is “correct” and my friends’ reactions “incorrect,” in terms of assessment of technique. I don’t think viewers are supposed to love this character. If she is a well-written character and if the actress portraying her is doing what she’s supposed to be doing, then viewers should be annoyed by her because she’s absolutely ridiculous. In a movie, the ultimate effect is comical, yes. But in real life, nobody would want to be this girl’s friend. Especially not me. In essence, we are supposed to love to hate her. Which I do.

This is what tragic/sad endings are supposed to do as well. If done right, a tragic ending should anger the reader or make him cry, and if it does, the writer has achieved her goal. If you have a strong outburst of negative emotion that directly pertains to a scene in a book, then it should not matter whether you “like” to cry or you “like” sad endings. All that should matter is the fact that such a reaction was able to be evoked from you. If you don’t like to cry, all the better. Because I think it’s safe to assume that if you don’t like to cry, you don’t do it often. Which again points to the skill of the author who succeeds at making you cry (like Nicholas Sparks, for instance).

An example of someone whom I believe fears the tragic is J.K. Rowling. If you haven’t read all seven Harry Potter books and don’t know how the series ends (and don’t want to), please do not continue. You have been warned. If you would at least like to see my conclusion, then just skip the next three paragraphs and pick up with the words I don’t respect. . . .

Before you get in a tizzy about the fact that I’m critiquing one of the world’s most renowned writers, please note that I am in no way disparaging Rowling’s talent as a writer. I think she’s brilliant, and I love her series. But I think she got afraid of where it was going and took control near the end instead of letting the story and characters take their natural course.

I would have loved to see her kill off Harry. Of course I love Harry, but that’s exactly why I was hoping he would die. My outpouring of emotion over the death of one of my favorite literary characters of all time would have been intense, and it would have been warranted and well earned. Now, I know that Rowling is no stranger to tragedy in her fiction. I know she kills off a lot of people, especially in her last two books, and I did cry over most of them. But what courage it would have taken for her to kill Harry, and what skill it would have required!

Writers who risk everything by being bold and daring enough to be willing to upset readers are met with a challenge that forces skill, determination, and supreme effort. And the ones who succeed are to be commended rather than decried. I still love Rowling, and I know my opinion in the literary world is worth chicken sh*t (but then, that’s why I blog about it instead), but I’d have really respected her a whole lot more if she’d been courageous enough to kill him. And I was superbly disappointed by her attempt at closure in her happily-ever-after epilogue. To me, that felt like a coward trying to hide his shame.

I don’t respect readers who say they don’t like sad endings. If that is really true, then they aren’t realizing their full potential as readers. To me, this is like the person who says he avoids dating or relationships because he’s afraid of getting hurt. This person isn’t doing himself any favors. Instead, by closing himself off from love or the possibility of it, he’s missing out on a lot of fantastic emotions and feelings and experiences.

I can neither respect nor relate to people like this. I don’t care if I end up hurt. Wounds heal, and a broken heart isn’t going to kill me. I’d rather have the laughter, the physical touch, the intensity of shared emotion, and the chemistry and spark that come from human connection. Tears always dry eventually.

So for the sake of their readers’ emotional education, writers have to be willing to break hearts. It doesn’t mean that everything they write has to be sad. But all writers should be more open to the idea of hurting their readers, and all readers should be more open to the idea of getting hurt.


Filed under bloggy, books, irreverent, movies

Author = Arrogance (Not Writer)

*This post is not at all a specific reflection on my company or its authors. It’s an observance of the industry as a whole. And the trend I discuss here is not only prevalent in the publishing industry but in any industry you’ll ever scrutinize.*

Is there a difference between an author and a writer? Absolutely.

Without even looking the words up in the dictionary, I have decided that yes, there is a difference, and quite a resounding one, at that.

If you asked me, I would tell you that I’m a writer. I am not, however, an author. Though I haven’t looked the words up, I am pretty confident that author denotes (if not denotes, at least connotes) publication of some kind. I am not published. I have never been (credibly) published. Sure, I’ve got high school and college pieces in literary publications, but those don’t count. Nothing I’ve ever written can be found on a shelf, whether cyber or oak. Nothing I’ve ever written can legally or taxably be purchased. Therefore, I am not an author. But a writer I am, through and through.

Okay. So. We’ve established that writer does not automatically mean author. But here’s the real question: Does author automatically mean writer? And the answer to that is an equally resounding no!

The availability of resources to get onself published does not mean that one should be published. Just because one has something to say (or thinks he has something to say) does not mean it should be said, and if said, does not mean it should be heard by the masses.

The publishing industry is just like the rest of corporate America, and no, this is not meant to be a diatribe on capitalism, wealth, or Republicans. But the truth remains that those who have money and resources get published, and those who don’t, don’t. That’s why not all writers get to be authors, and it’s certainly the reason why not all authors can be called (by those with respectable taste for the industry and craft) writers.

Is that why I’ve never been published? Because I don’t have any money? No. Certainly not. I work for a company that will publish my work for free if I so desire. It’s one of the perks. I’ve never been published because I’ve never attempted to be published. I’ve never had the desire. I’ve never felt like I’ve had anything worth saying that people should have to pay money to hear (or read, rather). I suppose that’s why I blog. At least if I piss people off, they haven’t wasted any money, only time.

It definitely takes a certain amount of arrogance to let oneself be published, whether the process is self-sought or one is paid to do it. The bottom line is, every author who gets a book professionally published is sending the public a message that what he/she has to say is not only worth listening to but is worth paying money to get.

What if Hyde Park were run this way? What if the public speakers refused to stand on their soapboxes until the potential audiences paid cash at the gate? The crowds would have been smaller, and there are several famous people who never would have garnered the large audiences they did if this had been the case. So why are we forced to pay for books, which are just what public speeches are, except on bound paper and mass-produced? And why indeed are not all writers given the chance to be authors, and why are many authors such disgraces to the community and industry and art of writing itself?

This is a depressing trend, and there’s no end in sight. Even with the downturn in economy, the book market is still flooded with simpering, insentient drivel that deserves not even acknowledgment, let alone a monetary reward or even profit. (See any book published by a politician.)

So back to it. I’m a writer. Not an author. So what makes me qualified to be an editor? Well, just because I haven’t got the arrogance or financial resources to get myself published doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about. But that still doesn’t convincingly explain why my authors should trust me. So listen up.

Any authors or would-be authors should look at it this way. Unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or John Grisham or Sara Gruen or heck, even Tina Fey, apparently, chances are, you’re digging into your pockets and drawing on your personal resources to get your book(s) published. You’re paying us, in other words (“us” being the publishers). But, and here’s the rub, the publisher is paying me to fix your book.

Let’s repeat the simple math on that one – you (the author) pay money to get your book published. The publisher turns around and pays me (the editor) to make your book good before it goes on sale. By logical default, that makes me the expert, the professional – the better writer, in laymen’s terms – and therefore, the one who is right in 99 percent of our disagreements. And that’s why you should not argue with me.

All of this is not to say that I’m completely humble. In fact, I’ve never claimed to be humble, and this post pretty much proves I’m not. Just because I don’t have the guts to ask people to pay me in order to read what I have to say doesn’t mean I don’t think highly of what I have to say. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be the writer and maintainer of multiple public blogs. I wouldn’t force my writings upon my friends and family as soon as they were completed. Of course I have something to say. And of course I think it’s worth hearing. And as soon as someone drops a contract in my lap without me having to do any legwork whatsoever, I’ll consider having my name (and words) printed and bound and put on a shelf accompanied by an unreasonable price. But until then . . . I’ll just complain about the fact that I’m a better writer than most authors out there (including Tina Fey).

P.S. Here’s more evidence of my non-humility: if you read this blog on a regular basis and don’t comment, please comment! I only do this for the comments. If I were doing it for posterity, I’d pull an Emily Dickinson and become a hermit and stash all my writings in a cedar chest to be found and revered upon my death. But I’m not humble. I want to be revered now!

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Nine Writing No-Nos

I meant to post last week, but I contracted cholera (not really, my mom thinks it was the flu) and was out of commission for a good three days. I did continue to go to work, but I don’t remember anything that happened during those three days or anything that I edited. It was not good. My colleagues would talk to me, and I knew they were talking to me, and I would just stare at them blankly. Then I would go into a coughing fit and worry everyone for about nine seconds. Then I’d blink and stare at my screen as if nothing had happened.

The one good thing about being on my deathbed at work was that I got a lot of pity, and two of my male coworkers happily refilled my orange juice cup all day long. Ah, chivalry. It’s nice to milk it.

A post I’ve been wanting to do for a while is one that addresses the rules of writing that I rigidly enforce with my authors and then break in my own writing.

However, before I do that, I’d like to give two reasons I break said rules.
1. Jim Wilcox
2. Lynne Truss

1. I have told this story a lot because it’s so flattering. But perhaps there are a select few who haven’t heard it yet. When I was in college and taking Advanced Grammar with my favorite professor ever, Jim Wilcox, I frequently went to him with grammatical questions that gave me particular trouble. After I posed one such question and provided two “right” answers and asked him if there was a preferred one, he said something to the effect of:

“Audra, you are so good at grammar that you can start making up your own rules.”

Then he suggested we write a grammar book together. A project I’d have dived into wholeheartedly if not for fear I’d let him down because I possess not half the wit he does.

2. Ay, Lynne Truss again?! Yes, Lynne Truss again. I consider her my friend, though she does not know me. I feel she is one of the only people in the world who would truly understand me. In her book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, which we discussed at length last time, in her chapter on commas, she discusses the comma splice (which she sometimes calls the splice comma) and the grievous sin of using it. She goes on to say the following:

Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous. . . . Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.

The comma splice is not a rule I tend to break often. However, I take the principle she applies specifically to the comma splice and apply it to my writing style as a whole. Technically, I would fall into her second categorization: done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. However, with the support and laud of Jim Wilcox behind me (which I don’t necessarily have now, but having it at one time is as good as having it for life), I am easily bumped to the “established writer” category so that my violation of any rules of writing is pulled off (in my opinion) as effective, poetic, dashing.

That said, let’s get on with it. Here are nine rules I regularly enforce with my authors but break regularly myself and in fact did so in the first two posts on this blog.

1. Don’t veer too much from the thesis. You’ll lose the reader’s interest. Stick to the point.
But alas, as the afternoon wore on and the little bugger did not show up – acting like a perfect bastard of a grade-school boy who promises to meet you at the fence separating your babysitters’ backyards at four o’clock so you can discuss your ‘relationship status’ but then mysteriously goes AWOL without so much as a note impaled on the links of chain – where was I? Oh yeah. As the afternoon wore on . . .

2. Parenthetical thoughts are rarely essential or even effective. Stay focused and leave these out.
People who have sub-par grammar can still be hilarious, or kind, or sensitive, or good listeners, and they all can certainly still purchase my dinner! (On the flip side, people [such as myself] who have consistently excellent grammar can also still be hilarious, kind, sensitive, and good listeners! But I’d rather not purchase your dinner, so don’t ask.)

3. Don’t speak directly to the reader; he will find it jarring and intrusive.
And if you, the proverbial reader, don’t actually exist? Well, more for me I guess (though I’m not really sure what that means).

4. Don’t overuse adjectives. One or two will suffice.
Anyway, because of my brilliant, clever, witty, humorous e-mail, I decided . . .

5. Don’t use scare quotes. They are rarely, if ever, necessary.
Oh wait, that last is just a lingering memory of a funny Super Bowl commercial about “flowers in a box.”

6. Cite your sources, avoiding the Internet where possible.
According to Cyril Connolly (whoever the hell that is – we all know I got the quote off some such pedantic, I-need-to-look-smart-without-having-to-do-much-work Web site like writingquotes.com or something), “Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self.”

7. Don’t overdo it with the analogies, metaphors, similes, or allusions. And don’t mix your metaphors.
Two days ago the thoughts were all silvery and slick, swirling around in my head, waiting to be plucked out with a pensieve. And today? The thoughts are on vacation.

8. Do not use a hyphen in place of an em dash.
However, our training teaches us not to squash their dreams in the editing phase – that’s for the marketing reps to do!

9. Do not refer to future or past points in your book; if it’s in a previous chapter, they’ll know it’s there because they’ll have read it already; if it’s coming up, they’ll get to it.
I choose my friends based on factors like connection and chemistry, not whether they know the difference between when to use its and when to use it’s (more on this later, though).

So there you have it. I’m one of the world’s worst violators of sacred writing rules. Blame Jim Wilcox for giving me a huge ego. Blame also Pam Bracken, another of my college English professors, who commended me for speaking directly to the reader in a formal paper in one of her classes. She even said, “Normally I hate this, but you do it so well, and your style is so conversational that I couldn’t help but be drawn in.” And I got full credit on that paper.

It’s definitely time to sign off. I know this post wasn’t awesome. For that reason I’ll leave you with this. I have a collection of real sentences from books we have published or are publishing. Most of the sentences in this collection are outrageous or just poorly written. They are all worth second reads. Every now and then I’ll share some with you. Here’s one of them:

Our historical neglect of doctrine has produced untold congregations of spiritual retards.

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