Saturday, January 29, 2011

well written

I've been thinking about this quote from my recent blog post: "the incessant dribble of mini-messaging has made most people's daily use of written language brutally factual in character, more private ad copy than prose."

The statement may be literally accurate; who can say? Taking "mini-messaging" to be tweets, Facebook status statements, and the like, it may well be that most writers make no effort to craft handsome prose. But out of each day's millions of tweets and 'statuses' many are a pleasure to read. Some have poetic force, some are neatly aphoristic. Others are moving, arresting, or funny.

I like the ones that make good use of deadpan humor. Some of this is black: "Blowing out my candles, I wanted to wish for world peace. But then you harmonized the end of Happy Birthday so I had to wish for you to die."[1] Some is gentle: "Dear guy that asked me out in high school & is now a millionaire: I am entirely shallow now and will reconsider. XOXO, Summer." Some is pleasantly gross: "It's breathtakingly beautiful, the dim light of the office fridge filtered through the fine mist of a really good sneeze." Some graphic: "1) Watch women walking ahead of me slip on ice. 2) Mentally write tweet about her slipping. 3) Slip on ice. 4) Mentally rewrite tweet." Some mildly intimate: "Plucked one eyebrow, but am too lazy to pluck other one. Instead I shall live out the rest of my life looking suspiciously intrigued."[2]

The "incessant dribble of mini-messaging" quote comes from Adam Haslett's excellent article in FT: The art of good writing. One of his worries is that online communication via email and social media produces "a kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect." From Strunk & White and other style nannies writers have gotten the mistaken idea that you should always try to eliminate the inessential, use the one right symbol to stand for bunches of words, and make prose muscular by paring it down with Hemingway concision.

I thought about this today while absorbing blog posts by two favorite writers.

The first is a young woman born in Ireland, now living in London. A couple of days ago she wrote a brief reminiscence called Lay Of The Land and today she writes of a brief encounter with Seamus Heaney: Let The Hare Sit. There's no point in my copying extracts; both pieces are short and you should go there and read them. And do, too, make the jump out to read Heaney's poem, The Creggan White Hare to which she links.

The second writer is a Swarthmore history professor who also has made two recent posts on his blog. His are longer and not personal but issue-oriented. The first takes the outpourings of anger in Eqypt and other Mid-East countries as a starting point and moves on to reflect on the effectiveness governing elites everywhere. It's Falling Walls, Burning Buildings, Gutting Budgets, and in it he says,
In the past decade, both global and local political classes have offered nothing but enfeebled incremental, technocratic and self-absorbed fumblings to a succession of shared economic and social crises, hemmed in on all sides by both self-inflicted and exterior constraints. Not even evident self-interest can push some national elites towards reform: now in Egypt, yesterday in Zimbabwe, tomorrow who knows? rulers, ministers, bureaucrats continue commit elaborate forms of social suicide, driving not only their people but their own fortunes towards the abyss, sometimes in the most transparently avoidable ways.

I’d welcome the uprisings and rejections save for the dreadful likelihood that in most cases nothing better lies behind it. No one knows the way out of this cul-de-sac, nobody has a better idea. In many cases, those most disaffected by or angry about the deterioration of the nation-state’s capacity and vision have still more horrible or destructive ambitions in mind, where the best thing we could hope for would be a bewildered, enfeebled liberal democracy weakly steered by weary technocrats lacking in all conviction.
The second post is about the practical value of courses in liberal arts colleges, whether it's enough to say that students gain the ability to think critically and that this is an extremely valuable life skill. The post is Skills, Competencies and Literacies, Oh My and in it the author says
If a parent asks me, "What will my child get from studying with you and your colleagues for a price tag that will buy me a house in some real estate markets" and my answer is solely, "They will understand the mysteries of the world a bit more deeply" or "They will be a better person", those are legitimately repellent or unworthy answers for a great many people. (And we shouldn’t be particularly pleased with the parents who will be satisfied with the idea that we’re making a future elite a bit more cultivated and dignified.) I can’t understand why we would ever insist on those as solitary or exclusive answers. I would say instead, "They will be better at almost any job they choose to do and any life they choose to lead, in ways that I can describe quite concretely, and part of being better is that they will understand the mysteries of the world more deeply and have begun to explore the art of being human within those mysteries".
These writers do not seem to be struggling to pare down their prose to minimal essentials. They appear (to me) to be using the words they need to get across what they have to say. And they both succeed very well. The more you read of them, the more you appreciate their styles. They aim to communicate and appear fully confident in their ability to do so. Their prose is lucid and never seems overworked or intended simply to impress.

My first author doesn't give her name. The second is Timothy Burke.


There are good photos on ganching. I particularly like the one on the Lay Of The Land post but can't show it here because the owner asserts full copyright protection. The owner of this (somewhat similar) photo permits sharing under a creative commons license.

Oliver Perkins took this photo of fields in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. It appears on his flickr photostream



[1] The king of black humor might well be Jonathan Swift who wrote "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse." Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704).

[2] Here are a few more. Some of these are like the one-liners of standup comics.
  • Don't ask her about the band-aid don't ask her about the band-aid don't ask her. “What happened to your face?” Dammit.
  • Full of peace and calm this morning. Googled my symptoms and found out I died in my sleep.
  • I'm proactively rewarding myself in advance for not procrastinating later by taking a nap right now.
  • "I taught the dog a new trick! Watch this!" He points at dog and says "Look cute!" I want to roll my eyes but damn, that dog IS cute.
  • I'll never be the girl who walks in the room and commands everyone's attenHEY! Can you at least finish reading this tweet?!
  • If Europe goes bankrupt, I might buy Portugal as a fixer-upper. Depends on the number of bathrooms.
  • Day 65 of unemployment. I buy a party hat for my cat, think about knitting him a matching cape.
  • I was *so* not into things before not being into things was a thing.
  • I made eye contact with someone in traffic and then didn't let them merge. I feel like a Bond villain.
  • The Census shows there are 82.8 million Moms. None of them can believe that you're going outside in THAT.
  • Realized I haven't received a forwarded urban legend email in days. Sensing a great disturbance within my Mother-in-law's computer.
  • Open my favorite web forum…50 people arguing about a coffee grinder reviewer's motivations…close my favorite web forum.
I got most of these via a Google search for 'best tweets.'

1 comment:

Brass Castle Arts said...

I appreciate your comments on the dearth of good writing which the electronic media encourage. Perhaps the best defense against minimalism of this kind is to persist in crafting well-written work. Good work will endure.