A Poem of Pain in Loss

This week’s post is a poem I wrote about the pain of broken community. Whether communion be broken by close friend, family member, or society person, we all can relate to one who feels hurt by (what she feels is) betrayal, who yet refuses to let go.

Lamentation

With jagged spoon, you gouged my aorta

quartered an important organ, slopped it on the sidewalk,

mortal, palpitating, hanging by shreds

leaving

part of me

dead

 

We are each other; I am you; you are me

Communal veins and arteries

 

Until

my silent pleas, my unheard cries

died on lips

skinned

with

brimstone

when I saw you

shunned.

 

The Ban                is             done.

 

Quivering at time’s grave,

my sulfur tears

pour for the light terror

that thrills you in its grand resolution

of dissociation

of the mystery of community,

where we sip each other’s blood.

 


So how could you break faith?

 

I am a woman because

your relieving amputation,

your cauterization,

your risky prevention,

is my suffering anguish.

 

I will forever agonize over the murdered Now

and hope for you

through quiet love you didn’t ask for.

 

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You Think Language Isn’t Important? Microstyle Begs to Differ

One fantastic book I read this summer was Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. I picked up this snappy writing guide at my local library because as a writer I think it’s important to read books about composition. I definitely hit the jack-pot with this volume, a book about successfully communicating in small spaces.

In today’s world, how do you capture a person’s attention in slogans, company names, advertising jingles, social media, and bullet points of blog-land? By carefully crafting your message and playing with linguistic patterns, says Johnson, a Berkeley-trained linguist, who has worked as a verbal branding consultant for Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that developed the names for Pentium, Blackberry, Swiffer, Febreze, and others.

An extremely successful linguist, Johnson PLAY WITH LANGUAGE FOR A JOB. I’ve always said that linguists have the most fun (and Johnson delivers with this satisfying read). And it IS fun, not uptight like that grammar Nazi friend of yours. Johnson writes, “Linguists are, quite simply, specialists who take a scientific interest in language. They want to know how language works, and they’re not interested in judging you. Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language” (12). Oh Christopher, I couldn’t agree with you more! I despise when people find out that I have a job teaching English and inevitably remark: “I better watch my grammar.”

Johnson smirks at this reaction: “Prescriptivists are language poison sniffers. They pay little attention to what makes language delicious… I believe that people could genuinely love language more if they shifted their focus from judgment and insecurity to curiosity and appreciation. We do interesting things when we use language, whether or not we’re being “correct,” and we should all be able to relish and discuss those things without fear of embarrassment” (12). Grammar isn’t playful or poetical, but language is.

And we respond to it subconsciously, which means that if you’re using language AT ALL in your job as a business owner or working in marketing, some of Johnson’s insights may prove beneficial to you. He talks about why some brand names work better than others. Why some ad campaigns bring business and why others fall flat. In the book, he explains why “Apple” works as a business name, and why it is that we say “dry land” and “solid ground” but not “dry ground” and “solid land.” And, amazingly, WHY THIS MATTERS for writers and business owners.

A sampling of Johnson’s artistic writing tips:

When writing in small spaces, be clear, especially if you’re promoting a product.

Consider these ad slogans:

LISTERINE FIGHTS BAD BREATH

MILTON BRADLEY MAKES THE BEST GAMES IN THE WORLD

I JUST SAVED A BUNCH OF MONEY ON MY CAR INSURANCE (Geico)

It’s pretty clear what service is being offered. But not every business gets it right. For example, Johnson grumps about Twitter’s new description of itself on its homepage: “Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It’s a whole thing.” Johnson quotes Steve Spillman from Slate magazine, “‘Seriously, Twitter, ‘It’s a whole thing’? That’s the way I describe Twitter, but I’m a 20-something New York hipster, or something close to it. And I’m usually not trying to get millions of people to sign up, or whatever you are trying to do with this. This doesn’t say anything about how Twitter works’” (49). While it’s sometimes okay to play with ambiguity, Twitter ultimately fails in its homepage description.

Another campaign slogan Johnson deconstructs is Google’s old Droid slogan: A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES, whose failures include but are not limited to the verb “do” becoming the noun “does,” but possibly being scanned as the third-person singular of “do,” or even the plural of doe, as in the female deer, in which case, what is it doing in a bucket, which metaphorically refers to the phone, we presume, which is also “bare-knuckled” (?) A tragic case of mixed metaphor, to say the least. In small spaces, one can’t afford to be unclear.

When writing in small spaces, choose the right word.

Since microstyle depends on briefness, it is highly important to be choosy. Consider the company Reebok, who named one women’s shoe style the Incubus, which Johnson defines as “a demon from medieval folklore that rapes women in their sleep.” He concludes, “If you aren’t absolutely certain what a word means, at least look it up in the dictionary” (55). Truly, when it comes to writing in spaces as small as A SINGLE WORD, choosing the right word is critical!

When writing in small spaces, push buttons.

Writers effectively appeal to emotions to achieve desired effects. When Maytag employed the slogan OUR REPAIRMAN ARE THE LONELIEST GUYS IN TOWN, “they knew that we’d sympathize with those poor repairmen even though we knew they were fictitious, and that we’d remember their plight (73). For emotional appeals to work, they either need to be very subtle or especially over-the-top. However, some fall in between these two extremes, resulting in, well, unappealing appeals. (I simply loved all the moments when Johnson points out how writers sometimes just plain miss it.) Johnson complains, “CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE. Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?” (74). With emotional appeals, either go big, or go home.

Besides noting the intensity of the appeals, one might also be aware of the varying types of emotional appeals: self-actualization (US Army: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE, Apple: THE POWER TO BE YOUR BEST), generational rebellion (THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE), and spicy (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science). Johnson deconstructs that last one: “The… title connects eco(yawn)nomics to the titillating topic of nudity” (76). A title from the latter category that I’ve discovered on my own: Naked Anabaptist: the Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Hmmm yes, I notice this appeal to sensuality. Apparently the idea of reading about Anabaptist theology is so mind-numbingly boring that the writers figured that the only way to get people to buy their book is to make it sound SEXY. (Seriously now. Aren’t you A LITTLE curious about these naked Mennonites?)

When writing in small spaces, zoom in on telling details.

Johnson opens this section by citing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Talk about telling details. (Sniff.) In small spaces, you can’t tell the whole story, so you’re going to have to decide which parts to leave out and let the readers “connect the dots.” The problem lies in deciding what to leave out and in using metaphor inappropriately in the included details. Johnson includes one painful example: “Choosing the wrong way to indirectly evoke an idea can result in bad framing… In 2010, I saw a billboard for 7-Eleven with the following slogan: ‘Stuff your face with value.’ Pictured on the billboard were two pale, unappealing lumps that I believe were microwaveable burritos. That was the ‘value’ you were supposed to stuff in your face. This ad might appeal to people who enjoy taking their meals at 7-Eleven, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Part of the reason stems from its peculiar use of metonymy. The word value refers to the food items that can be had at 7-Eleven. Tangible food is represented by the concept of the economic value you enjoy when you purchase it. But value, while desirable, lacks both specific sensory associations and emotional appeal” (88). Therefore, the details you include must be the ripest, freshest ones you’ve laid eyes on. You’re appealing to emotions, are you not?

When writing in small spaces, use ambiguity for good, not evil.

A sampling of newspaper headlines, which may have got it wrong:

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

PROSTITUTE APPEALS TO POPE

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF

MCDONALD’S FRIES THE HOLY GRAIL FOR POTATO FARMERS

This reminder of the possibilities of ambiguity had me giggling over here like:

When writing in small spaces, say the wrong thing.

Sometimes, saying the wrong thing will appeal to your target audience. And even if it sounds wrong, the implication can still be positive. Volkswagen did this with its THINK SMALL campaign. (I mean, we’re supposed to THINK BIG, right? Nope. Volkswagen is reminding us that sometimes compactness is more environmentally friendly.) The company continued this marketing trend with its UGLY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP campaign and WHILE IN EUROPE, PICK UP AN UGLY EUROPEAN (113). Here’s a smirk-inducing campaign: “Avis Rent  A Car System used to boast, ‘We’re number two. We try harder.’” (Hertz had run a campaign about being number one. Avis. Those little devils.)

When writing in small spaces, keep it simple (in relation to sound).

For the love of Pete, make it easy to pronounce. Johnson describes the problem of hard-to-pronounce names: “Stephen Merritt…decided not to keep it simple when naming the albums for one of his side project bands called the 6ths (itself a real mouthful). The band’s two albums are called Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles. This tongue-twisting names are a sort of a practical joke—a radio DJ’s nightmare. Just imagine having to announce one of these albums on air… Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west” (125).

Indeed, I have found there’s a good many people who cannot pronounce “sixth.” It invariably comes out as “sikth” (INCORRECT) versus “sikSth.” (Please let’s include the “s” in there, shall we?) But due to the amount of consonants there (four total!), it’s hard to pronounce. And even Ed Sheeran can’t do it, using the incorrect pronunciation “sikth” in his chart-topping song “Photograph.” No wonder my students can’t pronounce the word. Nor can they correctly pronounce “especially.” Half of them insert an anomalous “k” sound at the beginning, articulating “EK-specially.” Poor dears. It’s “ES-specially.” From where do they get this “k”? They create more work for themselves by adding sounds that aren’t even there. This also happens in the word “escape.” For my students, it becomes “eK-scape” for some unknown reason. And they’re just stumbling over TWO consonants!

But we should take Johnson to heart. Too many consonants are problematic. (OH FRIENDS. My own domain name features multiplicities of consonants of which I am now very insecure. More than one acquaintance has given me a hairy eyeball when I suggested they check out my blog “Shshchtashtshsffphoaugh.” Announcement: blog name change coming soon.)

When writing in small spaces, break the rules (in relation to structure).

I’ve always said that good writers know the rules, but if they have a reason to break them, they do so confidently. Certain misspellings can be used to create a brand. (We’re not thinking KOA Kampgrounds or anything, but more clever uses like that of “Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, author, and social media commentator, [who] used the following bio on his Twitter profile: ‘Bald, Unreliable, Easily distracte’” (155). This sort of clever rule-breaking extends one’s message. There the misspelling augments Shirky’s message about his quirky personality. Indeed, the misspelling is not some far-flung pun attempt, like that of Ephrata’s local “Compleat Restoration.” The company’s logo features the curiously spelled “compleat” atop two houses and a cozy flame. (Google the image.) When I saw the logo, I assumed the company installed new heating systems (complete… compleat… heat). However, the company’s website indicates that it is a disaster restoration service, specializing in fixing fire and flood damage and that “compleat” is an Old English spelling of “complete,” chosen in order to “set the company apart.” Yeah, sure, as a company that doesn’t know how to spell! What do Old English, large houses, and cozy flames have to do with cleaning up after catastrophic infernos? If I were a consultant, I might suggest that the spelling is arbitrary, unhelpful, and (like in my case) just plain confusing. There’s too much explaining that has to be done on the company website with that one. And in small spaces like company names, customers shouldn’t have to do that much work.  The odd misspelling, in my opinion, doesn’t work like Shirky’s does.

And this is where Johnson’s work shows how a firm grasp of the language of microstyle connects to our society. His showing us where the rubber meets the road reminds us what we have always known but we’ve been scared to bring up about grammar: sometimes we focus on things which students will never apply, and we skip teaching the art of applied language.

When writing in small spaces, combine words artfully (in relation to structure).

Having a knowledge of word associations and figuring out how to combine these associations unusually is a sure-fire way to make your wording stand out. A Seattle web design firm named their company Blue Flavor. A pretty fetch name if you ask me. Johnson explains why: “Colors don’t literally have flavor, but there are certain canonical color-flavor associations. Makers of jelly beans, slushy drinks, and other artificially colored foods use these all the time. Yellow for lemon. Purple for grape. Red for cherry or strawberry. Orange for orange, of course. Green for lime or mine or maybe green apple. But missing from this list is blue… Blue Flavor names a mythical taste that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never experienced before. It’s a great idea for a web design studio to evoke, and it shows the power of putting words—even just two of them—together” (175). Contrast Blue Flavor’s naming win with LiftPort, the name for a company building an elevator to outer space. Johnson bemoans the moniker: “Lifting is carrying, porting is carrying, a lift is a kind of conveyance, a port is a place of departure. Combining these words hits the same overly general and uninspiring meanings again and again, neglecting more interesting ideas like outer space, science fiction, and doing the impossible” (176). Too true! An elevator to space and “LiftPort” is the best you can do? Combining words is a delicious task unless you’re using old alphabet soup.

Finally, word combination has its limits. Don’t decorate a title which doesn’t need decorating. Be up front. Johnson jokes about “pre-owned” cars (they’re “USED” for Pete’s sake!) and other words and prefixes frequently used to ornament common things. Like the prefix “pre-.” “The most ridiculous euphemism I’ve encountered lately is pre-reclined, used by Spirit Airlines to describe the nonadjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s,” Johnson explains. “Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: ‘Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you’re already comfortable!’” (178). Ah, language. I love it more than most people.

This is only a sampling of the best bits of Microstyle. If you’re in business, in marketing, or interested in personal branding, you’ll love this book. It uncovers some subtleties of language and makes suggestions for the kind of writing that many of us do everyday but for which we were never trained—writing in the small spaces of social media, personal branding, and advertising.

How’s Your Hygge?

I refuse to write guilty blog posts. This is not a guilty blog post.

I’m here drinking lemon tea, practicing my Hygge. What is Hygge, you ask? Ahh, but that would be giving away the secret to life-long happiness. (And a self-help blog this does not claim to be.)

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But since you brought it up, I shall indulge you. Hygge [hoo-ga] is the Danish custom of intentionally practicing, how shall we say… coziness. It includes lighting candles, donning your favorite woolen stockings, sipping hot drinks, and sharing warm spaces with loved ones. This custom is practiced more as a natural way of life than anything else. (There is nothing inherently rotten about the state of Denmark, but there are polar bears and ice afoot. Little sunlight and biting winds.) The practice of Hygge keeps the Danes calm in the best sense.

Researchers are finding that the intentional practice of Hygge customs leads to the unusually high rates of happiness among our Danish friends. So does consuming large amounts of cheese. Or maybe that’s the Dutch. In any case, I have taken up Hygge.

Here I am with a new candle and a book.

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Though I actually spent most of that Hygge trying to get the right angle for my Instagram.

But I gleaned enough of Hawthorne to be very sure that there is, indeed, an eagle above the Custom House.
He also spoke to me as a writer, gently advising me to think before I publish:

“It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally.”

Help, Hawthorne. It IS?!

“But—as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience—it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk.”

Did you catch that, my darlings? We are, in fact, only distant friends.

“And then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader’s rights or his own.”

Tonight my woolen socks are in storage, I’m writing by the light of an incandescent light bulb, and I’m far away from home, but I AM sipping a steaming cup of tea, and I just finished off a piece of butter cake after giggling with my roommates about hilarious English class stories.

Hygge game strong. Very sure the happiness will start kicking in at any moment.

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If candles, books, and drinks are not your style, then you might try consuming large amounts of cheese. It has worked for the Dutch. Or maybe cheese just makes them tall. I’m not sure.

Yet, perhaps you suffer from dairy allergy, in which case, I’m sorry, you’ll just have to be miserable for the rest of your life. The only true path to happiness lies in milk products and and a good dose of Danish Hygge.

Hot Tips: How to Write for the Rest of Your Life

I just finished this book, giggling.

wordsmithy

It was recommended to me by a choir director, and I bought it with a gift card from my pastor. How’s that for pious?

I wasn’t sure how I would enjoy reading a book about writing, but Douglas Wilson makes it bearable. His writing is an amusing mix of G.K. Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, and that snarky southern uncle on your dad’s side. In short, Wilson is a conservative Reformed and evangelical theologian and also a prolific writer. He has interesting ideas about Christian education and also valuable grandfatherly wisdom regarding what it takes to “be” a writer.

Wilson describes what kind of life a writer lives. He uncovers tools that all the best writers wield regularly. And everything he tells you about writing, he uses somewhere in the book.

Reading this book confirmed my suspicion that being a writer takes a lot of work. One does not simply snag a table at the closest coffee shop, macbook and latte in hand, and get published. Good writing comes with education, experience, and with age. Writing is also a lifestyle. Wilson confirms another of my suspicions: writers must read. (Sigh. I guess I’ll be taking up THAT hobby again. I’ve just really struggled to keep reading in college!) You’ve got to read so you know who to sound like. You expand your world by reading widely.

The book is peppered with wit and wisdom, but mainly just a ton of really valuable writing and lifestyle advice. (The question is: will I heed it?)

There are also laugh out loud moments. Wilson describes the attitudes of many young writers:

“The aspiring writer would like to graduate from college at twenty-two, marry at twenty-three, and land a major book deal at twenty-four. While the right kind of ambition is good, it rarely works like that. And even if you did have a major book deal at twenty-four, you would hardly have a vast reservoir of experiences to draw from. There was that time when you went sledding with your college buddies and broke your finger. Anything else?”

And a little sarcasm, regarding his own recommendation to read one to two books a week:

“If you begin this when you were thirty and joined the choir invisible when you were seventy, you would have read, over this course of time, between 2,080 and 4,160 books. It is quite true that you run the risk of learning something, but these are the risks a writer must take.”

My favorite moment, however, was reading Wilson’s literary opinion of Eugene Peterson’s (cringe-inducing?) translation of the Message (particularly the Psalms). I’m not trying to be cynical here, but it was truly fascinating to hear a scholarly critique of this Bible translation/paraphrase from a professor and literary genius. But, of course, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

Do yourself a favor. Order Hot Tips.

Or check out Wilson’s blog at dougwils.com. …He’s entitled it, “Blog and Mablog.” (Giggle.)

If I Wrote a Novel

If I wrote a novel, (it would be a miracle because (1) I have a short attention span, so I cannot imagine ever finishing a long piece of work, and (2) I’m terrible at dialogue. I hate to say it, but I’m just not weird enough to be a novelist. Good story writers are truly weird, and I am honestly jealous of them. But, I should blog, so: should I ever find myself in the luxurious state of “having time,”) I might organize my novel something along the lines of this.

Chapter 1: I’d take a cue from Charlotte Brontë and begin with my main character’s younger self. She would be precocious, wild, and weird. Her imagination would be puzzling at times. She’s a little suspicious. She has a conspiracy theory that, kind of like the people who live in the garage opener, there are people with video cameras outside all the windows, and that’s how videos in the world are made. Once they get an interesting story, they make it into a movie to sell. This is why she hates going to the bathroom at night because the small window has no shade.

Throughout the novel, I’d try to weave in some over-arching themes of Mennonite culture. I want the novel to be very meta, very self-aware. So I’d weave in genealogies, responsibility to future generations, connection to the land, displacement, the internalized stereotype of the Dumb Dutchman, the German work ethic, persecution, nonresistance, community and discord, engagement and separation.

Chapters 2-3: I have always said that children’s rights will be the next “political freedom” movement (since we’ve already “freed” everyone else), and we really seeing a push toward that in current politics. Since the politics of children is a big deal right now (at least in English classrooms at very liberal universities), and I would love to build relevance for Anabaptist practice in modern culture, I would demonstrate how our Mennonite children are already acting within a political identity, because, in a sense, Anabaptism IS a political identity. (Has anyone ever read The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder? I haven’t. Should I?) Anyway, I would show the importance of children’s integration into most aspects of church life. They are rarely left out or set aside. Very simply: babies and kids belong in church. (That is why it is unthinkable to leave babies at home when there is, say, a choral concert.) I see this as very different from Middle class America where children are “put away” into daycares, school programs, and after-school sports. I would emphasize over and over again the “togetherness” of families whose children who grow up Mennonite. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: togetherness, every day, three times a day. Normalcy.

In Chapter 4, the main character gets environmentally conscious. This chapter also begins the character’s world travels. First, she goes on a school trip to Costa Rica. Besides zip-lining through the jungle and soaking in natural hot springs, she goes to the jungle for several days and meets a missionary doctor who’s trying to teach the indigenous people better farming techniques. The doctor might even have a biodigester under her pig pen, catching poop, turning it into methane gas, and pumping it up to the thatched roof house for cooking. In the jungle, the main character might also get bitten by the missionary doctor’s pet monkey. Something crazy. You know. Not true to life.
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Next, the character travels to Luxembourg and Germany. In a Luxembourg hotel, she’s intrigued with the way the lights automatically turn off (to save electricity) when she shuts her hotel room door. Also, in Germany, she’s struck with the aesthetics of the nearly universal ceramic tile roofs. Green roof regulations from 100 years ago.

But just when everyone thinks the main character is me, I’d throw everyone off with an obvious clue: a short-lived romance with a Turkish boyfriend.

Turkish Boyfriend

Chapter 5: The Jane Austen Dance and Mennonite Mating Rituals: In which I write a scathing satire of every Mennonite girl’s reality: the Jane Austen complex at a volleyball game. The couple meet at a fancy ball (or a volleyball game). The Turk’s eligible friend invites him to the dance (or tournament), and to everyone’s surprise, the dashing young Turk does not play (er, dance). He prefers to… do whatever it is that Turks do, while the main character dances (plays some really great volleyball), all the while trying to ignore her loud family who is match-making (or raiding the pizza table). The Turk and the character have words (at the snack table), and later (behind the bleachers), the main character and her friends discuss the eligibility of the Turk, the Turk’s friend, and whether if either of them have a “quizzical brow.” At this point, the Turk’s friend returns and asks the main character’s friend for a dance (really, another game) and the Turk is left to himself. The main character tries to convince him to play, to no avail. Finally, he joins in the last game. Suddenly, he and she are the only ones in the room (or on the court). No one present can miss the ELECTRICITY of the high fives, and the SINCERITY of the passing on of the score, and the perfect timing of a couple’s dance… the bump, the set, and spike. The dance ends, applause erupts (everyone gives high fives. The main character even gives a high five to twelve year-old Rudolph, whose pimple-pocked body smells like cheetos, so that she can honorably exchange fives with the Turk.)
Pride and Prejudice 2    Pride and Prejudice 3

Chapter 6: In which the Turk comes calling. Somehow he gets the main character’s dance card. (I think, what normally happens, is that after the game, everyone goes out for coffee, but the Turk is “new” and “doesn’t know where the coffee shop is” so he gets the main character’s number “just in case” he can’t find the coffee shop.) However, after the fancy ball (read: volleyball game after a well-attended wedding), the romance comes to a screeching halt. At the coffee shop, the Turk comes out:

“I’m Baptist.”

The main character manages to retain her composure. Later, she facebook friends him just to be nice. At least the volleyball was good.

Chapter 7: In this chapter, I would talk about the character’s social experience at public colleges and universities. I would demonstrate one of the biggest culture shocks for the Mennonite young woman: strong language. I would probably include overheard dialogue in which literally every other word is the F-word. I would write about the character’s reaction the first time she saw the “bruhs” from the hood, walking down the sidewalk, rapping and talking to themselves. Absolutely DYING freshman year, sitting through a sex-ed class in college orientation where the teacher handed out papers of “all the different kinds of sex” and had volunteers organize themselves in line, holding the papers, from “most likely to get an STD” to “least likely to get an STD.” I’d write the mortification, the awkwardness, and the young gentleman who sat beside the character and muttered under his breath: “Like this will ever be a problem for me.” Bless you, young man.

Chapter 8: A chapter of questions and answers, in which the main character is not Jewish, Mormon, or Amish, black is just a personal preference, coffee is fine, but no to the drinking, and “I don’t eat fish” means “I don’t like it,” you dummies, not that I’m not allowed to eat it. (Honestly!) Of course the answer is Jesus. But sometimes they can’t see past my culture. (Or they choose not to.)

This is a good start for now. But I still have no plot. And I need some more chapters because I don’t want it to be a coming-of-age novel! Because I hate coming-of-age novels.

The Anatomy of the College Essay: A Bare-All Feature

Finals are over!
But since I never give up a chance to write a good paper, here’s one off the books.

Yep, it’s the anatomy of the college essay, dissected for all to see. Exposed below, in one bare-all feature, are (some of) my academic writing secrets.

(I know you’re all so THRILLED.)

Actual Anatomy: the Significance of Cruciality

In college essays, you always start with a good title, preferably one with alliteration. Really good alliteration draws people in to your work; because I mean, that’s what nerds professors say. The next part of the title explains the theme, topic, and title of work that you are analyzing. Then, you introduced the broad topic of your paper in the first few lines (like I’ve just done here), after which you tell them the really technical thesis statement that includes not only the topic (mine is–the structure of essays) and theme (mine is–crucial, life-saving inclusions) but also HOW these things are accomplished (guys, it’s where ya put the stuff). Attention! Upcoming thesis! … (Drumroll.) In this paper, I will attempt to convey the cruciality of popular phrasing and its significance as it relates to essay structure, content, and paper success. (Did ya miss it? Huh? Did ya?)

One of the most important things to remember is that the first paragraph is a great place to say the phrase: “One of the most important things.” People are like, “Ooo, nice. This essay’s Important.” So now that you’ve got that, we’re gonna get down to business. You’ve got your font, margins, name, prof, class, title, and text perfectly aligned. Anyway who doesn’t is: An Absolute English Loser. Honestly. No one should hand in an assignment without the proper format. Buy stock in Bedford, it is your friend, I’m so glad we had that talk. Moving on.

In my thesis, notice that I used the first person “I.” This is an absolute college no-no. The goal here, though, is to break rules. What you wanna do is write really good papers and then break a couple writings rules so that you look really confident and bad-to-the-bone. Professors love this. Some of my favorites are: beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions. And you just might look a little smarter. Also, throw in one or two “I argue’s” throughout your paper. When you are making a really important point, preface it with “I argue.” For example:  “Blar blar blar blar blar, but I argue: This Really Important Point.” (And who’s gonna disagree with you? It’s black and white, permanent ink, on a page.)

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that when I write, I have this really nasty habit of writing HUGE WONKY paragraphs that professors CAN I GET A DISLIKE ON THAT, SISTER?! AMEN! They don’t like them, okay? So, sometimes I just [Enter, Tab], which works well visually (and sometimes professors don’t even notice this sneaky trick), but if I want to get real smarty-pants, I use the Notonlybutalso. Okay, to do this, you start with:

Not only is this intro phrase tricking you into thinking that I have an additional point to argue (but it’s really just the middle of the above paragraph), but also, you’ve completely forgotten that I didn’t have a conclusion sentence in the previous “paragraph”. [Uncontrollable giggles are in the margins.]

It is important to notice that many of my paragraphs start out with “It’s important to notice.” This is because good arguments/discussions begin on the pretense of pre-knowledge (before getting to the point). What readers don’t realize is that my “important notices” are really just the main points of my paper. But they are highlighted as if they are background knowledge, so the reader’s like: “Huh? Wait. I never knew that. This is smart.” You can mix it up with “It is important to remember,” or “It is significant to notice.” Significant-to-notice’s are really great. And even “notice” itself. Sometimes I read my papers, and I’m like, “Wow, there’s just a lot of ‘noticing’ going on here.” I mean, yeah, it bugs me, but fresh readers might not notice (heh heh), so it works.

Not only are significant things getting noticed, but they are also becoming “crucial.” You know, a 16 year old atheist Quaker (?) gave me a great writing tip once. He’s like, “I have a favorite word that I just throw in at the end of my papers. … ‘Crucial.’ I always end my papers with ‘crucial.’ Because, I mean, if what I’m saying is crucial, then what are they gonna say to that, you know?” The kid is way too smart for his own good (okay, I was his lab partner in college physics!), and I hated to admit it, but he was absolutely right. ALL THE THINGS get Crucial. It is CRUCIAL to notice the significance of cruciality.

Then. Oh my dear sacred “then.” I used to use “truly.” But I found it to be too trite. “Then” is my transition drug of choice. It would appear, then, that I truly love to use the word “then” as my favorite transition. Bliss. Also, “also” and “additionally” are my next-favorite transitions.(!!) I like them very much, they are like a married couple, or really just happy parallel words.  (Just a note: I broke a rule—comma splice for the win!)

Another important voice in your paper is your research. Every paragraph should have some quoted research by some smartsy-fartsy professor or historian. My advice? Get in, get out. (Ooo, ‘nother comma splice.) And buffer, buffer, buffer. Insulate. Hug. Hug your research. You’ve GOT to use an introduction phrase, a smarty-pants-professor intro phrase, (then the phrase) (oh, and the proper phrase citation), and finally—the explanation of the phrase. All this does is let your reader know that you probably could have published that research if you would have been given the chance. In other words, you TOTES know what they’re talking about. It’s like: “In Esther’s online article ‘Actual Anatomy: the Significance of Cruciality,’ she demonstrates how important quoted research is in academic writing. She suggests, ‘Every paragraph should have some quoted research by some smartsy-fartsy professor or historian’ (Esther 1). Here Esther explains the amount of quoted material necessary for college papers.” See? That wasn’t so hard. Now, do it every time, or I’ll bash your knee-caps in.

One of the final things to remember is that somewhere along the way, in your research, you’ll notice that one of your points doesn’t go with your paper at all, and actually, it totally contradicts everything you are trying to say. Still, put it into your paper, but only after adding a funky “paradoxically,” and once again buffer it with a quotation by some pain-in-the-butt who has already said what you wanted to say, published it, and worded it in a way that makes so much more money that you do. The inclusion of contradictory material brings a nice postmodern ambiguity to your paper. (BeeTeeDoubleYou: “paradoxically” is an A-maker just like: “juxtaposition.” Maybe it has something to do with x’s. … X words. Like, “the crux of this argument is juxtapositioned, paradoxically, between affixation and exploration.” Yesssss. Or, I guess: Yexxxxxx.)

The “we.” Do we? I don’t know. But they don’t know either. So if you make one giant sweeping generalization, begin it with: “We can tend to… at times… usually… depending… sometimes… mostly.” The “we” hooks every reader so that either the reader’s like, “CH! Yeah!” or, “Dude, I don’t feel that way AT ALL. I must be a freak. Hmmm. I should finish reading this paper to figure out more how I can become like the rest of mainstream society and not be like a weirdy toad in a closet.”

What I have outlined for you is how to begin and fill your paper, but now I will talk about the end. The conclusion is an exact restatement of all your main points (except we are smart so we use a lil different phrasing). Then you open it up. Make everything Real Broad. Correlate everything to the world, to society, and to Crucial. Once the last few sentences have truly convinced readers, then, that it is significant to notice the paradoxical juxtapositions of structure with explanation, and now that we know what has not been known, then it is important, because: it was.

I Podiumed in Poetry

So I’ve spent my summer hanging out with these people:

Image  Image

…which has been like eating a delicious dessert with my mind.

Summer has been delightful enough. I’ve made some new friends and acquaintances. And as I’ve interacted with these people (and others, who know me so much better), it has come to my attention that there is an important question I need to answer:

Why do I write?

Several people have asked this of me recently, and sometimes I have no reply. I feel like I’m sorting out a lot of things concerning roles and identity. (And I will answer just this question. I will not attempt to answer the question of the writer’s identity, or the Christian writer’s identity, or of being a female college student, or of the cultural disconnects. No, I will not answer those questions.)

Why I Write

I write because…
I am a poet. By this, I do not mean that I sit on cushions composing melancholy verses. (Thank goodness because I’m very terrible at that). It has everything to do with acknowledging the artistry of a thousand monotonous and miraculous moments. It means that I see the whole world differently than you. We poets are born like that. We are the ones who see puddles and glimpse gorgeous crispy mirrors, and we rejoice at them, and to us, they are as good as, or even equal to, mountains. As Miss Bates says, “We are the happy ones.” We are distracted away from normal conversations because we might have seen a poem. A few brave ones of us admit these things out loud:
“Look, do you see that poem?” [Anne] said suddenly, pointing.
“Where?” Jane and Diana stared, as if expecting to see Runic rhymes on the birch trees.
“There… down in the brook… that old green, mossy log with the water flowing over it in those smooth ripples that look as if they’d been combed, and that single shaft of sunshine falling right athwart it, far down into the pool. Oh, it’s the most beautiful poem I ever saw.” (Anne of Avonlea)
When people comment on how ugly the land is, we cannot even breathe because of the sky’s shade of blue. Other people “put away” cheesecake, but we perform deliberate ceremonies, and we are familiar with the specific moment when the fork meets the crust, the tiniest pressure, and the millisecond “thp” of slicing it. And when we hear music, we cannot concentrate on anything else, or even speak, and if someone does, it is as if they have broken a moral code.

I write because…
to write is to be humble. Very proud people, convinced of the worthiness of their opinions, are equally convinced of the inaccessibility of them, or the necessary rejection of their genius, and they never risk flashing their precious pearls before us, the swine. And in some ways, I understand that. It takes a truly humble person to write down one’s very silly human thoughts, sign one’s name, and give it to the world. Writing is giving, and givers must be humble. At the same time, writers can get too humble. Sometimes humble writers begin to take out all the frivolities of words because some strict and particular critic was too hard on them. Take heart. You will get your voice back.

I write because…
I cannot speak. As a poet, I take in a lot of things at once, and therefore I cannot put my thoughts together in a normal way. Sometimes things come out as poetry. Sometimes I speak in metaphors. My mind does not work, or link things, like a trained locomotive. No, it is rather like the spread petals of a daisy. And how do you link daisies? Well, you have to get to the stem and link it to a lot of other daisies. It takes a little more work, and it’s very delicate, but it’s kind of pretty.

I write because…
good writing is economical. (And since I was raised to appreciate thrift and efficiency… ) It was my eighth grade teacher who introduced this to me.
“But aren’t there some other words you could use here? Like this phrase, where you say, ‘I know I really do have a problem with….’ You could probably use a single word, or a shorter phrase, that means the same thing. Can you think of another phrase you could use here?”
I stared at my teacher blankly.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“You can’t think of another phrase, a shorter word, that means the same thing?” he asked.
“No,” I replied helplessly.
“Why not use ‘I struggle with’ or ‘I wrestle with’?” he suggested.
The proverbial light bulb went on in my eighth grade mind, and I learned, for the first time, the economy of words. And of minimalistic beauty. Like Emily Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk.”

Also, good writing is mathematical. Most writers won’t admit this to you, but writing is really actually very formulaic. Mathematicians and left-brainers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. I have a friend who is researching the connection between English and Math and maintains that the two are actually very similar and there are connections between these two content areas that we can emphasize to help students who prefer one subject over the other. While I enjoy poetical endeavors, my mind is also very mathematical, and I think in very spatial ways, which helps to write a perfect sentence, or to rearrange words until the meaning is nearer to the thought.

I write because…
words are funny. Duty. Booby. Filibuster. Kerfuffle. Pumpernickel. Galoshes. Peek-a-boo! They’re funny, I tell you! Also, words are funny because they can be awkward. Take the word “awkward” itself, with the stupid “k” between the two double-u’s, its legs all splayed out. I’m telling you, it’s funny! And sometimes words are smart and they go well together almost as if they knew they were going to be written. I mean, “trained locomotive”? Average meaning and an outrageous pun. Stop that!
And these are just single words. Don’t even get me started on humor, sarcasm, irony, and all that poetic justice.

I write because…
writing is a milestone of learning. Sometimes I might feel like Jane Austen’s Emma, “What is the point of me being almost twenty-two when there is still so much for me to learn?”
But I do not believe that we can live our lives with this idea that at some point we’ll get it all right. No, rather it is that we reach little (and I mean little) milestones of learning. Writing expresses our excitement of those tiny milestones. Or it deliberates extensively of the struggle when we feel we have not reached the most important tiny milestones.

That is, simply, why I write.