Some time back, while working on a project with my dear friend, London-based author, musician and generally clever and witty individual Joe Craig, conversation turned to the spelling of "traveling." "Should we use the American or the British spelling?" he asked. Well as it turns out, there is a difference. And this, of course, started a somewhat tangential line of thought bringing me to the word "alot" or the two words "a" and "lot" when used together as another talented, beautiful and intelligent (if somewhat grammar obsessed) friend of mine would be quick to point out.
Millions of people have decided for whatever reason that "alot" is one word. I like it. This is what language is in fact about (or "infact," I mean why not?): a consensus of the masses, evolving, mutating, blending and changing in order to keep up with our evolving, mutating, blending and changing culture. Just look at how social media has changed the meaning of words like "friend," "like," "trend" or the ever precious "tweet," previously reserved for Mary Poppins types.
One of the many things that makes the English language and its dialects (and yes from Wales to Witchitaw, it has many) so sumptuous is its nimble nature. Unlike many languages where a simple intonation can change a word’s meaning or where the language has remained static for centuries, English is alive, adaptive and flexible. This allows for endless possibilities, particularly in the world of song and poetry.
My father once pointed out what he considered a fairly stretched rhyme in a Mick Jagger tune: "life is a-bitchin', just like a politician." I have no grievance with that rhyme itself, but am somewhat disappointed in the laziness of the lyric, the flaccid poetry. Poet, author and Virginia Tech Professor Nikki Giovanni once referred to songwriting as "dumbed-down poetry." And while my knee-jerk reaction was defensive, this is the type of lyric that proves that point. If a song is melody and poetry, then there are plenty of examples of laziness on both sides.
However when Bob Dylan says:
“in another lifetime, one of toil and blood,
when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud,
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form,
come in she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
There is no denying the poetry. Another friend asked me if I had a favorite lyric. While I have many, the one that immediately leapt into my head was from Joe Henry's "You Can't Fail Me Now":
“We’re taught to love the worst of us,
and mercy more than life
but trust me mercy's just a warning shot across the bow"
So much said in so few words. And that is my point, to return to it. Language is about communication. Yes, learn the "rules" but do not be muted by them. In a world of endless phonetic possibilities, nothing is sadder than finding oneself at a loss for words. Do not fear grammatical retribution, challenge it. As any etymologist worth his salt will tell you, the meaning of words changes.
Words can be beautiful. Whether on the page or on the air, their shapes and sounds can entice, entrance, repel, regress, stimulate or be-still. But verbosity and eloquence are often out-matched by simplicity and honesty. When my youngest son was three he could express himself better than many educated adults with the simple inflection of the word "papa." After all, it is about communication and expression.
If I write "alot," you, dear reader, understand what I am saying. I once read a blog that specifically dealt with these types of grammatical issues and fancied itself rather clever. It was however, also BORING. I am much more interested in communication than correctness. If you want to be a scientist or mathematician, then do so. But even those at the top of those fields will tell you the more you know, the more you don't know. The world is your oyster or some such platitude.
It's the same in music. John Lee Hooker, whom I refer to on every possible occasion, can convey an endless variety of emotion with a few simple words. Sometimes his words are almost indiscernible, yet their intent is clear. Is there that much difference between Chuck Brown and Charles Baudelaire?
It is easily argued that irony and slang are some of the highest forms of expression. To say one thing and mean another and be understood without explanation could be considered the equivalent of rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time. If someone sings "the girl is bad" we know what they mean. A simple change of inflection to the word "fine" can alter its meaning. We live in context. We think and listen in context.
On a related note, I much prefer opera in something other than my native tongue. As a rule I find English opera to be dry in comparison with Italian, French or Spanish. I am not one to be blinded by an accent and I find nothing particularly more romantic in the romantic languages. There are few things more painful to experience, for example, than French Rap. It is merely the freedom of hearing opera in those traditional forms to fully experience or interpret the heart of the story, unencumbered by our associative linguistic preoccupations.
So breathe deep, drop a comma, add an "e" where it isn't needed (or better yet remove one), but live and let live. Speak and let speak, "a lot." Let's spend more time trying to REALLY understand each other and stop fighting grammatical boarder wars.
is the Creative Director of Hayes Design Studios.
He also appreciates funky beats. The two are connected.
by Martha Wells
One thing I've been thinking about lately is how so many writers don't have time to read. We presumably got into writing because we were readers, but the older you get, the more you work, the more you have to do, and it starts to get hard to find time for reading. I hate that.
I've been trying to make a big effort to not just budget time for reading, but to read new authors. I know how easy it is to get into a rut, to not make time for anything but old favorites. I had a long period like that sometime after my late 20s/early 30s when I sold my first novel. I somehow just became convinced there weren't a lot of books out there I wanted to read, and my reading focus narrowed pretty dramatically. A lot of it was probably due to stressful events, and my reading brain was trying to close up like a turtle. It wasn't particularly consistent, as I did try a few new writers now and then. I could remember myself in grade school and high school and college, when I'd come home from the library with a stack of SF/F written by authors all new to me, read through it, and go back for the next like I needed to keep reading to get oxygen. But I wanted to read for comfort now and had lost that willingness to take a chance on new writers.
Then in the library one day I ran across The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. I didn't think I'd like it, because I didn't think I liked literary mainstream-ish SF. (Had I actually read any books labeled literary SF? I don't know, probably not.) But I'd convinced myself I only wanted fun familiar reads and for some reason avoided books everyone said were great. But that day I picked it up and read it, and it was just as great as everyone said. I loved mysteries, for one thing, and while lauding its literariness nobody had said it was also a detective story. That broke the block, and I started making a more conscious effort to expand my reading comfort zone. Continuing to find books by new authors that everybody said were great who happened to actually be great helped a lot.
As I'm getting older, I think this is more and more important. If you only find time to read your old favorites and books by friends, it narrows your focus and your knowledge of the SF/F field. Writing is my job, and I feel like I need to keep up with how SF/F is expanding and the directions it's going in. Plus I'm really tired of seeing recommendation lists with the same three bestsellers on them. The wider I read, the more connected I feel to my original love of reading. And my brain is being stoked by new ideas and new viewpoints, and most importantly, it's fun.
by Cate Winter
I am not a patient person by nature.
I’m just not.
I’ve always been an impulsive, action-oriented creature who tends to leap before really paying attention to what the consequences may be, for good or ill. If I’ve found myself in a situation I didn’t like, I’ve changed it. Didn’t like where I was living? I moved. Had a bad hair day? Chopped off half of it and dyed it red or pink or whatever else led to a startling change pretty much instantly. Maybe it’s the bane of the Aquarius, but I’ve always felt far more comfortable with change and forward momentum than stillness (or what I’ve generally considered to be “stagnation”).
This tends to lead to an unholy amount of frustration when circumstances beyond my control mean that things I want to happen, or create, come into being much more slowly than I’d like them to. Case in point: I’ve been a writer for almost 20 years now, and have had no problem whatsoever pounding out articles, short stories, and even occasional bits of poetry. Now that I’m making an attempt to sit down and write a book, however, I find myself in unfamiliar, and less-than-comfortable territory. I mean, why isn’t this story pouring out of me almost fully formed the way my journalistic articles always have? Why isn’t my plot consistent? Why aren’t the characters developing on their own? WHY IS THIS TAKING SO LONG?
(breathe, breathe, breathe)
Recently, a new friend told me that it’s all well and good that I’ve mastered the art of leaping into action when needed, but that I’m utter rubbish at stillness and patience… and that it’s those two that I need to cultivate most of all. He was right, of course, which made me grind my molars into a fine paste, but I listened to him. He told me that I needed to start a zazen practice, which I had to look up, but involves sitting in stillness, as per Zen Buddhist tradition.
Now, I’m a person who can’t even sit and watch a movie without simultaneously knitting or mending clothes or darning socks or doing something else that I consider “productive”, so the thought of just sitting there was more than a little daunting to me. After all, I have things to do: isn’t sitting a massive waste of my time? My friend smiled at that, and said that the fact that I asked that question illustrates my need to do so. So I did.
Although most sources of Zen meditation recommend just counting one’s breaths, that technique didn’t work very well for me. Being a rather visual creature, I chose to go a different route, and discovered a technique that suits me a bit better: I envision myself sitting at the bottom of a lake. Every time a thought crosses my mind, I picture it being encapsulated in a bubble, and then that bubble rises slowly away from me, further and further, until it's out of sight. Some of those thoughts return, and that's okay: I just pop them into bubbles again without any frustration or negative judgment, and they float up, up, and away.
I’ve done this a few times now, though I’ve only managed to do so for about ten minutes at a stretch, but I am rather surprised (and more than a little delighted) by how much more peaceful I felt after doing so. I’d been stressed to the ninth circle of hell about work and finances and a bunch of other shite relating to this corporeal realm of ours, but all of that took a back burner to the fact that I felt really good. Calm, even. I didn’t know I was capable of this type of calm, but I like it.
I’d be lying if I said that this is something I’m good at already. This whole meditation thing is very, very new to me, and I still have a hell of a long way to go before I attain any measure of Zen-like serenity. What I can tell you is that I feel much less tension in my neck and forehead than I usually do, and that hideous noise my shoulder’s been making has pretty much disappeared. The insomnia that has plagued me for years is dying down significantly, and greater awareness and appreciation for the living world around me is inspiring me to write more.
Today, for example, I was trying to work on an article for a client, but just couldn’t concentrate. It was raining outside, and I figured to hell with it, I was going to go and meditate on the front porch for a while anyway: if I got drenched, I got drenched, and wouldn’t need to wash my hair tonight. I wrapped a poncho around myself and plunked my arse onto the porch, ensuring that there wasn’t much in the way of exposed skin for the cat-sized mosquitoes out here to feast upon, and started my bubble meditation.
It didn’t work immediately, so naturally my immediate impulse was to say “fuck it” and go do something else, but I know I have to stick with this, so I did it again.
And when I got frustrated and irritable, I began again.
And eventually something must have shifted because I felt something unlock in my chest, allowing me to breathe a bit more gently. Rain continued to fall, but although I could feel that I was getting drenched to the skin, it didn’t bother me. Quite the opposite, actually: I was able to experience the feeling of wet clothing against my skin with the impassiveness of an observer instead of making any judgment about how it made me feel, whether “good” or “bad”.
I found myself engrossed in the spaces between raindrops, rather than the pattering of the droplets against my skin. It was in those spaces that my own thoughts and emotions ceased to torment me: I could just Be, without feeling the need to do anything other than sit, and breathe. In a world where we are constantly inundated with an onslaught of horrific stories and images, finding brief moments of tranquility like this is …well, necessary to keep any small vestige of sanity intact. Although it may be argued whether I do, in fact, have any measure of sanity left, at the very least I’m grateful to have found a method to grasp a few heartbeats’ worth of tranquility here and there: it’s in these tranquil moments that I actually have clarity and focus. Problems I’d been having with my characters untie themselves. Plot points smooth out, words I’d been grasping at just fall into place.
I’m trying not to be furious with myself for not having discovered the benefits of meditation a few decades ago, but everything happens when it’s meant to, right? I still have a long way to go before I’ll be able to sit in stillness for more than a few minutes without the intrusive thoughts barraging me from all sides, but I suppose that’s why it’s called a meditative “practice”.
Well, I have pieces to write, and I feel like there’s a fire under my ass, telling me that I need to hurry up and get this done already. In response, I think I’ll head back outside and meditate a bit more.
is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in the deepest, most impenetrable wilds of Canada: Quebec. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and limits her stabbing to knitting.
(Photo credit Reza Shayestehpour)
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY