Category Archives: language and grammar

Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/michelange386296.html

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/the-subtle-knife

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…

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Filed under language and grammar, my magnum hopeless, novels and longer works, poems, short stories

Verb and Re-Verb

In the last year or two I’ve been collecting examples of new verbs.  These are usually existing words which have been either squashed or repurposed and made into verbs.  Previously they were either phrases (eg to manage a project becomes to project-manage) or nouns (eg to window, meaning to schedule a delivery within a particular period of time).  So here’s a little list, by no means exhaustive but comprising the ones I’ve managed to capture and commit to pen and paper:

to re-platform (heard at the railway station)

to window (seen on Facebook)

to project-manage (heard in conversation and rendered somewhat redundant by the phrase ‘I project-managed a project’…)

to part-time work

to offshore (as in tax)

to vacation (to be fair, this has been around for a while in the US but has only recently made it over here)

to semi-final (heard on University Challenge)

to sunblock (read just today on Facebook)

I’m sure there are thousands more.  Have you come across any?  I’d love to hear them.  Please send them to me and I’ll post them

Thanks

Kirk out

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Filed under Facebook, friends and family, language and grammar, radio

Don’t Call Me Ishmael

The flow of trans thoughts never seems to abate, partly because the media are awash with the stuff; and the most recent addition to the maelstrom is ze.  It looks like a bad rendering of French, but it is in fact an attempt at a non-gendered pronoun.  Now in theory I’m all in favour of this; in fact I have long lamented the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun in our language.  Hitherto we have had to resort to they, which sounds a little impersonal, belonging as it also does to animals and objects.  But what I object to is the attempt to enforce its use by means of emotive bullying.  A few months ago it was reported that Oxford University Student Union required students to use it rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’, though it’s only fair to say that they subsequently denied this: however there is a lot of expectation from trans and non-binary people that everyone should remember and use the correct pronouns.

Of course as a matter of politeness people should be called what they wish: but whereas I’d be annoyed if, after repeatedly asking someone to call me Liz, they persisted with Elizabeth, I have to recognise that Liz is an understood abbreviation; it’s in common usage.  People don’t have to get their heads around it.  This is not the case with ze, and The Press Association has recognised this in their recent advice to journalists:

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/03/27/journalists-told-to-ignore-gender-neutral-pronoun-ze/

Then again, there was a time (and I remember it) when Ms was new and not many people understood it; but with perseverance it became accepted.  It is now rare to find a form on which Ms doesn’t appear as an option.  Mx has been proposed for those not wishing to declare their gender – or, presumably who consider themselves non-binary, but has yet to catch on.  Besides, there has to be a limit to the number of options.

The problem with this proliferation of pronouns is that a) people may struggle to remember them and b) won’t understand the need for them.  Do most people – Jo and Jane Bloggs – have a clue what non-binary is, or even know it exists?  As the Academie Francaise is continually discovering, it is pointless passing decrees on what language people should use: unless and until we have a society like in ‘1984,’ people will continue to talk about le weekend, le parking and le camping –  and until and unless people want a non-gendered pronoun they will continue to use he and she.

As I have said before, we – as a society – have had a debate about issues such as homosexuality and gender equality and on both issues we have, by and large, come to a consensus.  There will always be people who disagree, but there is now widespread acceptance of the belief that homosexuality is not a choice and should therefore be treated on a par with heterosexuality: likewise most people accept that women should be treated on a par with men.  But we haven’t yet had that debate about transgender folk, and we need to have it.  Most people are baffled and confused; they don’t understand what it is and where it comes from, let alone how to deal with it.  And issuing a series of fiats is just not helping.

Kirk out

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I’ll Put a Spellchecker on You

Everyone has their favourite spellchecker moments; times when that ‘helpful’ device has come up with absurd or incomprehensible corrections.  It wouldn’t be so bad if all it did was suggest, but like an overbearing teacher, it often goes ahead and corrects without even so much as a polite ‘ahem!’ in your direction – so that the first you know of it is when the text or update or tweet has already been sent, and you’ve suggested using pizza leaflets as firefighters instead of the obvious firelighters.

Not only that, but spellchecker is unrepentantly American.  No matter how many times you tell it you’re in the UK, it insists on underlining your perfectly correct ENGLISH spellings of words just because you haven’t put a z where an s is, or because you refuse to chop the ends off perfectly good words – like dialogue because to spell it without the ue is simply WRONG!

And once you’ve dealt with spellchecker you come up against his croney.  Grammar-checker follows close behind spellchecker and underlines all your perfectly constructed sentences with a plaintive wiggly line of its own; making your prose look like it’s festooned with Christmas tinsel.

You’d think I’d have a million examples of these.  I ought to have; it’s happened often enough, but perhaps because I impatiently delete them and carry on, I’ve forgotten what they were.  But you’ll have some, I’m sure, so let me have them, please – put your favourite spellchecker howlers below and let’s have a laugh.  I know I could do with one.

Kirk out

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Look, I’m Just Disinterested, Alright?

Yes, it’s time again for One of Those Posts.  You know, the ones where I rant about words, their use and misuse and abuse and whether it’s time to – well, to call a truce.  I’ve given up with the apostrophe – although giving up feels  a bit like the Major in Fawlty Towers where he looks at his paper and says ‘Strike, Strike, Strike!  Why do we bother, Fawlty?’ to which Basil replies, sotto voce: ‘Didn’t know you did, Major.’  That’s my life: I bother about grammar and spelling and the uses, misuses and abuses of our demotic Anglo-Saxon (damn, these sit-coms keep getting in: that’s ‘Blackadder’ with Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson) and the world, in the shape of Basil Fawlty, repeats sotto voce, ‘Didn’t know you did, Lizardyoga.’

Well I can’t help it, and here is the latest batch of utterances to cross my verbal horizon.  First off, disinterested.  You must have heard it too; it’s everywhere: I last heard it on the radio this morning when an otherwise reasonably educated and eloquent presenter used it in broad daylight in front of a nationwide audience.  What he actually meant was uninterested: bored, alienated, reduced to a state of tedium.  Not disinterested.  Disinterested means – or used to mean, until these hooligans got hold of it – detached, impartial, uninvolved; as in a disinterested bystander.

And then there’s alright.  I grew up being rapped over the metaphorical knuckles for that spelling and being told that all right is two words, not one – but nowadays alright crops up in the best of circles * and the other spelling is rarely seen.  How do these things happen?

I suspect they happen for a variety of reasons; still, change as ever is effected through usage, and it’s pointless beefing about it.  But whereas all right and alright clearly mean the same and there is no appreciable reason why one should not be exchanged for the other; in the case of disinterested and uninterested we have two different words which are conflated with the result that one of them is lost.

Should we worry?  Should we send out a search party?  Don’t ask me.  And what’s with this horrid new word prideful?  What’s wrong with just saying proud?  I mean, does John Donne’s poem say ‘Death be not prideful’?  I don’t think so!

On the plus side (sort of) a friend on Facebook has invented or discovered a new word when she said that a delivery had been windowed for between nine and twelve of the clock.  Now, for all I know this verb is in constant use in delivery circles; workers at Amazon may tell each other on an hourly basis that parcels have been windowed between six a m and midnight (well it is Amazon, what d’you expect?) – but this verb was new to me and I quite like it.

There’s a lot of this sort of stuff going on and I keep trying to make a definitive list, but it’s like trying to build a castle out of water.  So that’s it for today.

Alright?

Argh, I actually used it for real.  *Sigh.*

Kirk out

*crop circles, ha ha

 

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It’s Insecure Wednesday Again

And once again the first Wednesday has crept upon me, unawares – and the question we are asked to ponder this month is: which writing rule do you wish you’d never read?  I didn’t have to think too long about this, because I’ve always thought that Hemingway’s stricture of ‘paring everything to the bone’ was unhelpful and wrong-headed.  Hemingway made a virtue out of minimalism; he stripped away everything he considered to be unnecessary and crowed loud and long about paring to the bone.  But at first, while I instinctively disliked the idea, I couldn’t find arguments against it.  I mean, you don’t want excess vocab, do you?  Flowery descriptions, overstatement, repetition; none of these are good habits for an author, are they?

Many people respect Hemingway as one of the twentieth century’s great writers; but I’m afraid I think he’s overrated.  This is not just because I dislike a lot of what he stood for, such as the macho values he found while living in Spain, expressed in the bullfight (I went to a corrida once and it made me feel ill*) it’s because of this particular stricture.  If you pare things right down to the bone you end up with a skeleton, not a fully-fledged novel.  You want flesh on those bones; you want veins and arteries, skin and hair and nails.  You want features and mannerisms: you want a body.

In the end it’s not so much that I wish I’d never read his advice; it’s more that I wish I’d never acted on it – because for years I was suspicious of anything approaching verbiage in my own work.  I ended up slashing many a valuable phrase because Hemingway’s strictures had got into my mind.  Paring to the bone can be a useful editing tool, but not an end in itself.

So that’s it for today.  Happy writing, fellow Insecure people!

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*only so that I could say I knew what I was talking about

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Filed under Book reviews, language and grammar

Monday Momentum

No, this is not a political post.  Regardless of what may be kicking off in the political arena, this is a writing post.  Since I don’t work at weekends, by and large choosing to mimic the typical working week (Monday to Friday, 9-5ish) by Monday my brain is fizzing with ideas and I am ready to hit the page running.  I write my best poems – or start them – on a Monday; I have my brightest ideas on a Monday.  The result can be that Tuesdays are a little flat.  I pick up on Wednesdays and sometimes go to perform at Sound Cafe too; then Thursdays are not too bad but by Friday afternoon I’m flagging and ready for the weekend again.

And there’s the rub: the work ethic.  The work ethic has its uses.  It’s useful for getting me to my desk in the morning and back to it after lunch.  It’s useful for getting me off Facebook and for dealing with distractions.  But there it’s usefulness ends.  I don’t need it to be nagging at me about how many hours I’ve done today or what I have actually achieved; because in theory although I do around eight hours, it is impossible to write (poetry at least) for that long, because it is so intense.  Actually I find prose almost as intense, so I tend to do it in short bursts.  But when I used to add up my hours and find that I’d only done 4 hrs of laptop-time or whatever, I’d feel discouraged.  I’d feel I wasn’t working hard enough.

But what is work, anyway?  In the field of ordinary employment work is fairly well-defined as tasks set by your employer (or, if you’re self-employed, by the needs of your business).  But how do you define it in the creative sphere?  Is it only work if I produce something that can be sold?  If I just fiddle around with ideas or stare into space or go for a walk, is that work?  Doing a cryptic crossword may not look like work but it helps my poetry enormously as it’s all about splitting words up: it’s about what they sound like and look like; how they live, move and have their being.  Going for a walk may not look like work but if I’ve been staring at a blank page for hours it can free up the mind and generate ideas.  Lots of activities – colouring, reading, listening to the radio, even sometimes looking at Facebook – can stimulate the mind.  And there’s the thing.  Creativity is sometimes like the wool-shop in Alice.  If you look directly at the thing you want to write, the mind goes blank, just like the shelves in the shop when Alice looks at them.  But if you look away; if you distract the conscious mind by ostensibly doing something else, the shelves become packed again.

It’s a hell of a job trying to understand this process, but anyone who’s creative will recognise it.  And one thing I can really do without is the work ethic nagging at me and telling me I’m not really working or I haven’t done enough.

So the work ethic can **** right off.

I don’t tend to read a lot during the day but as bedtime reading I’m into Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  At the moment I can’t decide whether it’s a corny rehash of the books or an exciting new venture.  Watch this space…

Kirk out

 

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Filed under friends and family, language and grammar, my magnum hopeless, poems