Archive | January, 2019

Lauding a Literary Lexicon

18 Jan

NOTE to non-writers: The following blog is apt to bore you to blubbery. It’s not just serious; it’s also instructive. Proceed at risk of infusing your daily rumination time with minutiae. Don’t accuse me later of not presaging disgruntlement.

After having so much fun with last week’s blog, I’ve decided to pay close attention to the national observance lists throughout the year, and I’m delighted to learn that . . .

Today is National Thesaurus Day!

In other words (heh, heh, see what I did there?), it’s a perfect day to whine, babble, drone, pratter, blather, gabble, instruct folks about thesaurus abuse. I spent 12 potentially good years of my life editing papers written by brilliant analysts, many of whom, unable to be content in said brilliance, believed they had to stupefy their readers with writing embellished to the point of obscufating their work into a state of puffery.

Much of this obscufation (no, these aren’t words, but variations on “obscurity” that I learned from those same analysts and am clinging to), was the result of Thesaurus abuse. In fact, I still remember my favorite sentence from that era: “Exploits of their loins have persisted since the middle ages.” Sadly, I cannot seem to remember nor translate to you the original thought behind this monstrosity, but I do remember the crestfallen face of the analyst when I scratched it out.

You see, the thesaurus is a perfectly good, sound, suitable, reliable, obedient tool until misused, at which point, its use can cost a writer his credibility. Its purpose is not to make your words more impressive, but to make them (and your message) more clear.

Therefore, we must follow steps to be responsible thesaurusers, steps that I shall now outline, sketch, silhouette, delineate, summarize and pontificate about.

  1. Question your motivation before clicking that “synonym” pull-down.
  2. Select the word you think you want.
  3. Look that word up.
  4. Repeat steps above until you find the perfect word or concede your original is just fine.

Motivation: Upon being inspired to consult your thesaurus, first ask yourself, “Why must I?” If your goal is to impress your readers with your brilliance, then answer yourself, “You mustn’t.” If it’s because your original word isn’t sexy enough, the answer is again, “no.” However, if the word in question falls short of accurate, OR if you are repeating the same term too many times, yes, click that pull-down.

thesaurus

That’s right, I’m engraving a blog post!

Selection: Again, sexy isn’t the goal (which is how I arrived at “obedient tool” above, in case you missed that.) There are as many wrong words in your pull-down lists as right. I don’t necessarily advocate shying away from new words, because part of the joy of reading lies in adding to one’s vocabulary. However, there’s a lot to say for keeping it simple, AND knowing one’s audience. I recently edited a book for my good buddy Brent, who insisted on using “countenance” where most humans would say “face” (approximately 20 times in the book). Yes, the words mean the same thing, but most people today would trip over it. It’s the kind of word that halts a reader, which I liken to poking a stick at him while he’s trying to read.

So, your chosen word must be pertinent, which brings us to . . .

Look it up: You don’t even need to switch to the dictionary. Feed your chosen utterance into the thesaurus. If the words on the new list are even further away from your intended meaning, let it go. This seems to be where some writers stumble. They fall in love with the sound or feel of a word and the way it livens up a sentence (as in, “A grin lit up her countenance.” RESIST, I say, plead, beg, beseech implore you!  The reading world DOES actually care. (I’m not sure my buddy Brent agrees with me, but he did heed my advice. When he’s a best-selling author and asks me to introduce him for some momentous award presentation, I plan to chide him for his stilted vocabulary.)

Repeat: Search only for a limited time and then just continue writing. Sometimes the word just isn’t there. If you’re like me, you’ll concede in favor of the Diminishing Returns formula (Passion ÷ Deadline = Sanity) and settle for something close. Then, after publication, and usually around 2 a.m., the perfect word will leap into your brain. That’s okay, really. I’ve learned that I’m actually the only person who notices. I can say with certainty, nobody has ever approached me after reading my prose and said, “You know, there’s a better word for that.” Keep your sanity. Make your deadline.

So that’s that. I hope this is helpful advice. As an editor, I urge you to treat your thesaurus as a valued employee. Recognize its potential but don’t overwork it.

I leave you with two final words of caution, derived from another great sentence in a past work of brilliance: “The nation’s non-metal resources include limestone, marble, anthracites, and various types of cola.”

  1. Not all soda is cola.
  2. If you make me laugh. You may end up in a blog post.

———————–

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. – Philippians 3:12

 

Of Pantsers and Peculiar People

10 Jan

Trying something new this week, so I’m asking you to bear with me, and tell me in the comments whether this works. It’s called being a Pantser. Apparently, some writers take a long time to organize their thoughts in an effort to enhance the clarity of their message. Others, pantsers, write by the seat of their pants. This concept that scares the dickens out of me, but it could hold merit for someone who can’t find solid blocks of time to map out plans. Rather than test this concept on my work-in-progress, I’ll toss my blog to the guinea pig arena and see what truffles out.

For starters, I have no message today. Most of my blog articles are born after days or weeks of mulling certain situations or challenges. Today, however, I turn to the internet for ideas, and search for January National Observance.

Holy Guacamole! There are a LOT of national observances in January. And, depending on which links I click, the observances are different! Now some make sense. For example, it’s National Get Organized Month, and Soup/Crockpot Month, and Tea Month, all of which I can understand. It’s also National Mail Order Gardening Month, Radon Action Month, and California Dried Plum Digestive Month. Yowzer, now that’s something that could put me off blogging for another year.

Before I continue (welcome to the ADD mind), I’m distracted by my curiosity and I ask, by what authority are such events ordained?  I searched a bit and found that, while there is an official listing of national observances kept by the Library of Congress, it’s way more boring than the unofficial lists that grow on their own accord. So, we’ll stick with unofficial.

Then, as the ADD pulled me further down one unofficial source, I learn that the daily observances are far more interesting. I’m sad to learn I’ve missed Festival of Sleep Day (Jan. 3). I could have really devoted myself to that one. I’m also elated to learn that today is both One Day We’ll Look Back at This and Laugh Day and National Peculiar People Day.

Eureka! I’ve found my pantzer blog, because I can honor both with one story about a man who was both peculiar to me and the instigator behind my own sense of humor, as well as a fine example of how we can look back on bad days and still smile: My dad.

My dad was the only person I’ve ever known to get his ear stuck in the car door. Near as we can figure, he dropped his keys as the door was closing and leaned down just in time to get pinned. (NOTE: and only children of HIS would have run to get the camera to take pictures of the helpless, red-faced, yelling man before drawing straws to decide which of us would set him free while the others escaped).

Dad fathered nine children, although there’s debate among his offspring about whether he loved his dogs more. He lived in a world of patterns and impulse. Solitaire every night at the kitchen table, always with a bag of pretzels and can of Pepsi at the ready. Popsicle in his favorite chair just before bed. (After he passed, we found stacks of thousands of Popsicle sticks in his work bench area of the basement.) The impulse? Encouraging us to put Pop Rocks in Grandma’s martini, quitting job after job because of perceived slights and offenses, and a willingness to drop everything for a new adventure—once even moving the entire family out of our home and into a houseboat for about three years. He also lived a Walter Mitty-like secret life the nine of us are still shaking our heads over and trying to understand. Perhaps I’ll explain more when I write Mom’s story, but that’s about four years down the road.

Anyway, our tale takes place in the early 70s, at a particularly sad time of my childhood. My mother had been rushed to the hospital in the ninth month of pregnancy. The doctor was telling my father that she had lost the baby. My dad, a retired Marine Private First Class and proud of his ability to adapt to any situation, asked the only question he could.

“Is there anything I can do? For her or for you? I really want to do something.”

The doctor gave what must have been a typical response to such a request:

“We can use some donors. Lots of donors. Why don’t you see if you can round some up.”

My dad was off like a shot. This was something he could act on.

He raced out the emergency room door and was gone for about 20 minutes. To this day I hope my mother was still under sedation while this scene went down, because I cannot imagine anything she might have wanted more than her husband by her side. Then again, she married him, so…

Dad returned, out of breath and panting heavily, holding three rather flat boxes above his head like a championship trophy. He went straight to the nurses’ station and asked that the doctor be paged.

“He’s quite busy sir, perhaps I can help you,” said one of the nurses.

“No, he asked me to do this and I want to let him know I did.”

Take the bus or stop for sugar? Tough choice.

Donors vs Donuts- What’s a few letters?

After another 10-15-minute wait, the doctor appeared, disheveled, bleary eyed, and clearly ready to go off shift. My dad shot to his feet, grabbed the boxes and rushed to greet him.

“Doctor, here they are! There were many to choose from—Jelly-filled, frosted, chocolate—just too many. So I got two of every kind. He shoved the three boxes of donuts into the surprised doctor’s hands, grinning like a three-year-old holding up a piece of artwork.

Shaking the bewildered doctor’s hand, Dad then turned to the nurse and asked for Mom’s room number. “I think I should go back and see how she’s doing.”

Yes, yes, we would look back on that day and laugh. Many times.

Pantser, signing off…

Another New Beginning

2 Jan

Welcome to a new year, a new blog attempt, and, to a small extent, a new Portrait Writer.

I love the promise of a new year. I see the days ahead as a book full of blank pages that God, not I, will fill with joy and personal growth—if I allow Him to. This year, I am determined not to grab the pen from Him so often, and I’m excited to see where it leads.

You see, I learned quite a bit about this wrestling for control last year as I tried to fill the pages in by myself. In fact, 2018 was for me a year of frustration, disappointment, and significant bouts of outright anger, because I wasn’t in control.

I learned a lot last year. If I had to put my finger on two verses that impacted me the most, they would be:

  1. Romans 8:28, which is a common verse, commonly misinterpreted: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to Hispurpose. I cannot stop bad things from happening, or my train from derailing on occasion, but I can trust that God will get me back on track.
  2. Matthew 6:10, which scholars have changed over the years by adding a comma in a most unfortunate place. Consider this, the King James Version: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. And here is the current, ESV version: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Just look at those commas. They completely change the emphasis of what we’re praying. I now purposefully say Thy will be done on earth (and when I pray this verse with my congregation in church I’m jarringly off beat).

In summary, I’m learning that God’s will is NOT being done on earth, or we wouldn’t have been asked to pray for it. I’m learning that when evil has its way on earth and in my life, it’s not because God ordained it, but because evil rules this place—for now. However, God’s not surprised and can work that event for good, if I trust His plan.

So I have to concede, despite my optimism, that some of those pristine pages ahead will marred by heartache, self-doubt, and (for me at least) potentially anger-inducing stress because of Satan and his minions. I say potentially, because I’m learning to lean more on Jesus’ response to my situation and to see him as my paraclete instead of an idle bystander. That requires constant reliance on Romans 8:28.

Bannister

The Caps toque only adds to the look, doncha’ think? 

 

All of which brings me to this day, and a new beginning for my blog. Some would say I’m a day late, but one of my resolutions for the new year is to give myself more grace. Just yesterday I packed away the boxes of Christmas cards that were never opened, joyful to know I already have cards for next year, and I’m intentionally leaving the garland draped across my entry banister as a reminder that Christmas (or even life) is not about getting it all done.

I don’t usually make resolutions, but this year I have. Let’s call them goals, though, because it leaves room for God’s input:

  1. Knowing that my purpose in God’s kingdom is to write, I will write. My blogs may be short on occasion, but they will be regular. I shall keep my writing time sacred, and I will resume work on a collection of stories about people in our church family. I have a goal of 4,000 words per week. I’m considering putting a word counter at the bottom of my blog each week for accountability purposes, but I’m afraid of the pressure it will place on me to succeed despite my second resolution. . .
  2. I resolve to give myself more grace. Math has never been my best. . ., on the top 10, part of my vocabulary, but I’m learning to accept that I can only do so much in 24 hours. Writing takes dedicated time, as does traveling to Ferrum College to pick up our scholar, working my day job, laundry, grocery shopping, editing jobs, date nights, etc. Last year, there were many days when I actually tried, on occasion, to use all 24 hours available and STILL couldn’t finish. I’ve learned to be content that I’ve done my best. If only I could leave the green garland on my banister all year as a reminder of that. . . Hmmm . . . Let’s just say if you visit my home in July and it’s still there, you’ll know why.
  3. Finally, I will enjoy the way my pages flow. I don’t want to miss the blessings because of my temper tantrums. When I prayed yesterday for a word of knowledge for the year ahead, all I heard was “sacrifice,” (which immediately destroyed my “No Whining” resolution, so you won’t read about that here). But as I prayed, I realized I’ve confused sacrifice with being a doormat. I know my recent bouts of anger stem from knowing I’m letting others direct my path, and I resent it. However, while preparing for this writing yesterday, I came across these words from fellow writer Susan May Warren: “The secret to living your life to its potential is to value the important stuff above your own comfort.” Sacrifice is giving up something good for something better; It’s NOT putting everyone else’s wants before your own. My goal this year is to learn how to discern others’ wants from their needs, so I can love them generously, yet not get so involved in their plans for me that I ignore God’s. I must sacrifice some things to get there. Simple? We shall see.

Each of these points could make an entire blog, so I won’t expound on them here because I know you don’t need that much sleep. I will share a secret here, however. Part of my inability to blog last year was because I worried my words were leaning toward too much of Jesus and might be turning people away, as I have many friends camping in the secular world. I’ve decided this is not my concern. God will keep them reading my blog if He wants them to. Let’s study His words together, shall we?

In a nutshell, God has called me a writer, and so I will write in 2019. I’m glad to have you along for the ride. Tell me in the comments, what has he called you to do in the year to come?

Happy New Year!