In my L-post for this academic alphabet, the one on Language, I noted that I was reading Embassytown, a SciFi book about Language. Did I mention that the author, China Miéville, mentioned Paul Ricoeur in his acknowledgements? No? Well now I have.
In parallel with Embassytown, I was revisiting the universe that Miles Vorkosigan inhabits. As I read and listened to five of the Vorkosigan saga books, I noticed the ways Lois McMaster Bujold uses familiar language to suggest the unfamiliar Not-Quite-Here nature of the Vorkosigan’s universe. Similarly, Miéville also uses familiar language to describe the unfamiliar, and even indescribable nature of the Embassytown’s universe. Both authors talk about similar concepts – the large universe away from the home planets of the point-of-view characters. Bujold uses the adjective “galactic” to describe things that are non-local, and to describe people who have non-local experience. Miéville uses “the out” to indicate everywhere that’s not the planet on which Embassytown is located. Similarly, Bujold uses the concept of wormholes for greater-than-light-speed travel. Miéville uses a concept he calls the immer for the space between local planets and worlds, through which travel is dangerous, and only possible for those who are immersers, who can stay awake for the trip. Miéville’s immersers have brain implants to aid them in navigating the immer; Bujold’s jump pilots have brain implants to aid them in navigating wormholes.
In Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, she also has a trick of using strange language for familiar things to set those things up as different in some way: chrono for watch, comconsole for computer, and so on. This use of strange language for familiar things reminds us that we are not in Kansas any more, but in some completely other place. Miéville’s world is so strange to us that we don’t need this constant reminder. Living walls that can grow ears if needed, biotechnology that is grown on farms, where farms are also living things, all these are constant reminders that the familiar words he uses actually represent completely unfamiliar things.
World building, that essential trick of authors, means using language very well. It may mean making words up. It may mean re-purposing familiar words for unfamiliar things. The trick is to do it well. Bujold and Miéville are masters of this art.
Great starts with G. Please don’t confuse GREAT with GRATE, we aren’t going to cook today. (That was grating but it got the urge to make that pun out of the way. Finished groaning? Good, let’s go on.)
In this academic alphabet, Great will also stand in for other often-used evaluative words, including, but not limited to, the following: significant, important, pivotal, seminal. Most people who think, teach, and write about their thinking have some fond idea of being evaluated by their peers and successors as a great, or significant, or important person in their chosen field. They’d like to be outstanding in their field, though they are not farmers. (Sorry, pun filter slipped for a moment there. Got it back. Let’s go on.) But what does it mean to be Great?
There has been some thought lately about what might or might not make a nation great. I’ve written previously in this blog about the Great Men theory of history. But no one seems to be able to clearly say what it is that makes a person great. Is it what they do? What they think? Who they influence? And why do we strive after greatness? Or do we strive after fame, and think that means we’re great? Is greatness equivalent to fame? Or is something else going on?
So many questions, and the answer probably is “it depends.” In the dictionary something or someone who is called great has qualities significantly above normal or the average person. So a great book is significantly above the average or normal book. A great thinker is significantly above the average or normal thinker. In order to figure out whether anything is great, we have to know what the average or normal level is for that thing. I’m not sure we do that well at all. What criteria do we use in our evaluation? Do we call something great just because we LIKE it? And, since no book or person or idea is perfect, what imperfections might topple the item from our pedestals of greatness?
I think it might be more helpful in historical writing (which is what I’m working on at the moment) if things were just allowed to be interesting, and we didn’t always have to argue that something was Super Significant or Great or Seminal. Are average or normal events not worth speaking of?
At the beginning of December I saw an article on ways writers can prepare for the New Year. I rather liked the list. I related to many of the items which involved purchasing new notebooks/journals with the intent of being organized about ideas and writing. I’ve done those before and enjoy the process of buying a fresh new notebook. Then the notebook gets dusty, or only half-used. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I need to focus on some other ways to prepare for a new writing year.
I decided to do one thing at a time. I did number 10 — got a haircut. Now I need to FINISH a lurking nagging project (3). Then I can refocus on what is to come. While I’m finishing that lurking project, I may take notes on when I feel like I did my most productive work in order to block that time off for writing in future (26).
What about you? Anything you’ve got for 2014 in terms of new ways to approach writing? Are they represented on this list?
It has been a slow December in this space mostly because I’ve been a bit distracted. Here are a few distractions for you while I work on writing a more substantial post.
- Misspellings of the year. This is a really good post. I’ve met some of these misspellings, or their ilk, in papers I’ve graded. “If you write like this, how can I pass you?” I want to scream sometimes. My personal favourite misspellings from this list are numbers two and seven, PROZAIC, and IMPECKABLE.
- Ice Storm! There was a big ice storm in Toronto last weekend. Some people — I know them — were without power until yesterday. Some are still without power. There are lots of tree branches on the ground. Lots of people had a pioneer Christmas! Guess what we talked about during coffee hour at church this morning? “And how long was your power out?” (For me, four or five days, I’m not sure because I was visiting relatives and it was on before I got back.)
- Literary catchphrases. Wonder how that phrase came into common English use? It was probably in a book.
I am working on a post about what it means to be well read, along with reflections on how most bookish online lists appear to be curated by people who are half my age. It might be slightly rant-flavoured. Or not. We’ll see.
Yesterday I published the top five posts on this blog that people have clicked on individually. These may not be your personal choice for favourite post in this space, but they are the choice of the collective. I also said that I’d post my favourite post (or two) from this space.
Posts I like a lot in no particular order:
Theology in the Grocery Store: It was such a spontaneous post and hit some kind of nerve because it was reposted and fb linked so that it bounced into the top five posts all time. I just like it. It was fun to write.
I Got a Scrabble Mug for Christmas with a W on it: this post is in the category “titles are deceptive.” It is in the alphabetic series I did a little over a year ago, in which I explored ways I found books to read. W is for Women. Read more books by Women!
Academic Writing: I like this post because it describes what I’m doing right now: Avoiding academic writing by posting on this blog.
Further Reflections on Genre: This post came out of others on genre and science fiction. I like it because a bunch of things came together in my head and exploded into insight. It is fun when that happens. This is why I do research.
Right, I’m off to look for more brain insight explosions on the current writing project.
It is about time some things changed around here. I’ve changed the colour scheme of the blog, I’ve added a new page on reading projects, and I’ve changed the Blavatar for The Backlist. Watch for more changes!
In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, a book you may have noticed that I’m reading, Stewardship Strategy #4 is Read Well. Well, I thought, there’s something I do! The chapter begins by saying that we all continue to learn to read throughout our lives. This is also true. I’m not very good at some kinds of reading and pretty skilled at some other kinds of reading. I’ve been stretching my reading this year with the Older Book Challenge, in which I read at least one book published before 1970 for every two newer books. Reading older books takes me out of my comfort zone and gives me different views of the world.
The most recent older book I read was The Quiet American by Graham Greene, first published in 1955. The narrator is an English journalist based in Saigon. The title character is an acquaintance of the narrator. The book unfolds the relationship between the two men. I don’t think I’m spoiling things for you if I say that the narrator is unreliable. There are all kinds of clues in the book that the narrator is not quite giving you the whole story. But his voice tells the story. It is the only way we have to hear the tale that must be told. I think it a nice political statement that a book about Vietnam has an unreliable narrator.
What are some other books with unreliable narrators? The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie pops to mind instantly, but I can’t think of others immediately. Our Man in Havana isn’t exactly forthcoming, but I’m not sure he is totally unreliable. What about you? Which narrators do you not trust?
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s word stewardship strategies 2 and 3 go together. They are “Tell the Truth” and “Don’t Tolerate Lies.” Recall that number 1 was Love Words. I’ll come back to that one shortly.
In her second strategy (Tell the Truth) we are responsible to tell the truth. This doesn’t mean obscure the truth by talking in the vaguest possible terms. It doesn’t mean carefully constructing what we say so that we don’t actually say what we mean. It means saying what we mean. McEntyre provides some great examples of precise and careful writing that tell the truth in ways that vague or hyperbolic reporting. She suggests looking for just the right verb. She also suggests truth telling means not always speaking. Here is the bit I liked best from the chapter. I read it waiting for my bus. I stopped reading and read this part again. It made me smile.
In reading a recent novel, I myself was convicted by a comment the mother makes to her adult daughter: “My dear, you’ve missed so many opportunities to say nothing.” We do miss those opportunities, as well as opportunities to say less and say it more judiciously. And so we miss the particular delights of finding words and speaking them into silences big enough to allow them to be heard.
So good — “the particular delights of finding words and speaking them into silences big enough to allow them to be heard.” Truth telling involves making the silences big enough for truth to be heard, not shouting above the din.
In the very next chapter though, McEntyre reminds us not to tolerate lies. We need to weigh what we are told. What do we believe? Who do we trust? How do we know? How do we speak truth in a culture that is addicted to lies, hyperbole, and spin? We’d rather crawl into a hole until the train wreck of the latest political scandal (why must everything be a scandal?) blows over. But we also have a responsibility to be engaged citizens. What does that mean? We have to do the work of figuring that out. If we do nothing, that is a decision with moral consequences.
The other day, just after I posted about my intolerance for the word “impactful” (I can hardly bear to write it), I was at a gathering of family and friends. RABrother used the word “impactful” in a sentence. I was shocked. RABro is a writer and thinker. He does not generally throw jargon around. I objected to the word. My friends immediately all began using the word “impactful” in sentences of their own so that I wouldn’t take myself too seriously. We moved on to the story of the event that had impacted my brother’s life. It was ironic. I thought you might like the story.
True confessions: I’ve yet to read 1984 by George Orwell. It wasn’t on my high school reading list. I think I should read it because the idea of newspeak as portrayed in the novel seems prophetic. I’m currently reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. After a bleak beginning Marilyn Chandler McEntyre gives twelve word stewardship strategies. Strategy number 1 is Love words. I do love words. But I also hate some words. I think that is ok. Here is my argument.
Languages change over time. We need new words to talk about new things. An automobile is a relatively new thing, so a new word was coined for the invention. Some other words and phrases around the new horseless carriage sprang up, and some fell quickly by the wayside. A century later in North America we mostly talk about cars. All this to say that change happens.
There is a new word floating around which is unnecessary, and, I think, is another pompous attempt by some people to sound like they know what they are talking about. The word? Impactful. I hate the very sound of it.
This word is unnecessary. You can use other words in its place. If you need to have the connotation of an impact (smack!) than you can say that something had an impact on the other thing. If you mean that something was actually influential, then say that. When you say “impactful” it sounds like you have no idea what you actually mean.
There is some opinion that “impactful” is here to stay. I hope in 25 years we will think of it as a temporary and minor aberration in the history of English. After all, if the revered website “Urban Dictionary” says that impactful is a fake, it must be true. And fake words go away after a while. Right?
By the way, if you include the word “impactful” in written work that I grade, that word will have a negative impact on your grade.
[This web-post was inspired by listening to some academics talk. Their use of vocabulary influenced me to write about using words well.]
Previously in this space I have lamented Turgid Academic Prose. I have found one reason rising academics continue to write with such a pompous bombastic style: profs teach it.
I am reading a book on writing a particular kind of advanced research paper. It advises students that they should be formal and not be overly chummy in their style. I agree. An academic paper is not a blog post or a tweet or a facebook update. The author then quotes paragraphs from two sample research papers which I consider prime examples of Turgid Prose and lauds these as showing proper depth and academic rigour. One paragraph does not show depth or academic rigour. It may suggest that a subject will be treated with such depth and rigour, but it does not have to be dense and unreadable to do so. I throw up my hands in disgust. Why can’t North American academics write? Because they are told that if they write too clearly, they clearly don’t have any Big Ideas. This is so backwards I hardly know how to begin to reverse it. I do the only thing I can: advise my students to write clearly. Writing clearly does not mean you don’t have big ideas. Writing clearly does mean others may benefit from understanding your big ideas.