The Writer's Problem Isn't Grammar

For Christmas, my wife gave me a mug that says, "Writers block is what gets the housework done." Housework is only a small part of my procrastination industry. I do a little editing of the work of others, especially when I'm disinclined to work, as I prefer editing (which is fun), to writing (which is a chore). I continually see the same collection of problems in the work of inexperienced writers and differentiating who/whom, which/that, lay/lie and similar grammatical horrors barely registers as an issue. What does? It's a deficiency of logic and clarity, coherence and imagination.

In, Lord of Misrule, a deservedly award-winning book, Jaimy Gordon wrote, "The effort made her hot and nauseous ….," and if a honed writer won't distinguish 'nauseated' from 'nauseous' why should the rest of us bother with further/farther and the like. Do read up on grammatical advice but don't obsess over it. You'll be a standout writer if you can move your characters through scenes that engage your senses, and can clearly communicate what's happening and what your POV character is feeling.

In the beginning writer's forest of errors, these faults stand thickest:

Redundancy and excess:

"With arrogance and disdain he slumped down in his chair and really stared. He saw that he even quite liked her small neat frame." (Cut nearly half these words. If in doubt, leave the word out, what remains is stronger.)

Causal connection:

"The lights flickered as he rubbed his hands." (Is it possible a reader will interpret your sentence perversely?)

Ambiguous pronouns:

"At what price? He cupped his chin and asked her about it." (A careless writer is displayed if there's a momentary doubt as to what "it" is.)

"She owed her honesty, and she stood angrily over her." (A sentence with identical pronouns that refer to different people is likely to be a teaser.)


"The view out the window hovered across the road to the sea." (Views don't usually hover.)

"She peeked through the crack in the curtain. They were speaking earnestly. She wished she could hear her brother. Her sister kept saying, 'No way. No way.'" (A reader might ask why the observer can hear her sister but not the brother. Never let your reader doubt your words.)

"The voice inside the room was annoyed." (The voice wasn't the one annoyed)

All such problems are likely to be corrected on the first edit if the author will read the work, not as an author, but as a reader.

Dusting the Piano

The spring again to song has come
Rooms swept in busy hum
It's now my bones most feel the sound
The music of my children gone.

Extinction and Bison in the Dirt

Ignoring bacteria, the current assessment of the world's biodiversity is 8.7 million species. The majority remain unidentified and will remain so, given the estimated human-caused extinction of half of all plant and animal species by 2100. We'll lose almost all the mammals sometime before the next ice age, including the descendents of the bison I watched in North Dakota that comically rolled in a depression of clay that was ash-spewn by the Rockies 50 million years ago.

In the remote arm of an obscure galaxy teaming with an estimated 500 million inhabitable planets, we humans are substantially sacks of incubated bacteria and have no reason to be overly proud of our tenure. Entropy dictates that we go from bad to worse and someday an extra-terrestrial storm will erase our computer records and set us back a thousand years. Some paper books have survived over a millennium, so hopefully the books we're putting into dark storage in abandoned salt mines will survive the interregnum. Perhaps not my literary efforts, Shakespeare certainly, but by then we'll be sounding his words like Etruscan, the meaning all but gone.

When I saw the bison I didn't think of the sadness. Of a passing more final than the cherry blossom's fall. A.E. Houseman's poem says of his years to regard that loveliest of trees, only "fifty more." I'd say in my case less than thirty, which is unquestionably a sorrowful thought.

An Author’s Lot: Guilt and Jealousy

I should be writing, but lately I've been researching my family genealogy. I'm 7/8ths Irish by heritage and sorrowful that my Anglo-Australian-US tongue has no portion of lilting Irish, remindful of the bee-loud glade and the linnet's wings. I should be writing, and my catholic guilt reviles me too, for purchasing vital records with scarce dollars when my novel's underwater, the expense of my sending review copies and prize submissions swamping the meager commercial value of the book.

Guilt, purportedly a useless emotion, we readily impose on others, "buck up," "get a move on," and the like, and my publisher has no problem telling me to get out and market. I'd like to say, "I wrote a fine book, what more do you want?" but a whiny author is an embarrassment to more than his children.

In the five languages of love, I'm a touchy person (sensual despite my craggy English restraint), but you don’t make a cake with only one ingredient and words of affirmation are evidently my spice. I know because I get het up about caring that it shouldn't matter what others think. Writers are notoriously insecure about evaluating their own work, but their opinions of others come easily. I read The Finkler Question when it won the Man Booker Prize and admired Jacobson's ability to keep interesting not much of anything, but I got tired and stopped reading 2/3rds of the way through. That was fun. I got to (not unkindly) denigrate a well respected author, but it's a bit Monty Pythonish, a wannabe Israelite prophet deriding the tablets, "What’s this?" he asks, "'Six days thou shalt labor'? If that's all you'll work you'll never be a writer!"

Deluged by a commercial system determined to make the rich richer and the popular more popular, we poor novelists, trafficking in lies, are disposed to insincerity. My work of genius unread. Unfair! When so much is random, we can only hope that all books, like men, are created equal (given the same opportunity to rise) even if the result is disparagement. But then philosophizing is such thin gruel. I envy my distant neighbor his lake house, although thinking about it too often isn't healthy.

It's uncomplicated truths that we aspire to shine forth in our work, but the business of a novelist is passionate plotting, which ill accords with childlike innocence. Both genealogy and my guilty envy suggest to me a Wordsworth poem. In, We Are Seven, a young girl says that she is one of seven, and the poet, finding that two of her counted siblings are dead, says:
"You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five."
And she replies: "Their graves are green, they may be seen ... Twelve steps or more from my mother's door."
A novelist is to be envied, who with the certainty of that ragged child, regards no Roth or Hollinghurst or Barnes or any authority of mature genius, and maintaining his independent view, can quick reply, "O Master! We are seven."

Praying Mantis

We lie together in the autumn sun
Our bellies on the radiant porch

Had I your stillness what a soul
Be mine

I am the penciled creature
And you the artist of supple grace

I cannot understand you
Yet we have lived the same silence.

Crabtree Falls

Dashing Blue Ridge Mountain's forest tangles
Crabtree Falls immensely slides and angles.

Where many sportive youth, lone cry appalling
Have broke with fragile life in falling
We pass red-berries bedding in the mossy walls
Down switchback trails beside the jagged falls.

Not far ahead, a spritely old pair
Are deliciously holding hands in the air
Their fingers of care, twining and veined
In a balancing arch, both needed and feigned.

I’d like to think we stay that rare in heart
As only in the end by force to part.

But Who Am I

My potted daffodils perversely spurn
Onto the floor their miffed-noses careen
Nature's affronted and my knowledge awry
I’m helpless to know why
Why does the ivy wilt and each clay urn
About the house drop in dejected green?

Outside, beyond the patch of crabgrass lawn
Live the unkempt cousins, vine and thorn
Who burst like vibrant antelope
Excrescently leaping over the slope
In gustos of inebriate tangled bouts
They clamber and spread their choking routs.

More years than I have mazed that yard
To its wild extravagant disregard
But who am I to slaughter strife
That cannot to a pot give life?

Peeping-Tom at the Window

Are you one of the three-out-of-five Americans who have seen, heard or intuited a peeping-Tom (hereinafter referred to as PT)? PTs get as much respect as atheists (who’ll tell you that morality needs no God and, if you stand still too long, will further impart that God’s perpetual watching makes your religious morality less impressive than their might-get-away-with-it morality). And who wants their daughter bringing home to the parents a PETA vigilante who grimly informs them over Coq au Vin that horrifically-farmed chickens are shackled and conveyed upside-down and terrified to the circular saw. PTs, then, are easily bettered in evil, their circle of Hell no more than a daily cold dousing, one assumes not unlike the English weather, and they are to be pitied their risky endeavors when far more graphic stuff (I’m told) freely abounds on the Internet. Paul Kirk, a librarian PT is the doubtful hero of my novel, Boiled Peanuts and is a likeable guy, once you abandon your PT scruples. While he is too modest to consider himself a paragon, the truth is that, some have benefited from his night-time vigilant citizenry. I urge you to read this book if you think your daughter might bring home a PT.
Not that I advocate rushing outside to drag in a PT to meet your bookish daughter, almost always it’s nothing but a skunk in the garbage or a stink-bug scratching at the window-screen.

The Toothbrush

The toothbrush stands erect within its jar
It wears its life in skirmishing so far
Among the detritus the spittle and catarrh
In hope some breath of lustre will dignify its works
With stiffness availing, the toil it never shirks
But, solid-functioning, liquefaction lurks.

Alone upon the shelf it dreams
Of slender neck and dainty-colored themes
A mate on whom its bristled beams
Might shine, but none appears to fondly brace
To lean together touching for a space
Finally, sad-faced, to its resting-place.

The Sex of One is the Half Dozen of Another

It’s just my two sense, but when I hear from guys who can do it half-a-dozen times I want to say it’s all in the I of the beholder, and there’s no I in beholder. It’s quality that counts, and now that I’m older than I was, quality’s up and quantity’s down. But for all intensive purposes, my writing this year’s on a different plain altogether, as my first novel came out (which is 100% more than nothing) and I’m working on the next, which writers on writing universally agree will be less inspired than my first (though saying it’s cutting off my nose despite my face). But it’s all a right of passage to craftsmanship, which takes (the wisdom is) 10,000 hours. I’d be a bold faced liar if I told you that wasn’t a sentence, and a bunch of consecutive sentences, too.