Singin’ the Comma Blues

Mathina Calliope came out of the Goucher College creative nonfiction MFA program with me a few years ago. She’s a crazy, salsa-dancin’, hip-shakin’, word-writin’ kinda gal and I think you’re gonna dig her guest post about that little wink of punctuation: the comma. She blogs here and DOESN’T TWEET ENOUGH here, but that’s neither here nor there. But, she is HERE dropping a grammar bomb from the heavens. Enter Mathina!

My freshmen composition students thought they knew what commas were all about. Commas peppered the students’ first essays like New England fall leaves: abundant, lovely, and ultimately destined for unloading. Then, we started looking at comma rules: Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction to connect two independent clauses. Use a comma between coordinating adjectives not joined by and. Do not use a comma between cumulative adjectives. Abruptly, comma insecurities crowded the room like monsters in a closet.

The students weren’t the only ones rendered suddenly unsure. I used commas correctly all the time, didn’t I? I mean, I had an undergraduate degree in journalism, a master’s in education, and another master of fine arts—in writing. I wrote test questions about comma usage. Christ. If I couldn’t explain why you didn’t put a comma after “Maryland” in “Jesse and I brought home Maryland blue crabs to throw in the pot for supper,” who could? And yet here we were, getting into the comma weeds, as it were, and the more we discovered, it seemed, the less we understood.

The conventions of written English generally come to native English speakers via silent absorption, the way language does, as we grow up reading all manner of texts, and witnessing, sentence after millionth sentence and word after hundred millionth word, just where commas do or do not pop up.

For nonnative English speakers and for nonreading English-speaking natives, however, commas confound, and the rules only seem to make it worse. Suddenly, it’s not enough to drop a comma in naturally, where one might pause in speech. No, now one suddenly needs to understand advanced grammatical terms: coordinating conjunction (not to be confused with subordinating conjunction), independent clause, clause, phrase. Yet, when one reads the definition of an independent clause—a group of words containing a  noun “doing” a verb but not preceded by a subordinating word—rather than having things cleared up, one must now find still further definitions.

Frustrating, to be sure, but also complex and wonderfully mysterious, even tantalizing.

Any of us, if we have spent any time learning anything, has encountered this phenomenon. I first noticed it right after learning to drive. Never having considered all that went into coordinating steering, braking, accelerating, changing lanes, I viewed driving as nothing but a thing. But after one lesson, when I rode with a friend who safely and confidently merged into high-speed traffic, never interrupting her monologue about her prom date, I stared at her in awe.

Any skill or domain of knowledge with which we have no experience is necessarily opaque to us. As we peer closer, as we remove layers of opacity, we find not clarity but complexity. And this is what makes learning worthwhile, why it is inherently “fun;” it creates dissonance between reality and what we thought we understood. Our reward for resolving that dissonance is satisfaction—and an ever-greater appreciation for the richness that is life and learning.

Now to persuade my students that this is the case …

Mathina Calliope teaches English 111 at Northern Virginia Community College. Read more of her musings—grammatical and otherwise—at www.calliopeterpsichore.com

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Q&A: Best-selling author Jonathan Evison

Photo courtesy of www.jonathanevison.net

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I recently finished “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”, a novel by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Evison. It’s the best book I’ve read all year. The book is wildly funny and punishingly sad.

It’s a first-person narrative told by Ben Benjamin, a former stay-at-home dad who takes a course in caregiving. The workforce has passed him by and this is his way of rebuilding himself. He works for the sexually frustrated and tyrannical 19-year-old Trev, who is disabled by MD. Trev’s world is small, limited by his physical body. Ben is disabled in another way. The two are an unlikely pair. They need each other and they hit the road in their van for adventure, for deliverance.

I reached out to Evison on Facebook, asking him if he’d answer some questions. He said he’s on the road a lot, but if I emailed him he’d answer them as timely as he could. I emailed him some questions. He answered them in about an hour. Yeah, he’s that kind of guy. Few authors would do that.

As fate should have it, I went to Maryland this past weekend and he was a featured author at the Baltimore Book Fest. He’s approachable and has earned his lot. He said at the festival, “I succeeded by failing.”

Blogger Celeste Sollod interviewing Jonathan Evison at the Baltimore Book Fest. Evison wrote eight unpublished novels before “All About Lulu” came out in 2008. “I succeeded by failing,” he said.

BO: You’re last novel “West of Here” is big in body and scope, “RFC” is tighter and narrower in its focus, what was the motivation for the change in tactical story telling? “RFC” is deeply personal for you.

JE: Every novel I try to challenge myself in some new way. With “West of Here”, those challenges were formal and structural. With The Revised Fundamentals, the challenges were emotional. I had to dig up a lot of old bones and strew them about, plum a lot of emotional depths, etc. In the end, it was nothing less than cathartic.

BO: Ben is broken. How did you come to nursing/caregiving for Ben to rebuild himself?

JE: My life was in the shit-can ten years ago. My first wife left me for a surfing Buddhist, I was working at an ice cream stand, and I was sitting on eight unpublished books. There were a couple of yeas that were just a blur. I took  a night course in caregiving, which really helped turn my life around. Caring for others while I was barely able to care for myself, built me back up into something resembling a human being.

BO: Trev’s orbit is small, to expand it without risk, he watches the Weather Channel and puts pins on a map, how important was it for him to break free? Did you need a physically limited person for Ben to feel needed again?

JE: Man, I did everything within my power NOT to write a road novel—I was really resistant to the idea. You can feel me trying to subvert the road novel for the first hundred pages. Finally, I just had to give in. The characters made me. They needed the road to deliver them. I’d say Trev and Ben are equally limited. While Trev is physically disabled, Ben is emotionally and spiritually bereft. Also, I think they care for each other equally. Ben needs Trev every bit as Trev needs Ben. Wait, did I answer the question?

BO: How did you approach the writing? Ben has a crushingly sad history and that is carefully parsed out. How did you approach that strategy instead of just dumping it on the reader?

JE: I wanted Ben to earn the reader’s respect. I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for any of my characters, not right from the get-go. I wanted to show them warts and all. Structurally, I always visualized this novel as an artichoke, where the reader peels back the layers of armor to get to the heart of the thing. Handling this just about any other way risked being mawkish, I think.

BO: How did you go about assembling this ensemble for the road trip?

JE: I think my unconscious mind did most of the heavy lifting. The cast just seemed to appear inevitably along the way. Each new character naturally addressed one of somebody else’s needs—usually Ben’s or Trev’s.

BO: Many—if not all—of the characters are in limbo, hinged to a heavy past, but trudging through the muck to move forward, talk about that commonality.

JE: Well, first, flawed as they are, they’re all doing the best they can to manage what they’ve got. Critics have called my characters losers, but they’re not. They’re not quitters. They’re not pessimists. They wanna believe things will get better, and so they grope their way through, often failing miserably along the way, but always meaning well. They want to re-invent themselves, they want to find hope, they want to be decent people.

BO: Now, either you had a blast on Urban Dictionary.com, or you’re incredibly depraved—or both—which is it? Ha!

JE: All of the above! I’m pretty sure I made up a few of those sex acts.

BO: How did you strike a tonal balance between humor and somber in the book?

JE: Necessity. I don’t think I could write about irredeemable loss without a lot of comic relief. Tragedy and comedy are all tangled up in my mind, always have been. So striking this tonal balance came very naturally to me. I grew up around gallows humor. Some of the most tragic events in my life have been tinged by humor. Like finding my grandmother dead, with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth, and discovering a TV dinner at her bedside, and seeing she only ate the cherry pie, and left the rest. Now, that’s not funny, but c’mon, it is, right?

BO: One of my favorite turns of phrase comes toward the end when talking about, of all things, Mr. Baxter the fish, “I’m guessing he’s bat-shit crazy from turning circles in that murky little bowl his whole life, and that he doesn’t care anymore whether he lives or dies. Then a few pages later when he’s expelled from his bowl, “Mr. Baxter, who I’ve sorely misjudged, is flopping furiously for life on the nearby throw rug …” How did you come to these hysterical places in the book?

JE: Again, my poor bumbling characters led me to them, more often than not. In the case of Mr. Baxter, his life is a perfect reflection of Ben’s own circumstances—stuck, dissolute, depressed. Ben empathizes with him.

BO: The men in your books—Ethan Thornburgh (West of Here), Ben, Bob, etc.—feel shrouded in inadequacy, have something to prove, where does that come from?

JE: I love the theme of masculinity in crisis. Hell, I was raised by bodybuilders, how could I not? As much as I imagine it sometimes sucks being a woman in a world that is all-too-often tailored to the masculine sensibility, it’s anything but easy being a dad in our culture, and living up to the various expectations foist upon us by ourselves, and by women, and by our children. I’m just fascinated by the nuances.

BO: On your epitaph you write, ‘… Mostly, he lasted.’ The same can be said for Ben, right?

JE: And the same can be said for your beloved Red Sox.

BO: Changing gears, give me as sense of the work you put in to illustrate the difference between BEING a writer and those who crave to occupy the writer’s space (Every book signing I’ve done, I get a couple of people ‘writing their books’ but they never do, partly because they don’t realize that it’s WORK)?

JE: Oh, I work my ass off. I get up at four in the morning to write. Do you think I wanna be up at that hour? Hell no. That said, it doesn’t feel like work to me, because rather than draining my stores of energy, it begets more energy. The work makes me a more expansive person—a better husband, a better dad, a better friend. It’s pretty sill to want to occupy the writer’s space, because by and large, it is an exercise in humiliation. The work is where it’s at.

BO: For writers, what has been you experience in promotion your work Is there anything that’s a waste of time and/or money? What should a writer do YESTERDAY that he or she isn’t doing today?

JE: Don’t think of it as promoting, for one. I think of it as an extension of the work. Me, the artist, reaching out, trying to connect with readers. It’s always better to start a dialogue, rather than just blow your own horn. Nobody will listen. You have to engage your readership, not recruit them.

BO: What types of rejection have you faced?

JE: Easily 400 form rejections. Not to mention all manner of other rejections in life. Failure makes me stronger.

BO: Can a great writer be made, or, like a gifted singer, is greatness handed out to the few, like Pavarotti? Can it be earned?

JE: Beats me. I guess I think, like Kierkegaard, that the artist herself should be the first work of art. If you can make yourself into a good, kind, empathetic, observant person who cares deeply about the human condition, and you entertain an endless curiosity, well, then you can probably learn to string some sentences together.

BO: How do you spend your non-writing time?

JE: Drinking and chasing my kid, in no particular order. I walk in the woods a lot, play scrabble with my wife, play a lot of ping pong with my nephew.

BO: How much do you THINK about the act of writing?

JE: Always. I AM the act of writing.

[Brendan’s back] And if that wasn’t entertaining enough, you should take a look at the book trailer for “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.” I love it. I actually have some commercials in this vein in the hopper. It’s what Seth Godin would call a “purple cow.” Great to see someone of Evison’s profile adopting it. Take a look:

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Verlyn Klinkenborg: Being a Writer vs. Occupying the Writer’s Space

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I attended an author event at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt where author and essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg talked about many, many things—all writing.

What struck me was what he opened with: do people/aspiring writers want to be writers or occupy the writer’s space? There’s a huge distinction. It’s my feeling that most people who want to occupy the space fail to realize how much hard work goes into writing. They like this idea of isolation, liquor, snow falling, long talks over coffee at a Parisian cafe, HUGE book advances. Being a writing is tough. You make little money. The best writers make it look so effortless that aspiring writers feel they can just waltz in and do it. Cardiac surgeons make open-heart surgery look easy, but I’m not going to cut open anybody’s chest because I want to occupy the operating room.

Time for me to get out of the way. Klinkenborg talks about perfect vs. perfect enough, shooting clay pigeon sentences, imagining sentences, and writers as manipulators.

It’s a great talk. Enjoy! (And please pardon the resolution. It’s all I’ve got!)

What did you take from the talk? Did anything strike a cord?

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Questions for Verlyn Klinkenborg?

Written by Brendan O’Meara

After I sign books at the Saratoga Horse and Tack Expo at Saratoga Race Course tomorrow, I’ll be heading to Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Ctr., Vt to attend an author talk with Verlyn Klinkenborg. He’ll be talking about his new book “Several Short Sentences About Writing”. It’s great, by the way.

Do you have any questions you’d like me to ask him? I plan on video taping the talk and posting the video here, as well as write about it. Write questions in the comments or Tweet them out to me.

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Literary Awards

Issues, much?

Written by Brendan O’Meara
Follow the Birdie: @BrendanOMeara

I was looking through my scrapbook today (Yes, I had a scrapbook in high school. Go on, get it out. Hey, when you write your memoir, you’ll wish you had the shit I kept on hand.) when I came across the only literary awards I have ever won.

The story, which I no longer have, was called O’Meara in the Rye. Catcher in the Rye was the first book I truly loved and we had just read it that year. OitR was a self-deprecating tale of a guy who couldn’t get the girl. As you can tell, it was critically acclaimed. I kept these “ribbons” for a reason. What I should be asking myself is why was this story I wrote when I was 16, and why was this story I wrote when I was 13, the best work I’ve ever done?

My best answer is that awards of all kinds are political and/or popularity contests. My OitR story was OK. It was kind of funny. But the class liked me and I was popular so when my story went up against, oh, I don’t know, the clarinet player with talent, I won because that’s what popular do: they win.

Now I’m not as talented as the heavy hitters in my genre and I can’t win a popularity contest anymore, so up shit’s creek, as they say. Awards are nice and they make you look good, but it’s wise to understand that people are doing the voting and if they begrudge you just a touch, they won’t vote for you out of principle, even if your work is superior.

Maybe I wrote such good stories before I ever kissed a girl because I didn’t over think it. I had fun writing stories that were entertaining, that had these wounded, likeable characters. Nowadays I kick my own ass by writing about horse racing and string for local newspapers and websites when I should be in bigger markets.

It’s time to be as good as I used to be!

Subscribe to the Hash Tag for Writing blog. It’s easy. Here’s the link.

EZ Shoe Trees

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Beyond talking about writing and self marketing, I’ll write about looking the part. It’s my feeling that suiting up and taking your appearance seriously helps you get the story and win the trust of your characters. We’re billboards for our brand. If we look put together then by extension people will think our work is put together. You know the saying about first impressions. I’ll take my chances in a suit. Now for today’s post!

Want to have shoe trees but don’t feel like spending $20 for every pair of shoes you own? I’ve got an easy alternative: water bottles.

What works best are the eco-friendly bottles that have a thinner plastic. They are more pliable, but still have shape and structure.

1. Squeeze out a little bit of air.

2. Screw the cap on.

3. Slide the narrow end in first.

4. You’re done! Your shoes now have structure.

Before you recycle, think about reusing. This is one way to put those bottles to use.

Hope you liked this little tip.

Wisdom from Ben Franklin

Sexy and I know it.

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Ben Franklin, the only hombre on American currency who wasn’t a president, had it goin’ on. Sure, he came down with syphilis, but who hasn’t?

I read his autobiography a few months back and it’s tough to get through. The edition I have doesn’t have paragraph indentations. Try reading that. There’s no white space. I need a break.

But, Franklin was nothing if not methodical and that’s important for the writer looking to make a living in letters. Franklin had a list of 12 Virtues to follow for self improvement, and maybe I’ll talk about those another time. What I want to talk about is his daily structure. Here it is:

The Morning Question: What Good Shall I do this Day?

5-7: Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness; contrive Day’s Business and take the Resolution of the Day; prosecute the present Study: and breakfast?—

8-11: Work

12-1: Read, or overlook my Accounts, and dine

1-5: Work

6-9: Put Things in their Places, Supper, Musick, or Diversion, or Conversation, Examination of the Day

10-4: Sleep

There’s something simple about this schedule I like. Also, it works in time to decompress and work on other things unrelated to work or craft. There’s time for music, recreation, reflection, etc.

I write well in 45-minute clips. I have some music records that are 45 minutes and I put the headphones on and blast away until the record is done. Then I get up and walk around, do pushups, pet the dogs.

I’d encourage you to adopt a form of structure, something easily digestible. It’s easy to get derailed. All writers know that.

What is your schedule? Is it random? Or do you carve out time each day?

The Sound Upstairs: a lesson in brevity from a 13 year old

By Brendan O’Meara

I was cleaning out some of my shelves, getting rid of come books I’ll never read again, shredding old bank statements, trying to de-clutter my hoarding of paper ANYTHING, when I came across a short story I wrote when I was 13.

In those days as my body was changing and girls cast this weird spell on me, I was reading a lot of R.L. Stine (I had finally graduated from Roald Dhal). He wrote teen horror books, suspenseful, bloody, I liked them more than girls because these books liked me back!

The story I’m about to re-type below is 315 words. That’s it. I read it and felt stronger about this piece I wrote back in 1993 than I do half the time I write anything these days. Maybe what that means is I shouldn’t think so hard about what I write and just write the damn story. This story is a word-for-word transcription. Any bad grammar or misspelled words must be read with a collective [sic]. Ready? No, that wasn’t good enough! Are YOU F*CKIN’ ready!? I thought so. Let me know what you think.

The Sound Upstairs

The house was near the beach. It was a big old place where nobody had lived for years. From time to time somebody would force open a window or a door and spend the night there. But never longer.

Three fishermen caught in a storm took shelter there one night. With some dry wood they found inside, they made a fire in the fireplace. They laid down on the floor and tried to get some sleep, but none of them slept that night.

First they heard footsteps upstairs. It sounded like there were several people moving back and forth, back and forth. When one of the fishermen called, “Who’s up there?” the footsteps stopped. Then they heard a woman scream. The scream turned into a groan and died away. Blood began to drip from the ceiling into the room where the fishermen huddle. A small red pool formed on the floor and soaked into the wood.

A door upstairs crashed shut, and again the woman screamed. “Not me!” she cried. It sounded as if she was running, her high heels tapped wildly down the hall. “I’ll get you!” a man shouted, and the floor shaked as he chased her.

Then silence. There wasn’t a sound until the man who had shouted began to laugh. Long peals of horrible laughter filled the house. It went on and on until the fishermen think they would go mad.

When finally it stops, the fishermen heard someone coming down the stairs dragging something heavy that bumped on each step. They heard him drag it through the front hall and out the front door. The door opened: then it slammed shut. Again, silence.

Suddenly a flash of lightning filled the house with a green blaze of light. A ghastly face stared at the fishermen from the hallway. Then came a crash of thunder. Terrified, they ran out into the storm.

***

Yeah. I got an A+.

Re-reading this my 13-year-old self taught me a thing or two. This story was only 315 words, which to a seventh grader must’ve felt agonizingly long. I had baseball or soccer practice to tend to. I needed to fantasize about the girls in my grade with their new-fangled boobs. I read this ghost story and realized it doesn’t have to be longer, or more gruesome, or with better character development. To me it’s suspenseful and spooky and, quite honestly, better than anything I’ve written in a long time.

Maybe I’m being too hard on my 32-year-old self, but the next time I feel like I need to write something long, I’m going to pressure the writing to be uber tight, like, Olympian tight, like gymnast tight.

Help!, not Helf! for Writers

The folks at Poynter, spearheaded by Roy Peter Clark, have given us for the small price tag of $1.99 a mobile app.

This is like having a writing coach in your pocket. It’s like a cliff-notes version of Clark’s book Help! for Writers. To me this is a compass. You pull your phone out, hold it in your hand, and find out where your True North is.

There’s even audio from RPC himself giving you reason to believe what you’re doing as a writer isn’t some fruitless venture. Which, trust me, I often say to myself when I wake up a 2:12 in the morning wondering where my life is going and whether I’ve wasted the past ten years. Jury is still deliberating.

Any little thing that helps us improve and become better with these letters on this keyboard I’m all for. I’m a grinder. I’m no natural, but if I have anything, it’s a maniacal drive to put in more hours at the ledger than most. Somebody, somewhere is outworking me, and I’ll be damned if I get outworked in this business. I’m mid-pack in terms of talent so I need to make up for that, and apps like this get me one step closer.

 

The Dawning of a New Ear … I Mean Era

Written by Brendan O’Meara

So here’s the deal. I’m moving all operations to this website, the blog, whatever commerce I have, everything! Toda el mundo, amigos!

Why, you ask? It just makes sense. That’s the short answer, but I have a feeling you want me to keep going and who I am to deny my fans (thanks, Mom)? Picture an amusement park, a successful one, not Euro Disney or Euro Itchy and Scratchy Land. For years now I have had my “writing” blog on blogger (still there, hanging out in the ether), but you’d have to hop all around from here to there to Twitter to Facebook, blibbity, blah, blibbity. Now, with the Blog Itself—The Blog of Author Brendan O’Meara—right here and all my other vital links right here, there’s no reason to move. If you want to buy a book. Boom! Buy a book (and keep your eyes peeled for wacky and wild deals, 2 for the price 1? It could happen and this is the only place—save for a book signing—where you can get it personally inscribed). You want to read my bio (this will become more interesting). Boom! You get the picture. It’s all going to be here, your one-stop shop for all the things you’ve come to love.

So what do you say? You excited as I am? Oh, c’mon, I know you are.