Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Wisdom from Unexpected Places

Ever have that moment where you are captivated by a popular book or magazine but you just can’t pinpoint why it’s awesome? Yeah, me too. One of the best ways to become a good writer is of course, as any English teacher will tell you, to read. I agree, but I think there is a little more to it than that. Simply reading stacks and stacks of books is not only time consuming, but exhausting. Time is better spent looking deep into works that you absolutely love. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Find out what it is that makes that book or even sentence so interesting and enthralling!

I found myself asking such questions earlier today when I began browsing through the many pages of a Cosmo magazine. I came upon an article that I found to be very entertaining. The subject of the article was not especially eye-catching and was old news to me, which got me thinking about what exactly made the article so interesting. Later, I realized it was all thanks to a very simple trick: the writer knew her audience. She wrote as if she was speaking to a best friend, using all kinds of age-appropriate lingo and relaxed language. Just by tweaking the way she wrote, she brought a flat subject to life.

I often find that I get inspirations and ideas about how to improve my work from the most unexpected places (such as a racy magazine like Cosmo). Even writing I don’t like has a lot to offer; I can recognize what doesnt work (which is at times even more important). Dissecting a broad spectrum of writing samples can do more for a writer than he or she ever imagines. Sometimes, waiting for inspiration works, but most of the time you have to work for it, or at least make yourself perceptive to it. Jean Cocteau said “The poet doesn’t invent.  He listens.” Understanding how writing works is the same way.

What will you discover in an ordinary thing today?

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Don’t Judge A Poem By Its Poet

A few days ago, I was browsing through the book section of a local thrift store and found a very “loved” copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. That night, I cracked it open and started reading in the middle of a long and boring-looking poem, but I gave it a chance and fell in love with it. I turned back a few pages to read it from the beginning, and realized that had I known the author of the poem, I probably wouldn’t have started reading it.

This got me thinking. Do I really judge poems by their author? I think everyone does at least once in their life. Many high school students would probably much rather read Shel Silverstein than Keats, for example. How many things do people miss because of bias and attitude? Far too many.

Poetry is a treasure chest waiting to be delved into, and it’s precious contents are often cast aside because of incorrect judgments and the tendency to rip poetry viciously apart in the pursuit of answers. This reminds me of a poem written by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

There is so much that poetry has to offer if one simply sits back and enjoys it. You’ll be surprised what your taste in poetry is if you read it with an open mind and an empty cup.

So what are you waiting for? Open that dusty collection of poetry and see what treasures are waiting to inspire you!

And Sometimes “Y”

I remember learning as a child the song that goes something like “a-e-i-o-u-and sometimes y.” I’d taken my elementary teacher’s word for it that every single one of those were a vowel, and had never really thought about the difference between vowels and consonants. I figured, as long as I can spell words correctly, who cares? For years, I’ve taken great interest in the English language, but neglected to examine some of its finer points until a writer friend of mine asked the question, “Why is it only sometimes Y?” I tried to answer, but found that even though I felt I knew why deep down, I could not piece together a complete response.

I embarked on a journey to get some answers, and made a surprising discovery along the way. Before we get down and dirty with the consonant that is even more mind boggling than “sometimes y,” let’s take a look at why the 25th letter of the alphabet swings both ways.

First off, the difference between consonants and and vowels is worth knowing, especially if you are a poet or a singer. According to Oxford, a vowel is “a speech sound which is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction…”, while a consonant is “a basic speech sound in which the breath is at least partly obstructed.”

That being said, Y is easy to recognize in consonant form, such as in the word “yellow” or “barnyard.” Sometimes, however, the letter becomes part of this super creepy thing called a dipthong. A dipthong is is a pair of vowels that, when combined, create a new sound. Some good examples of these kinds of pairs are “ai” and “au.” When Y is next to another vowel, it can actually adopt vowel qualities. This concept is a lot easier to imagine if you play around with the pronunciation of each letter enough.

As it turns out, language has a sort of mathematical quality that can make another consonant a vowel by the same logic. The letter W (yep, you read correctly) can also become a “semi-vowel” when part of a dipthong. The concept of this one is a little bit harder to grasp than Y, but it is technically possible. Grammar Girl tells us that in words such as “claw” and “few,” the letter W becomes a vowel. She even goes on to say that W can stand alone as a vowel, such as in the word “cwm.”

Whether you believe this or not, it’s logically sound. Though I’ll admit, trying to accept “W” as a vowel feels like a cheese grater is moving across my brain. Most of my friends and family seem to feel the same way. However, my grandfather said he was taught this concept as a child and it was no surprise to him. It seems odd that elementary school teachers would leave “W” out of the picture. But really, how do you describe a dipthong to first-grader?

Personally, I think I’ll just have to keep making do with “a-e-i-o-u-and sometimes y.”

The Art of Language

Ever since language came to be, it has undergone a barrage of transformations brought on by countless factors. One cannot deny that the difference between a young adult novel and a paperback classic is enormous. The beauty and genius of sentences penned by early authors such as Dickens, Hugo, Shelley, and Tolkien throw into sharp relief the deficit of creative language in modern literature. Take a look at these two contrasting passages, paying special attention to the vocabulary and content of each and how they affect the reader:

“He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which, as yet, could hardly be termed aged. There was a remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental part that it could not fail to mould the physical to itself, and become manifest by unmistakable tokens.”

– The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

“After dinner, I folded clothes and moved another load through the dryer.
Unfortunately it was the kind of job that only keeps hands busy. My mind
definitely had too much free time, and it was getting out of control.”

-Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

We can see from these two passages that classical and modern literature are of separate worlds. One of the biggest attractions of classical literature is its display of creative and elevated language. The passages are often so elevated that readers cannot keep up with what is going on in the story. Readers with a small vocabulary become bored or confused when trying to translate classical imagery into layman’s terms, which can be a feat for even the most experienced reader. Stories written in earlier times were typically based around specific themes and frameworks, which can sometimes be less interesting than the fantastic free-range ideas of authors today. That being said, probably the most impressive feature of a classic would be mind-blowing vocabulary and style.

Modern literature, on the other hand, tends to focus on the story itself, rather than the use of interesting writing styles. Readers these days, upon finishing a book, tend to reflect on the plotline of the story versus how the story was written. Although beautifully written passages are certainly a plus, the heart of popular literature today lies in the allure of the plot and its characters. The readability of a book also includes the relationship that the reader can share with the characters. In essence, the reader can become the main character much easier than a character from a classic. For example, the “job that only keeps hands busy,” in Meyer’s passage above, is an easy concept for anyone to relate to.

Because readers are usually more sensitive to non-classical styles of writing, a great deal of vocabulary has been lost and has seen a decrease in contextual opportunity. Many authors create blockbuster stories with hardly any literary value. These stories tend to captivate young people, who were born in an age of technological amusements and instant gratifications. It seems that many readers fail to appreciate poetry in its fullness for the same reason; it’s simply too much work.

So this leads us to the question, is it detrimental to our language to write so lazily? The answer is both yes and no. Readers are used to reading simple and straightforward language. This gets more people to read, and usually means more to the reader on a personal level. However, they miss out on enjoying the genius and beauty of more complex language. The thing is, people choose to read things that interest them, according to their wants and needs at the time. Perhaps the best thing for people of this era is writing that is free and unencumbered by embellishments, as well as stories that break free of traditional themes and structures. With the rise of the internet, free thought and expression have become more important for everyday people. Regardless of which style is better or more relevant for readers today, both styles are necessary to become well-rounded readers and write effectively.

Big Brother in Religion

The following video is the visual representation of my term paper, which compares modern dystopian literature and frameworks with religious perspectives. For someone who has not read the novels depicted in the video, the comparisons may be a little hard to follow. You can find synopses for Uglies, Pretties, 1984, We, and the Bible almost anywhere in the web. The purpose of this project is not to prove or disprove the existence of God, but to explore “Big Brother” characteristics shared by religious concepts, namely Christianity, as well as how our idea of “Big Brother” came to be and why it is important to humanity. I hope that you enjoy the video and take no offense to it, for none is intended.

If you have any questions, comments, or just want to know more about my English project, feel free to contact me.

What Poetry Isn’t

Poetry is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and effective literary mediums that exist. In comparison to prose, the boundaries of poetry are very much expanded. However, that’s the kicker; there are still boundaries. Unfortunately, many people today (especially teenagers) have the wrong idea about poetry. Many public schools fail to expose their students to poetry in the correct way, partly by allowing them to write weak poetry.

Growing up, I was primarily exposed to Haikus, simple rhymes, and an occasional sonnet here and there. Needless to say, I never want to see another Haiku again. Unfortunately, I developed an aversion to poetry because I felt it was boring and unimpressive. Honestly, I still feel that way about certain forms of poetry. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I really came to know and enjoy good poetry. I was lucky to have Tasha Seegmiller as my teacher, who taught many forms and elements of poetry that I never would have experienced had I not taken the class.

I feel that this is the case of many young people today, who tend to make two very distinct mistakes when approaching poetry.

The first mistake concerns “free verse” poetry. Traditional poetry forms are taught in less depth than they were a hundred years ago, which has triggered a flood of creative writers who don’t quite know what to do. This tends to result in what I like to call “Paragraph Poetry.” This kind of poetry often lacks depth, meaning, and literary value. The term “Paragraph Poetry” comes form the distinct structure of the poem, which seems as if the author wrote a paragraph about how they feel about a certain subject, and then just varied the line length enough to make it classifiable as a poem.

There are those that say “I can write it however I want, that’s what poetry is all about!” Or is it? If one who knows nothing about music bangs on random piano keys, does that make he or she a musician? Does throwing canned soup into a pot make one a chef? Icarus made himself wings; therefore, is he a bird? Certainly not. Slapping words onto a page without rhyme or reason (see what I did there?) does not make one a poet.

Even in “free verse” poetry, there is structure. Free verse simply indicates that a poet had strayed from conventional poetry styles, not that the poet is about to spew a mountain of unorganized word mush at the reader. University professors rarely delight in poetry that follows the “paragraph” format. “Good” poetry usually follows a specific form, evokes feelings and thoughts not expressly written in the poem, and includes literary genius. It is questionable whether what most teenagers write and consider to be poetry is even poetry at all.

This leads us to the second mistake, which involves content. Dr. Todd Petersen once said “Edward Cullen hates your emo poetry.” Although this statement induced many giggles from the class, everyone understood the importance of what it meant. Too often, young people write angsty poetry that is of little value to anyone but themselves. Writing about feelings is wonderful; many of the greatest poems ever written are about sadness, etc. However, there is a fine line between poetry that only communicates “I’m sad and misunderstood” and poetry that does good to the world. There are so many things in the world that are more worthy to write about. It’s important to consider what poetry is all about before flinging unchecked thoughts and feelings onto a page.

This isn’t to say that one cannot write simply for one’s self. It is often very healing to express thoughts and emotions through writing. However, not everything one writes must be shared with an audience; you are what you give to the world.

Nonverbal Communication in Writing

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Nonverbal communication is essential when speaking in person. Gestures, facial expression, body orientation, posture, and other physical indicators are crucial when it comes to getting one’s point across. Because few of us can speak with the same eloquence and clarity as scholars from centuries ago, we often rely on nonverbal cues to compensate.

Obviously, nonverbal cues in speech are important. But what about in writing? Is it possible that writers use a modified form of nonverbal cues?

The answer is yes. Few authors of the 21st century rely purely on language. Hundreds of years ago, only the wealthy and religious leaders were able to read. Now, most people in developed countries are able to read and many frequently do so for recreation. Because the general public is now involved in the literary world, writing styles have changed. Although writers did use nonverbal communication in their work, readers were less inclined to notice it. Now that people as a whole are brought together by writing (newspapers, ads, books, online materials, etc), readers are now better equipped to “read between the lines.”

Shakespeare, who frequently used sarcasm and irony in his work, is one of the best examples of early authors who utilized nonverbal communication. Although people enjoyed the fruits of his labor by watching it performed on a stage rather than reading it in a book, the effect was the same. The idea that one could communicate something without actually saying it outright was born.

Writers today frequently use nonverbal communication such as irony and sarcasm. Readers typically enjoy work that is full of meaning that they must interpret themselves rather than pages and pages of description that explains it all for them.

Imagery is another great great component of nonverbal communication in writing. When speaking with someone face to face, it is easy to interpret their attitude, mood, context, and latent meaning. In writing, one must actually describe such things if they are to be portrayed at all. For instance, instead of simply “she was sad,” one might say “she plopped into a chair and buried her face in her hands.”

Nonverbal communication is a bigger part of writing than one might think. A writer can drastically improve his or her work by taking its importance into greater consideration and realizing the effect it has on the reader. Writing is not just about what’s on the surface; it’s about what the reader can make of it.