Category Archives: how to write well

Writing for Humans

There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

INTRODUCTION: 3 WRITING ESSENTIALS

 

From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell, Annagrammatica.com

 The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.

IF YOU WANT TO

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand

…THERE ARE THREE ESSENTIALS:

  1. Love of writing
  2. Clarity
  3. Respect for the reader

WRITING CREATES HOSTILITY

…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)

Martin-Buber-lovepowerfully

WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD

Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory. [1]

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees.[2] Hostility in the air has social costs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.[3] “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber 

THE HABIT OF HELPING

For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”

Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 do unto you.”

And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

WHY SMART PEOPLE DON’T WRITE WELL

In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.

Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and offputting, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.

Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.

Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify

  • lack of focus; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.

I can’t help the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:

LACK OF ENJOYMENT—WRITERS WHO DON’T LIKE TO WRITE

Many uninspired writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.

I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…

WHY WAIT?

If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:

  1. Decide how you want to serve your audience.
  2. Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
  3. Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go.[4] Just write what you want to say.
  4. Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.

Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78

MartinBuber

Martin Buber 1878-1965

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I  relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[1]      “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998; http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf, accessed July 28, 2012

[2]      Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
http://www.fastcompany.com/3048751/the-future-of-work/happy-employees-are-12-more-productive-at-work

[3]      http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/

[4]      It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

WSJ-BUZZWORD

Click HERE for the Wall Street Journal’s Business Buzzword Generator

P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?

Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.

Why Using Jargon Is Bad for Your Brand
Why Jargon Can Be Bad for Business
Bad Business Jargon: It Is What It Is
Keep It Jargon-Free

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Speaking of Homophones

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Sidebar: Sound-Alikes

Charlie Chan (http://www.impawards.com/1934/posters/charlie_chan_in_london_xlg.jpg)

Charlie Chan

I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.

I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?

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    Sidebar: Pore Me

    pp_sadman

    Pore Me

    Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)

    Pouring Over the Bible

    Pouring Over the Bible

    In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authorsKenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”

    It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.

    * * *

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    The Darkness. Is Dark.

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Assignment 17.2
    Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

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    Working Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

    Figure 1: Working Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

     

    Perpetrating truculent profligacies can put you in a pickle

    First, review our working definitions of art, poetry, and verse (above).

    There is such a thing as bad writing, which, simply put, is writing that doesn’t communicate well. I suppose that bad poetry exists, too, though I prefer to think of it as “amateur verse.” Poetry, as we’ve discussed, generally requires some knowledge of rhetorical devices and the disciplined application of them.

    Below are excerpts from poems appearing in the New American Poetry Anthology* (1988 edition). The NAPA sponsored a competition and, one infers, accepted most of the entries, calculating that the poets whose work was published would buy copies of the book (at $50 each plus shipping; back then, $50 got you a couple weeks’ worth of groceries). There are some fine examples of poetry in this book, although the excerpts below are not among them. Common themes are loneliness, love lost, love found, regret, aging, and, of course, The Darkness, with its pesky ineffable primitivities.

    Amateur Verse?

    Table 1: Amateur Verse?

    I do not criticize the poets. Their sentiments are often moving, even heart-wrenching. The NAPA exploits the poets and their emotions, however, by characterizing amateur verse (lines of dubiously metrical text) as prizewinning poetry in order to make a profit.

    Please copy the table, add your comments to mine (column 2) based on our working definition of poetry, on what you’ve learned about rhetorical devices, and on your subjective responses to the poems. E-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Feel free to disagree with my opinions and offer your justification for doing so. I will not grade your submission, but I will return it to you with comments.

    _______

    * Not to be confused with Donald Allen’s 1960 project The New American Poetry

    Next: Everybody Wants to Be Happy

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    Sidebar: Crisis? What Crisis?

    The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

    Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

    Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

    crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai “to explain;” O.E. hriddel “sieve;” L. cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (pp. cretus) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar, O.Welsh cruitr “sieve;” M.Ir. crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=crisis

    A Time to Decide

    When my older son, Jack, was 3, he barrelled through an enormous plate-glass window – more of a wall, actually – and emerged unscratched, though we were in Arizona and it was 104 degrees and he was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. About two years later, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, he had a bit of a tantrum and launched a fist through a window in our dining room and cut his wrist. There was quite a lot of blood, so I called Dr. Cherven at home – you could do that, in Hutchinson, Kansas, in those days – and Dr. Cherven instructed us to meet him at the hospital.

    The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

    The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

    Both Jack (the window-shattering culprit) and I were terrified, though the hospital was only a five-minute drive from our house. A nurse in the emergency room confirmed that the cut was crisis-worthy, and moments later Dr. Cherven strode in, wearing jeans and a tattered plaid shirt – he had been replacing storm windows with screens in his Victorian house. He scrubbed his hands, picked up Jack’s wrist, wiped away the blood, and uncovered a superficial cut hardly worthy of a Band-Aid. Crisis diffused. More accurately, crisis unmasked. The child had skin like new rubber.

    Parents of active and fearless children learn to be cautious in their use of words such as crisis and emergency. These are volatile terms. When you apply them to situations, particularly those involving loved ones, they are stress-inducing, to say the least. Blood rushes to the heart, which starts pumping like a jogger in subzero temperatures.

    What you need to do then is, you need to breathe evenly and focus on your toes. Seriously. This reminds your body that it has components other than the heart. Merely paying attention to your toes causes blood to flow there, your heart stops pounding in your ears, and you can make a rational decision.

    The origin of the word crisis suggests “time to make a decision,” not “time to panic.” With apologies to anyone who is without genuine necessities due to the current financial climate – food, shelter, medical care, and so forth – an unstable economy is not cause for panic.

    Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

    Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

    I am reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers‘s mystery novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which one of the club’s members observes, “I say, you fellows, … here’s another unpleasantness. Penberthy’s shot himself in the library. People ought to have more consideration for the members.” Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, uncovers the murderer (Penberthy did not shoot himself) in his trademark quirky style, unruffled and scrupulously attired throughout.

    Might I suggest that we emulate the British and adopt the practice of understatement? I wish that American journalists would do so… but then, it requires less ink (in newspapers and magazines) and less air time to say “financial crisis” than it would to say “financial unpleasantness.”

     

    Sidebar

    Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

    Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

    Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

    I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

    Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

    Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

    What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

    • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
    • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
    • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

    We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

    Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.

    True and Not True

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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    Chapter 2, Why We Need Poetry

    Part 4: ‘Acting Creatively through the Arts Is an Exercise of Genuine Power’

     

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    Key Component of Apple Crisp

    Key Component of Apple Crisp

     

    People worry. It’s unfortunate, but there you are.

     

    The world is full of magic. I don’t mean phenomena that violate natural law. I mean that, in the vast body of natural law, we know maybe a toenail. Maybe a bacterium on a toenail. And by “we,” I mean “everybody in the world, including Stephen Hawking.”

     

    We think that A plus B equal C, and often they do, assuming that we can wrap our minds around A and B, as in 2 plus 3 equal 5.

     

    But then it gets a little more complicated. Two plus three of what? Apples?

     

    Two apples plus three apples, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, butter, an hour or so in the oven at 325F, and a little love and artistry, equal warm apple crisp upon which you must spoon an avalanche of real whipped cream. Then you serve it to your friends in pretty blue bowls, set upon doilies, set upon pretty blue saucers.

     

    KEY CONCEPT: Metaphorical truth

     

    In these tables, adapted from the assignments for Lesson 6…

     

    …all the expressions are metaphorically, or figuratively, or spiritually true. They make sense in the language of poetry and emotion. It is one’s spirit that is in pieces when one is “torn up,” not (usually) one’s physical body. When your friend says, “Hey, Man, get it together,” he’s not telling you to go retrieve your hand or your cerebral cortex. If he’s a true friend, and your brain has gone missing, he’ll go look for it himself.

     

    ♦♦♦

     

    We create in order to grow spiritually

     

    I said earlier that “once we have achieved order, there remains a nagging discontent.” I explained that living things are programmed to grow. Without the energy of growth, there is entropy and there is decay.

     

    The conscious incentive for growth is the lack of perfect contentment with the status quo.

     

    However satisfying things are, they can be better. If that weren’t true, the concepts of wanting, improving, and evolving would be meaningless, and there would be no reason to get out of bed.

     

    We might want nothing more at the moment than to open the blind and let a little more light in, or to warm our coffee. This little unit of life, perhaps this quarter of an hour in the early morning, would be better with a little more sunshine, a little more steam rising from the coffee cup.

    Where's the Steam?

    Where's the Steam?

     

    We could probably agree about hundreds of qualitative comparisons. For example:
    (1) Love and harmony in the home are better than bloodshed.

    (2) It is better to be healthy than to have double pneumonia.

    (3) Playing baseball is a better activity for children than using crack cocaine.

    (4) It is better to live in a tidy neighborhood with flowers and trees than in a rusted station wagon under a bridge.

     

    The values that underlie these comparisons are widely, almost universally shared. If you are an adult, the Gallup people might call and ask whether you think a particular Republican would make a better president than a particular Democrat, but they will never mail you a survey like the following:

     

    Which Alternative?

    Which Alternative?

     

    Because some things, such as health and harmony, are self-evidently better than others, then there must be, at least theoretically, a best. When we move from point A (bad) to point B (neutral) to point C (better) to point D (better still), our progress is usually represented as being upward toward the ideal or the perfect.

     

    Moving Up

    Moving Up

     

    If a theoretical Ideal and theoretical Perfection exist, then so, in theory, does God. (The English word theory arrived in our language in the sixteenth century through Latin from the Greek thea “a view” plus horan “to see.” Thea was also the feminine form of the Greek word theos “god,” which gave us theology in the fourteenth century. Some etymologists insist that the linguistic resemblance between theory and theology is only coincidental. These are the types of things etymologists like to argue about.)

     

    A perfect box of eggs

     

    The words perfect and perfection are often misused. (See “The Perfect Game” in the appendix.) If there are a hundred questions on a test and you answer them all correctly, you are said to have a “perfect score.” But that’s like claiming that if you buy an item labeled “one dozen eggs” at the grocery store, and you take the item home and open it and, yes, there are twelve eggs in it, you have a perfect box of eggs.

     

    Accuracy is not perfection.

     

     

    Whether or not you use the vocabulary of religion, art is fundamentally spiritual. Any creation begins with an idea (inspiration) and gives it form and function—“the Word made flesh,” in a sense.

     

    If you don’t yet understand this, it may become clear the first time you create something that is more than the sum of a series of mechanical processes… something that seems to have a life of its own. It’s like seeing your child, almost grown and blooming, and realizing that he is more than a genetic combination of his mother and father.

     

    Except that you can’t go on creating children indefinitely, whereas your unique artistic capacity is infinite, once you find the source.

     

     

    * Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theory (accessed: September 02, 2007).

     

    Lesson 7.1 Assignment

    What are the meanings of metaphor?

     

    Write one or two paragraphs (about fifty words) on the meaning of metaphor and the differences between metaphor and simile, with examples.

     

    Please send assignments via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Submissions will not be graded but will be returned with comments.

     

    Go to Lesson 8—Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty

    What’s Tearing You Up?

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    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 5.1
    Assignment: Declutter your life

    Stop the World, I Want to Get Off

    Stop the World, I Want to Get Off

    You’ll find a decluttering exercise at the blog post “Sister Alma Rose: Porch Time.” This exercise is your assignment. You don’t have to send me the table, all filled out with the I’s crossed and the T’s dotted, or is it the other way around? No—just send me a paragraph or two (about fifty words) on whether the exercise and accompanying text helped you rethink your priorities. If so, how? If not, why not?

    (You’ll find a colorful diagram of Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs,” amended to include an obvious oversight on Maslow’s part—to wit, the necessity of CHOCOLATE. )

    Please e-mail me your assignment at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Thanks!

    Go back to Lesson 5
    Go to Lesson 6

    Dis-entropized: Staying Alive

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    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 5

    Chapter 2, Part 2: Why We Need Poetry

    Are babies programmed for language?

    Hard-Wired for Speech?

    Hard-Wired for Speech?

    Current linguistic research is exploring the hypothesis that “children [are]… programmed to learn language, just as they seem to be programmed to learn to walk… Indeed, children in the first five years of life have such a remarkable facility for language that they can effortlessly learn two structurally quite different languages simultaneously—if, for instance, their mother is Chinese and their father American—without displaying the slightest signs of stress or confusion.” *

     

    In other words, according to the theory advanced by Noam Chomsky and others, babies are apparently wired to get what’s inside their heads—thoughts, ideas, questions—out into the Great, Wide World, through the medium of language.

     

    Part of the evidence for an “innate appreciation of language,” according to Bill Bryson, writing in The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, is that children everywhere, in every culture, whatever its language, no matter how complex or “wildly inflected” it is, learn to speak in exactly the same way.* By the time they are barely a month old, they show a preference for the sounds of speech over all others. Their infant babbling consists of the same sounds and commences at the same time—four to six months before they begin to talk. Their first words are simple labels (Me, Da), advancing to subject-verb combinations (Me want, Da go), and so on—my older son excepted. His sister, who was nearly 11 when her baby brother Jack was born, recorded in his Baby Book that his first words were carrots and onomatopoeia.

     

    Additional research appears to confirm the theory that “children are programmed for language,” which is good news for those of us who use poetry as a way of gaining access to buried emotions and inclinations. Learning the discipline of expressing ourselves through poetry creates a channel to the unconscious—one that is wide enough to accommodate something as unruly as rage, but narrow enough to keep all our feelings from spilling out at once so that we can identify what emerges bit by bit.

    Staying alive: God trumps entropy

    This is not a religious book. Virtually anyone who wants to write poetry and to grow in self-knowledge and self-expression can benefit from it.

    I Find God in All Things

    I Find God in All Things

     

    As a person who experiences God in all things, I am unable to write a shopping list, much less a book about poetry, that is entirely secular. Strip anything of spirit and there’s nothing left, is the way I see it.

     

    But I am not going to preach or to espouse any particular theology. When I speak of God, for our present purpose, I am referring to the Ideal, the Perfect, the Goal that motivates all growth and change, the Organizing Principle—the opposite of entropy.

    What (not to put too fine a point on it) is entropy?**

    Entropy is the tendency of things to get messier when left on their own. You first heard about entropy from your parents: “Why are you just sitting there? The lawn’s not going to mow itself.”

    Entropy is the tendency of everything to fall apart unless something, some form of energy, is holding it together. Think (but not too hard, because this is not a perfect analogy) of a Popsicle after it’s been out of the freezer for a while.

    The inanimate universe leans toward chaos, decay, disorganization, and disintegration. Entropy is, you might say, the natural state of things when energy is not applied to them.

    The attributes of God are counterentropic—a word I just made up because I can’t think of a better one. Anti-entropic won’t do. God isn’t against entropy. God is life and order. God is love, and growth, and beauty. It is the way of God and nature to lift things up, and these attributes are manifestations of energy, and they are the reason we are all still here. It is the way of entropy to melt like a Popsicle.

    Entropy is not evil. Decay, in fact, is necessary to growth. Think of compost, which is decaying organic matter, and how it literally feeds growing things.

    Life = order

    Harry Potter Postage Stamps

    Harry Potter Postage Stamps

    A living thing — I’ll use myself, the living thing with which I am best acquainted, as an example—is highly organized at the cellular level. All I have to do consciously is eat, drink, and breathe, really, to exist. It might not be a giddy or intellectually satisfying existence, but the potential is there. When I breathe, my body gets the oxygen it needs to convert food to energy, which keeps my various systems functioning more or less efficiently, which enables me to walk and talk, and from there it’s a short step to giddiness or scholarly pursuits.

    Our anatomical systems are programmed upward, toward life and growth. They make new cells and dispose of the old ones, filter the blood, manufacture various proteins, and so forth, and I don’t even have to pay attention. I can kick back and read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the fourth time without having to check even once on whether my pancreas is still doing whatever it is that a pancreas does.

    Disease and death = entropy

    Entropy in the Human Body

    Entropy in the Human Body

    It is no accident that diseases are called “disorders.” Injuries and illnesses are entropic. Cancer cells, for example, reproduce in a chaotic, unpredictable manner, whereas healthy cells are in balance, new cells replacing old cells as needed. Healing from injuries and illnesses is a process of returning cells to their normal, orderly functions.

    When a living thing dies, entropy takes over. I know this because not long ago a couple of rats died under my shower. They did not die where they could be conveniently scooped out by someone, anyone, please, God, other than me. Removing them required a major bathroom overhaul that took several weeks.

    Meanwhile, major entropy was occurring at the cellular level within these rats, as their cells ceased to regenerate. They decayed. They rotted. And they did these things no more than three feet from where I brushed my teeth.

    I hardly need point out that dead cells are not programmed toward life and growth. They aren’t programmed at all. The programming quit when the life went out of them. They are completely at the mercy of entropy, so they disintegrate. As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t disintegrate fast enough.

    The opposing, or perhaps complementary,*** effects of entropy and order take place at every level: microscopically and personally; in your household and your community; globally and universally. The body may run okay on automatic pilot — at the cellular level — but when you move up to the organism level, there’s a lot you have to do to, consciously and intentionally, to keep things from falling apart.

    A street corner in the ghost town of Bodie, California (photographed by Jon Sullivan and released into the public domain)

    Entropized: A street corner in the ghost town of Bodie, California (photographed by Jon Sullivan and released into the public domain)

    Consider what happens when you fail to “apply energy” to something — from combing your hair or washing the dishes after supper, to doing your homework or going to your job. Parents have to impose order on their children. Car owners have to keep their vehicles maintained. Homeowners have to paint their houses. Gardeners have to water and weed their flower beds.

    We expend much of our energy in a race with entropy, maintaining ourselves and our stuff before they descend into chaos. If we don’t do it, or if someone doesn’t do it for us, everything goes to pieces. The car rusts. The grass dies. The wood rots. The porch sags. Our teeth fall out. We flunk out of school. Our kids grow up to be axe murderers with absolutely no table manners.

    Psychologically, we are programmed to prefer order and we are cranky when it is lacking.**** The most miserable people I know are those who are constantly running after their lives. “I don’t have time to plan,” they say. “I’m too busy fighting fires.” They don’t buy new car tires until there’s a blowout. They don’t clean the yard until a family of weasels takes up residence behind the garage.

    These are not orderly lives. They are continually being snatched from the jaws of entropy. The only organizational principle is urgency. There is little joy in such an existence.

    If you are wise, you make conscious decisions about what’s truly necessary and, just as your cells do, you (the organism) develop systems for taking care of necessities so that you can also attend to wants and desires. A planning calendar is such a system. It is a powerful anti-entropy device. I actually own one. I’m not sure, at the moment, where it is. Perhaps the weasels have taken it.

    Other obstacles to orderliness

    Entropy is not the only thing that interferes with maintaining an orderly existence and indulging your wants, interests, and talents. Other people’s expectations, real or perceived, throw a lot of us off course. The more you are concerned with the opinions of others, the more obligated you feel to do unnecessary things. Your life slips out of your grasp like the Little Gingerbread Boy, and all you can do is to run after it and try to rein it in.

    My sister, Pipi Campbell Peterson, is an author and professional organizer who specializes in decluttering—closets, offices, lives—so that her clients can have greater serenity, enjoy more time for the Good Stuff, and find their keys. If  you are going to Live Poetically—indeed, if you are going to finish this book—you will probably have to declutter and create some space for it, just as you would if you were taking dance lessons in your basement.


    * Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. William Morris & Co. (New York), 1990.
    ** Entropy = The physical Universe’s macrocosmic proclivities of becoming locally ever more dissynchronous, asymmetric, diffuse, and multiplyingly expansive. —Buckminster Fuller
    *** Order, in the form of growth — and entropy, in the form of decay — are complementary in that they rely on one another. 
    **** Psychological entropy is “the distribution of energy in the psyche, which tends to seek equilibrium or balance among all the structures of the psyche.” Hall, Calvin S.; Nordby, Vernon J. (1999). A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Meridian.

     

    The Seven Words That Changed My Life

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 2. Preface (part 2)

    April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that makes you feel earthy somehow. By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete — rose or jasmine, diesel fumes, steaks cooking over mesquite — nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the height of its blooming glory.

    Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance and a margarita on the rocks with a solid inch of salt. I have a class to go to. Nor am I drawn to this class by a Hunger for Learning but rather by the need to fulfill a continuing-ed requirement.

    I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west — always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, as if somewhere in those backlit hills the Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, if you can find the spot — before I lock my car and enter the windowless building, following the unmistakable pre-evening-class buzz of desultory conversation and languid laughter.

    There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor calls us to attention we just plop down on the carpeted floor.

    The instructor, whose name is Sheila, is blond, young, compact, and soft-spoken. Her confident, intelligent energy captures my attention as she works her way back to my corner of the room handing out single sheets of paper.

    In the years to come I will wish I had kept that paper, though it contains only four or five lines of instructions for our first “exercise.” With little introduction and no fanfare, Sheila explains what we are to do, summarizing the written instructions.

    First, we have to “find a partner — someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I am chatting with a woman named Pat, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow “might as well” look that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.

    Normally the words “find a partner” unleash all my latent insecurities. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says “find a partner.” Instantly my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines, the freckles on my nose into warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse — something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot — something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.

    Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax. Which happens to be the next instruction — to relax, via a mercifully no-nonsense meditation led by Sheila. I’ve undergone guided meditations so drawn out it would have been more efficient to go to the actual ocean and be calmed by the lapping of the actual waves. These exercises were generally led by women with low, crooning, hypnotic voices.

    Sheila is no crooner. Her voice doesn’t go all soft and mystical (like Galadriel’s, you know, in The Lord of the Rings, when she is mesmerized by the One Ring that Frodo carries, right before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on steroids). Sheila suggests, in her cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on.

    “Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck stretches, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.

    Seven words with the force of a Light Saber

    It is time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) is to hold in her mind an image of a person she knows. My partner, Pat, has volunteered to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about “her person”: gender, age, and location. Pat’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.

    My job (as Student B) is to describe that person — through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Pat and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.

    “You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”

    You’ll feel like you’re making it up. Seven words with the force of a Light Saber. One sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.

    The man with two red dogs

    According to the rules, Pat can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my statements. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).

    I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge in… and nail it, right from the get-go. Pat’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority, about five-foot-ten, has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair — a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.

    I glance at Pat for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. I tell her that he is standing in front of a house in the foothills, a long, low, dark-green house that faces north toward the Catalina Mountains. He is beside the front door, a few feet from a curved gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense — like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Pat until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.

    “Do you see anything else?” she whispers.

    “Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”

    I have unerringly and meticulously described Pat’s ex-husband, his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.

    Ð

    The room goes from quiet to unruly as if someone has rung the dismissal bell. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.

    Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I saw when I entered the class. Now the room is filled with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Biff has apparently decided he’s some kind of sorcerer. As Student B, he explains, he described his partner’s (Student A’s) father’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”

    The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly overwhelmed, as the rest of us are. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.

     “You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just dipped your toes into what is sometimes called ‘shared consciousness.’ The only purpose of this exercise is for you to see how much power you have that you didn’t know you had.” Then she starts handing out a syllabus about the difference between Management and Leadership.

    Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.

    Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women.

    Ð

    Kerensky

    Kerensky

    When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them. Like when I escorted Alexander Kerensky (who overthrew Czar Nicholas in 1917) from his residence across the street to my college dorm, holding my umbrella over his head so he wouldn’t get soaked; like when I learned that the man sitting next to me at dinner was the composer Aaron Copland and I tried to sing the soprano part to his song “Las Agachadas” with a mouth full of broccoli; like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dorm lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”

    But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Cosmic Awareness — that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.

    ——–

    Go to Lesson 3