Tag Archives: Anne Lamott

Seek to Serve

switchboard-operator.jpg

If you want to…

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • write in a way that is readable, informative, and engaging, and that supports your brand

…you do not need mastery of the English language and its mechanics. You don’t even have to know how to spell. (If you are, however, hopeless when it comes to spelling, punctuation, grammar, and such, you probably need a good editor.)

Write for a better world

To write well requires five things:

  1. a clear purpose
  2. an honest message
  3. respect for the reader or audience
  4. respect for the language
  5. enjoyment of the task

Writing becomes an act of war…

  • when writing is an ordeal, a burden, or a bore
  • when the writing distances readers and hearers—through boredom, obfuscation, or intimidation

Obfuscation is not a well-known word, but it is the best term for “lack of clarity” when the murkiness is deliberate. Dictionary.com defines obfuscation as “making something obscure, dark, or difficult to understand.” Wikipedia takes it a bit deeper: “the willful obscuring of the intended meaning of communication by making the message difficult to understand, usually with confusing and ambiguous language.” Think Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”

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.

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. 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.* “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

You will hate writing it you make it about “the rules”—grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling. Instead, first communicate with respect; then enjoy the motion—rhythm, flow, and cadence. The best way to learn these traits is by reading good writing and experimenting with them in your own writing.

The habit of helping

All writers would do well to cultivate the habit of curiosity, particularly when the object is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or energize 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 12 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 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 need to use your turn signal if yours is the only car in the intersection or if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. Is it really necessary to signal a turn if nobody’s watching, or if it’s obvious that you’re turning? On the other hand, it’s not exactly a hardship to press down on the turn-signal lever. Making a habit of something sets you free from the need to make a decision. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might or might not 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. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

Studies consistently show that human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings. —fastcompany.com

When smart people can’t write

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

There’s little I can do for 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:

Writers who don’t like to write

Many unskillful 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.”

The sort of unwieldy writing we’re talking about—the basic flaw being too many words—is said to have originated back in the day when lawyers were paid by the word. Legal documents do tend to be long-winded, often as an attempt to leave no loopholes unplugged—the CYA excuse. But this sort of overexplaining has splashed over into everyday writing, where it’s really not necessary unless you think that everyone is out to sue you. They’re not. If you believe that they are, you have a bigger problem than poor writing skills.

The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

Can you speak?

One of the great fallacies about writing is that it is essentially different from talking. Perhaps you sit at the computer, hands poised above the keyboard, and your mind signals, “I am writing,” as if you are wearing the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. Your brain goes into overdrive. Gears and pulleys clank into place, lumber into motion, and produce ponderous phrases and paragraphs you have no memory of composing:

The state-of-the-art virtuosity of Jumbo-Omni Systems’ advance-intelligence meta-solution integrative strategies reconfigure the clients’ multidimensional objective into positions compatible with fixed and liquid assets, human-resources skill sets, machine autonomy….

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—which doesn’t mean that their colleagues or readers haven’t wanted to poison them. In any case, writing to serve is a remarkably effective cure.

What are you waiting for?

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

  1. 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.
  2. Lighten up. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re writing to communicate genuinely terrible news, don’t take your topic too seriously either.
  3. For every writing assignment, define your role; that is, ask yourself how you can serve your audience.
  4. Clarify your purpose. You can make an outline if you want, although it’s easy to get bogged down in an outline and sabotage your own progress.
  5. Have fun writing your first draft. Let loose. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases that occur to you, but don’t force them. Do not edit as you go. Just write what you want to say, then set it aside for a while.
  6. With a fresh eye, edit for content and style. Is your message clear? Crystal?
  7. Proofread for mechanical errors—grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth.
  8. If there’s time, ask someone else to read your draft for content as well as correctness.
  9. Write final copy and distribute.

Shitty first drafts

It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. The right-brain/left-brain theory has fallen out of favor, but, for whatever reason, stopping often to analyze your work interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

Author Anne Lamott, a novelist and Christian writer who is celebrated for her irreverence, is a proponent of “shitty first drafts…. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (Bird by Bird, 1994)

The point here is not that you try to write badly but rather that you write freely, without evaluating as you go. Stay focused on your purpose. When you’ve finished your shitty first draft, you can pretty it up and make it more palatable.

Exercise

Write a brief biological sketch for yourself.


from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

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Out of Order

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

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Poetic Devices

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 16
Chapter 6: Figuratively Speaking

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

The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849
The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849

 

Figures of speech are tools of poetry. Please do not even think about memorizing this list. The most important concepts are those in bold type.

Figures of Speech (Rhetorical Devices)

Figures of speech are linguistic tools that turn plain writing into art. They are words or phrases used in nonliteral, unexpected ways — for any of a hundred reasons, including

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

* emphasis
* elaboration
* dramatic effect
* tone (resonance, smoothness, softness, roughness…)
* clarity
* deliberate ambiguity
* shading
* freshness
* humor

 

Figures of speech are sometimes classified as schemes and tropes. There is, as you can see, a good deal of overlap between schemes and tropes.

Schemes

Figures of speech involving the arrangement (balance, order, repetition, or omission) of words or sounds

Balance

Parallelism-Repetitive use of a grammatical element (in the example below, repetition of gerund phrases)

Standing on the corner, watching all the world go by;
Standing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye. (1)

Antithesis-Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

When they met, Alice was pure uptown; Jake was down on his luck.

Word Order

Anastrophe-Departure from usual word order

[Death] dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell —John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet 10 (“Death, be not proud”)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Parenthesis — A clarifying word or phrase within a sentence, set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses

My friend, the writer I was so jealous of, would call and say, like some Southern belle, “I just don’t know why God is giving me so much money this year.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (2)

Four of the church’s elders — all women — …were having a prayer meeting. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Appositive — A parenthetical element that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element (In the example below, the “something” that “glittered in her eyes” was “tears or old memories.”)

Something glittered in her eyes — tears or old memories…. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Repetition

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.” — C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. — W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (The poem opens with the words, “That is no country for old men,” from which American author Cormac McCarthy drew the title of his 2005 novel. The film adaptation 2007 film adaptation earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

Anaphora — Beginning successive clauses or phrases with the same word or group of words

I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire. — Rumi

Epistrophe — The same word or phrase used to end consecutive clauses. (The following example illustrates both anaphora [“They compassed me about”] and epistrophe.)

And all nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.
They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. —
Psalm 118:10-12

______________

* aposiopesis: A break or pause in speech for dramatic effect

Paul grabbed hold of Haffner’s shirt, tearing seams. “If you had anything to do with Eve’s murder — ”
— Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

* apostrophe: Addressing a personified abstraction or inanimate object

0 Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. —
Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star”

* cacophony: Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. — Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky

* consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

This is why I live here,
this immaculate occasion once
a day. Desert turns to fairyland,
early-morning light turns drab
dead gray to glory, wind stirs
sunlit leaves like thirty kinds of
lettuce, green and gold, green
and gold, limb motion whispers;
creosote and squat mesquite
quiver in devotion —
sweet-smelling, sunlight-drenched, still
cool and fresh and equal to the
coming heat. —
Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* enjambment: A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

I wonder — How can people find
the world such a contaminated
kind of place when sunlight
reaches into every pore of
being — sanctifying, desiccating foul
detritus of anxiety and indolence? — Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* euphony: The opposite of cacophony — pleasant sounding, perhaps mellifluous

Lord Byron's House in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Lord Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o’er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. — Lord Byron, “She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night”

* homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning

Claire ripped the ruffle off her petticoat and wound it around the delirious soldier’s wound.

* homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.

key: “metal piece that works a lock,” from O.E. cæg
key: “low island,” 1697, from Sp. cayo “shoal, reef” (3 )

* homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning (led and lead, for example)

* hyperbole: Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mamma” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mamma so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

* isocolon: Juxtaposition of parallel structures of the same length in adjacent clauses: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

* internal rhyme: The presence of rhyming words in a single line of verse

…where
children, hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing in the
breeze. Inside, bread rises in the oven, herbs depend from
oaken beams, and last night’s chicken in its steaming broth
becomes this evening’s stew,
tomorrow’s casserole. — Mary Campbell, “On This Side”

Yeast bread rising before baking

Yeast bread rising before baking

* non sequitur: A statement that marks an abrupt, and often puzzling, change of subject

* onomatopoeia: The quality (of a word) of sounding like what is described: the buzzing of bees, the bark of a dog; a hacking cough; hiss; murmur, thrum

* pun: Use of a word or phrase in two different senses at the same time

* sibilance: Alliteration in which the letter or sound of S is repeated

* superlative: Unequaled; uttermost

* spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect (“Madam, may I sew you to your sheet?”)

* tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice (“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”; “I decided to go to New York because it was my decision to go to New York.”)

* tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound or other multisyllabic word (Example: “Hoo-freaking-ray”)

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. —Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Tropes

In linguistics, trope is a rhetorical figure of speech that consists of a play on words — that is, using a word in a way other than what is considered its literal or expected form. The other major category of figures of speech is the scheme (see above), which involves changing the pattern of words in a sentence.

Trope comes from a Greek word meaning “a turn, a change.” We can imagine a trope as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else.

Types of Tropes

Metonymy — Using a word associated with an object or idea for the object or idea itself (e.g., referring to actions of the U.S. president as “actions of the White House”)

Irony — A word are phrase used in a way that is opposite to its standard meaning, such as describing poverty as “good times”

Simile — An explicit comparison between two things using the word like or as (“When she was angry, she was as fierce as a tiger,” and “When she was angry, she was like a tiger” are examples of simile; “When she was angry, she was a tiger” exemplifies a metaphor.)

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea — often intangible —using a tangible, dissimilar substitute (“My mother had a cocker spaniel’s eyes and a lion’s heart.”)

Synecdoche — Related to metonymy and metaphor, creates a play on words by referring to something with a related concept: for example, referring to the whole with the name of a part, such as “hired hands” for workers; a part with the name of the whole, such as “the law” for police officers; the general with the specific, such as “bread” for food; the specific with the general, such as “cat” for a lion; or an object with the material it is made from, such as “bricks and mortar” for a building

Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through entire stories, sometimes even long works of literature, such as The Faerie Queen. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. Aesop’s Fables are usually short allegories.

______________

* allusion: An indirect reference to a quotation, event, or work of literature. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” is a common allusion to Judy Garland’s famous line in the (1939) film version of The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

* anthimeria: The substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb

* anthropomorphism: A word or phrase that ascribes human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)

* aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, an adage

* aporia: Deliberating with oneself, often with the use of rhetorical questions

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

* archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language)

* catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used on purpose and sometimes by mistake)

* circumlocution: “Talking around” a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis

* commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience.

* double negative: Redundant repetition of negative words (“I don’t have no money.”)

* dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism.

* erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question

* euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another (e.g., downsizing for layoffs)

* hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length

* innuendo: Sly suggestion; hidden meaning

* invocation: An apostrophe to a god or muse

* malapropism: Confusing a word with another word that sounds similar (“Put your hand in the hand of the man who spilled the water.”)

* meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something

* metonymy: Substitution of a related word or phrase for a larger idea.

Many standard items of vocabulary are metonymic. A red-letter day is important, like the feast days marked in red on church calendars. Red tide, the marine disease that kills fish, takes its name from the color of one-celled, plantlike animals in the water…. On the level of slang, a redneck is a stereotypical member of the white rural working class in the Southern U.S., originally a reference to necks sunburned from working in the fields. — Connie C. Eble, “Metonymy,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992

* neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism.

* oxymoron: Contradiction in terms; using two terms together that normally contradict each other (e.g., “sour sweetness”)

* parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson

* paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth

* parallel irony: An ironic juxtaposition of sentences or situations (informal)

* paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over

* pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human actions or feelings to nonhuman objects

* periphrasis: Using several words instead of few

* personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena (see pathetic fallacy)

* proverb: A succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true

* rhetorical question: A query that doesn’t require an answer

* superlative: Uttermost: the ugliest, the most precious, etc.

* synecdoche: A form of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole (Example: “Keep your nose out of my business.”)

* truism: A self-evident statement

* zoomorphism: Animal characteristics ascribed to humans or gods

_________

1 From the song “Standing on the Corner,” by Frank Loesser 1956), composed for the Broadway Musical The Most Happy Fella. Recorded by the pop quartet the Four Lads, it reached number 3 on the charts that year.

2 The parenthetical phrase “the writer I was so jealous of” is also an appositive; it is in apposition to “my friend.”

3 Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=key, accessed May 20, 2008

Next: If Only I’d Gone to Parma