Coast Road Trip: Sans Pics

A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.

“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.

Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.

E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.

Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.

Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:

Note: Comments On for this post. Have fun!

The Amateur Spirit in Writing – Revisited

As The Coming of the Toads nears its 10th anniversary (our first post was Dec 27, 2007), we reflect on why and wonder what now.

The new book, “Alma Lolloon,” is out (“look inside” here). “Out” may seem hyperbolic – it’s now available. Others trying to write and publish will get the difference.

Most writers, excepting the besttellers, have to self-promote; yes, even when published traditionally by a standard house in the traditional manner.

It is, then, in the interest of shaking the bushes and the amateur spirit of writing, I invite readers of The Toads to subscribe to my TinyLetter notes.

Meantime, the amateur spirit in writing lives on at The Toads:

The amateur spirit in writing

on

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

Where Everyone is a Writer and a Reader

Writing in the New Yorker in December of 1928, E. B. White recounts an encounter with a paid for hire writer. The writer is getting paid “fifty cents a word,” and is grimly disappointed when White advises that “willy-nilly” gets a hyphen, “at a cost of half a dollar.” Laura Miller, writing in Salon, must be getting paid per word, for her June 22 article, bemoaning the recent rise of self-publishing, is about twice as long as it needs to be. Ostensibly about her concern for readers deluged in the self-published detritus of a slush pile tidal wave, the piece laments the loss of the professional slush pile reader, the entry-level editor who combs through trash piles of unsolicited material like an astronomer searching the night sky for life on another planet. Several assumptions support Laura’s claim that the adulteration of traditional publishing by self-publishing is ultimately to the detriment of the general interest reader: professional writers are better than amateur writers; all self-published works result from slush pile rejections; traditionally published material guarantees quality, and this stamp of official approval saves readers from having to make that decision for themselves. But at risk is an old character, a kind of modern-day Bartleby, the professional reader, the slush pile expert who is now out of work, who has been laboring at the risk of blindness and insanity all these years on behalf of the general interest reader to ensure only works of the highest quality reach their book of the month club selection options.

We discovered Laura’s article in a post at HTML Giant, a relatively recent addition to our blog feeds, but yet another example of the kind of self-published material Laura bemoans. Roxane Gay presents a kind of opposing viewpoint to Laura’s piece, at least where the slush pile going public motif is concerned.

So what do we have to add to the already too long and boring discussion? Well, we were thinking of self-published music. Most of what we hear on the radio, in spite of its imprimatur, sanctioned by the traditional music publishing system, in other words, professional work, we find hackneyed, superfluous, and platitudinous. Or consider television – also full of terrible work sanctioned by professional license. And against these works place the street corner crooner, the independent label, the throwaway zine, the twice visited blog, the indie film. We don’t see self-publishing as the problem in the same way that Laura views it as the problem.

Writing again in the New Yorker, in December of 1948, E. B. White, under the title “Accredited Writers?” remarks: “Perhaps, as democracy assumes, every man is a writer, every man wholly needy, every man capable of unimaginable deeds.” As for us, we don’t mind taking the time to try to read what everyman, or everywoman, has to say, for every person has a story to tell. How well they tell it, how persuasive their argument, how lovely their prose or poetry, how surprising their style – these are our values, too, but, like Roxane, we also value the opportunity to compare and contrast, the better to evaluate for ourselves whose story for its honesty and originality bears repeating, for if every man or woman is a writer, they must also be a reader.

Piracy off the Coast of Gramarye

Huddleston and Pullum’s English Grammar liberates grammar studies from the prescriptivists. Pullum boards the jolly, unsuspecting ship Elements of Style, captained by the evil E. B. White, and ransacks it, taking no prisoners. Pullum is now king of Gramarye, having deposed White and his motley crew of prescriptive pirates. A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar is the dinghy version of the piratically priced mother ship, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

Why study grammar? Most native speakers will get “dog, the, away, ran” correct (correctness is not, contrary to popular notion, the language spoken in Gramarye – correct is what serves one’s purpose; now if we have that wrong, we are still deliberating; we’re not sure who the true pirates are in this story).

“The, dog, ran, away” is the first exercise in Dinghy. There are 24 possible arrangements of the four words; only three will be grammatical, and they are not difficult for the native speaker to recognize, for, as it turns out, if we speak the language, we know the grammar. So why study grammar?

We are given eight reasons in the preface to Dinghy, only a couple very convincing, at least one political, having to do with the declining student population of Gramarye. I wish they had talked about how they got into the study of grammar, why they became grammarians and linguists; there’s little passion in the reasons they submit. Pullum did a study early in his career analyzing popular song lyrics – he could have talked about that! There is a whiff of passion in the middle of the preface, where they talk about their lunch discussions, and the “pronouncements unchallenged for 200 years [that] are in fact flagrantly false.” We’re all for exposing the tyranny of the old kings and their minions, but Dinghy’s preface is no match for Roger Angell’s (White’s stepson and another New Yorker writer) forward to the fourth edition of Elements.

Pullum seems bent on defending his reign, and more power to him, for it will be some time before his prescriptive grammar alerts are heard and understood throughout the land, but he sounds like a Fox News commentator when he says “We linguists should not be shy about speaking out and condemning this opinionated [Elements], influential, error-stuffed, time-wasting, unkillable zombie of a book for all the harm it has done.” *

One of the problems with Pullum’s claim that Elements has done “real and permanent harm,” and that it has been “deleterious to grammar education in America,” * is the assumption that every high school kid in the land has been subjected to it, and having been subjected to it, has successfully incorporated it into their language skills, and that their teachers taught it as a literal reading of the bible – or that their teachers taught it at all. In any case, it might be a good thing if a style book, even a flawed one such as Pullum accuses White’s of being, had anything close to such a profound effect on the general reading public. And there’s the rub. Pullum goes after White because he’s not a text-book. Pullum proves that as a grammar Elements is way off course. Why doesn’t Pullum go after the text-books? White is only a puppet king.

White’s an easy target. Elements is a commercial effort, something CGEL will never be (my copy of English Grammar, purchased from Amazon for just under $30, does not have a price anywhere on its cover – it’s a text-book). I do like English Grammar. I first tried paddling straight through, but got only about half way before the swell of terms started to swamp my boat; I recommend that the general interest reader begin with the “Prescriptive grammar notes” – that’s where the new constitution is being written.

What grammar studies needs isn’t a Pullum, but an Andy Warhol, someone who can show us and popularize what we already know to be true – Gramarye is our land.

*Pullum’s article explicating Elements, “Prescriptive grammar in America: The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style,” (Dec. 2009), is posted on his website, along with links to his other works, including CGLC and EG. Pullum blogs with other linguists at Language Log, an entertaining pirate hangout.

Grammar Shock: Person, Tense, Time, and Sense

For most of us, grammar is like electricity; we use it all the time, usually correctly, but we don’t really know what it is or how it works, but we do know it can be dangerous. We wouldn’t want to discuss inflection while standing barefoot in a pool of water, or mix tenses when changing fuses.

We are advised in a discussion of  the verb paradigm, in Huddleston and Pullum’s English Grammar, that “The relation between tense and time in English…is by no means straightforward.” I never doubted it, but it’s always nice to hear that your hunches have friends.

And so it came as no surprise to find Roger Angell, in the February 15 & 22 issue of the New Yorker, in what he calls “another strange journalistic effort,” mixing memory and desire and person and tense, a dangerous business. “We are getting ahead of ourselves,” Angell says, slipping into first person plural, in what might be an imitation in present time or a nostalgic nod to his stepfather, E. B. White, and a tradition that he apparently disliked but that came to define a certain style and journalistic era. (I read recently somewhere of some editor taking out the old knob and tube of White’s first person plurals and replacing them with modern conduit; we trust they wore gloves).

Angell switches person in his present piece in part because like his subject, “Mac [St. Clair McKelway],” he “knew them when.” And, as Angell deftly illustrates in his piece, keeping one’s tense and person straight is basic to nursing our sanity, particularly during wartime, but as well afterwards when we might be haunted by the decisions and indecisions that changed our lives forever. “It keeps you awake at night,” Angell says (now hiding behind the second person), after he’s diagnosed that sleep deprivation was no doubt a major contribution to “Mac’s madness, Mac’s fugue – let’s call it a flight, in this story….” Just so, English Grammar points out that “The usual definition found in grammar books and dictionaries says simply that the past tense expresses or indicates a time that is in the past. But things are nothing like as straightforward as that. The relation between grammatical category of past tense and semantic property of making reference to past time is much more subtle.”

There is a tense, most usefully expressed in music, but sometimes also in writing, where we can’t seem to locate our precise situation in time. The inflections all come together into one person and tense that seems some crazy mix-up of all possible persons and tenses. Perhaps this tense is properly called sleep. But when you can’t sleep, it’s called ungrammatical, a kind of linguistic power surge.