Knowing My Own Limits

I’m often uncertain what to write on this blog until I actually sit down to type it out. But I’ve recently been plauged with a different problem, where I know exactly which topic I want to cover, but I can’t find an angle for it.

Some months ago, I was reminded about African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The University of Hawai’i has an excellent introduction, breaking down the usage into vocabulary, sounds and grammar. My trouble is that I’ve nothing to add beyond that as don’t know any native speakers personally, so my experience is limited to what I’ve heard in films and on TV.

If I were to pursue this topic in the future, it’s possible I could draw parallels with the Scots language.

One example from the university link above is using the word bad to mean good. It can, of course, still mean bad, but the meaning may depend on its context. Meanwhile, I grew up listening to Scots speakers talk about the morn’s morn. The first morn means tomorrow, while the second means morning. But again, it’s a matter of context, as the phrase can also be used to refer to the indefinite future, much like the Spanish mañana.

Aside from that short analysis, I feel that’s as far as I can go with discussion of AAVE, certainly for the time being.

Finding Poetry from Odd Sources

Poets are often characterised as agonising for hours over a single word or phrase, or even a punctuation mark. Yet sometimes, the source material arrives almost wholesale and just needs a little packaging. This is the art of found poetry.

In 2003, the journalist Hart Seely wrote a piece for the Slate website in which he took chunks of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the US Secretary of Defense, and turned them into short verses. The phrase ‘There are known knowns,’ caught the imagination of the public for a brief time.

Sometimes the phrase is just a single line that the poet then expands into a further thought. Some years ago, Luke Wright took a quote by Boris Johnson and turned it into a piece called Once You Clear the Bodies. In this instance, a lot has been added to that one line in a satirical manner.

Away from politics, a classic source of material is the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office. Looking at any given part of it, there are no wasted words; even a phrase like ‘gale force 8’ often has ‘force’ removed to increase its brevity. The forecast is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, always at a moderate pace, which is easily parroted and parodied.

If you’re dabbling in found poetry, always be careful not to steal someone’s work outright. The examples above use politicians’ statements and public weather reports, so they’ll generally be safe to use.

But simply adding line breaks to work that’s already creative, such as a novel or a film script, is unlikely to be considered fair use. In short: have fun but be cautious.

Style Counsel

Every so often, I find I naturally lean towards writing in a certain style. There was a long while where I was churning out poems in triolet form, then I went through a clerihew period, and a time of short free-verse work.

At the moment, I’m drawn towards producing longer and more wistful pieces, as demonstrated in last week’s entry with a video of a recent poem called The Living Ghosts. With a running time of more than two minutes, it’s the longest poem I’ve produced for some time.

Sometimes there will be a trigger for writing in a particular manner, but often there isn’t anything specific.

I find that if you have such an impetus, the best way to deal with it is to run with it. I have a spot at an open-mike on Sunday, and I want to produce something original, so I’ll be letting that wistfulness come out before it turns into another style.

Hearing Yourself Back

Over approximately a ten-year period, I volunteered at three different radio stations. The first was a student station at the University of the West of Scotland, which overlapped with my second, a community station in Govan. These gigs were then followed by an eight-year stint on hospital radio in Dundee.

During this time, I became so accustomed to hearing recordings of my work that I can’t recall the last time it bothered me. As such, I often forget that many people don’t like listening to themselves.

The main reason I gave up the hospital radio was to focus on writing, but the ability to play back your own recordings is definitely a transferable skill. I also have a camcorder, and I used to ask someone to film my live performances so I could learn from them.

During this last year of online gigs, going on camera has become almost the only way to perform to a live audience. Here’s one that’s been submitted to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight:

Submission to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight.

When I look at that, I can see it’s not very well framed, and there are a few pauses towards the end as the last few lines were improvised. However, the sound is nice and loud, so it’s good enough for the purposes of the event.

A Short Piece About Short Pieces

Ten years ago next month, I joined my first writing class with the author Zoe Venditozzi.

In each lesson, she would give us a prompt, which might comprise a sentence, a few words or even a photograph. We’d then have five or ten minutes to write a paragraph or a passage inspired by it, sometimes with extra restrictions like using a particular viewpoint or writing a certain number of words. Many actors take improv classes to hone their skills, and this was the writers’ equivalent.

Since then, I’ve built up a considerable volume of short pieces, many of which have been revised over the years, but nothing that forms a larger cohesive work on a single theme.

Some time ago, I wanted to change this, and add some longer-form pieces to my archives. These turned into stage plays: one is ready to go, the other needs to be redrafted. I also have in mind a radio play that is mapped out but needs to be written.

Now, I’m ready to go back and write shorter pieces. I’m in a poetry monthly group that keeps me focussed on producing work for the next meeting, and I wrote another original poem for the purposes of performing to a virtual audience yesterday.

Along with this, I also need to return to the habit of responding to publishers’ requests for pieces. I used to aim to send an average of one a week, and that still seems like a manageable target.

Being There

In early March, the StAnza poetry festival takes place in St Andrews. I’ve been going for at least five years now. It’s an easy half-hour bus trip, although I’ve previously stayed over so I can go to late shows without worrying about missing the last ride home.

While it would be inaccurate to say there is a ‘house style’ of poetry, it does tend towards the contemplative and wistful, more Carol-Ann Duffy than Brian Bilston. In this relatively quiet town, save for the transient student population, it’s a mood that fits well.

In 2020, the in-person festival narrowly escaped cancellation, so the events were held in venues across town as normal, predominantly the Byre Theatre or the town hall. The challenge this year is to convey its essence through a screen for the first time.

The ones I’ve been to so far this year certainly fit what I expect to see from StAnza: these include the two-hour launch event, a meditation session, and a poets’ feedback group.

But what I enjoy most are the breakfast panel discussions where the audience is served with a pie and a cup of tea. On Sunday, I tried to recreate this at home, and it was somewhat successful:

A Twitter update showing a pie and other food on a plate, and an online event on a projector.

It’s not too late to grab many of the tickets. The festival is on all this week, and there are plenty available free of charge.

Debunking the Basics

I’m now in my tenth year of writing, and I was thinking back today about the advice I’ve heard given to beginner writers, and how it can be misleading. Here are three of them that I feel could do with some clarification.

‘You have to write every day’

The classic example cited here is Stephen King, as his process is widely known through On Writing. When you’re starting out, it can be helpful to write daily, but there are other schools of thought. In 2016, Amy Mason won the Dundee International Book Prize for The Other Ida, and she sees writing as seasonal, with fallow periods in the year.

‘Write what you know’

This advice is often misinterpreted to mean: ‘write what you already know’. Instead, think of it as a reminder to research anything outside of your experience. So whether you need to find out how to write a character with dementia, what happens in a restaurant kitchen, or how a train crash is investigated, it’ll have a little authenticity.

‘Kill your darlings’

William Faulkner is credited with saying, ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’ A ‘darling’ in this instance is what you feel to be a particularly good phrase or sentence.

But don’t take that as a sign to strike out words you like. I’m conjecturing here, but I suspect Faulkner meant to take out any good phrase or sentence if it doesn’t fit or work in the text at hand. Remember you can always save your favourite turns of phrase for another piece.

Must Dash

This week, I wanted to pick up on a small point from last week’s entry about how my use of punctuation differs from what Grammarly considers correct. I’m focussing not on commas, but hyphens and dashes.

There are three main lengths of horizontal line used as punctuation in English. The shortest of these is the hyphen (-), the mid-length is called an en-dash (–), and the third is an em-dash (—). For the purposes of this entry, we’ll ignore the underscore (_) as this is used only for computer programming and other specialist purposes. Now let’s look at how these three marks are used.

Hyphen (-)

A hyphen connects two words or two parts of words together, and touches the letters on either side. It’s done to avoid ambiguity or to suggest a certain pronounciation.

Consider how, ‘I re-sent your e-mail’ communicates something very different from ‘I resent your e-mail.’

You might also note that ‘e-mail’ is hyphenated here, indicating that the stress should be placed on the first syllable. The more common form these days is ’email’, but modern readers understand the pronounciation without the hyphen as a guide.

A hyphen can also be used to show a range; eg, ‘The Hundred Years’ War: 1337-1453′.

En-dash (–)

This takes its name from the width of the letter ‘n’ in the first printing presses, although the width varies on modern machines, and it has several uses.

It can be used as an alternative to the hyphen to show a range; eg, ‘Normal core body temperature: 97–99˚F’. But that’s the only crossover in usage.

On this blog, I frequently use the en-dash in place of brackets – to interrupt one thought with another – and you can easily find them in previous entries. In this case, the dash doesn’t touch the letters that surround it.

You don’t even need to come back to the original thought, as an en-dash will quite happily take the reader in a different direction – and leave them there.

Em-dash (—)

The em-dash takes its name from the width of a letter ‘m’. Like the en-dash, this punctuation breaks up a sentence, but with more urgency.

Recently, I wrote in a comment, ‘There were two blunders—sorry, happy accidents—in the pictures below.’ I could have used en-dashes there, but this construction implies a slightly frantic energy. The em-dash always touches the letters that surround it.

Unlike the en-dash, however, this punctuation mark isn’t suitable for showing a range.

The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.

Footnote to Poettiquette

After last week’s entry about poets attempting to add me on Facebook without permission, a pal commented underneath asking my reasons for not wanting friend requests there. What was intended to be a two-line answer turned into more of an essay. So breaking away from our usual theme of prose and poetry, here it is presented as a footnote to that entry.

In mid-March of last year, just before the virus took a grip, I removed someone from my Facebook friends list. I couldn’t recall the last time we’d spoken, and I wasn’t particularly engaged in what he was posting; I suspect one of us had added the other after a gig.

Within maybe a couple of hours, he’d sent a message asking, ‘Why did you unfriend me?’ which went into the Requests section of Messenger so I was able to ignore it. He then found one of my few public posts and left a comment that he was ‘genuinely concerned’ about me. I told him I was fine, thank you, and left it there. He promptly asked me again why I’d removed him.

When you take someone off your list, Facebook doesn’t tell the other party, so he either must have been checking manually or using third-party software. Either way, I was previously indifferent about the guy; now, I found him creepy. I talked to some other pals about what to do and I ended up hitting the good old Block button.

That’s an extreme example, but it put other contacts under the spotlight. There had always been that contingent who, for example, jumped at every dog whistle in the news or parroted what they’d heard without knowing what they were talking about. There was also a contingent of people who would be a great laugh in real life, then act like an idiot online.

Then when the virus hit, these small and manageable annoyances amplified to a level where I couldn’t tolerate them, particularly those spreading medical misinformation, knowingly or not.

And that’s how and when my no-nonsense policy started. I made a decision to reject all friend requests, placing a clear note in my public profile, which either hasn’t been read or has been ignored many times. Either way, I don’t feel bad about declining, as the warning is there.

I specifically pick on Facebook here. I’ve been using the Internet since 1995, back when it was a lawless place – literally, in a number of ways. The relatively small group of users were expected to make connections across the miles.

Facebook was probably the first site to group users geographically and to restrict access from those outside that group. This made it much harder to cultivate a friends list, so you were effectively stuck with those also in your area. No other major site, as far as I’m aware, ever had that restriction.

That policy has eased off over the years to the extent where you can follow someone without being friends, or be friends and mute their posts, yet there is still an unwritten expectation of mutual following. There are many philosophies on the matter, but in my own view, I don’t want to be friends with someone if I wouldn’t read their updates.

That’s not to say people can’t be friends with me at all. For a start, they’re welcome and encouraged to follow the Hotchpotch open-mike page, which is designed to be public. Folks can also find me (and Hotchpotch) on Twitter, but there should be no expectation of mutual following.