Saturday, January 26, 2008

Who Do You Write For?


Who do you write for?

(and you are writing for somebody, aren't you?)

"Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story."
--- F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my writing, I find audience to be such a fundamental motivator of process and fuel for voice, I don't know how anyone could write seriously without it. Or a sense of it.

Audience gets your hand moving, your fingers twirling. "What do you have to say?" is very closely entwined with "who are you saying it to?" It very much guides "how do you want to say it?"

Reading William Zinsser, like, the first week in my undergrad Journalism I course, helped me identify something I'd always instinctively guessed about audience: the stories you choose to tell, the words you pluck from the ether to tell them, are very much influenced by the imaginary people just off the page you're addressing. Or in the case of a high school Speech class, where everything written is read aloud that period, or the following day, or later that week, you're writing for your very real classmates, and the teacher, an audience of your peers, essentially.

Tickling my teacher and my classmates was always fuel for process, got me bending over the paper and going for the jugular, as it were. At the newspaper, and in my fiction, the audience is broader, perhaps, but I still aim for that sophisticated reader with a sense of humor and heart. Maybe that reflects me, but it's a bit different than writing to myself. It's presenting myself, as I am, in a persuasive way to bring people around to my way of viewing the world. It's a bit of voyeurism, of channeling another's thoughts, made easy by the lyrical voice that carries them there. At least that's how I see it. It's making love, in a way: swapping sweat, and fluids, and intense groans and glances, without mussing the bed so much.

An obstacle I've had to identify and work to get around in teaching is the idea of me as audience. Of course, I am a part of my students' audience. I see and hear how their stories are constructed in our sessions, and I read the drafts and rewrites they turn in. But are they writing for me, to me? I hope not. Because there I see the danger of writing to meet their idea of an ideal they think I'm looking for, or worse, to fulfill the assignment and just do the work for the exercise's sake.

Sure, sometimes you have to do that. But if in the process of doing the work you're not awakening something deeper, something more focused, something more tangible and living from the center of you that yearns to write, needs to write, then we really are just killing time in the cubicle, and in the classroom, and the prospect of students gaining something deeper from the writing, or learning something useful from their process, is cut off from the start.

Engagement, right? That's what an audience, or an idea of an audience in the writing process, brings to what's on the page. It's a mutual gut check: if the writer is invested in the material, we at least give them the benefit of the doubt and read on. If not, here comes the blessing and curse of the medium being so portable, able to held in the hands – it can always be put down, cast aside.

We're looking for the compelling story, the one that's never been told, or told in this way, before. Unless the writer has lived it, breathed it, smelled it, tasted it – or seen and believed in it enough to bring forth a singular vision – what the sophisticated reader is getting is merely a facsimile of experience. (Which all writing is, of a fashion, though we sophisticated readers demand that it stand up and dance a jig or take a bullet and writhe on the floor a bit for us. So damn picky, readers.)

Voice, and its awareness of audience, really sells a writer's commitment to the story, and how well we are engaged as readers. It doesn't have to be some mystical, fleeting thing. It's about identifying the material that is working, reading it aloud, directing and placing the demand on students to notice and comment on what is working in their writing, and to talk about why, and then to carry forth those insights in active rewrites of the material, going for and working toward an ever-more sustained passage of effective, engaging writing. To know who you write for, to feel around for the words and images and places and sights that get the story to where it is directed and most effectively get across what you have to say.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Going "Below the Gumline"

Or: The Most Candid Dental Appointment... EVER

Unlike approximately 87 percent of Americans (according to my pulling a random number from my ass), I've never approached dates with the dentist as something out of The Marathon Man.

My grandfather and great-grandfather were both dentists, and my mom a hygienist, so I've been brushing like a good boy my entire life. I don't know, maybe Dustin Hoffman just never got rewarded with a coupon for a free ice cream cone at the end of his appointments.

Yeah, I did braces, and got the old wisdom teeth yanked, had a spot of sealant slapped on once or twice. But generally, my good habits have won out. There was a strange moment during an appointment last year where three dental equipment salespeople were sitting in as the tartar was scraped away and the enamel was polished and they were all, like, praising me for my alignment, gum depth, tongue grooves and saliva production in turn. Freaks, right? I went and treated myself to a large Dairy Queen blizzard after that, extra peanut butter and cold fudge.

Like most other changes associated with the onset of awful adulthood, my glittering youth has lately taken a hit, even in the dentist's chair. The daily coffee-drinking habit, my freaky work-at-home schedule (which often involves diving straight from bed into the writing, and saving the shower and... yes, Mom... morning brushing for sometime after lunch... ach and ich and yech), and even my branding as an "aggressive brusher" have contributed to a little more attention from the dentist than I would like. Still, very mild. But I'm no longer getting the fluoride star, or the floss-embossed bauble, or whatever trinket they're handing out lately. Certainly no Goshen Dairy coupon.

So, at the end of my appointment Monday, I found myself filling out a card for a return date next week, when my unholy cavities will be filled and my conscience cleansed.

I hope the appointment is as entertaining as this last one.

There are certain people you appreciate candidness from. Your spouse, for starters. Your M.D. Your banker. Probably dentist isn't that high on the list. I mean, how often are we going to draw on our knowledge of gum depth, or bite-wing X-rays? But I gotta say, the things I picked up from a chatty spin in the chair on Monday stuck with me.

Take my dentist's experience as an intern. She worked in an office that was attempting to mandate 20-minute appointments, and expected its staff to follow through. As a student, my dentist was hesitant. "What's the matter?" her boss said. "You only clean above the gumline anyway, right?"

The attitude was typical money-grubbing b.s. when it coms to health care in this country. Saving time to make more money and thus probably compromise a patient's care. To my dental office's credit, I always leave feeling overinformed and glad that I got my money's worth in every appoiontment. I wouldn't want it another way. For instance, I've learned that I'm too aggressive as a brusher: I'm slowly wearing away my gums with how avidly I go at it. And now I know that my dentist is paying attention to the gunk below my gumline. I even know that she's not particularly confident in her ability to floss patients -- all those crooked nooks and crannies; "they know their own teeth better than I do," she said.

Well, that's true to a point. I also learned during this appointment that I have a certain freaky trait in one of my molars called a Cusp of Carabelli. Wikipedia tells us: (it) is a small additional cusp at the mesiolingual line angle of maxillary first molars. This cusp is entirely absent in some individuals and present in others in a variety of forms. In some cases, Carabelli's cusp may rival the main cusps in size. ... (T)he development of this trait is affected by multiple genes. Carabelli's cusp is most common among Europeans (75-85% of individuals) and rarest in Pacific Islands (35-45%).

OK! So I'm a freak, and it's probably going to affect my kids. But in a good way, as also evidenced by my X-treme saliva production. Anybody who used to suffer the wrath of my trumpet spit valves in band, eat it: saliva helps keep the teeth clean and free of bacteria, and is one reason why when adults teeter past middle age, and are popping all number of meds, of which the common side effect is drymouth, their teeth start to go all British Isles wonky. So there.

But there are freaks worse off than I. Take the story the presiding dentist treated me to when she popped in to confirm my cavity-free streak was busted.

Apparently, there was this optometrist's assistant in Evanston, Ill., who was examining a patient. He first asked her to place a strip over her eyes, and keep it on for five to ten minutes. "Don't look," he said. "No matter what." FIRST CLUE FOR THE EYE PATIENT GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE.

Dude was also wearing full medical scrubs, which my dentists, consumate professionals that they are, gleefully derided. "We need to wear scrubs," they insisted, "with all the stuff flying around here. He was an optometrist's assistant? But whatever. He was living the dream, acting the part." SECOND CLUE FOR HER TO RUN FOR THE EXITS.

The assistant next dimmed the lights. I assume there was no music, but I'm picking up a certain Barry White vibe here. Next thing the patient heard was her shoes falling to the floor as the assistant removed them. THIRD CLUE

"What are you doing?" she asked, as he took off her socks. "Don't remove that strip," the assistant reminded her.

Next, he proceeded to suck her toes.

Still, the patient asks, "What are you doing?"

"Checking your blood sugar," the guy said. Hey, it's an answer.

She then got the heck out of Dodge and landed herself and said scrub-wearing toe-sucker in the newspaper. Haven't confirmed where yet, and don't exactly care, because hey, this is a dental office that delivers: the cleaning, the toothcare advice, the quirky insights into the self, even the uncommon health industry gossip.

As it stands, I'm much more wigged out by my trips to the optometrist. The lights do eventually go out, the lens-analyzing contraptions are pushed up against your face (think of the number of noses that have rested there before yours), and the doctor is usually hovering about an inch from you, shining a light in your eyes while his own are strapped to some saucer-looking contraption, all the while breathing through his nose.

My eye appointment is Feb. 4. Probably I should wear lace-up hiking boots, just in case.

Taking a Page from the 'N Synch Dictionary

Taking a Page from the 'N Synch Dictionary...

... or NOT?!??

What's that line about tripping into geezerdom? You know your generation is out of touch when it doesn't understand the current generation's music?

Well, young grump that I am, I don't buy it. I believe that some stuff is better than other stuff, and always will be, and that most of the commercial sludge we are subjected to in the early a.m. hours on VH1 and MTV (which are more about Scott Baio and crazies like New York now anyway), is not designed to last, or mine the more meaningful depths of musical expression, but alternately titillate, puzzle or disappoint and then fade away, leaving a trace less gripping than a graze of the fingers, a peck on the cheek.

How else do you explain Britney Spears's popularity, and the fact that I can't remember a single song lyric of hers beyond her breakout "Hit Me Baby (One More Time)", which owes a great debt to the sight of her cavorting in a Catholic school girl uniform. Or maybe I really am out of touch.

I didn't used to think so. But then, instances like last night's post-wifey-gone-to-bed lounging-before-the-TV start to crowd up on me like so many gum-snapping teenyboppers. (Wow, now THAT'S an old expression.)

I was quaffing my Leinenkugel's Big Butt Doppelbock, propping my feet atop the coffee table, and clicking from the History Channel (old guy staple) to VH1 (lingering affection for) to, for some reason, the Disney Channel (54 must feel good under the fingers). There, I caught the ending strains of the video "Like Woah" from sister act Aly & AJ. (They AREN'T twins, as several lisping teeny bloggers will tell you. Man, why am I still a sucker for research? Especially on this?)

Now, live and even simulated music still has a magical-trance effect on me. I watched the thing until the Mouse came on and told me to tune into Cory and Cory, or Zack and Cody, whatever. And I could have sworn, in the manner of so many Justin Timberlake odes, I caught the pronunciation of "me" come out "mae." What's worse, I heard the next rhymed line as ending in "brain."

You know the ways of wunderkind Timberlake and his former dancemates. Fa la la la la... "It's gonna be (bae) me (mae)."

I used to amuse all but one of the grizzled denizens in the Sandusky Register newsroom by wondering, aloud, whenever our biz reporter and Justin-freak Beth Naser played the tune, "Who's Mae? Why's it gotta be her? What about Aunt Bea (BAE)?"

Or something to that out-of-touch effect.

So, I thought I was witnessing the evolutionary implication of Justin's mangled diction in the lyrics of the A&A sisters. "Something something something ME (MAE) / and it's something something BRAIN (BRAIN)." Egad! At least, for the unimaginative songsmiths out there, it's another word with which to rhyme insane.

Ah, but then I looked up their lyrics today. Yes. Did a google search of the Bobsey Twins and Disney Channel, etc. etc. and clicked to their web site, where I learned how to pronounce "Insomniatic" (uh... no), and found handy lyrics to the song in question.

Apparently, the only place brain and "mae" pop up are:

"Life is good I can't complain... Your image overwhelms my brain..."

So why did I hear "mae" rhymed with "brain"? Well, I have been guilty of imaginative lyric manglings before. I used to think Bon Jovi sang "I want to be just as close as... Holy Moses..." in the song "Bed of Roses." And there are other mismanagements of the aural evidence I'm sure my wife can indict me on.

Still, I'm not convinced I'm the crotchety old-timer just yet. Maybe they DID sing it. Maybe.

Ah, who am I kidding? I don't even own an iPod. I still play my tunes the old new-fashioned way, via CDs, singing along in the car or throughout the house, and that crotchetiest of crotchety Old School methods: performing it myself.

And maybe that's the ultimate test of being out-of-touch. You won't find me juke-stepping around my son's spilled blocks, making like Timberlake. Or fretting over my lovesick brain like A.J. and Aly. Nah, I'm liable to jump on the home piano and break into Ben Folds or some classic Cat Stevens, maybe do a Harry Nillson impression of an Irving Berlin standard as filtered through the vocal stylings of Rufus Wainwright.

And I still get goosebumps when Liz Phair growls into "Never Said" circa 1993. (FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, fellow oldtimers). But can you really stack up two Aly & AJs to one sultry Liz?

Uh, no way.

'Nuff said.

Addendum: More Forehead-Vein Popping

More Trips Down the Rapids

of my Writing Conniptions

I prefer to think of them as inner convictions. And if the trickle I let loose last week happens to swell into a flood, why, then I'll go swirling down the drain, pitching my conniptions as so much frothy gurgles.

What the hell am I even saying?

Oh, right. That grammar and usage thing.

Some other somethings on my mind (funny how once you let one rant out, the next four elbow up to the front of the line):

Silly Announcers, English is for Americans

It occurred to me: why are sports announcers so eager to save face by dumbing down plural team names to the singular?

As I said, I don't recall this being a problem back in the days when I'd catch Jack Buck doing the Cardinals over my radio late at night as a kid. Probably the proliferation of teams like the Heat and Lightning and Magic gave our modern-day talk jocks commentary diarrhea. But why so insistent on "the Cleveland Brown sideline" or "New York Met cap"?

Is it the fear of screwing up a plural when it should be possessive? You know, New England Patriots bench, or the Patriots' supply of itch-proof protective cups. That sort of thing, the sort of thing most of us think twice about when writing anything in an official capacity.

But wait: they're saying it on television and the radio. So the Giants' postgame spread and the giant's postgame spread (up at the top of the beanstalk) sound the same when spoken aloud. What gives? Last night, in the Packers-Giants pregame, only Curt Menefee went with "Packers" consistently. Terry, Howie, whoever else was there, they all shuddered back into "Packer" bench, sideline, locker room, etc.

We don't change Staples to "Staple office supply store." We don't alter Reese's Peanut Butter Cup to "that confectionary delicacy that Reese whips up."

Oh, all right (two words, lady's and gent's (double parenthetical, to note my whimsical use of the apostrophe there)), I'll shut up about it now.

Keep the Madness in Your Family

We just made it through Christmas card season. Anybody get one where the family name is signed like this:

The Warren's

The Dupree's

The Cruise's

The Warren's what? The Dupree's card? The Cruise's handwriting?

Last time I checked, if you're referring to one or more members of the Foutz family, you may call us Foutzes. Even better, drop a line like "we invited the Foutzes to our wedding reception, and heck yes there is an open bar."

Now, I'm less committed when it comes to seeing the plural use on a mailbox or decorative front stoop plaque (if you must). Because it could be referring to your house: The Warrens' abode, The Duprees' castle, The Cruises' compound of insanity. But for the love of Amos Apostrophe (and his love child, Amber Ampersand), don't let me catch you pulling a "The Foutz's" or "The Jone's" or the like. Unless you're referring to the throne room, which around here, mornings, is definitely "The Foutz's", meaning mine.

And if your name is Showers, and you're trying to parse out Showerses or Showers' or Showerses' -- Josh, how do you do it? -- better just use the old journalists' trick and WRITE AROUND IT: "the Showers family". Or put the money you could spend on a mailbox decal or decorative pigeon-stained stoop plaque into a big gulp bottle of Wite-Out instead.

Scratch 'n Sniff -- It May Smell Like Teen Spirit

This is a phenomenon I've lately witnessed on MySpace, the tortured exclamations of my fellow friendlies, bellowing things like:

"Welllllllll" and


or signing their names "Janeeeeeeeeee".

Let's traipse around a bit in Phonetic Spelling Land, shall we? It's a nifty little realm, ruled over by a benevolent prose stylist, forgiving of lapses in decorum as long as they provide the barest glimmer of entertainment, and are readily understood, hence the name of our kingdom.

So... sound it out, as Miss Molly used to say. What does "Welllll" sound like? Probably Bill Cosby with a cheekful of the old Pudding Pops. I can't even contemplate "Awesomeeeeeee" or "Janeeeeeee". Did you step on a mouse or perhaps get something sticky on your "e" key while typing? Where are you connecting from anyway?

Same goes for "loverssssssss" and "good timesssssssssss". Is the only place you can get to a computer the local snake farm?

So... sound it out. I think you mean to say:

"Weeeeeeell, gotta go, 'cause I got a bad case of the nasty poops."

And: "Monica and Ross dancing in that club on Friends -- awesoooooome."

You can't say you "loveeeeeeee" your "loverrrrrrrs". But I'm betting you loooooooves you some good tiiiiiiimes.

And you won't catch me longing to "danceeeeeee". But I might get down enough to daaaaance. Yeah. Ross-style.

Enough conniptions for one night.