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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Language That Sells, Language That Sings

Calliope, muse of epic poetry
Image found here
I just won a little contest for singing praises of a product I believe in. I knew it would be a 50-word winner when I wrote it: it had original thought juxtaposed with the well-timed cliche; it featured me, a niche market different than the teeny-boppers and 20-somethings that usually hock it; and I wrote with confidence--the kind of silly chutzpah that gets you entering such a contest.

For my efforts I won some make-up. Win-win for the company: a low cost to send me a free sample of something I might end up using regularly. A real customer waxes rhapsodic over a product and creates a testimonial that yields more sales.

My writing fit a formula: it falls trippingly off the tongue and strains no one's eyes with length or substance. For me, it was fun to write and easy as breathing. Because I'm a nerd, I like the exercise, too; forcing myself to say something meaningful in 50 words is a challenge.

Ad copy is a worthy form of writing--language that sings--but it's the bubblegum pop of the writing world. It might amuse, it might put you in a trance, it might incite desire, it might give you a high. But you're not transported or transformed.

"Sing to me of the man, Muse..." Forget Homer: the market doesn't want to hear about your Muse, your inspiration, or your artistic license. Editors and agents don't care if you love your original manuscript fueled by deep passion; they don't care if you love your work like a baby. It is a product to be sold and writers must talk business and think business in order to do business.

So at what point do you stand firm and cling to a work that doesn't fit the market formula? How do you know when your Muse is steering you right? When do you take the road of faith, and when do you set your sights on the market and rip up what you have? When is the market worth the starting over?

Some Things Are Better Left Alone, my husband sings. That song is far from bubblegum pop; it's advice of definite substance. This is from his self-produced CD that's won critical acclaim. He chose to go outside the market and work on the fringes.

I flip through my story, seeking depth. I polish here and there so words don't trip my readers or get them reaching for eye drops. I want substance and style, I strive for quality and clarity that make the pages turn themselves.

Can you do both? Can you make your work market worthy and worthwhile for the ages? Of course, everyone says; look at so many classics and bestsellers that do both.

But let me ask it again: what I mean is, can YOU?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Have a Question

Random questions from my week:
Image found here

  • Why do some people's sneezes sound like a raspberry? A sputter explosion? (Mine, for the record, sound like a dog barking.)
  • Why do some people keep their cranky child in a cafe when it's clear the child wants to leave? And another question: when did public spaces become our living rooms--a place to let it all hang out--rather than a place of privilege we share with others?
  • Why did the employee of Trader Joe's thank me for admitting I broke a carton of eggs? Who doesn't report the mess she made and ask to pay for it?
Rant over. Rants are ugly but perhaps not so bad in the form of rhetorical, unanswerable questions. 

Literature at its best is the answer to a question told in images, characters, and events. While rants can sound alarm bells and beg for much-needed mercy and attention, they can also lose the opportunity for readers' best thinking and grappling with the question themselves. Screaming and spewing anger from the rooftops isn't literature. Art becomes diatribe, no longer experience but polemic. 

The best teaching is also question-driven rather than fact-driven. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two ground-breaking educators, talk about Essential Questions: those dilemmas, challenges, and open-ended problems of a discipline that drive scientists, artists, engineers, philosophers, doctors, architects, environmentalists--any profession--to quest after new answers. Our kids, just like our readers, should spend classroom time in the pursuit of the Big Questions. The challenge is in making the experience, whether literary or educational, an engaging and compelling trip. 

Milan Kundera talks of the novel this way:

The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything...The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.
If we comprehend life as a question, and if we make art from our questions, then we engage in a great act of faith. We believe that answers will appear; that revelations will ensue; that God, the Universe, Spirit, or Energy is on our side, and that there is not randomness but order to be revealed.


  • How does a child survive chaos and abuse?
  • How do we define spirituality?
  • How does a self-proclaimed freak make friends?

Apparently Padgett Powell wrote a whole book of questions that might be a great start for those of us stuck in the answers.

What questions are you asking in your writing? In your teaching? And are you doing your best while in cafes and grocery stores to not rant at your fellow man?

Writing Prompts

  • Story idea: A boy who asks irritating questions finds himself ostracized. Where? By whom? When? Why?
  • Story idea: A teacher comes into her classroom one morning and finds a strange question on her board. Unravel a story of who wrote it and why and the consequences of the question writing for students, faculty, administration, and parents. 
  • Write a list of 10 unanswerable questions running the gamut from love to medicine, relationships to house cleaning, any stickler queries that needle you when you can't sleep. Whatever keeps you up at night, whatever's made you wonder where in the hell the answer is, write those questions down. Now which one would make a great story? A great novel?
  • Take those questions to people you trust and discuss answers that work and don't work. Write a poem, short story, or essay with one of the answers.
  • Write about a person who never asks you any questions.
  • Ask yourself what questions you've asked lately. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable in a space of "not knowing"? Write about that.
  • In what place in your life are you most open to asking questions? The least? Why? Is there room for breakthrough--or at the very least, writing about it--to get to the other side of your lock-step, paradigm-stuck thinking?
  • Take one of my questions above--about sneezes, kids in cafes, or miscreants in grocery stores--and start a story. 
  • Check out the writing prompts I share at my post, "Ask and Ye Shall Irritate."