So I recently came across another criticism of The Elements of Style, this time by writer A. L. Kennedy.
The primary problem that I take away from Kennedy’s criticism of The Elements of Style is that she is confusing principles for rules. While the first chapter of the book is titled “Elementary Rules of Usage” the chapter that most of her criticism is aimed at is the second chapter: “Elementary Principles of Composition”. Rules and principles are different things.
Among the “rules” that Kennedy takes issue with is “Use definite, specific, concrete language” (Principle 16). White: “The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”
White describes the basic principle of writing that everyone is taught, beginning in grammar school:
Show, don’t tell.
In reading Kennedy’s rebuttal, I wonder if this is another case where some proofreading may have been beneficial1 because she changed what White said to infer that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare were effective writers “primarily” (emphasis hers) because of concrete language. Largely and primarily are not the same thing, and anyone who has studied writing should 1) understand the difference, and 2) agree that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare were damn good at show, don’t tell.
Kennedy seems to have particular vitriol for Principle 17 (Omit needless words):
What about David Foster Wallace, or Woolf, or Proust, or any other writer of elaborate prose whose work might, under a strict editor following these guidelines, have been unfairly diminished? Maybe you think Infinite Jest could have used a cut or two, but surely you can’t accuse it of being anything less than vigorous. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating,” White writes. Unwholesome! How bizarrely moralistic and patently false. Whether it is nauseating to him, of course, is his business; this is merely a matter of taste—which gets at the crux of my argument here. None of these rules apply to everyone, so presenting them in this way is somewhat disingenuous. And in White’s case, more than somewhat crotchety.
A good writer omits needless words, and an editor who isn’t powered by Artificial Intelligence would broadly scrutinize a manuscript, rather than strictly apply such guidelines without considering the whole product. Wallace, Woolf, and Proust were masters of the craft, such that every word that made it to print was there because it had earned its place. And that, to me, is what White was getting at with this rule. If your prose calls for $25 words in some places, use them. But be generous with those $0.25 words, too: you get a lot more value from them.
An aside: I had to laugh when I read the comments section of this article and found another Elements hater whose comment was so full of flowery prose it was nearly unintelligible. I get it: you love language and you love to show off your vocabulary because it makes you sound, I don’t know, “literary”? But wouldn’t you want your audience to be able to understand you? When the average reader needs to consult a thesaurus just to get through a sentence (or, in my case, mimic a “gag me” gesture), you might consider whether you’re writing to be read by a diverse audience, or just performing intellectual masturbation.
As I read through Kennedy’s kvetchfest, I kept wondering if she understood the importance of knowing the rules to know how to break them. She kept me hanging until the end:
As a writing teacher, I know that most people need to master the rules before they can break them.
This is true of ANY craft. Understand the basic structure of writing (or painting, or architecture, or music) and then you use it to give your voice—or your vision—a solid foundation to build from.
My copy of The Elements of Style has yellowed pages, tons of highlights and is never too far out of my reach. It is, and always has been, a reference, though I do agree with some of the criticism of how it is used. It should be a required reference for beginning writers, but any writing teacher that flogs The Elements of Style as the canon law of writing is lazy and doing a disservice to their students.
There are volumes of great books on writing (I have many of them on my shelves), but there is good reason why The Elements of Style remains a popular reference, nearly 100 years after it was first published. It’s brief, easy to carry around, and the basic advice still holds up well.
1 An unfortunate error that got past the copy editors was “don’t use the active voice”. Readers of The Elements of Style know that Strunk and White advocate FOR using the active voice.
Only by taking a step,
And then another,
And then another toward
The edge of My World
I discover that
My world isn’t flat after all
One of the charms of living in Alameda is that folks here like to decorate for the holidays. Not just Christmas, though most every street will have at least one befestivated house (and there is Christmas Tree Lane). Alamedans also like to go all out for Halloween, and some households will just do a mash-up of the two holidays.
Alameda was a Navy Town for a very long time, which makes Independence Day rather a big deal*. The town turns red white and blue, and we boast one of the largest and longest parades in the United States. Uncle Sam, flags, and bunting abound.
*I am informed by the cats that Independence Day is exceedingly loud and, in their words, “BOOMY” and it is not a preferred holiday for the pets. Please keep your critters in a safe, peaceful place tonight.
Clancy turned four (I think) around the beginning of June (maybe).
And Charlie turns six (I think) today (possibly).
Why don’t I know? Because both of these boys were abandoned by their previous families. Charlie was left behind when his family moved out of their home, and Clancy was found hanging out in back of Popeye’s in Oakland. From what the rescue group and veterinarians could tell, Charlie and Clancy were young cats when they were rescued, but they were not kittens. So ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ they get birthdays some time during “kitten season” and I try to give them their own month. Simon was May, Charlie got July, and that leaves June just for Clancy.
There should be a special place in hell for people who abandon/dump their pets. But in the end it worked out pretty well for the three of us, I’d say. Whatever age My Boys are, I love them and I’m grateful for every single day that we have together.
For most of us, it is nearly impossible to envision the Golden Gate–that area of the San Francisco Bay where it joins up with the Pacific Ocean–without the majestic presence of the Golden Gate Bridge (the bridge took her name from the location, not the other way around). Still, it just seems like she was always meant to be in that very spot, and just bided her time until humans evolved enough to be able to help her rise.
In my nearly quarter century of living in the Bay Area, I’ve crossed the bridge on foot only a few times, but every trip has left me wondering why I don’t make that trek more often.
By crossing the bridge slowly on foot, instead of racing across by car, my senses get to savor much of what I love here: the delicious brine of the air with an occasional hint of eucalyptus, the way seasons seem to change hourly, watching all kinds of sea and shore life from porpoises to pelicans, hearing dozens of different languages spoken as I pass fellow travelers, observing the busy ship and ferry traffic. And then there is the absolute wonder of the structure itself: the intricate patterns of the rivets, and how it feels alive, when I feel the vibrations through the cables.
Happy Birthday, Beautiful Lady! May you watch over the San Francisco Bay for many many more years to come.
I write these words
mostly in my head because
they’d be too loaded
to have brazenly displayed
on my computer
or on my calendar.
our feelings are
communicated, even though
So I’ll just keep writing
what I feel
in my head to
keep me safe
(written some time in the early 1990s)
I am at a complete loss tonight. Of all the things I could have heard this morning, I was not prepared to hear that Chris Cornell died. I’ve been in a tailspin since 5:15 this morning, with virtually no time or space to process this news and grieve.
If you follow any of my socnets, you may notice a Chris Cornell influence. My Tumblr references “Drawing Flies” and I may still have “Searching For The Good With My Good Eye Closed” as a tag line in a few places.
To appreciate the gift of Chris Cornell’s words, and the power of Soundgarden’s music, it isn’t necessary to have been in the Pacific Northwest 30 years ago, as some incredibly powerful and innovative music was gestating in clubs along I-5. If Louder Than Love or Badmotorfinger made you sit up and take notice, then you knew early enough what an influence Soundgarden would have.
Portland was fertile ground for many of these bands that had formed a few hours north, in Seattle: Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Green River, Alice In Chains, and many others. For those of us who are contemporaries with these artists, who came of age with them and supported them in those early years, in small, steamy clubs with sticky, beer-soaked and blood-splattered floors (those mosh pits tho), they are we and we are they.
Andrew, Kurt, Layne, and, now, Chris. Losing them hurts like hell.
Many people are posting many Soundgarden/Audioslave/Chris Cornell videos today. I’m choosing a live version of “Seasons” which has been playing in my head all day long. It is one of the most perfectly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, and I like this live version because it shows Chris’ humor. Even if I can’t cry yet, he at least got me to smile one more time.
I was going through a box yesterday evening when I came across a stack of old journals, many had been started, then stopped.
One in particular has a few entries beginning right after my mother’s death, as I began processing that and everything that came at me in the months that followed. I wasn’t consistent with the entries: some are a couple of days apart and then there is a gap of several months. Some entries are letters that I wrote to Mom.
It isn’t easy to read those old entries, yet in re-reading them I see that I handled her suicide really well. I was very aware of what I was feeling and very tuned in to those who were helpful and those who were full of shit.
From 22 December, 1991: “I remember right after Mom died people were saying that they hoped one day I could forgive her for what she had done. And I couldn’t understand that because I wasn’t ready to be mad at her yet.
“Of course, time has changed all that. I was at my angriest last month when I was trying to finish up on the house.
“I’m still angry, but now I’m more lonely and scared. And no amount of love and support from friends and relatives can fix that.”
There was the trip I took with some friends a year later, when we visited San Francisco. The ticket for Alcatraz and receipts from various shops and restaurants are pressed between the pages.
I also was trying to document random things about Mom so I wouldn’t forget (how she drank her coffee and the way we would sit on the couch with the dogs and read or watch TV). Three and a half years later, after my Grandpa died, I wrote more random things about him that I didn’t want to forget.
That journal stopped after I wrote only about 1/4 of the way through it. Usually when I find partially-filled journals, I press them back into service and finish writing in them, but for this one, I think I’ll just let it end where it stopped.
For several weeks I’ve been writing and editing (and writing and editing and writing and…) a post about my love for soccer. And I’m realizing that the problem I have with the post is that it needs to be a series, because even with a gap in the 1990s, 30-ish years of loving a sport is a lot to cram into one blog post.
And over the weekend I was reminded that the story of my love for soccer—and, especially, the Portland Timbers—includes my friendship with Gisele and Paula Currier. Indeed, there really cannot be any discussion of the history of soccer in Portland that does not include Gisele and Paula. They are the history of soccer in Portland.
I met Paula and Gisele in the late 70s, soon after I began going to Timbers games and Boosters functions. I knew they were Ultras before Ultras was a Thing here in the States. When they weren’t supporting soccer, Paula worked in the laundry for the Sheraton Inn at the Portland Airport, a job that seemed particularly grueling and stressful, especially for someone who was in heart failure (I learned about Paula’s condition very early on in our friendship). Gisele did not have work outside of the home that I was aware of. Both sisters lived with their parents in Southeast Portland. I had been to their home a few times: it was a comfortable home, that I don’t think had changed much through Gisele’s and Paula’s lives. One of the more vivid memories I have was a lot of purple in Gisele’s room.
Over the years, through the NASL Timbers, and then following some of the Timbers players into their coaching careers (Clive Charles at University of Portland and Bernie Fagan at Warner Pacific College), and other former Timbers into the MISL—as well as following the Portland Winterhawks—I spent many hours on the road with Paula and Gisele. We traveled up and down I-5 dozens of times between Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver (and Burnaby!). I logged a lot of hours in the back seat of Paula’s black Chevy Chevette (and occasionally their dad’s little blue Subaru station wagon, if snow was anywhere in the forecast), listening to a lot of Classic Stadium Rock and laughing my ass off. Gisele and Paula both had a wicked sense of humor (Paula, especially, seemed to have a pun locked and loaded for every occasion). We all had our favorite Timbers players, about whom we spent hours talking. Gisele liked Jimmy Kelly, and Paula adored Brian Gant: I was a John Bain fan all the way.
(An aside: I was surprised to read in one of the tributes to Gisele that she drove her dad on errands and to church. In all the time I spent with them, Paula always drove—and a couple of times I took over driving to give Paula a break. I just assumed that Gisele never got a license.)
We spent so much time at Civic Stadium during the summers, we knew the stadium as well as we knew the lines on our hands. And we haunted so many away matches and team/booster functions that the players would take note if one of us wasn’t spotted in attendance, and we would be questioned about our absence the next time the players saw us. We got up to just enough shenanigans to keep things interesting, but not enough to get us arrested—or deported (there was one trip through the Peace Arch, though, and I don’t think that Canadian border patrol officer was ever the same after he finally waved us through).
For reasons that I cannot even recall now, I parted company with the Curriers. I was in my early 20s, so maybe it was just me growing apart from them, or life—and school and work—taking up so much time and energy that there wasn’t much left for following college soccer teams, or the Winterhawks, around the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think there was any specific falling out: we just stopped hanging out together.
I eventually left Portland for the Bay Area, and I never saw or spoke to them again. I got curious one day and Googled them and was sad to learn of Paula’s passing. It was touching to see how much respect the sisters had earned from the Timbers organization and the soccer community: shortly after Paula’s death, the Timbers players filed into the stands before kickoff and placed roses on Paula’s vacant seat. (And thereafter, no one dared try to take that seat, next to Gisele, at the top of Section 107.)
Although the Timbers joined MLS in 2011, I didn’t really start following them closely until 2014. One evening I was trolling the archives on OregonLive and was stunned and heartbroken to see an article reporting that Gisele had died suddenly, on April 24, 2011, just after the the Timbers franchise began their MLS era.
But in my shock and heartbreak, I was also happy to see the loving tributes to Gisele. She really did grow into her role as the Matriarch of Portland Soccer. I felt so grateful that she got to know how loved she and Paula are in the soccer community (tributes even came in from rival fans).
I regret that I did not reach out to Gisele after I learned about Paula’s death (I foolishly thought I’d have more time to catch up). And I wish that Paula and Gisele would have been alive to see the Timbers win their first MLS Cup, but I know that their spirits were in Columbus, getting up to Tomfoolery and willing Portland to win.