Twitterese

It is remarkable how uniform and homogenous the style of writing is on Twitter, which is where media culture is defined. It seemingly hasn’t evolved in a decade. Condescending, sarcastic, amused that you would think to say something so dumb, endlessly superior, contemptuous of all sincere values except the one being used as a bludgeon in the fight at hand. Absurdist in an entirely prescriptive way, novel in a tired way, funny in a humorless way. All of it is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a strange and highly mannered form of humor that flourished in an obscure offshoot of an internet forum which migrated to a bigger platform and metastasized into something called Weird Twitter, and was subsequently popularized and imitated so frequently it took over the forum completely. For reasons that elude me, it’s been the dominant style on the world’s most influential social network for going on a decade and appears often in published commentary as well.

From Freddie deBoer’s writing guide “If You Absolutely Must”

Set apart

To call the preacher an authority does not mean that the preacher is wiser than others. What it does mean is that the preacher is the one whom the congregation sends on their behalf, week after week, to the scripture. The church knows that its life depends upon hearing the truth of God’s promise and claim through the scripture, and it has set the preacher apart for the crucial activity of going to the scripture to listen for that truth.

Thomas G. Long

“Crucial activity.” Nice play on words there.

Keeping Up with the Times

The complex reality of the technologies that real companies leverage to get ahead emphasizes the absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products—especially in schools—somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Elon Musk’s Twitter

Here is no waste,
No burning Might-have been,
No bitter after-taste,
None to censure, none to screen,
Nothing awry, nor anything misspent;
Only content, content beyond content,
Which hath not any room for betterment.

Maurice Baring

Moonlight

Henri Bosco’s book The Boy and the River is short and sensual. The descriptions of the river and its flora and fauna are so luxuriant they border on suffocating. I couldn’t help wondering if the touch is lighter in French.

I could pick any number of passages to illustrate his style, but I chose this one about the moon because it reminded me of a similar poetic passage in Watership Down:

The moon was a great help to me. Its brilliance lit my way, and its spreading softness calmed me not a little, as though by enchantment. For, more effectively than any other of the heavenly bodies the moon touches the human heart with magic. Its light is close. We feel that it is filled with concern and love for us, and, in the season of spring, its friendship is so tender that all the countryside grows tender, too. At those times, for children waking in the night, there is no more charming counsellor. Through the open window it shines into their rooms, and, when they fall asleep again, brings to them the loveliest of dreams.

Here’s the passage from Watership Down:

We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech woods at night. In moonlight, two acres of coarse, bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse’s mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that even the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. it does not reveal but changes what it covers. And its low intensity—so much lower than that of daylight—makes us conscious that it is something added to the down, to give it, for only a little time, a singular and marvelous quality that we should admire while we can, for soon it will be gone.

A Good Word for Lit Teachers

We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

CS Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

An Everlasting Meal

If cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality, aioli is garlic and egg’s collective shot at the firmament.

Tamar Adler

On Ritual

The idea of an elaborate ritual is an oxymoron because a ritual is by definition a simplified encapsulation of a larger full experience of life.

Jim Jordan

What To Memorize

There is nothing that it is better to commit to memory than those kinds of words and phrases whose meaning we do not know, so that where we happen to meet either with a more learned man of whom we can inquire, or with a passage that shows, either by the preceding or succeeding context, or by both, the force and significance of the phrase we are ignorant of, we can easily by the help of our memory turn our attention to the matter and learn all about it.

St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching

Writing on the Right Side of the Brain

I’m really enjoying Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’ve even done some of the exercises, and as far as I can tell, they are extremely effective. I get drawing in a way I never have before. (When I was fourteen or so, a friend told me that the key to drawing was to pretend that what you saw was a flat surface. At the time, I was convinced she was cheating — that real artists were constantly aware of 3D space, but as it turns out, she was right.)

Edwards’ main point is that we use our left brain (logical and verbal) to recognize objects around us without actually seeing them. To do this quickly, we catalogue objects according to certain traits and skip over the details. That’s fine for getting through life, but when we try to reproduce what you see on a piece of paper, we fall back those traits and communicate them symbolically. For example, a stick figure is recognizable as a person, but it doesn’t really look like a person at all. It’s a symbol.

Edwards teaches her students to turn off their left brains and look at objects without mentally categorizing them. (I posted one of her exercises here.) When they get into what she calls “R-mode” (right brain), they experience a sort of altered state of consciousness. Here’s how she describes some of its characteristics:

First, there is a seeming suspension of time. You are not aware of time in the sense of marking time. Second, you pay no attention to spoken words. You may hear the sounds of speech, but you do not decode the sounds into meaningful words. If someone speaks to you, it seems as thought it would take a great effort to cross back, think again in words, and answer. Furthermore, whatever you are doing seems immensely interesting. You are attentive and concentrated and feel “at one” with the thing you are concentrating on. You feel energized but calm, active without anxiety. You feel self-confident and capable of doing the task at hand. Your thinking is not in words but in images and, particularly while drawing, you thinking is “locked on” to the object you are perceiving. On leaving R-mode state, you do not feel tired, but refreshed.

My drawing ability is mediocre, but I do recognize what she’s describing. I’ve experienced it most often when editing video. I would become completely locked in and work for hours, barely moving. I’ve heard coders describe the same thing.

What I find most fascinating about this passage, though, is how it applies to writing. When I’m fully engaged in writing, I lose track of time. When someone talks to me, I pay no attention. (I have strong memories of my dad doing the same thing when I was a child.) I am attentive, concentrated, confident, and capable. The one thing that does not match up with my experience writing is that Edwards describes this state as “not thinking in words.” In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of R-mode. You put aside verbal processing in order to see things “as they are.”

How is it possible that writing, which is by definition a verbal activity (you’d think), can shift someone into R-mode, which is partially defined by a lack of verbal processing? I don’t know, but, a few pages later, Edwards includes this quote from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning clear as one can through pictures or sensations.

I have never considered this, but I think Orwell is right. And it occurs to me that this is what poets do all the time. They consider pictures or sensations and, instead of using symbols (Edwards’ term) or the existing dialect (Orwell’s), they hunt for words that communicate as closely as possible what they are actually seeing or perceiving in the world around them.