What’s Your Reason for Blogging?

(gadgetsin.com)

Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

-Sting, Message in a Bottle

I read a post at Jodie Llewellyn’s site, Words Read and Written that asked the question, How do you measure your blog’s success? The comments from readers provide an interesting snapshot into people’s motivations for blogging. Some are in it for followers (hoping, perhaps, to translate that into book sales some day). Others want to share their dreams and insights with others (for example, writing instructional articles). Others are unconvinced that others care much about their blog, and they are doing it for themselves.

My perception of what constitutes a “successful blog” has changed over time. Initially, I suppose I wanted to be read by people. My mental image was of my fingertips etching words onto computer screens around the world. The sluggish statistical reports provided by WordPress quickly dispelled that unrealistic expectation. But for a long time, it still made a big difference to me whether people visited, liked and commented. Other people’s reactions to my posts mattered.

Now, I am content to write this blog as if I am writing it to myself only. A memoir in a glass house, a digital message in a bottle. Others are welcome to read it (or ignore it, or remain blissfully ignorant of its existence) as well. However, to say, “then” and “now” is overly simplistic. There was a transformation that did not go without at least some cynicism. In fact, cynicism seems to be one of the two most predictable outcomes of maintaining a blog. (The other being apathy, if the innumerable corpses of now defunct blogs last posted to sometime in 2007 are any indication.)

Why is cynicism such an easy course to take as a blogger? For me, it was a natural product of the process and interface with the readers. I found myself opening my dashboard, immediately looking for that little box in the corner. Is it orange? Hey, someone liked a post and followed my blog!  Hang on a second. Did they only do it so that I would visit their site and like or follow them?  Did they pepper a bazillion unlikable blogs with Likes just to increase traffic to their site? And what is the purpose of a Like, anyway? Why can’t I Dislike a blog?

My blogging nadir (at least, my nadir-to-date) came in mid-November 2012, halfway through National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). My posts just ceased for about two years. For about a year, I still had a bookmark to my dashboard on the bookmarks bar, thinking that perhaps I might get back to it. Then, realizing that I subconsciously avoided looking at that part of the bookmarks bar, I finally deleted the bookmark. (Demented, I know.)

Life continued happily. I read no blogs, and a quick scan of the stats confirms that very few people read mine. (Actually, that’s not entirely true… there are a few inexplicably popular posts. If I constantly wrote about graphic novels, I’d have some really “impressive” stats.) I wrote a lot… I just didn’t share any of it.

Then, about three weeks ago, I started posting on this site again. I’ve made a conscious decision to remain unruffled if two or two hundred or two million people click through my site daily, reading all or none of my posts. I was only able to come to this conclusion because the same process had already occurred for my writing in general. I write for me. I will continue writing, even if no one reads it.

When I picked up this blog again, I went through and read my posts from start to finish. It was interesting to see the evolution of the thing, from protozoan brag board to an online notebook with opposable thumbs. I enjoy having a record of my thoughts that I can go back to months and years later. The advantage a blog has over a journal (which would otherwise serve the same purpose), is that I  would probably not worry about the cosmetic appearance of my journal at all, whereas I have some incentive (real or imagined) to make my blog posts look good, read well, and be of interest to someone other than myself.

Hopefully, I am not the only one who will ever read this. But if I am, then at least the echo inside my own bottle sounds good.

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My One-Sided War With the Editor: A Constructive Way to Deal With Rejection

I’m not sure which is worse: being continually rejected, or not caring about it anymore.

I’ve received word back from two more potential handlers of my novel manuscript (can’t call it a book yet, as that implies something that can be held). Not surprisingly, they were rejections. Admittedly, they were very kindly worded rejections, but of the “Dear Author” variety.  “I regret to say that I’m going to pass on this. But please remember, tastes are subjective, so please don’t internalize your feelings of rejection and show up at my office armed with a cheese grater.”

Under ordinary circumstances, this would be the place to cue the rant.  Beginning in 3… 2… wait!

There is an alternative. Be constructive with that soul-crushing sensation that your work, however literary and phenomenal it may be, will forever go ignored because it just doesn’t have commercial value.  Yes!  Be constructive.

So, for all of you stifled writers out there, your voices mercilessly quelled by avalanches of form rejection letters, here is a short story. I wrote it a few years ago, after a vain attempt to get published in a certain lit mag.  I gave up eventually, but not before sending this story to the editor. No, it was not accepted.

Hope you enjoy.


My One-Sided War with the Editor
or
How I Learned to Love My Weight

I lay all the blame on a story I wrote in grape juice concentrate on a sheet of corrugated tin beneath the baking Arizona sun. I called the story “Editor K and the absence of pronouns.” It was, I thought, a bit like buying the editor flowers. The story was short, just 40 words. Had to be. I only had so much grape concentrate. After a few drafts, it read as follows:

Editor K lapped water from a crevice in the rock like a cat. Dense fog swirled around Editor K, beaded on Editor K’s clothing, and dripped from Editor K’s limp hair. A cold wind blew, but the fog did not dissipate.

Obviously, the hook in this story was the lack of pronouns. Instead, I would use the complete proper noun. I could already taste the acceptance letter.

It seemed, however, that Editor K had other views. After waiting a few days, this reply found its way to my inbox:

Dear Jack, Thanks for hitting us with this one, but unfortunately we are unable to use it. The exposition is too heavy for our current aesthetic. Please submit again in the future. —Editor K

Strange, I thought. I tried to pull apart the words and understand their meaning. The use of the word ‘unfortunate’ led me to believe that some circumstance beyond Editor K’s control had made it impossible to use my story. The revelation that the ‘exposition was too heavy’ concerned me. Was it the simile in the opening line of the story? Or the adjectives in general? What was a dense fog anyway? Maybe Editor K has no hair, making it impossible for it to ever be limp.

But there was hope. That last line of the rejection letter, ‘Please submit again in the future.’ Clouds mixed with sunshine. I tried again:

The mist parted, long enough for Editor K to see that Editor K stood on the lip of a cliff. Below, farm houses dotted the fields. Then the clouds pressed in, and Editor K was alone again.

You’ll notice that I did away with the adjectives, and even the similes. I kept the exposition light. Just the facts, or so I thought. But then came the reply:

Jack, Thanks for sending this piece our way, but we’re going to pass. The exposition is just too heavy for our current aesthetic. Please feel free to send something else our way. —Editor K

Clearly, it wasn’t the adjectives. I thought maybe I could solve the riddle through a process of elimination. Perhaps I had used verbs that were unnecessarily descriptive. ‘Parting’ mist and ‘pressing’ clouds. This time, I would strike a more conversational tone. It would be a text so light that Editor K would have to tie it down to keep it from floating away:

Who lived in those farm houses? Editor K spent a lot of time thinking about that. Editor K tried to find a way down to those fields, but the cliff was just too high.

Short. Concise. And above all, not heavy. I’d sacrificed, wanted to mention the way it made Editor K feel to long and remain unfulfilled. But I held it in. Maybe unencumbered writing was all about mastering one’s urges. Suddenly the current aesthetic seemed very Zen.

Short turnaround times are a mixed blessing. Those editors who take six months to respond give you enough time to forget you ever submitted anything, and so rejection comes not so much as a disappointment, but as a surprise. As in, ‘I submitted there?’ But not Editor K. He was back in no time:

J, Thanks for giving us a look, but we won’t be using this. The exposition is just too heavy for our current aesthetic. Please keep us in mind for the future. —Editor K

Again with the references to weight. When I looked at my stories in the mirror, I saw nothing but flesh sagging from places I’d never known existed. I became an anorexic writer. In my despair, I hit the drink. I went on a bender. When I sobered up, two months later, I learned that I’d filled a notebook with scrawl, most of it illegible. But on the last page, I saw this:

A longing to be down among Editor K’s own kind gripped Editor K with such animal strength that Editor K contemplated throwing Editor K’s body over the precipice. But Editor K just clung to the cold stone and wept.

This was heavy. This was visceral, guts hanging, cellulite curdling. This would never be accepted. And something about that tasted sweet in the back of my mouth, like the Boone’s Farm I’d been swallowing by the gallon over the past two months. I had finally learned to love my weight.

A Helpful Word Tool for Writers: The Online Etymology Dictionary

No, it’s not a dictionary about insects.

As writers, we sometimes need to know more about the word than just its definition. Where did it come from? How has its usage changed over time? This is especially useful when writing historical fiction, because language, especially spoken language, changes so much over time.

For example, let’s say I’m writing dialogue for a woman living in Philadelphia in 1753. Would she have used the word sticky?  It turns out that she could have, but not in all the senses that we use it today.  Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

sticky (adj.) 1727, “adhesive, inclined to stick,” from stick (v.) + -y (2). An Old English word for this was clibbor. First recorded 1864 in the sense of “sentimental;” of situations, 1915 with the meaning “difficult.” Of weather, “hot and humid,” from 1895. Sticky wicket is 1952, from British slang, in reference to cricket. Related: Stickily; stickiness.

So, my character would have said, “This honey is very sticky,” but she would not have said, “We’ve gotten ourselves into a very sticky situation here.” (Unless, of course, she’d somehow become covered in honey.)

Personally, I find the history and evolution of language to be fascinating in general, and so I’ve spent some time just looking up words I think might have interesting origins. For more discussion on that, see another post I wrote, called The English Language is the Brady Bunch on Steroids.

Hope the dictionary is useful to you in some way.

The Walloping Window Blind – Sung by Jesse Thomson

It has been said that video killed the radio star, and that may be so. But I am happy to say that Jesse Thompson, an elderly gentleman with a video camera and a 12-string guitar, has brought no small amount of joy into my world today.

The song he sings is “The Walloping Window Blind”.  According to the website, Mainly Norfolk, the song was written for the Music Hall by Joseph B. Geoghegan, who lived between 1816-1889.  It lives on in Jesse Thompson’s video. I can only hope to be a fraction as awesome as he is when I reach his age.

As an aside, his voice, both spoken and sung, reminds me of the Rooster, Alan-a-Dale, from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973), voiced by Roger Miller.

He has recorded dozens of videos, and in each one, he wears something (or in the case of this video, places something) in keeping with the song’s lyrics.  What a great find!

The Barberettes (바버렛츠) sing “Little Gals” (가시내들)

I came across a Korean girl group named The Barberettes (a play on Barbershop). They’ve styled themselves after the girl groups of the 1950s and 60s, taking inspiration from the Kim Sisters, another Korean all-female group who was big in the US.

I totally love the sound these girls have developed, and their video is very cute. But I warn you… you might find yourself watching all their videos and humming their songs for a week or two!

The English Language is the Brady Bunch on Steroids

(from wikimedia.org)

The premise behind the television show, The Brady Bunch, which aired in the late 60s, early 70s, was the blending of two already-large families into something bigger, zanier, more riddled with idiosyncrasies.

Mike Brady’s got his boys, Carol’s got her girls, and then there’s Alice, the housekeeper.  Nine in all, sharing the same roof, and forging a life together, forming a “Bunch.”

As the title of this post would indicate, I propose that the English language can be likened to the Brady Bunch, but to the power of ten.  The Brady Bunch on steroids, if you will.

All languages have genealogies—parent languages from which they descend.  Some of those genealogies are relatively linear (say, European languages that have evolved from Latin).  Others are very obscure in their origins (the Basque language chief among these).  And then we have English, which can be seen as the ultimate “blended family.”

This feature of English is, of course, a historical-geographic legacy.  I’m including a nifty timeline here, borrowed from Daniel M. Short’s “History of English,” which does a good job of showing the various family members of our “Bunch.”

We have Mike Brady, this lonely Celtic man.  Carol, an agressive Roman woman, invades his house and basically takes over, driving him into a corner.  Eventually, the in-laws (or should I say, the outlaws?) show up: the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Danes, the Frisians.  These are people groups, but these are also languages—northern European languages spoken by tribes that are basically at each others’ throats 24/7/365, decade after decade.

Just when things seem like they’re starting to get a little quieter around the Brady household—a hybridized language is emerging and people are starting to understand one another again—a new houseguest arrives.  It’s not Alice, there to clean things up.  It’s the Vikings, who only intended to stay around long enough to swipe the silverware.

As it turned out, they thought the Brady House was a pretty nice place, and settled down, speaking strangely for a while, until they fit right in.  Things were peachy.

So peachy, in fact, that a neighbour named Guillaume (or William, if you prefer), decided that he wanted to move in as well, and his whole family with him.  (Interestingly, before he succeeded in conquering the Brady Household, he was better known as Guillaume the Bastard.  It’s true, you can look it up.)  He took over the house and renamed it “Chez Brady.”

It’s because of these sudden move-ins that English, as it evolved over the next several hundred years, took on such a unique form.  We have Anglo-Saxon words like “honey” and “nest” and “udder.”  We have Old Norse words like “axle” and “gosling” and “slaughter.”  We have Norman words like “beef” and “liberty” and “voice.”

I find it very interesting that, during this period of the Brady House, there was an awkward Anglo-Norman bilingualism (or trilingualism if you think of it as an Anglo-Saxon-Norman language) that existed at different levels of the family.  Despite the fact that all the important stuff that was going on in the house was being written down in Norman French, most of the official records back where Guillaume had come from were being written in Latin—the language of the Church.  (Don’t get me wrong—the Bradys went to church, too.  They just wrote a heck of a lot of stuff in Norman French.)

This bilingualism resulted in some strange dichotomies at the time, and many that still linger today.  For example, we wouldn’t say that we want to serve “cow” or “pig” for dinner.  We would say “beef” or “pork.”  As it turns out, “cow” and “pig” are the Anglo-Saxon (common and conquered) words, and “beef” (boeuf) and “pork” (porc) are the Norman (aristocratic and conquering) words.  Some store owners have taken it a step farther by marketing goat meat as “chevron” (from the French chevre).

It’s not only nouns that show this tendency.  Take, for example, the verb “to get.”  I might say, “I got my BA at the University of —.”  But we probably wouldn’t say that on a resume.  More likely, we would try to sound a little more sophisticated: “I obtained my BA from…”  “To get” (especially its extremely archaic conjugate of “gotten”) is an activity for the common man; “to obtain” is something fit for a nobleman.

(See a very interesting list here that compares English words with dual Norman French and Anglo-Saxon variants.)

Another bizarre artefact of the Brady Bunching can be seen in the way we capitalize in English.  Whereas German capitalizes all nouns (resulting in sentence such as, “When the Boy went to the Window, the Fly made a buzzing Sound”), French is pretty minimalist in this regard.  In fact, in French, you don’t even capitalize “French” (on dirait « la langue française »).  In English, we developed a sometimes-uncomfortable compromise, capitalizing what we call “proper” nouns, maybe harkening back to this idea that there are things we refer to in the common language, and things we refer to in the language of the aristocracy.

But the greatest thing about the language of the Brady Bunch is that it never really stopped growing.  Take a look at the far-right portion of the timeline above.  Languages like Arabic, Turkish, Malay, Japanese, and Chinese have all found bedrooms in the House.  I’ll talk about three examples in particular.

The word “robot” first appeared in a work by Karel Čapek, a Czech playwright and author.  It was used to describe factory-made artificial people, and it caught on.  (Incidentally, the word “capek” means “tired” in Indonesian, which is another Brady Bunchesque language—perhaps the most extreme example of a lingua franca, or trade language, that I know of.)

Most of us, going out for sushi, wouldn’t blink to see “tempura” on the menu.  But where is the word from?  Is it Japanese?  It sure sounds like it.  But there is reason to believe that “tempura” comes either from the Portuguese word “tempero” (a spicy seasoning), or from “tempora” (which is connected to the Lenten period in which individuals eat fish and vegetables instead of meat).  Whatever the case, the idea here is that the word is likely not a Japanese one, per se, but originally came from somewhere else.  It’s since been adopted into English.

Another example appears in English not as a word, but as an expression.  In Chinese, the expression “好久不见” means, more or less, “Long time no see.”  Sound familiar?  Again, we aren’t 100% sure, but there’s a good chance that the expression came into the Brady House via Chinese.

The Internet has made all of this Familial exchange happen at an unprecedented rate.  No longer does someone actually need to come to Chez Brady to get in on the linguistic mashup.  Neither do the Bradys need to go abroad in a frenzy of imperialist zeal, encountering new languages in the process.  It all happens online.

Our language is in a constant process of transformation and assimilation.  And that, I feel, is the richness of English, the reason it is an undeniably living language.  Sure, it makes it hard to learn, hard to teach, and sometimes, hard to use.  But that’s half the fun.

Pondering a Word: What’s in a Meme?

As biological creatures, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it isn’t just our bodies that exhibit biological qualities.  The ways in which we think and interact—our intellectual, social, and cultural selves—also function in inherently biological ways.

I’m thinking about this concept because of a word that I’ve come across in numerous places, and have always swallowed as part of the sentence or paragraph in which it was situated.  Until now, I’ve never really thought to pick it up individually and turn it over in my hands.  That word is “meme.”  As Shakespeare might have said, “What’s in a meme?”

Here’s how dictionary.com defines the word:

meme [meem]

Noun. A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

Now, the interesting part for me is the “analogous to biological transmission” part.  Essentially, the concept is that ideas can move from person to person in ways that approximates the flow of DNA.  I say “DNA” (as opposed to genes) because it broadens the concept considerably.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into a purely biological discussion, but in a nutshell, genes are responsible for transmitting inherited traits to individual organisms.  Although it is possible for harmful mutations in genetic material to occur during replication, for the most part, the transmission of genes is a “good” thing.  (By good, I mean that without this transmission, humans and all other living things would cease to exist.)

On the other hand, the transmission of DNA is not always so “good.”  I’m thinking of viruses here, that are basically a bundle of DNA (or RNA) encapsulated in a protein coat (and sometimes surrounded by a lipid coat as well).  There are lots of ways that viruses spread their genetic material, but they all involve inserting themselves into a host cell.  They rely upon the cellular functions of the host to replicate.  In this way, they function like the cellular equivalent of a parasite that you might find in your gut.

This viral or parasitic aspect of gene transfer was what got Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher, thinking.  It was Dawkins who coined the term “meme” to describe the tendency of human beings, when exposed to new ideas or ways of being, to imitate.  However, that imitation often happens in an imperfect manner, or becomes infused with other elements of “newness.”

Another interesting biological tidbit (and one for which I am having trouble finding a source to cite here—sorry!) is that when a population doubles within a certain area, the incidence of disease is squared.  Disease is at least partly explained by viral (genetic) flows between individuals, so linear increases in population will result in exponential increases in genetic (or memetic) flow.

The Internet makes all of this flow of genes and memes very strange indeed.  Suddenly, the concept of increasing a population within a certain area becomes irrelevant.  If we take the Internet as an infinitely elastic room into which we can all fit, it’s suddenly easy to understand how little things—say, wearing a certain brand of baseball cap, or a Justin Bieber video—can spread so quickly.  We’re basically coughing all over each other every time we go online.

But before I make it sound as if the transmission of ideas is an inherently bad thing, I want to get back to the way in which genes are transmitted.  Some organisms reproduce asexually—they basically clone themselves and produce a bunch of Mini-Me’s.  You could view this as passing on an idea without allowing for any modification or adaptation.  We have another name for that—brainwashing.

Other organisms, humans included, rely on a mix-and-match approach, blending the genes of the parents in a sort of genetic raffle.  This gives new swimmers a chance to dive into the pool, and prevents genetic bottlenecks.  I’m sure there must be a few examples of cultural bottlenecks out there over the vastness of human history, but our fascinating tendency (you might even say our defining tendency) is to burst out of confinement (whether that relates to genes or thought), and to bring new things together.

Interestingly, viruses may have a positive role in the transfer of all of this genetic material. Because of their intrinsically genetic nature (remember that they’re really just a strand of DNA or RNA), they function as a major vehicle of horizontal gene transfer.  They move in, insert something new, and change the future.

Sometimes, that change results in the death of the host.  (I feel that way when I get sent a link to a Bieber video.)  Other times, that change results in the crossover of something from one host (say, a pig, or a TED Talk) to a new host (say, a Siamese fighting fish, or a rockin’ YA novel concept ).  New things are born, and the gene pool benefits.

There is more to say, but rather than go too deeply into detail, I’ll just leave the ideas with you to ponder.  Consider the way in which our immune systems function as a form of defence again foreign organisms that invade our bodies.  What is the memetic analogue—the cultural or thought immune response?  And if there is such a thing, is it possible to seek out a cultural or thought vaccine?  Or are we simply forced to resort to quarantine?