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grey and gray

Tuesday July 08, 2008 @ 11:27 AM (UTC)

In my third semester in the MFA, I got a marginal note from my advisor: “grey is Engl. spelling – gray is U.S. spelling”. On the next page, he circled ‘gray’ (pushing consistency), and by the end of that semester I had added “find/replace grey” to the list of final touches I must put on a story before sending it out.

I actually remember having trouble with this as a child. We largely learn to spell by reading, or at least I did, and massive numbers of the books I read as a child were British. I remember being admonished for writing ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ as a first- or second-grader, and my indignation at the unfairness. It was in books! How could it be wrong if it was spelled that way in books? But some variations between British and American English are further under the radar than ‘glamour’ and ‘theatre’. Enforcement of ‘gray’ was not widespread, and I wasn’t sure which I should use. I remember misspelling my grandmother’s name as ‘Vey’ instead of ‘Vay’ – I don’t think my parents realized it, but that was because of ‘grey’.

Now that I realize the distinction, it’s interesting to see that, while I obviously prefer ‘grey’, I use both. Search finds 69 non-Grey City hits for ‘grey’, 31 non-name hits for ‘gray’ just on this site. Heck, I even spell Marvel Girl’s secret identity both ways. I’m hemorrhaging geek-cred while we speak. At any rate, I think I use the word ‘grey’ for more subtle or numinous hues and connotations, whereas I reach for the American ‘gray’ for flatter, darker tones. Zombies are gray. Skies over oceans are grey. No wonder I’ve been using the latter extensively in my thesis. One wonders what other linguistic quirks I will discover in myself as I turn a disciplined eye to my writing!

"Better because it's true"

Friday July 04, 2008 @ 10:48 AM (UTC)

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time hanging around big-box bookstores. I visited the local Borders and B&N daily in hopes of surprising my first published work on its first shelved day. The local Borders was more convivial and boasted more clearance racks of stationery, so I lingered there longer and noticed that there were two major genera of employees. One day, every counter would be occupied by listless, asymmetrically-coiffed young men with pendant chins; the next, by cheery middle-aged women with long hair and an ineffable air of library.

It was one of these latter beings, friendly though they seemed, that shocked and distressed me. Standing in line one day, I listened to the woman at the counter chatting about books with the soccer mom before her with such loquacity that it gave you hope for the brick ‘n’ mortar bookshop. The customer, recognizing a font of literary enthusiasm when she saw it, asked for recommendations: light, funny reading.

The bookseller immediately launched into an elevator-pitch for a book she’d just read about an eccentric family, á la Royal Tenenbaums. As the customer obligingly chuckled, she finished, “I simply loved it, and it’s a memoir, so it’s better because it’s true!”

Gentle reader, I gaped. Perhaps this underlying value statement is more than evident given the publishing world’s memoir obsession; perhaps you even agree with it on some fundamental level. But for this fictionist, the implicit statement that the same work would be a “good” novel and a “great” memoir was chilling.

Is this true? And if so, why? There may be greater artistry involved in making a truly compelling narrative without breaking the bounds of personal history. But surely that lack of inventive liberty is balanced by the artistry necessary to create such a narrative out of whole cloth. Why is the book not its own achievement, to be judged on its own merits, on the world between its pages?

Is the act of reading different if the reader believes the narrative to be reported fact? If the reader were not told until the end whether the book were memoir or novel, would her “star-rating” change upon hearing? And if so, what does that mean for our enjoyment of books – that we use them as artifacts, not just art; that we are unduly influenced by the biography of the author? Or does it simply mean we expect less of memoir?

There are plenty of issues raised, many questions around the primacy of memoir in today’s writing market. Many of them, I hold, would benefit from the attention of fictionists as well as of nonfictionists. But I will stop this ramble here for now, and ask: do you agree with the Borders lady, reader? Is a satisfying, rollicking good read better if it’s true?


Thursday July 03, 2008 @ 01:17 PM (UTC)

A word doesn’t have to be new to get my attention. Today, I am appreciating the word for its own sake and the way it’s been used, observing the word in its natural habitat (in this case, the prose of Patrick O’Brian).

The sky was still grey and it was impossible to say whether it was clear or covered with very high cloud; but the sea itself already had a nacreous light that belonged more to the day than the darkness, and this light was reflected in the great convexities of the topsails, giving them the lustre of grey pearls. (Master and Commander, Chapter 3)

The estimable Molly Gloss recently used Patrick O’Brian’s prose as an exemplar in a craft talk about using long sentences as well as short. Her example, from Desolation Island, showed that his writing was well structured, clear and served the story and its emotional heft. Here we see that clarity; it’s designed for as much transparency as possible. There is a word here that I daresay most readers aren’t familiar with, but the (very long) sentence works around that.

Our rare bird is, of course, nacreous. French-speakers may have an unfair advantage in puzzling out its meaning: nacre is French for mother of pearl (and apparently is the specialized term for the substance in English). Thus something nacreous has the properties of mother of pearl, such as iridescence.

So while O’Brian has used a word he knew to be slightly obscure, he has nested it into a context that allows the reader to approximate its meaning and carry on with the story. It is evidently a quality of light, and from its reflection on the sails he gives us the essential element, its pearlescence. This technique, adding a few expansive phrases and context clues around an uncommon word, is one O’Brian uses elsewhere to allow us to understand nautical terminology. It is part of his genius that in the heat of battle we don’t have to turn aside for a dictionary.


Wednesday July 02, 2008 @ 10:04 AM (UTC)

By now everyone knows that the US had to pass a bill to get Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress members off the ‘terror’ watch list1. In the linked article, even the Secretary of State calls it “a rather embarrassing matter.”

It’s not just embarrassing, it’s telling. Why were these people on the list? “The African National Congress (ANC) was designated as a terrorist organisation by South Africa’s old apartheid regime.” In other words, ‘terrorist’ is used by governments to stigmatize those they dislike, and to decrease their credibility in the international community. ‘Terrorist’ is an elastic term, meaning exactly what those in power say, no more or less. How else does one explain the broad swath of cybercrimes the Patriot act classifies as terrorism? If making civilians live in fear is ‘terrorism’, why aren’t authoritarian states around the world labelled as such? ‘Terror’ is not the deciding factor; governmental fiat is.

One could hope that this example, of a group formed to foment revolution against unjust rule being tarred for decades with the ‘terrorist’ brush, might give someone in our government pause, make them wonder how meaningful the term is as it is being used; but I doubt it.

1 It is sad that I automatically wrote this as ‘watchlist’, subconsciously believing it had seen enough use to become a compound word.


Tuesday July 01, 2008 @ 02:02 PM (UTC)

Just a little plug for an increasingly useful online store: Fictionwise eBooks. I first visited Fictionwise because they published the digital version of the Asimov’s Science Fiction my story was in. It was great to be able to tell folks who live far from bookstores, or who don’t do much brick-n-mortar shopping, or who just couldn’t wait any longer, “Hey, you can buy a pdf of the magazine right now for a little off the cover price.”

Since then, I’ve noticed more and more periodicals adding Fictionwise links to their sites. I don’t think I know anyone who uses an eReader, and I’ve never bought an electronic version of a book, so I may be an odd niche market for Fictionwise. However, I have been using them regularly as a way to get hold of magazines. Back issues are as easy to get as current issues; they carry everything from Asimov’s and Analog to the once-elusive Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and I don’t have to pay shipping and handling. Reading one story or article at a time on a screen doesn’t grate on me as reading an entire book on the computer would.

So, if you missed one issue of a magazine, want to see if you like a magazine well enough to subscribe, or are stuck in an airport without decent reading material, I highly recommend browsing their magazine selection. It’s convenient, inexpensive, and laziness-compliant.

Today in quantized abstractions

Monday June 30, 2008 @ 03:57 PM (UTC)

I’m home, and have been thus far busy enjoying the babbling, sleeping, cat-admiring and catching up on RSS feeds parts of life. Therefore, I have little actual content to offer. However, someone is trying to convince us that solace, like asperity, is quantized, and this trailer is doing a good job.

Dear Body (an apology)

Saturday June 28, 2008 @ 12:27 AM (UTC)

It’s been a rough few years, hasn’t it, my body? I’ve brought you to Residencies and stuffed you with greasy pub fare and cafeteria food, sat you on the cold cement or damp grass until you were sure your flesh would be numb forever. I kept you up late at parties, stood outside near smokers, didn’t balance the occasional beer with the habitual water, and slept in a dorm room full of allergens and stale smoke. Residencies in Seaside, I paced you up and down the frigid beach, and dashed between rooms in the freezing open-air hallways of one hotel wing.

And between? The semesters were almost worse. Returned to your comfortable bed, I kept you awake planning stories. I stayed up all night writing, or planning, or failing to write, and dragged you to a job where you had to stand up for hours, lift heavy things, try to be graceful manipulating messy liquids. When the work shoes wore out, I made you wear them anyway for almost six months, and tried to fob you off with the occasional hot bath.

And what did you do in return? Did my migraine frequency peak, or my feet stop functioning? Did I get scurvy, or pneumonia, or food poisoning? No. You found me a clarity that lies beyond sleep deprivation. You kept me from doing the nod-jerk at all in this, the most dignified Residency of my time. There have been bad times, it’s true, but they seldom interfered with my deadlines. My eyes continued to focus on the books, my fingers to type out stories.

A bit further, body. Out onto a stage in a gown, mortarboard and, against too-late recommendations, non-sensible shoes. Bear with me for one more day of celebration and learning. I can’t promise there isn’t hardship and box-carrying in your future, but this, this has been accomplished. Thanks for sticking with me, body. Thanks for mostly being on my team.

Final residency

Thursday June 19, 2008 @ 04:20 PM (UTC)

In Oregon for fewer than 6 hours, and I’ve already bought a book at Powell’s (okay, airport Powell’s, but still) and eaten Pizza Schmizza. Huzzah for home, for easy no-sales-tax math and shade, glorious shade!

Do you Duotrope?

Wednesday June 18, 2008 @ 10:20 AM (UTC)

I’ve mentioned it before on this website, but it deserves a more prominent mention: I love Duotrope’s Digest.

It’s a free website that lists markets for short fiction and poetry (sorry, nonfictionists.) As well as listing and categorizing them, giving some indication of how much they pay (if at all), and providing links to their websites, collects information on acceptances and rejections. From writers’ data, they compile really useful statistics on how long a magazine tends to keep your submissions, what percentage of submissions they accept, et cetera. You can make a free account to save favorite markets and contest deadlines, and most importantly, to track your submissions. You do the writing; they do the math.

So if you’re a poet or a short story writer, sign up and explore the site. It’s easy to use, and the statistics and Top 25 lists are interesting in and of themselves. It’s a remarkable resource, and it’s hard to believe it’s free. (Speaking of which, they run on donations and they need more this month. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, you might consider them in your charitable donations!)

I made this.

Monday June 16, 2008 @ 06:51 PM (UTC)

Sea Selves, my thesis

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