I Need Help With My Commas

commasAnyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to plastic in this day and age) will admit that writing isn’t always a joyful experience, and those of us who read student writing for a living will happily tell you that reading ain’t no walk in the park either.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, writing’s difficulty stems from the tension between the author’s intent and the reader’s expectations. Typing a blog entry to an unnamed, faceless audience is different than emailing words of wisdom to my son later today. While both may go unread (especially the email), we know that familiarity changes our expectations. My son has been hearing and reading me for 22 years. We have a shared linguistic system that allows for short cuts, unconventional phrases, and allusions that are largely incomprehensible to people outside our family. When I write to him, I can anticipate exactly when he’ll roll his eyes or sigh loudly enough for his co-workers to wonder if that spreadsheet he’s reviewing is really that boring. When we blog, however, that shared history disappears, creating a far different experience. The “wisdom” I pass along to my son might be annoying advice to him but to strangers those same words might be pedantic simplicity.

Student writers experience this same issue. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, I think, to say that kids today don’t read and write. In fact, one might argue that they read and write far more than past generations. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and whatever cool, groovy social media app went viral this week, these darn kids are reading and writing more than ever. Like every generation, they’ve also adapted language to the medium and the audience, creating new rules and discarding old ones in favor of communicating an idea quickly and efficiently. (Of course, if you’re over 45 you might argue with my use of the word “idea” to describe what’s being communicated.) They’ve taken slang, something us old folks like to complain about all the time, into the written word as opposed to speaking on the street corners or into the telephone. The problem, perhaps, isn’t that they don’t read or write, but that they don’t read and write the “right” things or the “right” way.

Unfortunately for students, I’m starting to think the tension between audience and author grows increasingly difficult to maneuver, precisely because they are writing more and reading more. When a student shows up to my office and asks for help with his commas, he’s worried he can’t fit his ideas into this archaic system we call standard written English. As professors, we know our students need access to the language of power and that they wd b wel srvd learning how to wrt using all the letters, commas, & capital lttrs some stodgy, old manager expects. We also know that grammar helps organize thoughts but we are loathe to admit that sometimes those commas and other punctuation marks arent as important to meaning as we might think. Can we really make the case anymore that understanding how commas works is always essential to meaning?

Our students have been communicating via the written word since their thumbs were coordinated enough to text, retweet, or chat. Don’t get me wrong. As the little cartoon above shows, sometimes we need commas to avoid sounding like cannibals, but perhaps we should also admit that all commas aren’t created equal and maybe our students need less help with commas and more help with context.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Petting Zoo–Story the Last

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We’ll soon return to our regularly scheduled blogging. First, though, we get to see the first couple of paragraphs of the closing story in “Love is Not a Dirty Word.”

I’ve been writing all week about how and why I’ve written certain stories. I wish I could point to some magical moment as inspiration for “The Petting Zoo.” I could wax philosophically about some long ago memory of reaching through the fence and touching the soft, downy fur of a baby chicken or mention the tight curls of a sheep’s wool.

Yeah.

Or I could admit that I watch way too much television and I’ve seen one too many commercials in my life. I’m pretty sure it’s Verizon (or maybe T-Mobile) but a few years ago around Christmas a mother walks into the mall with her son on one side and her daughter on the other. She looks at the son and tells him “you’re my rock” I know you’ll behave. She turns to the little girl and says, “we can’t have a repeat of the petting zoo” can we? The little girl looks up at her with as much seriousness as a 6 year old can muster and says, “I’ll try mommy, but I can’t make any promises.”

Fortunately for the mother, she sees the (insert cell phone company here) store and she’s saved from the unpredictability of shopping with her daughter.

Who cares what kind of cell phone dad is getting, I thought. I wanted to know what the hell happened at the petting zoo?

If you saw that commercial and asked the same question, here’s what I think happened.

The Petting Zoo

Christie leaned back, trying to melt into the couch cushions, wishing she could wake up when her kids where 18 and in college. She smelled strawberry and felt the sticky residue of a half finished Jolly Rancher on her neck as she cradled the phone against her ear and tried to concentrate. The ceiling fan was filthy, there were spiderwebs in three corners, and she had at least one couch cushion poking her in the thigh, but she wasn’t all that sure what her husband had just said. Her ability to have an adult conversation was in direct proportion to how well her children behaved on
any given day.

“What? Sorry. I just spaced out for a minute. How can there be spiderwebs but no spiders?” Christie leaned to the side. If she couldn’t feel the spring, maybe she could pretend it wasn’t broken. “Anyway. You weren’t there. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.” She listened to Simon talk, wondering why her glass of wine was so far away. And how it got empty.

“I think we’ve been banned from the petting zoo. For life. Our grandkids won’t be able to go either.” Christie forced herself to stand. She needed a drink more than she needed rest. Or, more likely, she needed the drink in order to rest. The Jolly Rancher smell followed her to the kitchen and she wondered if there were any good snacks left.

“I’m fine. Just trying to get off the couch. Alexas told me at breakfast she wanted to grow up to be a kangaroo so she and David used the couch as their own personal trampoline this morning. I was outside watering plants for less than five minutes. When I came in, they had grocery bags tied around their waists with a small stuffed animal in each bag. They were yelling ‘Boing, boing’ as they hopped from cushion to cushion. Our couch looks like that hideous, plaid sofa you had in college. I don’t know what’s sagging worse—me or it.”

(If you want to find out why Alexas got banned from the petting zoo, click on the link above.)

Hands on the Wheel–Story # 10

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I mentioned at the outset of these blogs about the story collection that I almost titled them “Trailer Park Stories.” Interestingly enough, there are only two stories in the collection set in trailer parks. “Hands on the Wheel” is the second one.

As you can see (if you’ve been reading these blogs the last few weeks), I’m not always sure how a story will end. Often, I have to move in with a character for a while. I might have some specific scenes in mind and I generally have a sense of how I want to start a story. All those things may change before all is said and done but once I start writing I have the basic story arc in mind. Of course, characters sometimes hijack those initial plans, but we all have to start somewhere.

When I started “Hands on the Wheel,” I knew the story would end with the narrator outside a bar in his dad’s old truck looking at his hands on the steering wheel. I knew his dad would already be dead and that the narrator was in the process of making a decision about his life after encountering an old friend from the trailer park of his youth. This is only one of two stories that ended exactly as I thought they might when I started the story.

I told someone the other day that each story has little bits and pieces that I like. In “Love is Not a Dirty Word,” there’s a scene where the narrator stops in front of an antique store that I think is pretty slick. In “Coitus,” I think there’s a funny moment involving a mobile Bill’s crazy ex-girlfriend leaves on his door knob, and as big a jerk as Nathan Dumbrowski might be (he should have died–sorry bastard that he is) there’s a quote in there from Nietzsche that I think works pretty well.

“Hands” also has one of my favorite sentences. There’s nothing special about the wording, but each time I read the sentence within the context of the story, there’s something about the sadness that pervades the story at that particular moment.

I’ll willingly admit that you (should you read the book) might not have that same reaction. Words and sentences work like that, though. Each of us brings our own historical and contextual baggage into our confrontation with language that our reactions vary. That moment speaks to me for some reason.

Hopefully, if you read the book, you might find one or two of those sentences, also.

Hands on the Wheel

I first met Jolly when I was 15. My dad wasn’t real happy when we started running together, but he never said anything—not directly anyway. Jolly is one of the many things I’ve realized over the years my dad got right.

I was sitting in a bar outside of Abilene, watching the Dallas news when the story broke. Police had found three black men, two shot and one stabbed, at a southside carwash/laundrymat. Early speculation was a drug deal gone bad, and the lead suspect was Jolly Henderson. The news showed a grainy surveillance photo on one side of the screen with a black and white mug shot on the other. I was working as a framer for one of those build them quick home companies, and my hands were cut and calloused in ways that would disappoint my father but afforded me some measure of respect in a place like this. It was 9:30 and I was hot, tired, and normally able to ignore the bad news that invariably signaled the end of another day.

“I been knowing Jolly for about five years now.” The guy on t.v. was a large, toothy man with a scraggly looking beard. He looked like that actor who always plays the fat biker—he’s mean and tough but too ugly to have any lines. There were good reasons to keep him silent.

“His name was sort of ironical, if you know what I mean. I’ve not ever seen the man smile.” The guy was enjoying his five minutes of fame. “Hell, he was just flat out a mean as a snake, if you ask me.” He looked behind him toward the run-down shotgun house. “Still, I never figured him for nothing like this.”

(If you want to know a little more about Jolly, or try to guess the sentence I like so much, click on the link above to buy the book.)

 

Dear Search Committee–Story #7

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“Dear Search Committee” started out as a comedic look at a cynical, burned out professor who had grown tired of teaching. In my mind’s eye, this story was going to be this comic attack on the absurdity of college administration.

That’s such low hanging fruit, though.

I wrote the opening paragraph of the job search letter and then drew a complete blank. So I did what most writers do. I hid the paper in a manila folder and waited until the idea wanted to be written.

When I started the collection, I pulled the piece out and wrote the sentence after the letter paragraph.

And things took off.

I’m not sure why that happens, but all of a sudden Nathan took on a life of his own.

And it’s a sordid life. Like “Coitus,” I suspect some readers might have renewed doubts about letting me teach their children after they read this story.

Nathan, quite frankly, is not a nice guy. In fact, in the original version he dies by the end of the story. Terry Dalrymple, a fine writer and someone who read these stories in their early versions, told me he didn’t buy it. The death didn’t fit with the story itself. He was right, but, I really want this character to be dead.

Either way, better story telling won out over my desires and Nathan makes it to the end of the story.

Dear Search Committee

It should have been an easy letter to write. Nathan Dumbrowski had been teaching for about 10 years, and he was a leader in his department and a confidante of various administrators.

Dear Search Committee:
I write with great interest in your recently advertised Head, Department of English position, fully recognizing that my interest in your job will probably exceed your interest in me. My years of
experience teaching and my record of working with colleagues to improve programs and recruit and retain students should qualify me for such a position, but I suspect my reward is in heaven instead of a bigger office with a larger paycheck and less work. But, what the hell, right? It’s Friday afternoon, and I can either grade functionally illiterate essays written by students perpetually on probation, surf the internet for free porn, or apply to be a Department Head.

Nathan considered his opening gambit. He also decided surfing the web for porn sounded like a good idea.

(If you want to see why Nathan needed to die, click on the link above.)

Coitus Interruptus–Story # 8

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In my email out to family and friends, I warned them that this collection might be about love, but it’s definitely not about romance. “Coitus Interruptus” (and the story that follows it in the book) are the ones that might give some folks pause.

“What,” I can imagine them thinking, “is wrong with that guy?”

I’m not, I can assure you, a pervert, but I did have student once call me Dr. Porno on a student evaluation when I was a graduate student. You can imagine the conversation with the department chair.

Oddly enough, the student wasn’t in the least bit upset that we watched Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacketa brutally violent look at the dehumanizing effects of boot camp and war, but reading Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” sent her over the edge. I guess she wasn’t quite ready to read a story with a vivid description of a female orgasm.

“Coitus” was not inspired by literature or film, and I can assure you all that I wrote it before Joseph Gordon Leavitt’s Don Jona movie about a Jersey guy who searches for intimacy in one night stands and internet porn, ever showed up at the theater.

Back in the day before spam filters, you could (and would) get emails advertising internet porn. On any given day, we might get penile enlargement ads, free ex-girlfriend porn sites, and notes about MILF’s bored and needing a little loving. No worries, right. Hit delete and move on to another student email asking how many absences he has in class.

Every once in a while, though, I would get these aggressively pornographic ads with barely blurred lines on the photos. In full color. On my work computer. With a student in the office conferencing about a paper. The delete button never seemed so far away.

“Coitus Interruptus” was born out of one of those moments. Sort of. In some ways, the story started when I imagined that someone (not me I promise) didn’t hit delete but stood up, closed the door, and clicked on the links as he unbuttoned his pants. (I swear I only imagined it. And not that vividly either.)

The first draft of this story began with “The day Bill Wheatley got caught masturbating in his office, he knew things might never be the same.” The idea, in many ways, was to explore the way internet porn creates opportunities to fulfill certain needs while impeding others. Bill Wheatley gets a letter from an ex-girlfriend who is being tested for HIV and that letter sends him to Shiva Touche, an internet porn star.

“Coitus” has never been published, but I have gotten some really nice rejection letters. One editor wrote that “the story hit a little too close to home” for his magazine. Another said they “worried an ex-employee” might find the story libelous.

Good grief. And I’m Dr. Porno?

Either way, here are the first few paragraphs.

Coitus Interruptus

The day Bill Wheatley got a letter from Kim Novak, a woman he’d dated over a year ago, he had no idea what to expect. The breakup had been messy, and, admittedly, a little disturbing. “The sex was great, but she wanted a little more commitment than I was willing to offer. Plus,” he told a friend from work, “why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free every Friday night around town? I’m not saying the woman was crazy,” he added, “but she hadn’t seen normal in a few years, if you know what I mean.”

The truth was that when Bill wanted sex, he went out.

“Human interaction,” a professor told him in college, “is another type of transaction. You can become friends with anyone if you can convince them you’re a product worth investing in. Life is all about marketing: accentuate the positive and distract from the negative.”

Bill doubted the old guy was offering dating advice, but he realized early on he could apply his skills as a marketing and ad designer to the bar scene. There was always a willing partner at some local pub: she just didn’t know it yet. Bill would find a booth near the wall and survey the field. Focus on the unexpected—compliment her hair, hands, shoes, earrings, ankle bracelets—anything but what all the other men were staring at that night. Always stroke the erogenous zones with words first, Bill thought.

(If you want to find out how Bill handles stroking those erogenous zones, click on the link above.)

 

At the Days Inn Near Eastland–Story # 7

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I was standing in the express lane at HEB one day and I heard a phone ringing, a loud sigh, and the woman in front of me whispered “Good grief.”

I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but there’s not much privacy in the 15 items or less line at the grocery store.

“Yes,” she said, “I bought organic red leaf lettuce and some wine. I’ll be home after I get the cake.” If she was hosting a party, she didn’t’ seem all that excited about the guest list.

“At the Days Inn Near Eastland” started with that scene and part of that line. Admittedly, my first thought when someone silently curses about being tethered to their phone is not sympathy. If you don’t want to be available 24/7, leave the phone at home I say.

But what would happen, I wondered, if that ringing cell phone sent you over the edge? What really interested me, though, was the specificity of her answer above. Why organic red leaf lettuce? What kind of wine? Cake? Who is calling her with such a question and why is she so annoyed with the phone call?

More importantly, where was she headed after HEB and what would happen if she decided to drive around for a little while before going home.

In my head, what happens is she ends up naked in a motel room with a McDonald’s bag, an cake box, and an empty bottle of wine.

At the Days Inn Near Eastland

When Jill woke up with a McDonald’s bag, a cake box, and an empty bottle of wine next to her, she knew something was wrong. Even more troubling were the scratchy, over-washed hotel sheets rubbing against her naked body. She hadn’t slept nude since she was 12, and even then she had woken up in the middle of the night to get dressed. Lying there on this morning, Jill tried to imagine an illicit chance encounter: a bottle of wine, her naked body, and a muscle bound younger man tending to her every need, but Jill didn’t feel any post-coital relaxation. Then again, she couldn’t
feel anything except a burning in her head, a dry mouth, and something sticky on her lips. I’m the kind of girl who likes to swallow, Jill laughed as she licked the remnants of her culinary orgy off her lips.

She slipped back into a dream about Monte Jones, her high school boyfriend. Monte had been Mr. Everything back in the day. Starting quarterback, straight-A student, and against all stereotypes, a genuinely nice guy. He was also the only real fun she had as a teen living with her Aunt, Uncle, and their five children.

When her cell phone vibrated, she opened her eyes and the world around her started spinning a half beat off from her stomach, a little like listening to Nine Inch Nails do Beethoven. As she rushed into the bathroom, Jill knew she would survive the headache, but she kind of hoped death would find her soon so her stomach would stop squirming. The phone was still making noise after rinsed her mouth.

(If you want to know how Jill got from the checkout line at HEB to the Days Inn near Eastland, click on the image above.)

 

A Healthy Level of Sanity–Story # 6

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After surging into the top 150,000 in book sales over the weekend, it’s becoming clear I don’t have a best-seller on my hands.

I am, of course, joking. Like all writers and artists who don’t sell well, I’m proud of the paltry sales. I’m no sell-out (but only because I haven’t been given a chance–feel free to tempt anytime you want).

“A Healthy Level of Sanity” is one of those stories whose title and opening paragraphs have changed about 100 times. At one point, I had this story titled “Scenes From Stango’s” but that was way back when the scenes appeared in the opening paragraph. While many of the stories benefited from readers, I think this story got much better after some advice from Jerry Craven (editor at Lamar UP).

The first version (and published version) of this story was also in the first person. When I sat down to revise the stories for this collection, though, I wanted some distance between the character and the audience in a way that first person doesn’t allow. The “I” often distracts readers into forming a kind of bond that the third person seems to avoid. While you can’t read it in the paragraphs below, this story is about a Charles and the hazel eyed woman forming a relationship via email. At the time I wrote the story, I was thinking about how technology allows us to form these kinds of cyber relationships that can be just as real as our face to face love.

In essence, I think email, texting, snap chatting, and other electronic forms of communication allow some people a chance to re-invent themselves and create relationships that are no less real than anything they experience face to face. Charles and his wife are at a museum looking at photos (the Scenes from Stango’s) taken from a cafe table by an artist every Tuesday morning at 8:00. Those images capture a type of human interaction in the same way that emails, etc can also capture a type of relationship. Just because it’s different, we might argue, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I’ve heard a good number of writers tell audiences they have a difficult time picking a favorite things they’ve written. I think that’s true. Stories are like these little children you release out into the world and you value each one in unique and important ways.

But, I think many writers can tell you which stories they might like the least of the ones they’ve written. “A Healthy Level of Sanity” is probably that story for me. In many ways, I like the content and I really like the concept behind the story. There are parts of this story that are strong, but it’s also a story that I think I can’t quite pull off the way I want. Even now when I read the story, I think I never quite found the narrative voice I wanted. I wonder if there’s time to go back to the first person. Forget all that stuff I wrote above.

In some ways that’s ironic since it’s story about maintaining some measure of sanity when writing the thing just about drove me nuts.

Either way, and now that I’ve written such a stellar review, I hope you enjoy the paragraphs below.

A Healthy Level of Sanity

Charles and his wife were in the art museum’s foyer enjoying a glass of wine before viewing the new exhibit. He’d been on the road a good bit lately, and this was one of their first opportunities to talk without small children hanging on their legs. While Charles scanned the crowd looking for the wine server, his wife updated him about their two sons. Their oldest was perfectly content at home, but he would start kindergarten next year, and they worried about his social skills. They were discussing the merits of pre-school when his wife grabbed his shoulder and held her glass high to keep from spilling the wine.

He heard a soft “umph” and an “oh my” as he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw another woman’s knees buckle and as her glass fell, he grabbed her elbow. She already had one hand on his wife’s shoulder, and her other rested on his forearm as she regained her balance. Charles could feel his wife’s body against his side, but he also felt the heat of the other woman’s skin through the sheer fabric of her blouse. His wife took half a step back, sliding her hand to his bicep as he put both hands in his pockets.

The other woman turned toward them. Her hair shimmered as she brushed a loose strand away from her face. Hazel eyes. Skin slightly freckled. A woman comfortable without makeup. She tucked her hair behind her ear and an earring caught the gallery lights. She had taste, “someone who knows how to dress without ostentation,” his wife would say later. “I’ll bet she comes from money.”

(If you want to find out who the hazel eyed woman is click on the link above.)

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)