Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some Definitions

A definition is not a set of sentences found in a dictionary. To define something is to give it boundaries. When you define something that is ineffable it seizes to be ineffable, which is why something that is truly ineffable cannot be grasped by language and sometimes thoughts. Putting thoughts into language defines them. 


Don't mind me musing about these things. What I really wanted to go over was a few definitions. 


I've mentioned already how I'm slaving over that blog post about "show, don't tell." It's getting really lengthy. So, I wanted to get some things out of its way to conserve space. Particularly, I wanted to define the concepts of Preferences, Opinions, and Educated Guesses. 


In the morning, I drink my coffee with sugar and cream, lots of both. You may drink tea instead of coffee. 

These are just preferences. We can both argue that our unique preferences are somehow "better."

Like, you could say that drinking tea has health benefits. Certain teas have properties that help with cancer. And you don't feel as jittery after a cup of tea.

I could say that coffee speeds up my metabolism, has less calories, and gives me the necessary jolt to start my day. That and I enjoy the flavor of a dark roast. 

Who is correct? We both are. Neither side convinces because we each had our reasons for the preferences we have. To suggest that I should share your preferences because you feel they are right is not logical. Of course, certain circumstances may force you to change your preferences; like if you want to quit drinking coffee because of the sensitivity of your teeth.

In writing workshops, I came across a number of preferences in the comments left in the work I issued to the group. Here are some examples:

"Change this phrasing because it sounds better this other way."

"Use only X number of semicolons per page."

"Use language that evokes the senses to make a scene more vivid."

Preferences. All of them. "Sounds better" tells me that the person reading it uses the suggested phrasing often; just because you like similes or certain diction doesn't mean I do, etc. 

There is no law that dictates how many punctuation marks you ought to have per page; just because you hate the semicolon doesn't mean that I do. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said to "cut out all those exclamation marks" because it was like laughing at "your own joke." I respect the man's fiction, but this nonsense about exclamation marks is just a preference!!!! 

As for the third one, well that's the whole point of the "show, don't tell" blog post. Stay tuned!

Preferences force me to ask the question: Why? One of my instructors used to tell us that in the battle of the Preferences, yours should win over. 


Mr. Clifton, my tenth grade English teacher told us often that "opinions are like assholes." We all have them and they sometimes stink. The man was a Vietnam War Veteran, a decorated hero and a brilliant man; they allowed him certain eccentricities like that one. 

There is no logic to opinions. There is pseudo logic, plenty of it. 

I think that people who criticize the preferences of others are insecure. It makes sense. Why attack the fact that I drink coffee unless you are not really sure that drinking tea is so great? Leave me alone with my cup of Joe; that's what I always say. You don't like the potent smell? Go drink your tea outside the coffee house. I don't mind that odd tea smell even though it makes it seem like someone's smoking pot. 

That was all opinion. None of what I just wrote had any sound logical structure. 

In writing workshops, I ran into plenty of opinions too. Here is what some of them looked like:

"Character X is not likable, kill X off."

"The situations are ridiculous."

"The job of the writer is to ______ not to _______"

Opinions. All of them. If you don't like a character, too bad. Someone else might love them. Who is the writer supposed to listen to? The results of a poll that show whether or not your character is likable? Yeah, right. The writer has an opinion too. 

What if I asked you to say why you thought the situations are ridiculous? The answers would be all opinions. This is because the word "ridiculous" is subjective, like "beautiful." If they had said "plausible" instead of "ridiculous" then it would be a different thing.

The third one is also an opinion, one that is troubling. I have come across dozens of internet articles and blog posts where the authors will try to proclaim that not only does the writer have a job, but they know it and if you're not doing it, then you're failing. Some of the most popular answers are: The writer's job is to evoke emotions in the reader; the writer's job is to hide nothing from their readers; the writer's job is to entertain the reader; the writer's job is to challenge the beliefs of the reader...

Opinions. All of them. 

I like to think that if there is a job I'm supposed to be doing as a writer that I can figure it out for myself. When I read something like, "the job of the writer is..." then I suspect that the author meant, "MY job as a writer is..." When you think about it, how would you know that you're doing your job as a writer? Do you poll your readers? Look at the little stars your work earned on Amazon, goodreads, etc. (consider that most readers don't use these or else Harry Potter would have millions of reviews on Amazon)? And how exactly do you gauge the instantaneous emotional response of the reader?

Educated Guesses:

Similar to the opinion, an educated guess wanders into the dark unknowable. To support it is the experience/education of the person who makes it. 

A doctor may make an educated guess about that wart on your body. Testing may reveal the truth about it. A fitness instructor may give you a schedule that may lower your exercise time while increasing stamina; all in hopes of losing weight. Only after months of following the schedule will you know if it's effective. Based on my book purchases, Amazon will offer me others. I won't know if I will like their suggestions until I finish reading them. 

Educated guesses are still guesses. Most of the time I don't pay a second glance at what Amazon offers. Who hasn't had to have a second opinion from another doctor because what their doctor suggested isn't working? Losing weight depends so much on factors unique to you that not all strategies may work. 

Yes! In the writing workshops I keep mentioning, I came across educated guesses too. These are the examples:

"Women don't do that during their periods."

"Character X just doesn't ring true to me as a psychiatrist."

"That type of natural disaster wouldn't kill off that many people."

You have to be careful when you get a comment that may be an educated guess. 

The first one I mentioned above is tricky; it came from a couple of females in the workshop. Their experiences told them one thing, but my research said something else. Namely, the response of a woman to her period is not universal--not all women respond the same way. What is a male writer to do? I chose to play it safe. I'm removing any mention of the menstrual cycle in my story! 

The next educated guess dealt with the person's experiences with a psychiatrist. It could be valuable to listen to what they have to say, maybe even questioning them about the types of statements made and even their advice (if they are willing to share that much). Later, I could take what I learned and mold it so the psychiatrist character seems believable. The problem is, too much reliance of this type of comment may alienate the readers who didn't have similar experiences with their shrinks.  

The third comment could be valuable if the source has the right kind of education. I would listen to this if the person was a seismologist and I had talked about an earthquake. Waiting to experience this is a little morbid! The comment would be worthless if it had come from a philosopher. 


Now I'm a little bit closer to publishing that "show, don't tell" post.