By Shawn StJean
Perhaps my accompanying photos are a trifle hyperbolic. Perhaps. It’s a truism among our global neighbors that Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) expect everyone, everywhere, to speak English. The corollary, of course, is that most refuse to learn other languages, such as Spanish, even when the utility of doing so is abundantly clear. But a looming problem for our culture in the 21st century seems to be that Americans increasingly decline even to learn English–at least beyond the 3rd or 4th grade level.
This level, supported by weak resources in the slang of the moment, proves sufficient for basic writing and speaking, but does not carry us far into the realm of critical thought and communication.
I choose the word “collapse” for my title, rather than “decline,” because I mean just that–what used to be a language with hundreds of thousands of specific, nuanced and descriptive choices has and continues to converge and impode into fewer and fewer. With the recession of traditional print media in the face of digital dissemination of what can charitably be called information, even simple affirmations like “Yes,” “certainly,” “definitely,” “acknowledged,” and “no doubt,” in the most extreme example of private text messaging, have all been replaced by a single letter: “K.”
Need this be a bad thing? After all, what’s more efficient than “K”? Doesn’t that free us up for more important, or at least more, activity? Before answering, let’s look at some other casualties in this war for the space in our brains.
Examine the following short list of commonly used expressions, and you’ll realize that either they are purposefully and even defiantly vague, or that one word takes the place of many–indicative of the digital age we live in (compression, homogenization, and subtle loss of nuanced information):
“Do” replaces the verbs/actions “try” “give” “accept” “participate in” “contribute to” “tolerate” “clean.” As in “I don’t do Christmas.”
“Go” travel/venture/explore/pedal/fly/walk/hike/swim/jog and even “communicate something uncomfortable,” as in “Don’t go there.”
“huge” /big/large/important/significant/influential/knowledgeable/enthusiastic. “I’m a huge fan.” In my ear, this sounds ridiculous even on the face of it. We all speak in metaphors of one degree or another all the time (“collapse” is a minor metaphor when not speaking of a physical structure,) but the above expression equates to saying the gushing adorer is an abnormally large person (or ventilating device.) One might as well offer to wave oversized palm leaves, ancient-Egyptian style, at the object of worship.
“way” very/much/far/long (“This license is way out of date.” “This sauce has way more garlic than the recipe calls for.”) This one in particular disturbs me because it demonstrates we aren’t just discussing slang here. “Way” has been adopted not just in common speech, but by professional writers. It has infiltrated the language in a permanent, um, way–ahem–manner.
“You’re all set.”
“It’s all good.”
“it’s all about”
“comes into play”
“back in the day”
Of course, words are invented, repurposed, and recombined all the time. I must be overracting. Aren’t these replacing archaic usages? We’ve got “tweet.” And “text.” “Sick,” “diesel.” Oh, and “literally” can apparently now mean just the opposite, “metaphorically”–I mean, does it really matter?
“[ ] is a thing.” Ah, yes, thing–the one catch-all noun when people grasp for a word and cannot find it, the very expression of inarticulateness, has become an official word to describe a fad, trend, icon, object of buzz or gossip, popular occurrence or consumer good, news item of the day, or week. We had all those expressions, and they all relied upon small distinctions. At this stage in human (d)evolution, we needed “thing”?
Okay. Let’s say I’m right. So the language is imploding. What’s at stake here?
Many will not miss the subtleties that have dispersed into ether, I imagine. Then again, it’s difficult to miss something you never knew you had. What about the millions of unborn youngsters who will grow up with effective working vocabularies of a mere few thousand words? Will they write poetry that amounts to more than a colorful tag on a railroad bridge? Will they read it? Will they understand the U.S. Constitution, even as they are called increasingly upon to “defend” it? Will the historical records of the 19th and 20th centuries begin to sound as impenetrable as Shakespearean solilioquies do to us? And I’m not talking about the kind of missing material in a contraction: to anyone but a fiction-writer or screenwriter, the distinction between “I’ve” and “I have” is not great. One might use it to distinguish among charaters who are high-born or low-born, for example. For the rest of us, it’s merely a convenience.
George Orwell warned writers not to compose in cliche’s. He claimed, essentially, that writing in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others leads to thinking in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others. Other signs that your thinking has been compromised: Do you find yourself regularly Googling information that you could remember with just a bit of effort? Are you trusting that information (or that from Wikipedia, Mapquest, Siri, or the CBS Evening News) enough to act upon it or pass it on to another human being without double-checking it? Are you cut-and-pasting that information (either in written or verbal form) without rephrasing it? My overall point here is there exist vital differences among raw data, information (processed data), and intelligence (interpreted information). And yet many of us are not bothering to recognize them. Not because we lack the cognitive ability, but because we lack the critical tools and the will to use them.
A brief [ mostly harmless] experiment should serve here. Raise your hand if you like music.
That should include most of you, one hopes. If you like music, you have probably in your time looked up some song lyrics. In the old days, we read them out of LP album covers–which meant the source was the band’s record label, presumably direct from the songwriters themselves, which meant little chance of transmissional error. Nowadays, we all know where song lyrics get found. Dozens of websites cater to this need; even Google has gotten directly into the act through their search engine. Look up a song or two that you know intimately, but the performed and recorded lyrics of which are not 100% crystal-clear by listening. I can guarantee you that, as transcribed onto your website of choice, you will not be long in discovering blatant errors in those lyrics which materially alter their meaning. Furthermore, and more appallingly to me, you will discover upon cross-checking that most, if not all, of the alternative websites repeat that same error. Which means, of course, that they are all “borrowing” from each other, and profiting off both you and the songwriters with little regard for the truth. Now, if the stakes here seem low to you, import your experiment to the television news programs. Jon Stewart had a running bit on his incarnation of The Daily Show dedicated to proving that not only do major news outlets shamelessly plagiarize from each other, but they do so in unedited cliche’s. Again, in the old days, we might double-check their intelligence in what used to be called printed newspapers. Umm. Except. . .
One of the great virtues of written language is its precision, yet increasingly written English begins to resemble spoken English, even in widely disseminated and professionally published print media. And spoken English begins to resemble colloquial English. Don’t think so? Ask an octogenarian (someone born roughly during the Great Depression, as of 2017) if their parents would use the word “cool” as part of their everyday discourse. Nowadays, try to find someone who doesn’t. Not that I think “cool” has done the language any great harm. As far as I can tell, it was first used in America, in its modern sense, by Emerson in the 1840s–which probably means it dates back even farther and derives from the British. But this word may prove the exception rather than the rule. As it is, it conflates a much more typically detailed appraisal of a person, event, or object. A girl who might once have been variously described as “tolerant,” “forgiving,” “loose,” “free-thinking,” “substance-abusing,” or “not a nag” is now simply “cool.”
Of course, one might argue that simple is better; the fewer moving parts in a machine, the more reliable it is likely to be (read “mousetrap.”)
I doubt the sustainability of that argument. Another, more insidious example: “fewer” vs. “lesser” (or less). Almost no one but your English teacher bothers with this one anymore. Here’s why: who cares if your supermarket checkout line reads (correctly) “fewer than 12 items” or (incorrectly) “less than 12 items”? Can’t we just dispense with one of these? Well, we could. Except one of them refers predominantly to individual items and people, and the other refers objects in bulk or concepts. That is, “fewer people are finding jobs their college degrees prepared them for.” NOT “less people.” Because those people are individuals, not some vague statistic. There’s less forest, which means fewer trees. There may be “less opportunity.” There may be “less rain this year” or even “less cod in these waters.” But if there are unaccountably “less people,” we had better start looking for them. And reevaluating the value we place on human life.
I’d like to conclude with a different, and more familiar example; possibly the mostly commonly transmitted text message in English:
Where R U
It (or some variant) is quick, servicible, doesn’t cost much effort to send, or–hypothetically–to answer. And yet this message has probably caused more misunderstandings and needless arguments than most. Why? It’s laden with ambiguity (or even what deconstructors call “undecideability”). In the absence of voice intonation, facial expression, pronunciation, linguistic context, primary and/or secondary punctuation, and so on, the receiver must interpolate those for herself. Here’s how that might go, in response:
“None of your damn business.”
“Uh oh, he’s saying I’m late again.”
“Did I promise to be somewhere right now?”
“I’m at Main Street and Vine”
“She really wants to know Who am I with, and What am I doing?”
“I left an hour ago.”
Texts and tweets may count portability and quickness among their virtues, but they certainly cannot include clarity in that list. Even among intimates, this message is as likely to lead to a dispute as an informative reply. Another aspect that’s missing, and increasingly missing from written communication especially, is any sense of formality, professionalism, or what used be called politeness. Now, you may say, “Well, that’s just a text message.” Sure. But ask yourself how many e-mails you have received without a greeting, a signature, an identification of the sender or introduction, or even so much as a rudimentary spell-check? Did you answer them? If you did, you, as are we all, are complicit in the process of collapse. Compare these two e-mails, typical of what I, as a college professor, have received from freshman students:
 Dear Professor: I’m sorry I missed class last Tuesday and Thursday as my grandmother died. I misplaced my copy of the syllabus. Can you tell me what we did in class so I can make up the work? Thanks, Kayla
 I missed class last week would you tell me what I missed
Neither one of these qualifies as polished, professional communication–especially from a writing student–but I think you’ll agree that the former has a few lingering virtues to recommend it, which have gone glimmering in the latter. In fact, were I to delve deeper into my records of the past, we’d find that the students of the 1990s had bothered to include my actual name; that the excuses were often more inventive and frequently included such touches as offers of doctor’s notes; that a request to meet in office hours was not unheard of upon missing a week’s worth of training; that the student might have actually acquired class notes from a peer before writing; that the student would bother to identify which of the four classes I teach she was enrolled in.
I’m not sure that the degradation of the language–as slow and inevitable as abuse of the atmosphere that has summoned the effects of global warming– will contribute materially to the collapse of the society, the culture, or possibly even our civilization. But I don’t fancy it helping. It’s perhaps predictable that as our planet becomes more overpopulated, as more wealth becomes concentrated into fewer hands, and as such factors demand a parallel dynamic of information becoming the province of fewer people (collectors,) the rest of us will not find encouragement to strengthen our language skills beyond the consumer sphere (that is, you and I only need know how communicate well enough to work and buy and perhaps sell a bit.)
As for writing, a culture’s written language is the primary repository of its history. Without a sense of history, it cannot evolve.
The solution? Same as it’s always been, and the advice is good not just for writers, but for anyone who wishes to grow their brain and live up to something approaching their potential: READ. Read anything. Comic books, advertisements, editorials, romance novels, cereal boxes, movie credits. Some are better than others, obviously. Personally, I recommend Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Wharton, along with Carl Sagan for those whose tastes require something a little more contemporary–here was a man who knew a bit about large-scale collapse–but that’s just me.
By Shawn Stjean
If only that were true; but the signs are there. Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us. I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody? When was the last time a movie gave you joy? Follow-up: Good for you. How much CGI did it have?
Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities. They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes. A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.
Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure. This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate. I will never forget attending a screening of Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars. That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might. However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex. They were live, baby.
And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered. I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.
I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums. Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage. Records are delicate, and they scratch. Film gets exposed, or deteriorates. Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory. But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING. The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth. It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.
This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”) Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database. It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time. Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.) And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon. Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit. Don’t even mention writing letters. Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t. You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code. You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS. And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.
Digital means two choices only, no gray: Black or white. One or zero. The TV reception is either there, or it’s not. You’re wise, or a fool. Female, or male. Rich, or poor. Good, or evil. Successful, or a bum. See the limitation? Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled. But you’re still there.
When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)
Otherwise, it’s which are you? Harmless, or dangerous?
By Shawn Stjean
If you can’t solve day-to-day challenges creatively, what chance will your characters, with their high-stakes conflicts, have?
Many articles exist on this topic, and suggested solutions (“Seven Ways. . .”) range from the gimmicky to the sublime. I’m here to suggest only one–it works every day for me–but it is more like an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure. After all, it’s better to never catch the disease in the first place, especially if you occupy the position of treating writing like a job, or better yet, a vocation.
That’s a good position to be in. Above all, you must remember that, as rewarding as it is to finish, publish, hold a book in your hands, and cash a royalty check, those days come few and far between. The vast majority of your hours will be spent drafting, thinking, revising, taking sips of coffee, heaving heavy sighs, scratching your head, and typing. And this is the FUN part. (Fun at least compared to formatting, proofreading, promoting, and all the associated networking).
There’s the key: this is your working life; it’s FUN. Not like a roller coaster ride, but in the way a watching a great movie or engaging in spirited debate or contributing to a difficult class period is fun–it grows your brain, makes you recall there’s more to existence than_________(insert your various modes of drudgery here).
So, this strategy involves optimizing the fun that’s in the work, in a non-logical way: through creation of anxiety (so a bit like a roller coaster,after all.)
I draft my characters into trouble, and confront them with difficulties, that I most often cannot see the solution to, myself, in advance. This may sound risky, but consider this: if you can see the answer around the corner, how far behind might your best readers be from doing the same?
These difficulties need not necessarily signal major plot events, though they might: I’ve used everything from a protagonist trapped in a plummeting airplane, to simply agonizing over whether to lie to his wife, and what to convincingly say. This unsureness about what’s coming next lends the narrative verisimilitude it might otherwise lack. Also, of course, you might be telling a story with familiar archetypal or historical outlines. Everyone knows the Germans lost WWII, so the climax is not in doubt–it’s HOW your little squad of misfits is able to pull together, despite their differences, to contribute. So the dramatic tension of your fourth chapter might simply consist, not of how to win a battle, but of how to simply get along with each other.
But does this strategy cure (or avoid) writer’s block? Aren’t you simply substituting one problem for another (perhaps greater)one?
Yes, and no. NOW you’re moving, and your neurons are firing, and your fingers are typing, where before they weren’t. The first solution, or several, to a problem may not be the ideal one, or even a plausible one, but you can worry about that later, in revisions. You’re now in challenge mode, but not blocked. You’re only running, scrambling, juking to get over, under, around, or through the current obstacle, even as you’re moving forward. It’s a lot like playing a sport. Living in the now.
See, what professionals in any field know is that you can only think and prepare and research for so long, but the time comes when, as the slogan says, you “Just Do It,” for better or worse (But recall that Nike means Victory, in Greek.) Much of what you accomplish goes on the scrap pile, later. Every bit is not gold. In short, pros know enough to get over themselves. Amateurs treat every move like it will be the last, caught on tape, memorialized in stone, as if their time and effort is too valuable to waste. It ain’t, man. Next week’s another game.
True, it also helps if you have a rough outline, like a coach has a gameplan–written down–of the overall plot structure. It’s flexible. This could be a line graph with labels, a Harvard outline, or post-its–whatever works so you can keep the big picture in mind. Then you’re in a position to see whatever you’re working on as merely an episode. Perhaps what you write for the next hour will function only as a temporary placeholder, to be replaced by something more brilliant later. So be it. The character(s) are at point A; they must arrive at point C; how are they going to get there? You are now at point B: start typing. Don’t think. Type.
I originally wanted to add some voiceover dialogue to this–perhaps one of these days. If you look, you can spot elements from different sections of the book: Flood (Water), Firmament (Air), and Forge (Fire–desert), as well as some bits borrowed from some popular Hollywood films. Enjoy!
By Shawn StJean
I’ve written briefly about membership with this organization before (currently there are about 350 of us on the rolls.) Clotho’s Loom has been awarded the Seal for good writing–only the 40th seal awarded as of today. This emblem assures potential readers that the book meets high standards in the categories of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting–essentially what one would expect from a book published by a large commercial press and found in a bookstore.
In order to earn this approval, a book must be voted up by three independent evaluators, so the process is much the same as that used by professional and academic peer-reviewed journals.
Although the literary merit of a work is not a criterion for earning a seal, one evaluator had this to say:”The author’s use of an extensive vocabulary and mastery of language serve to make Clotho’s Loom a riveting introspection into the lives of a man and a woman caught in separating circumstances beyond their control. The situations and the reactions of the man and the woman are brought forth in alternating chapters.”
I’d like to repeat my previous encouragement of independent authors to seek (FREE) membership in this vital organization, and volunteer some time to be an evaluator, or otherwise help the cause. In this way we can aid the reading public in making informed decisions regarding the massive influx of work into the literary market.
As he finally gains some technical skills and prepares the Audiobook Edition of Clotho’s Loom for its upcoming release, Shawn StJean explains how his novel began as a guy-centered, military action-adventure, but became a hybrid with a woman’s journey to self-realization, in this 6 1/2 minute video interview.
Change the view to HD when you get there!