Archive for the ‘Writing’ category

How To Tell a Story, Wrongly

March 1, 2012

This week’s New York Times Book Review has an utterly disturbing cover story. It’s about a writer’s tale of 16-year-old Levi Presley who, in 2002, jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.

The writer, though, has no allegiance to factual accuracy. Instead, he changes facts in the story to suit his artistic musings about suicide, Las Vegas and storytelling itself.

You may ask, how can the story be believable if there is no fidelity to facts? Ah, that’s what landed a most unusual book, The Lifespan of a Fact, on the cover of the Times Book Review.

Let’s start at the beginning. An English professor at the University of Iowa, John D’Agata, wrote an essay on Levi’s death for Harper’s, and it was rejected because of “factual inaccuracies.” The author then submitted a 15-page article to a literary magazine titled The Believer, and the magazine assigned an intern, Jim Fingal, to be the fact-checker.

The Lifespan of a Fact presents D’Agata’s original essay as well as what The Times calls “Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations.” For instance, the first sentence of the essay refers to Vegas having 34 licensed strip clubs at the time of Levi’s death. Source material said 31. When Fingal asked D’Agata why it says 34, the writer replied, “Because the rhythm of ’34’ works better in that sentence.”

And it’s downhill from there. D’Agata changes the name of Levi’s school because he didn’t like it. He changes the color of a fleet of dog-grooming vans because he wanted the double-beat of “purple” rather than the factually accurate “pink.” He changes another suicide-by-jump that same day to a suicide-by-hanging “because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

Fingal gamely tried at first to understand this literary license, but couldn’t shake his belief in accuracy. At one point he reminds D’Agata: “You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi. Don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental?”

D’Agata responds that Fingal’s “nitpicking” is ruining his essay. In manipulating Levi’s story, the writer argues that he is “making a better work of art — and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.”

Uh-huh. Right. Sure.

Please, Not That Phrase Again!

February 11, 2012

Certain words and phrases have their season. They catch fire, sound quite sophisticated for awhile, and then start to drive us nuts from overuse.

“Low hanging fruit” is a good example, and “Dilbert” by Scott Adams has fun with that phrase.

PR Daily publisher Mark Ragan asked his Twitter followers last week which overused phrases come to mind, and here are three more: “value-added,” “thinking outside the box” and “paradigm shift.” I’ll add “go to the next level.” Of course, in terms of overused phrases, this is only the low hanging fruit.

Best Opening Lines of Literature

June 25, 2011

Sometimes the opening line of a novel is so captivating that you just know it’s going to be a great book.

I remember thinking that when, as an early teen, I first read: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell’s 1984 remains one of my all-time favorites.

The same was true with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (“You better not never tell nobody but God.”) and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”).

You knew immediately that A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was an epic by the way it began: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Ernest Hemingway set the mood for The Old Man and the Sea with the opening line: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

Some leads make the reader laugh right at the start, such as C.S. Lewis’s delightful The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Others are humorous for a different reason, such as “It was a dark and stormy night” popularized by the “Peanuts” comic strip. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton began his novel Paul Clifford with those seven memorable words, but unfortunately didn’t use a period. Instead, the opening line continues in excess with “the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“American Book Review” recently declared the 100 best lines from novels, and all of the above are on the list. See if some of your favorites are on the list.

The Power of Words

May 5, 2011

The right word or phrase can make all the difference. That’s why, even in this visual culture of ours, we emphasize the importance of writing. Hope you enjoy this two-minute video from Britain.

April Fools Issues

April 1, 2011

Fighting Christian mascot in action

On this April Fools Day, I remember this delightful piece published in Elon’s student newspaper, The Pendulum, two years ago. It takes a special imagination and wit to craft such an enjoyable piece.

I came to Elon in the early days of the “Phoenix” replacing the “Fighting Christian” as the university mascot. It befit Elon’s history as an institution that burned to the ground in 1923 and then rose from the ashes, like the firebird of mythology.

While I never saw the former mascot shown in this photo, I appreciated the spoof about his troubled times since being replaced by a mythical bird.

Personally, I’ve never liked April Fools issues of student newspapers because they abrogate their real function for pure whimsy. I’d rather the staff simply publish a good satire now and then, not devote an issue to fabrications. This example of satire would have been delightful to read any day of the year. No need to save it for April Fools.

Cellar door … Nevermore

December 14, 2010

Cellar door in Romania (Andrei Stroe)

The most beautiful-sounding word in the English language is “cellar door,” according to a recent dictionary.com survey. Do you agree?

Our communication colleagues at MyRagan certainly don’t. They point out that “cellar door” is a phrase, not a word, and therefore doesn’t qualify.

Here, then, are some of their offerings:

Aroma. Bungelow. Serenity. Debacle (the meaning isn’t so lovely, but the sound is). Friday afternoon (okay, a little joke there).

“Cellar door” is often used as an example of a word combination that is beautiful in terms of phonaesthetics (sound) with no regard for semantics (meaning). In fact, The New York Times devoted its “On Language” column to “cellar door” earlier this year. The column cites a 1903 novel as praising the beauty of the phrase, and later writers such as Tolkien and Mencken wrote about “cellar door.”

The most fascinating speculation is that Edgar Allan Poe’s refrain “Nevermore” in The Raven was chosen as the closest sound to “cellar door” he could think of. This derives from a 1914 essay by Alma Blount:

Poe, who studied sound effects carefully, says that he chose “Nevermore” as the refrain for The Raven largely because the word contains the most sonorous vowel, o, and the most “producible” consonant, r. An amusing story is told of an Italian lady who knew not a word of English, but who, when she heard the word cellar-door, was convinced that English must be a most musical language.

24, Elon-Style

November 30, 2010

Students in Dr. Glenn Scott's Reporting for the Public Good class this fall

We have our own “24” in progress in the School of Communications.

It isn’t at all like the TV show “24” where Jack Bauer had 24 hours, spanning a 24-episode season, to save humanity from destruction.

Instead, students in Reporting for the Public Good are partnering with the Burlington Times-News to produce a special section examining 24 hours in the life of Alamance County, our home.

As Times-News editor Madison Taylor describes in his column, each student will select an hour of a full day — all 24 — and profile someone or thing operating at that time. It could be anything, with one requirement: The stories better be worth reading.

By the time the editor finished describing the project, enthusiastic students already were selecting times and topics. We’ll see the results in early 2011.