The comic strip Non Sequitur has again generously provided a juicy writing prompt to get the wheels turning. This one finds two children poking into a bulging sack toted by a mysterious old man. The strip asks, “Who are the kids? Who is the man? What’s in the sack?”
I knew when I read about this masked vigilante who removes superfluous apostrophes from signs, that he should be recognized in a post on this site. The story also contains several hopeful pleas from ordinary civilians regarding other offending signs that have assaulted them (including some that do not involve punctuation errors). I personally wince but turn away from such mistakes on hand-made signs and in emails but take umbrage with professionally made signs and advertising materials that don’t understand how plurals actually work in English. If one pays for a job, one should be able to expect that the job will be done with competence. As for the authors of ‘free puppy’s’, I absolve you.
Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.
While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined writing.com several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.
Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?
The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.
Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.
NASA recently announced the re-discovery of a spacecraft that disappeared 8 years ago hiding in plain sight in orbit around the moon. Questions abound and they seem like they could lead down some interesting paths. In these conspiracy-theory-rich times, one can even speculate about devious plots to force attention away from dastardly doings on Earth or hide data, objects, or persons in the most unlikely place. Have at it.
As a life-long fan of history and archaeology, I have been saddened to hear of great treasures torn asunder by war in the Middle East. Some lesser-known treasures have suffered obliteration closer to home. I think of my visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an ancient city in the heart of the United States that was partly swallowed up by pavement.
It’s a time-honored tradition in a way, wiping out the memory of those who came before. You can see places on ancient monuments where later visitors worked to wipe out the names and images of others, whether it’s modern graffiti vandals etching over historical relics or Egyptian pharaohs knocking out the images of their predecessors. The value of history in teaching us about our nature and potential is part of what motivates those who destroy. They do not want us to share that knowledge and grow away from them.
Writers do their part in rescuing these vanishing scraps of heritage by documenting them in many ways. They can be the sources of both fiction and non-fiction material. Written works and pictures can draw attention to them and make the case for preservation.
I recently began participating in preservation itself by volunteering as an archival transcriptionist for my state archives. My task is to take scanned documents and type their contents so that they can be searched by researchers. Among the benefits of doing this work is learning more about the language use of persons from another era, always a valuable body of knowledge for a writer. I also find that poring over words written in the past, often with pen strokes that preserve their gestures, is a moving experience.
While it’s true that my new sideline is yet another distraction (along with my art ventures) from actually writing my next book, I don’t see it as time wasted. I like to think that I am helping keep a few small pieces of our shared human story in hand.
My local paper recently published this account of a popular local character who happened to be a crow. Smokey the crow was, by this account, bright and mischievous, as well as friendly and talkative. Among other exploits, he was known for stealing parking tickets from cars and trinkets from stores. One of his human friends taught him to say “Hello.” He was so devoted as a companion that he followed his friend along on his paper route. The crow was so well-known as a beloved scamp that his death rated a front-page obituary in the paper.
Several years ago, I worked at a place where we had a whiteboard on which people would post questions or challenges. Anyone could answer in response. The prompts ranged from the mundane (what song makes you happiest?) to the practical (what are you bringing to the potluck?) to the philosophical (how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?). By far the question that prompted the most answers in my time was one of my own: What was your most memorable car and why?
I had been reminiscing about the many colorful vehicles of my past and wondering if other people had similar stories. The answers covered the board, after which enterprising souls answered on paper and taped the answers on the wall. The final result went from as high as most could reach right down to the floor and filled the sides of the wall panel.If ever anyone wanted a topic for a book, this appears to be a strong contender. Everyone seems to have a story they would like to tell on this topic.
Cars have characters all their own to be sure. They do not have to be as active as Christine or the Love Bug to be prominent in our life stories and in our fiction. They can just be as temperamental as the cars in James Thurber’s short stories or as talented as the ones in the Harry Potter and James Bond serials. Or they can just be there as catalysts (the car crash that led to…etc.).
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about a related matter lately, namely what your car says about you (and, accordingly, what car your character should drive). Cars played a key role in my mystery work Soleville, mainly as a marker for the changing lifestyle of the hero, whose sudden promotion obliges him to step up in the automobile world and into unfamiliar territory. For me, the necessary research was an engaging foray into an imaginary world where my car-buying budget was well beyond my real-life means. It was fun and slightly addictive.
Back in the real world and limited by a middle class bank account, my spouse and I just purchased two new-to-us used cars after similar (but far more constrained) research. Most of the people I know clucked approvingly at the choices we made but the response I received from one person who’s known me for years surprised me: “You never struck me as THOSE kind of people.” Since then, a couple of my husband’s male acquaintances greeted his arrival in one of the cars with the remark “Now THAT is a car.” It might interest them to know, both cars were love at first drive for my husband, though not necessarily at first sight. One he dismissed at first with the remark, “Looks like a hearse.” The other he seemed too disengaged from for a comment. The same man dismissed one of the cars we test drove with a curt, “This just isn’t me.”
We didn’t intend to make any kind of statement with our purchases but car choices do say something, even if it’s only “I was in a hurry and didn’t have a lot of money” (exhibit A: the Geo Metro we once owned). You might ask what kind of person drives a jacked-up red pickup that hangs on your bumper and peels off indignantly when in fact you are going the speed limit (no, really, I want this guys’ plate number so I can turn him in)? Or who drives a blue Buick sedan about 10 MPH below the limit (All right, that would have been my mother)? Or who is that in the black van with the tinted windows (Truly, we don’t want to know)? Or who buys a car that matches their wild pantsuit (see Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety)?
Our expectations can be so raised by vehicles that there is a comic effect when the driver pops out and is a different person than we’d come to believe was behind the wheel. Maybe the jacked-up red truck is driven by a wizened old priest? Could it be the Buick is driven by a 7-foot professional wrestler? The black van, for that matter, might just be operated by a kindergarten teacher. Seeing my husband hop out of our black Volvo Cross Country had, I guess, a different effect than seeing him rise out of the white Prius (to those who knew the beat up old Subaru Forester he used to drag down the logging roads). Perhaps that was all my commentator meant: two people who drove the same old shabby colorful cars for so long do look out of place in newer vehicles. Still, can’t the padre drive a little slower?