September 16, 2012

"Here is a lesson in creative writing."

That's the heading for a short bit of text by Kurt Vonnegut in "A Man Without a Country," which I just downloaded in Kindle because we were talking about punctuation in the comments to the "phony balance" post and I half-remembered something he said about semi-colons. The short bit under the heading goes like this:

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding. For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I’m kidding.

We are about to be attacked by Al Qaeda. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I’m kidding.

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
Is he kidding?

Here a list of worst college majors for making a living.  All the art ones are in there. You don't have to work.

Here's where we were talking the other day about the teacherspeak word "creative."

And here's last night's reminder that Theodore Sturgeon said "90% of everything is crud," which (I say) teaches respect for bad art — even/especially when it stirs al Qaeda attacks (in reality or in the minds of flag wavers).

And here's something about what dancing is doing to us right now.

49 comments:

Paul Zrimsek said...

He's doing the old-crank thing. Who cares whether he's kidding?

America's Politico said...

Thanks, Prof. I love Kindle Singles. The one that I found most amazing about writing Ann Patchet's Gateway Car. Kindle Singles are the best thing about e-readers.

chuck said...

C would be a different language without semicolons ;)

edutcher said...

I had the use of semicolons pounded into my pointy little head in Third Form.

Now they're gay?

Paul Zrimsek said...

Use semicolons by all means, but be careful. They'll take over if you let them.

Scott said...

"C would be a different language without semicolons ;)"

Apropos: The International Obfuscated C Code Contest

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Hey! You can have my semicolons when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

I find them very useful. Sometimes a series of short, declarative sentences is effective; often, OTOH, a juxtaposition of statements in full-sentence form, separated by a semicolon (which makes clear that the two items juxtaposed have some close relationship to one another) is useful.

I trust you saw what I did there.

And I defy you to make an intelligible list of items in which some of the items have internal commas without using semicolons. There's no way to distinguish an internal comma from a serial one.

chuck,

C would be a different language without semicolons ;)

Never mind C; you couldn't have written that sentence without one. Bravo!

campy said...

Thank you President Obama for showing us through your inspiring speeches how wonderful our language is.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Paul Zrimsek,

Use semicolons by all means, but be careful. They'll take over if you let them.

Well, there is that. They, and dashes (man, Ann has really got the hate-on for my favored punctuation marks this morning), and parens (cf. this sentence) all have a way of taking over your style. Which is ground for caution, not banishment. Just like the affectation of using sentence fragments.

;-)

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Oh man, I really had to laugh (at myself) reading the worst college degrees to make a living. In college I was going for a double major of Anthropology/Archeology Meso American and a fine arts Art/Ceramics concentration. The idea in my young brain was that I could travel to Central America, dig up Mayan ruins and be familiar with the ceramics and analyze them. Such a romantic and exiting way to make a living!

I was a DOUBLE loser.

Then I woke up....and realized that there was no chance that I would be able to do those things. The best I could hope for was to be an assistant professor under the thumb of an asshole tenured professor... or live in a hippie commune, throw pots making my own glazes and sell them at craft fairs. Screw THAT!!

So I went into sales and finance. Good move.

:-)

I'll take facts, hold the narrative said...

"90% of everything is crud."

Reminds me of the old TV series, Banacek. Banacek, played by George Peppard, lived in an old house filled with antiques. When asked why everythig is his house was old, he said that 90% of everything is trash and only 10% was worth keeping. Therefore, whatever survives must be good."

EDH said...

Notice Vonnegut doesn't say go to university to enter the arts, or expect to earn a living.

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Pelosi to Aspiring Artists: Quit Your Job, Taxpayers Will Cover Your Health Care.

victoria said...

He was the funniest!!!
He is right, semi colons are the worst.


PS: I have a degree in Biblical Archaeology and Journalism, one practical, one not so much. Guess which one. Thought they were interesting in 1973.

Vicki from Pasadena

EDH said...

I'll take facts, hold the narrative said...
Reminds me of the old TV series, Banacek. Banacek, played by George Peppard, lived in an old house filled with antiques.

You mean a TV P.I. doesn't have to live on a houseboat?

Boston backgrounds are shown in the opening scences including Banacek rowing on the Charles River and walking through Government Center. In the pilot, Banacek's car pulls into his Beacon Hill home, the historic Second Harrison Gray Otis House located at 85 Mount Vernon Street. In other episodes, views are shown of the Public Garden, the entry to Felix's bookstore at 50 Beacon Street, and the Esplanade.

Bryan Townsend said...

It's a dilemma, isn't it? On the one hand, it is best for your employment prospects if you study one of those majors like petroleum engineering, biology or life sciences. On the other hand there is the possibility that you will end up doing something you hate which probably means something you won't do particularly well. On the third hand, what about all those movies and books that keep telling us to do something we love, no matter what?

I'm not sure I follow you, Ann, when you say that "Theodore Sturgeon said "90% of everything is crud," which (I say) teaches respect for bad art"

Respect in the sense of, yes, you have the freedom to make bad art, sure. But respect in the sense of you respect it even though it is bad? I think not!

EDH said...

Instead of insulting LGBTH community, to emphasize his point Vonnegut could have said: you know what comes after a semicolon?

The inside of a colostomy bag.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

It's a dilemma, isn't it? On the one hand, it is best for your employment prospects if you study one of those majors like petroleum engineering, biology or life sciences. On the other hand there is the possibility that you will end up doing something you hate which probably means something you won't do particularly well.

You can do both, IMO. Working in a career that brings in the $$ and being able to fund the things you love to do instead of living a grinding life of poverty being a pure artiste. Learn to love your job because eventually it brings to you the freedom to do other things.

Now that I'm retired (semi retired) I can re-enter the fascinating world of Art and Archeology. Setting up a ceramics workshop, painting and fabric arts. Travel to locations and research on the latest fascinating discoveries in Meso-American Archeology.....without the sunburn, diarrhea and bug bites :-)

Those movies and books that tell you to do what you love are written and made by people who don't have to worry about making a choice between filling up their gas tank or buying food.

DADvocate said...

He's not kidding, but should be.

I agree with him about semicolons. Whenever I feel the need to use one, I start a new sentence.

C would be a different language without semicolons ;)

MDT captured my thought already. But, yeah, lots of computer languages would be different.

jimbino said...

Hey, if you master useless liberal arts stuff and stay away from any hard courses like physics and math where you might earn only a B, you can always go to law school and qualify for the Supreme Court, as long as you're Catholic or Jewish!

jimbino said...

Hey, if you master useless liberal arts stuff and stay away from any hard courses like physics and math where you might earn only a B, you can always go to law school and qualify for the Supreme Court, as long as you're Catholic or Jewish!

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Strunk and White is my bible regarding punctuation.

Regarding use of the dash:

Use the dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary

"His first thought on getting out of bed-- if he had any thought at all-- was to get back in again."

...Use the dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate,

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Strunk and White on the semicolon:

Do not join independent clauses with a comma

If two or more clauses grammatically complete are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is the semicolon.

"Mary Shelley's works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas."

It is of course, equally correct to write [this] as two sentences, replacing the semicolon with a period.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Vonnegut's dicta only indicate his own personal preferences. It's as if your painting teacher tells you to never use a sable brush; only use bristle brushes. In practice, you should use the tool that best produces the result you desire.

Every punctuation mark represents a different "flavor" of pause or inflection; I use the punctuation mark that most closely represents the way the sentence sounds inside my head.

Maybe Vonnegut would be more comfortable with the the punctuation used by e. e. cummings-- that is, none-- but I can't see how the language would be richer for it.

Hagar said...

Strunk and White is not Holy Writ, but just another device by which the tyrannical privileged classes seek to suppress the free expression of the people!

The Crack Emcee said...

Vonnegut was so confused, and got even more so as he became an old fart. It bothers me to think we were ever taught such people - that such as he led us down the disastrous "path" we tread today.

If WWII had killed him we all would've been better off,...

Bruce Hayden said...

Don't know how I would survive without semicolons, which is probably one reason that no one except for lawyers like the way that we write. I use them heavily in lists, and as a patent attorney, use semicolons at the end of every major element in a claim (with minor/sub elements separated by commas).

But, somehow, I suspect that wasn't what Vonnegut was talking about, but rather, using them in the middle of sentences, to essentially connect two related sentences together. Something like that, which is not something that lawyers, acting as lawyers, are likely to do.

Now, I think that my bigger transgression is what someone above pointed out was the overuse of dashes. I use them often in informal writing, and, yes, it is most likely bad form. But, my excuse is that my training was in match, engineering, and business, so that I would not have to write while in college (but did get an award in LS for my writing, which was quite amazing).

Lem said...

Here is a lesson in creative writing.

"How Romney Lost Me"... coming soon to this blog.

Im kidding, Im kidding.


Old Dad said...

The semicolon is dead. And so it goes.

ken in sc said...

I was taught that semicolons should be called semiperiods; they could be used in place of periods between sentences that are closely related in the mind of the author.

BTW, what heresy is this; Strunk and White is Holy Writ. We will rip down your flag, burn it, and kill your ambassador.

AF said...

"And here's last night's reminder that Theodore Sturgeon said "90% of everything is crud," which (I say) teaches respect for bad art — even/especially when stirs al Qaeda attacks (in reality or in the minds of flag wavers)."

I know right? That's why I'm so appalled that Mitt Romney denounced the film, calling it "inappropriate and wrong." With crap like that, I can't believe he's WINNING! I guess it's because Clint Eastwood is AWESOME!

Hagar said...

Nan-nyah-na-na-nan-yah!

Indigo Red said...

The semicolon is dead; so it goes.

tim in vermont said...

It is not like commas never get overused.

Ann Althouse said...

Respect for bad art -- refers to the fact that nearly all efforts at art are bad, but they are what people do, and individual freedom is important. If we only care about freedom of expression when the art turns out well, we're protecting almost nothing. Freedom isn't contingent on the success of your efforts, it is inherent in your humanity, and doing bad art is what we do, with a few exceptions.

Michael K said...

"On the one hand, it is best for your employment prospects if you study one of those majors like petroleum engineering, biology or life sciences. On the other hand there is the possibility that you will end up doing something you hate which probably means something you won't do particularly well."

Morsi has a PhD in petroleum engineering from USC, my alma mater. He is president of Egypt and gets to blow up Americans. What could be better then that ?

William said...

It's good to see that this debate on semicolons has not been politicized. There were no inflamnatory remarks about how only a guy who wears mommy jeans like Obama would use semicolons and how, by God, real men use dashes to express closely related thoughts. I would advise those who wish surcease of politics to dally with punctuation.

AF said...

Professor Althouse: Respect for bad art is great. That point has virtually nothing to do with the debate over the Muhammad movie.

Mark O said...

Isn't it impossible to write a Prayer for Relief without semicolons?

Unknown said...

There's nobody like Vonnegut. I miss him.

His last point is important. A lot of college kids are encouraged (I should probably use a stronger verb) by their parents to take something that will enhance their chances of getting jobs, so they major in business or physical therapy or whatever. But if the kid loves music or drama or poetry, that's what the kid should be studying. Those four years are an opportunity that doesn't come back. To defer to your parents on how to use those four years is a horrible waste.

Michael K said...

"To defer to your parents on how to use those four years is a horrible waste."

If you are paying your own way, like I did.

If you are relying on your father, like my five kids, they don't pay any attention anyway.

tim in vermont said...

Vonnegut wrote some great libertarian science fiction; parodies of liberalism. I read Sirens of Titans again recently and realized he was being serious. Originally I assumed he was making fun of liberals, since the whole premise of inventing a religion of liberalism to replace older religions and create utopia seemed so laughable. I could never understand why liberals seemed to like the merciless old fart.

Beldar said...

A writer refusing to use semicolons is like a painter who refuses to paint with the color blue.

Christy said...

How closely correlated are classes in creative writing and literature with the actually writing of fine work?

I think semicolons are sexy. Could it be because they are exotic?

creeley23 said...

I reread Cat's Cradle last year and found it holds up. I stopped reading Vonnegut after Breakfast of Champions. Every time I sampled his later work I was disappointed. Then when he went the full Bush Derangement Syndrome in the 2000s, I gave up entirely.

From his son's recent memoir, I gather that Vonnegut became an unpleasant crank and annoyed just about everyone in the later years of his life.

My impression of Vonnegut is that he was more damaged by his WWII experiences than I realized when I read him in high school. Then I thought all his wistful so-it-goes cynicism was him being cute and funny. But now I see that he had been broken. He had stared into the pit too long and come back in despair and all he had to cover it with was humor and a kind of sad idealism that didn't really cover it.

But Vonnegut was an original and I suspect will be read farther into the future than many of his more respectable contemporaries.

creeley23 said...

As to semicolons -- Vonnegut wrote in a plain-spoken style that didn't require semicolons.

He used that style effectively and bully for him, but not everyone has to write like Kurt Vonnegut.

John Lynch said...

Vonnegut is one of those people who was new and different decades before I was born. That generation included Mailer and Gore Vidal, and for a Gen Xr like me there's not much there for us. Those guys all hated postwar America but by the time I was in high school their generation and the Boomers had already utterly demolished everything in their path. I didn't see much point in reading them after that.

I never got what was so special about Vonnegut's books because by the time I read them thirty years after they came out his style had been done to death.

Also, he's mean. I don't mind misanthropes but they really need to be entertaining, and Vonnegut isn't. I don't like being called an idiot by whatever it is I've chosen to read, and that's the feeling I got from his stuff.

It's not going to stand the test of time. He's period fiction.

John Lynch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
creeley23 said...

It's not going to stand the test of time. He's period fiction.

John Lynch: So was Charles Dickens.

But I don't think Vonnegut will be our Dickens, just that he will be read longer than most of his high-lit contemporaries in the fifties and sixties, and he won't be read for any of his books beyond that window.

I'm not all that attached to this opinion. If GenXers find little there, well, that's a data point. I hold out for Vonnegut because at his quirky best, he is damned readable and funny, which can't be said for Mailer and Vidal or really many writers at all.

Astro said...

I agree with PaulZ. It's a cranky old guy thing. Don't use semi-colons. And stay OFF my lawn.
I think it's his personal affectation. Maybe he just never felt comfortable with them. So he rationalized his unease.