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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: going Erewhon with Christina Rossetti

ChristinaRossettiQuote

It’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday and you can see by her quote that Christina Rossetti was a poet, not a novelist. I love working on the Dictionary Project, but sometimes I wonder if it would have been better had I never started the novel I’m working on. Then last night, there was a plot twist in a recurring dream I am having about a dystopian post-apocolyptic future. Do I really need to start another project right now? Do I?

As a poet, Rossetti contributed several new words to the English language, including burnishment (a polish for metal) and shallowing (an adjective to describe something, or someone, that is increasingly shallow).

The nineteenth century was a great time for adding words to the English language; more words were added (especially during the second half of that century) than at any other time in the modern history of the language. They also invented dystopian fiction.

Dystopian fiction is utopian fiction’s jealous sister. While utopian fiction puts on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and insists that, if you listen to her, everything will be fine; dystopian fiction doesn’t think things are ok, but is going to show you that things could get worse. The first dystopian novels only problematized utopian fantasies, as in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), which seems like a utopia at first…

erehwon

Though I’m not sure that Erewhon can really be called the first dystopian novel, it introduced a popular dystopian theme: the tyranny of machines; a theme we are still terrified by to day (think of Stephen Hawking and artificial intelligence). The notion of machines developing consciousness started in Erehwon.

As writers, not starting a work means not exploring certain ideas, which is why – as much as I love Christina Rossetti – I don’t think that not beginning particular works is so sad. I’m glad that I’ve begun the projects I am working on at this time, but should maybe hold off on starting anything about dystopian post-apocalyptic futures until I finish a few other things.

Are you a writer? How many works in progress do you have right now, or at any given time? How many are too many?

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: frat boys or super villains?

GreekWilde

My quote this week should have been from John Oliver, who asks: “How is this still a thing?” Alas, Oliver wasn’t alive in the 1800s and he is not a writer. Because it’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday and I want to talk about fraternities. I’ve selected a quote from Oscar Wilde.

Wilde was a member of the most famous and, perhaps, respected fraternities, the Freemasons. He liked the secrecy, dress, and ritual of freemasonry, joined the Apollo Masonic Lodge at Oxford, and was quickly promoted to the “Sublime Degree of Master Mason.”  He valued his membership as a freemason so much so that he was reluctant to leave the Protestant faith because of it.

Before beginning my research, I knew of the Freemasons, but didn’t really think of them in the same way that I think of school fraternities. Now, that I have, it seems obvious, but before I began looking into the subject, I thought of the Freemasons as an extremely secretive organization of Protestant men, bound by honour, tradition, and myth. My opinion is admittedly biased against fraternities, having experienced first-hand the same kind of sexual violence they are now famous for. In seeking balance, I’ve tried to find their appeal and imagine that supporters of Greek Life sought what the Freemasons represented in my imagination: a bond of honour, tradition, and myth.

I spent part of my afternoon speaking with a respectable former frat boy (the term ‘frat’ originated in 1895). He had nothing but good experiences with belonging to a fraternity and felt that he was able to contribute to both his school and its broader community in a more meaningful way than he might have otherwise, unless, of course, he joined another of his school’s clubs that didn’t charge dues and had a mandate of giving, like the United Way, or numerous honours societies.

I asked him if he is concerned with the reputation members are getting from association with the terrible acts that are being reported in the news, and he said that he was.

I wondered what compels young men to continue joining such organizations, then I attended a lecture on representations of masculinity in superhero films, which talked about the rise of hyper masculinity since the 1950s, which, I noticed, parallel shifts in the history of fraternities.

Fraternities experienced a rise in membership along with the rise in university enrolment after the Second World War, which lead to the introduction of hazing in the 1950s, which is when cinematic superhero history began. The superheroes of the silver screen are overly preoccupied with proving their manhood and impressing their fathers, while disassociating themselves from anything even remotely feminine. Frat boys take pride in joining the same fraternities their fathers participated in, while hazing can be viewed as an exercise in proving one’s manhood.

Dr. Kara Kvaran said that to qualify as a superhero one needs to be two of the following: (1) performing heroic acts for a community; (2) in a costume, or with a hidden identity; and (3) possessing superpowers. Those sound like the things Oscar Wilde loved about the Freemasons, costumes, rituals, and secrets. This leaves me with the question: if frat boys want to be like superheroes, why do they consistently do such terrible things?

I asked the former frat boy that I was talking to today what would be lost if fraternities ended. Is there anything about fraternities that is worth preserving? He couldn’t think of anything that you couldn’t get by joining any other student clubs, which do a lot of fundraising and charitable acts.

If there is an answer to my question, I imagine it must have something to do with what is valuable about masculinity, which is itself a myth. I don’t say that to be derisive; not all myths hurt us; femininity is also a myth. They are myths that many of us choose to identify with (myself included), but we create those myths with our identities. The superhero engages the myth of masculinity by protecting and providing for the communities they serve. Yet, I fear fraternities have become something those communities need to be protected from.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: eggcorns wrecking havoc

Hawthorne

Words are wild unpredictable tools. That’s why (no matter how slowly the fundraising is going) I love writing a dictionary. The wild unpredictability of words is why I’ve chosen this Nathaniel Hawthorne quote for Writer’s Quote Wednesday.

Hawthorne is right that words are potent in the hands of those who know how to combine them, but people who know how to use words are like lion tamers because words are still a potent force in the mouths of people who have no idea what they are saying. That’s why we sometimes want to take words back after we’ve said them.

Hawthorne knew this. That’s why he wanted to take his first novel back after he published it. As an older more experienced writer, he no longer felt that Fanshawe (1828) reflected his ability, or his brand, as a writer. Hawthorne went so far as to destroy every copy of the book he could get his hands on. After his death, his wife even denied he had ever written a book by that title.

I also have a first novel that I don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing with the world. It’s a politically-charged drama that was the result of my thesis writing as a student. I only want to write historical fiction now, so I empathize with how Hawthorne must have felt.

On a smaller scale, the wild unpredictability of words causes this kind of embarrassment whenever we have to stand helpless watching an unchecked phrase that we’ve unleashed wreak havoc in the world.

wreak havoc: to cause or effect chaos (1817)

On point, wreak is such a weird word, meaning to cause or effect, as in the definition above. A common eggcorn of the idiom “to wreak havoc” is “to wreck havoc.”

eggcorn: a linguistic term for an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase that also bears a phonetic likeness (1844)

I like to imagine that eggcorn sprung from the use of ear horns, but that’s another story.

eggcorn

The notion of wrecking havoc is so far off of what people are meaning to say with “wreaking havoc” that it actually means the opposite. Havoc means chaosWreak means to causeWreck means to break, or otherwise ruin. Consequently, to wreck chaos would be to end/destroy/break chaos, thereby restoring order.

See why it is so important to know how to combine your words?

Have you ever written/published something you were embarrassed by? Know any good examples of an eggcorn? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Don’t Be a Villain

Bronte

Whenever I hear someone talk about getting even, or enjoying “karma,” I wonder about their media literacy. Aside from the occasional Inigo Montoya out to avenge their father’s death, rarely is the hero’s story a revenge plot. As a literary device, revenge is generally only employed to generate sympathy (however slight) for the villain. If you are plotting revenge, or laughing as someone “gets theirs,” ask yourself whether you really want to be a villain because that’s how you will come across.

villain n. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes [from the Oxford English Dictionary].

I almost didn’t finish my post for Writer’s Quote Wednesday on time this week because I’ve finally lost all hope that Spring will ever arrive and resigned myself to staying in bed with this stupid flu, but I chose Emily Bronte’s line about treachery and violence because I’ve been trying to better understand the burning desire some feel for what they consider justice.

Retributive justice, revenge plots, and the Western bastardization of karma are all based on the notion that justice looks like a pair of scales that balance rightness/goodness in the universe. To take justice into our own hands involves appointing ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner. It makes sense, then, that the original use of the word “villain” was to refer to someone who was low-born with a head full of ignoble ideas.

I like Bronte’s quote about treachery and violence because it emphasizes these fundamental characteristics of someone walking around with a revenge plot: (1) their own spear is something they’ve “resorted” to, which has consequently made their character more base, and (2) it hurts to be angry and vengeful; it’s like a violence we do to ourselves. It is the violence that a villain does to themselves and villains rarely end well in fiction.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: An Ode to and from the Necktie

necktie

If you are going to be a man, be a gentleman. Dressing well may be the first step, but there’s clearly more to it than that. The necktie is a great place to start!

The modern necktie, which is to call it a fashion accessory that is popular in the English-speaking world that is forever envious of French taste, the modern necktie evolved from the cravat, which originated in the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Croatian mercenaries wore identifying ties around their necks that intrigued the French. In naming the new trend, the word “cravat” flowed from a deviation in the seventeenth-century French pronunciation of word “Croates” (French for “Croatian”).

To this day, International Necktie Day is celebrated in Croatia on October 18th.

The necktie brings me to “The Shirt-Collar” (1848), one of my favourite stories by Hans Christian Andersen.

There was once a fine gentleman who possessed among other things a boot-jack and a hair-brush; but he had also the finest shirt-collar in the world, and of this collar we are about to hear a story.

The story takes place after the shirt-collar decides he wants to get married. The chief obstacle that the shirt-collar faces in this endeavour is that he is not a gentleman at all, but a braggart. That, to me, is part of the seriousness of a well-tied necktie. A well-tied necktie shows people you know how to dress well, so that you don’t have to brag about it. A gentleman’s conduct speaks for him, so he has time to listen.

For my poetry class, I was going to write an ode to the necktie, while tying it into Writer’s Quote Wednesday, like I did last week, but I found that someone beat me to it. F.H. published “An Ode To The Necktie” in the Lawrence Journal on 22 August 1945. It was about this time, in the evolution of the necktie, that they started to take on lovely colours, as you can see in F.H.’s description. Still, due to the hot weather, F.H. isn’t happy with his necktie at all and is jealous of women.

Consequently, I’ve thought about the necktie’s reply.

necktiereply

Which brings me to a final point on what it means to be a gentleman: don’t complain. Certainly never try to argue that things are harder for you than they are for somebody else.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Fat Fierce Trust

muchness

I spent all night colouring that publicity photo from an 1898 production of Alice in Wonderland, anticipating that today is Writer’s Quote Wednesday. Clearly, the quote I’ve chosen belongs to Lewis Carroll a.k.a. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Popular culture cycles through a variety of feelings over Carroll as a prominent figure in children’s literature because the relationship he had with children isn’t acceptable today, but his stories were so good.

I chose the quote about muchness because it would take a great artist indeed to draw muchness and I want to challenge myself with the Writing 201 poetry class I’m in, which is a bit of a crap shoot, the way they surprise us with a new prompt, form, and device, every morning. I figured I could throw muchness at any prompt they gave me and incorporate it all into my love of Victorian language.

The prompt was trust; the result thus:

My tubbish trustfulness is endogamous

Un-substatiators underestimate its gameness

Close harmony is key to the corporealization of my queenliness

Humble in my aspirational suchness, passing out

New halos to

Embonpoint

Spunky punk

Spit-cats – affirming the pluckiness of my trustingness.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Carroll’s Hatter ever told Alice that she lost her muchness. I love the line in the film, but it puts new meaning on the word that isn’t part of the Victorian definition. The Victorian “muchness” referred to quantity, or size. In the Tim Burton movie, “muchness” seems to be synonymous with fire, or spunk. One of the points behind the dictionary project is to capture the significance between old and new meanings of words, helping writers make the most of language.

In my poem, my trust had to be fat and fierce to meet the muchness of Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. What do you think of the result? Which Victorian words do you want to hear more about?

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Boiled Socks

SocksEmily Gerard was a late-nineteenth century Scottish author, who married a Polish cavalry officer and moved to Transylvania to be with him. This move inspired her most notable work on Transylvanian folklore, which is believed to have greatly influenced Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Dracula.

My Writer’s Quote Wednesday features a proverb from Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest. As she explains, the proverb is rooted in folk magic.

‘Still more infallible [as a love-charm] is to procure a piece of stocking or shoelace of the person you desire to captivate, boil it in water, and wear this token night and day against your heart. This recipe has passed into a proverb, for it is here said of any man known to be desperately in love, that “she must have boiled his stockings,”’ Emily Gerard. The Land Beyond the Forest : Facts, Figures and Fancies from Transylvania (1888).

I’ve chosen the proverb, “she must have boiled his stockings,” as a means to explore the underrated romance of washing your lover’s socks.

Believe it, or not, the romance in washing your lover’s socks is not immediately obvious to everyone! Meet Diane and Ted, a couple portrayed as seeking marriage counselling in John Elderedge’s The Sacred Romance:

‘At this point Diane asked Ted about his deepest desires: “If I could be more of what you wanted in a woman, what do you secretly wish I could offer you?” It’s a question that most men are dying to be asked. His response? Clean Socks. That’s all he could come up with. Life would be better, his marriage would be richer, if Diane would keep his drawer filled with clean socks.’ John Elderedge, “The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God” (1997).

Neither Diane nor the therapist are happy with Ted’s answer. People should want more than clean socks; Ted should want “intimacy and adventure.” I concede that there isn’t much adventure in the romance of clean socks, but the intimacy is clear.

Actively caring for the person you love is an intimate act.

In an average day, how many people see your socks? Some people so seldom show their socks to anyone that they don’t bother to match them and don’t care if their socks are filled with holes. What about the smell? Who would let anyone get close enough to smell those?

Providing someone access to your dirty socks involves trust. Beyond sex, caring for someone is the desire to keep them well, to ensure their happiness. Socks are an intimate and necessary part of our lives, washing them and putting them away in our drawers is something we learn to do for ourselves. When we begin to do that for a significant other (regardless of gender), we become a team that looks out and cares for each other in the most basic way.

It may not, as Gerard’s proverb suggests, indicate that one is “desperately in love,” but it does indicate that one is trying to be a caring partner. Sometimes those little things are the most romantic things we can do for each other and no one likes waking up without clean socks.

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