26 April 2009


I did it again just yesterday: I used three little asterisks in a row, twice, in my essay. I use them copiously in my diary; unofficially, I'd say twice per typed page, though possibly more depending on the entry and what I'm trying to capture about my week. And the fiction I write is filled with them, a preferred alternative to something as pedestrian as chapter breaks.

At some point yesterday, as I typed them out, I wondered quietly to myself why I use them, and so consistently; and I wondered whether they really serve as I intend them, or if instead they're a kind of cop-out, a writer's crutch to help me navigate around an idea I cannot pin down.

Which leads to the question: what do I intend them to mean or be?

In a world of unanswerable questions, that one I can handle: I like my asterisks because they help define and delineate the continuum of my thinking. And my thinking definitely functions on a continuum. I think my argumentative, opinionated writing tends to navigate around my main point, punching in for direct connections, and then moving back out to pull together related but distinct ideas. Over the years, a few people have complained that my writing can be maddeningly oblique (as is often intended); the asterisks help with that (also as intended). They help me separate out the direct points I want to make from those that are less so, and should lead the reader around without completely breaking a train of thought. This is essential of meeting that larger goal of threading together different ideas across a spectrum of perspectives.

Admittedly, they do sometimes serve as a crutch—when an idea just won't quite come together, and something is needed to help both separate the disparate elements and tie them together, and I am running out of time (on my self-imposed deadline) and I want to wrap something up...

I suppose my final comfort factor is: no one taught me to punctuate my writing this way, I just developed it on my own. Which, as these things go, makes me feel more comfortable about doing it. I'm not mimicking anyone's style (though many other writers do much the same thing). It's just me being me. If you can’t handle that, you’ve come to the wrong website.


Lest I go for one whole posting without the asterisks, there they are, this time as a segue to four items about writing and language. The first is a brilliant poke, from McSweeney’s, at our contemporary culture (with a hat tip to Liz for pointing it out): "Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era." The second and third are good pieces from the New York Times (here and here) on the 50th anniversary of Strink and White’s The Elements of Style. The fourth is a piece on Orwell from the New York Review of Books a few weeks back, and in particular the section on Orwell’s great work Why I Write. Whether you like writing, find writing frustrating or challenging, teach writing, or are mystified by how people who (seemingly) cannot write get by in the world, these are all for you.

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18 January 2009

DC, Then & Now

In his column in today’s New York Times, Frank Rich looks back to his childhood in Washington, DC, and even mentions his attendance at Woodrow Wilson High School, which was also my high school. But Rich describes an environment that was the opposite (and precursor) to the one I knew: in my time—after desegregation, and in the era of Marion Berry—white (to say nothing of Jewish) kids were the minority population at Wilson.

I cannot speak to what Wilson is like these days; I’m too far removed. I can say that the new schools chancellor in Washington, Michelle Rhee, would certainly have been welcome when I was growing up. While Wilson was generally well-run (under the firm hand of then-principal Michael Durso), the impact of the mess within the broader school system was evident. One year, our English teacher missed about a quarter of the school year—but no amount of action by motivated parents (some of whom were lawyers) could dislodge her from her post, in the face of the intransigent teachers union. So the teacher kept her job, and we the the students suffered. In my senior year of high school, our island of (relative) calm was shattered by the first shooting of its kind to come across the transom. That seemed to me the beginning of the end.

The DC that Frank Rich grew up in has changed, but many things remain. Rich describes a place that is now and was then very segregated, such that growing up in the northwest part of Washington was and is like living in a different place altogether.

Obama’s election and soon-to-be inauguration is stunning, nearly as thrilling for me imagine as it is for Rich. Whether Obama’s arrival in the White House can change the nature of the capital city is an interesting question indeed. Entrenched DC politics, and out-of-date mindsets, may prove harder to conquer than the current financial crisis, but one can hope.

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