I finally finished reading Don Watson's Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language last night. It's a bit of a rant, really, and I often felt the need for an endnote or attribution of the quoted source, (although he does provide a bibliography) but on the whole it made for an interesting read.
Watson bemoans the declining quality of language in the public sphere, and puts it down to the infiltration of "managerial speak" into fields such as academia and political life. He gives some fabulously horrific examples, like this one, from the Victorian Government:
Puffing Billy is strategically important as it is one of the region's most significant drawcards. The railway has a very high visitor recognition, and is one of the "key attractors" that drives visitation to the region...
There are many other examples of mangled, overly complicated sentences in the same vein. Some of them are quite ridiculous, you almost start to think deliberately so, like this Pythonesque one from Donald Rumsfeld:
As we know, there are no known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.
This is one of the quotes that I really wished attributed the source, as I find it hard to believe it wasn't written with at least a degree of awareness at its own ridiculousness. But perhaps I am naive.
Watson also ponders on why it is that Australia has not, as yet, produced any great orators, or any truly stirring speeches in the way that England and the United States have. He believes that Australia seems to have a "...stubborn refusal to be articulate", saying that, historically, it has not been "in our breeding to be eloquent. Perhaps there was too much inner chaos; caught as we were between wanting to be like both the civilised English and the self-assured Americans." Further in Watson suggests that this lack in our public language has come about because "Australia was born in compromise and with a pronounced leaning to the practical and the laconic." I think he's probably right. That and not wanting to keep our mouths open for too long for fear of letting in flies.
He has some interesting things to say about writing in general:
We will not write as well as we can, however, if we make a meal of our deficiencies We must not be intimidated, but find some agreeable place between awareness of our limitations and submission to them. It helps to know that experience has persuaded many average to good writers that while it is never possible to rise to the level of literary genius if you're not one, you can always improve.
He also includes some quotes from others, like this, from Dr Johnson which is obvious when you read it, but constantly forgotten: :
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
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Ah, interesting. I've just been listening to this interview with Don Watson on the ABC and he mentions the Donald Rumsfeld quote. He seems to think it might be self-parody too, as his speeches are often delivered with a small smile on his face.
Kathryn sent me this link yesterday which adds to the debate on whether blogs help with writing longer pieces or not. Well, it's actually about whether keeping a writer's journal helps with longer pieces, but there are similar concerns with blogs.
The author of the piece, Caro Clarke, most fervently believes that journals do not help in the long run and that all you end up with is a lot of unstructured, purposeless material and context-less one-liners that are almost impossible to incorporate into more formal pieces.
I'm not sure that I entirely agree, and I remember a teacher once telling me to put all the bits and pieces of writing that you produce that don't seem to have any story to belong to, whack them in a shoebox and leave them under your bed for a while. Then take them out, spread them on the floor, and re-examine them. I've done this on a number of occasions, and I think that good things can come from it, and I think that journals can perform the same function.
The other thing that Clarke overlooks is the habit-forming quality of keeping a journal. Perhaps nothing will come from the things you put in it, but it gets you used to writing and observing. Keeping a visual journal is much the same- most of the things you record in it will never be worked up into larger pieces, but it's good practice, and it gives you a place to experiment with form without the pressure for it to turn into something big and resolved.
I also think small things can burble away in the pages of a notebook that you may find at some time in the future and decide to use. When I've asked people where their ideas for animation have come from they will often say "It started with this little character I drew in a notebook years ago and I always wanted to do something with it."
Obviously, the main thing about journals, which Clarke overlooks, is that they might not work for her but they may work for someone else. And if it starts someone off thinking about writing, does it really matter if ultimately they will never use any of the material collected in their journal to form a longer piece?
She offers other advice and I have just read this with no small degree of discomfort, realising that I'm guilty of most of these things.
I must say that it didn't even cross my mind that Lost in Translation was racist. And since I've heard that it had been suggested, I've been denying it veheremently. But this puts forward an interesting case.
I'll have to think about it more.
"Lost in Translation" relies wholly on the "otherness" of the Japanese to give meaning to its protagonists, shape to its plot, and color to its scenery. The inaccessibility of Japan functions as an extension of the alienation and loneliness Bob and Charlotte feel in their personal lives, thus laying the perfect conditions for romance to germinate: they're the only ones who understand each other. Take away the cartooniness of the Japanese and the humor falls flat, the main characters' intense yearning is neutralized and the plot evaporates.
Yes, but perhaps this is more about the weirdness of travel? That they could be travelling in Scandinavia and the locals could seem just as odd and cartoony? Aren't all new places at least a little inaccessible to start with? dunno.
For reasons I won't go into here I've been researching night shirts. Looking into night shirts, if you will.
This picture disturbs me. At first I thought they were famous peoples' faces, superimposed onto old people's bodies. And then I became distracted as I wondered what the man in the green nightshirt is doing to the man on the zimmerframe. It looks like he's stabbing him in the back...
I seem to have developed a habit of reading a story each week on the The New Yorker website, although whenever I do I feel a little guilty about not just buying the magazine. One year when I was growing up we had a subscription to the New Yorker and I used to love reading over the "What's On" listings, and imagining going to all those galleries. We even used to like the ads, which were always for things like solid silver broccoli tie pins, honeyed hams and angora socks. A friend of ours regularly has illustrations published in the New Yorker. When he first told me this I couldn't imagine anything more wonderful happening.
Anyway, despite all this, I rarely buy the magazine, and just read the stories each week online. I particularly like this week's story by George Saunders. Great dialogue, I thought.
I was searching yesterday for some good examples of educational, interactive websites and came across Becoming Human (Flash and a high speed connection required.)
It is an online documentary about the origins of humans which intersperses audio-visual material with charts and additional information. You can stop the main documentary to be diverted off to find out more about some of the topics discussed in the main narrative. It also has printable pdf lesson plans.
It ran beautifully on my computer, but I daresay that this is probably not the case for slower machines, the problem with this being that most schools tend to have outdated and painfully slow equipment. It's beautifully done, however.
I had lunch with a friend yesterday and I asked him the question that's been bothering me recently. How do you know when to abandon a story rather than keep persevering. He wasn't really sure. We both agreed that often the first 700 words of a story are easy to write- it flow naturally and is almost enjoyable to do. But after this point it often becomes a lot more difficult, and as my friend said "I often write one more terrible paragraph and then close down the file."
I went home and pushed on through a story I've been struggling with that I'd like to put in for the Women's Weekly short story competiton (due Feb 1). It's not a good story, even the first 700 words, but I was determined to reach some kind of conclusion.
Is there any hope for it? I'm not sure. The little experience I've had with these things tells me that the best thing to do is put it aside for a little while and then reread it. For some reason iI find that t's impossible to tell if there's anything salvagable in a story until some time has elapsed. Perhaps this is something that also comes with experience.
La Spin and I went to see Lost in Translation on Saturday after a productive animation session. I really, really liked this film. I liked the last Sophia Coppola film I saw (The Virgin Suicides) but I think I liked this one even more. Such a subtle, intelligent script, great performances and a soundtrack that didn't tell you how you were expected to feel.
The site is not bad either (Flash) although I would have liked to read more in the Behind the Scenes section.
Vlado is running an Australian Blog Awards with state by state nominations for favourite blogs as well as most humourous and a best designed categories. I don't really like competitons, as I have an unnerving tendency to lose and then up in a bad mood for a considerable amount of time, and I don't think I'll vote because I don't think I can choose my favourites. Still, it's been a good way to see some new material.
I wonder who will win in the Northern Territory category?