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I’ve ceded– I’ve stopped being theirs.

By which I mean that I’ve moved. Again; semi-permanently. I’ll be messing about with things over there, so it should be entertaining/dismaying/ugly/erratic.

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Since I Left You

So I have sort of abandoned ship here. Sorry about that – here, have a delicious music video to salve your pain for a bit.

In related good news, I am currently employed at a job I like very much, in which I am learning lots about a number of things very quickly. Hurrah!

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This is what people tend to ask when they discover that I’ve attended graduate school in English. In response, I tend to hem and haw awkwardly before answering. I don’t do “creative writing” as they are probably thinking about it; I do not write fiction (at least, not intentionally), and I no longer write poetry (at least, not intentionally). Neither do I write much in the way of the genre somewhat confusingly called “creative nonfiction.” I do—in my scholarly work, in my personal practice, and hopefully eventually in my professional life—write. But I don’t think of myself, primarily, as a writer. I think of myself as a researcher and a problem-solver.

And this is where my hesitation comes in when I’m trying to answer that dang question. Real research, real problem-solving, really good scholarly or professional writing is creative, and its process can resemble the confusing, difficult, twisty-turny process of “creative” work.

Constraints and questions inform the beginning of any written work, but the best writers and researchers are those who can follow the insights they discover in their reading and preliminary writing. The most honest, trustworthy writers are those who can follow their research and its small (and large) epiphanies down dark alleyways and confusing trains of thought, trusting that the result, while less tidy or simple than intended, will be bigger, better, and more effective than they can even conceive of yet. If the process is done right—if the writer or the researcher is fully committed to their work—the results will be deeply creative.

What has me thinking of this now is a book I’m attempting to re-read, with some frustration. It seems to have creativity-as-fundamental-committment-to-researched-truth confused with creativity-as-making-your-research-say-what-you-wanted-it-to. More on that tomorrow. (Yes, tomorrow–not in three months, I promise.)

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For the past few weeks, my life was mostly on hold. No, I wasn’t working nonstop on the campaign, although I made a few calls and knocked on a few doors. No, I wasn’t ill or incapacitated. I was waiting for Tuesday, for the decision that became clear at about 9 pm PST. (more…)

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Or so it would seem, based on Maureen Dowd’s article in Latin right after my post the other day about my old Latin professor, Dr. Madsen.

And hey, if I’m that tied in with it and all, maybe I almost have a Nobel…or maybe I should read something else until these people stop figuring quite so prominently in my dreams.

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Every day between nine and ten am my first semester of college, Dr. Madsen found time to instruct us to pick up our pencils, move to the top of the pages we were writing on, and write in all capital letters: WORDS HAVE MEANING. At the time, it seemed like a frustrated, obvious reminder to write comprehensibly and use the dictionary.

In graduate school, I realized that it wasn’t a simple reminder, but the expression of a theoretical viewpoint. This was his rebellion against Derridean uncertainty, his way of shoring up language against the onslaught of Freshman carelessness, and his plea for stability. If words have meaning, inherently, it matters how we use them; they are, however loosely, tied to truth. If words don’t have meaning, but rather make it or twist it or empty it, they have no relationship to truth. They can’t be trusted, can’t be used as the foundation for anything. They can still be used, but much less reliably. If words have meaning, language is a revolver: you cock it, aim carefully, and fire precisely. If words don’t have inherent meaning, language is a fully automatic rifle: a vague, deadly, scattershot sort of thing.

Lately, the New York Times‘ Opinion page has resembled Dr. Madsen’s emphatic plea for inherent meaning. Several of the Times‘s standard columnists have written articles in which language and its relationship to truth receive a rare kind of attention. Most of these have been in the “Most Emailed” lists lately, which I treat as a snapshot of the current anxieties and hopes of Times readers.

In this time of meaningless babble, crashing stocks, and terrifying uncertainty, this strikes me as a strangely natural response: those of us who are lettered, who are educated, who were taught that words matter, cling to words. We pick up our pencils, our computers, our pens and our voices, and we write, in all capital letters, WORDS HAVE MEANING. WORDS HAVE MEANING. WORDS MATTER. WORDS HAVE MEANING AND THAT MATTERS.

Because if they don’t, we simply don’t know what to do about it. If they don’t, we are impotent. If they don’t, we have to completely rethink how we use them.

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Each semester, while I was teaching, I found I had to spend some time within the first few classes on the problem of Engfish. The first assignments always came back in a sort of half-language carefully constructed to reveal nothing, commit to nothing, and generally avoid saying anything dangerous or objectionable.

Reading Maureen Dowd’s piece in the NYT today (sidenote: sometimes Dowd makes me nuts with her cleverness, sometime I wish I had written it myself), I realized that Engfish is exactly what we’ve been getting from Sarah Palin. No wonder that temptation to bang my head on the table felt familiar–I recognize it from the frustration of reading students’ first attempts at college-level academic writing.

And it makes me wish I could tell Palin the same thing I told them: You aren’t saying anything, and I strongly suspect it’s because you don’t care that much about the topic country/political situation. Caring about getting a good grade elected isn’t going to be enough to propel your writing speaking from “sounding academic political” to actually saying something. No, you’re going to have to figure out–and I’m not promising this will be quick or easy–what the hell you have to add to the conversation about this text the world. What are you passionate about? What are you committed to? What authority does that give you? Then you can get down to what you have to say, and you might be worth listening to.

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