Tao of Writing, Part II: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

I ended my last blog entry talking about Bruce Lee and finding one’s way as a writer. I would like to expand on that theme in this one. In that entry, I wrote a lot about what writing advice is not. In this one, I would like to examine what it is.

Consider, if you will, the following scene from Lee’s most famous movie, Enter The Dragon.

At the end of the scene, Lee says, “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

This quote, in my opinion, is the single greatest statement I’ve heard about teaching and learning. I’ve written about this quote on numerous occasions, including in papers for graduate school and for my second black belt essay, and used this quote in lessons I’ve given to students ranging from young martial artists to graduate students in English education. Every time I ask my students to interpret the quote, I receive similar responses. Most people talk about missing the forest for the trees. They focus on the phrase “don’t concentrate on the finger,” interpreting the “finger” as the minutia and the “heavenly glory” as the bigger picture. This, I believe is gross misreading of the quote, as a close reading of the line will reveal.

Let’s break down the sentence: “It,” Lee says, “is like a finger.” That simile is the core of the sentence. We will return to the “it” momentarily, but whatever “it” is, is like a finger. Later on, Lee says, “don’t concentrate on the finger,” which, I is section that trips people up.

Is the finger a ruse? Is it a trick to misdirect the student, to get him to look? Does its seeming significance in the sentence only set up a straw man, which the teacher will later undermine? I do not believe so. While it is true that Bruce Lee encouraged his students to break free from classical structures and seek their own truths, he still believed in the necessity of teaching and of the teacher. Why else would he work as a kung fu instructor? Why would he continue to teach even after he became a celebrity actor who was financially secure? Clearly, he saw some great value in the pedagogical process.

Moreover, the text itself undermines the notion that the finger is a misdirection. Let us return to the “it”, the pronoun that is subject of the sentence. What is the antecedent of “it”? While it is grammatically vague, the scene’s context necessitates that the “it” refers to the feeling the student felt at the moment Lee was satisfied with his technique. The student does achieve that plane without Lee’s guidance. He does not know that he had achieved it without Lee telling him what he’s achieved, and, perhaps most importantly, he does not understand the takeaway which Lee intends him to internalize until Lee, the teacher, explains it to him. In a broader sense, “it” is the lesson and/or the teacher—or even the pedagogical process of teaching and learning—which is the true antecedent of “it”.

The “it”, however, is not important in and of itself. The teacher merely points the finger. If the student had truly learned, if he is unable to apply the lesson in situations when he finds himself without his teacher there to guide him, he will not have gained anything. If he concentrates solely on the finger, he will, indeed, miss “all that heavenly glory.”

The finger, therefore, is both essential and not to be focused on. This seeming contradiction can be resolved by examining the most often overlooked phrase in the quote: “a way”. The finger does not merely point at the moon, rather it points “a way” to the moon, a path by which one can get there, a Tao, in the sense that my last post discussed. Through the lesson, the teacher shows the student how to follow “a way.” That is the function of the finger, the teacher, and the lesson. Without the finger, the student would not know where to look. Without the teacher, the student would be groping, blindly, on his own. The teacher cannot walk the path for the student, but the student is more likely to be successful with the guidance of the teacher.

This quote also encapsulates my theory about writing advice and writing models. When we concentrate on the “finger”, when we try to emulate exactly what a famous writer or writing teacher recommends, we set ourselves up for failure. I’ve seen many writers fail because they focus too much on the specific piece of advice rather than the path—or way—that it points toward. You are not Hemmingway, or Mamet, or Morrison, or Gaiman. Your path with differ from theirs. You must find your own Tao. Only then, will you be successful. You can make that search easier, however, by looking beyond the “finger”, looking beyond the narrow piece of advice—even if it’s stated as an absolute by your chosen teacher—and try to seek the larger idea to which it points. Only then, will you achieve your “heavenly glory.”

One of my favorite examples of looking where the finger is pointing is from the introduction to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Rushdie writes of his debt to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens:

I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India, and also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens – Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyperrealistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seem to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.
 – Salman Rushdie

[From the Introduction to Midnight’s Children
Rushdie, Salman. Introduction. Midnight’s Children. By Rushdie. New York: Random House, 2006. eBook.
]

Rushdie’s writing does not resemble these authors in style or structure, but he saw certain things in their writing—Dickens’ description of a city and ability to incorporate surrealist imagery in a realist setting, and Austen’s portrayal of women caged by society—which were instructive to him in his own writing. He used their writing—their lessons—as fingers, pointing a way at something significant. He used their examples to find his own path toward success. I hope that you and I am can free our minds from the literal, narrow view of following writing advice and find out own Tao’s of writing. And, if the way that I—or any other writer—point toward is not your way, that is ok. Remember that the finger points “a way”, not necessarily “the way” to the moon. There are many paths to glory.

The Tao of Writing

The Tao of Writing: Seeking Your Path

If this blog is successful, you will blatantly disregard most of the advice I will provide in this space. No, this is not a sophomoric attempt at reverse psychology, nor is it a sad attempt to hook you, the reader, with a provocative statement. This is actually my sincere hope for you as a writer. So why read the rest of this post, (never mind future ones)? Read on, to find out.

There is a ton of writing advice out there. Most of it sounds roughly the same. If one reads it, as your humble author certainly has, one may think there was only one way to write successfully. This could not be further from the truth. Groupthink, by its nature is reductive. “Kill all your darlings” may have been bold and provocative when Faulkner said it. Now, it has become cliché. Moreover, If you write just like everyone else, your writing will read like everyone else’s.

There are as many different ways to write successfully as there are successful writers. Each writer must find her or his own path to success. Process is deeply personal, and what works for one writer probably won’t work for another.

Of course, there are certain basics one must master to become a successful writer. There are elements of the toolbox which every author must have, such as a working knowledge of grammar and usage and a basic understanding of literary elements such as story structure, characterization, setting, etc, but beyond these foundational skills, writing is an art, not a science.

It is my goal to model my path for you, to show you what allows me to be successful as a writer, as well as the things with which I struggle. I will, of course share specific advice that has worked for me (and credit the source when applicable). Hopefully, some of my tips will help you as well. I will break down passages from authors I admire to pull back the curtain and show the machinery that makes their writing work. I will draw connections with other aspects of my life from which I learned lessons I eventually applied to my writing. Perhaps these anecdotes will expand the way you think about writing. As you might imagine from this post so far, I will challenge the conventional wisdom about writing and the writing process. In will also endeavor to use my experiences as a teacher of reading and writing—and my history of working with a variety of young writer whose talent and dedication has varied wildly—to present my advice as clearly and cogently as possible.

Now, the techniques that work for me may not work for you. The authors I read and admire may not be your favorites. My outside interests from which I derive much of my beliefs about writing may not be your own. That’s ok. Hopefully the way I analyze language and experience, the way I make connections with other areas of my life, and the way I read the authors I love, will help you make similar connections, find strategies that work for you, and analyze the writers whom you most admire. If I blog about something specific that works for you, that’s wonderful. Please make take it as your own. If not, hopefully my process, my journey, can help you find your own.

My hope for you, dear reader, is not to provide a template, but help guide you on your search for your “way” of writing. In his essays about his journey, the great martial artist and philosopher, Bruce Lee, said, “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is useless. Add what is uniquely your own.” That is great advice, not just for writing, but for life in general. It is my goal to help you through that process as you seek and find your own path, your own Tao as a writer.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Rules, What Rules: Avoid Alliteration, Always?

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

Eliminating Adverbs

The Rule: Avoid Alliteration, Always

The pithy way this rule is usually stated is derived from a 1986 Writers Digest article by Frank L. Visco which took the form of a list of “rules” the author had “learnt” (sic) over the course of his writing career. The article, which has been quoted in numerous places, has been circulated widely, especially in recent years, through meme culture and social media. The statement in question leads off the set of rules, in which the statement of each rule violates the very principle it purports to teach.

While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the rules it professes are, by and large, considered “good” advice by the writing community.

Alliteration, especially when done excessively, is supposed to be distracting. It supposedly takes the reader out of the story and makes them focus on the delivery rather than the content.

And yet…

There is a long tradition of using alliteration in English language literature. In fact, alliteration has been there right from the beginning. Anglo-Saxon epics, such as Beowulf, which is considered by many to be the first foundational text of English literature, is built around an alliterative structure. Seamus Heaney’s landmark verse translation keeps this structure, and his translator’s introduction explains his methods, the anonymous poet’s techniques, and the traditions upon which they both draw better than I ever could.

Shakespeare used alliteration (Love’s Labour Lost, for example), but I’d like to begin our discussion in earnest with a poet from the next generation, Alexander Pope whose poem Sound and Sense is both a poem and an instruction manual for writing poetry. Throughout the sonnet, Pope uses the techniques he wants his reader to learn, most of which have to do with the sound the language make, including alliteration, but also rhythm, meter, assonance, and consonance. These devices are categorized as “sound and sense” devices to this day. In the couplet that gives the poem its title, Pope writes:

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:

This couplet states the poem’s argument, which is that the poet–or any writer for that matter–should use their devices in harmony with, or to accentuate the content and/or message, of the piece. Throughout the piece, Pope uses the devices he intends to teach, but does not name them explicitly.

Pope employs alliteration throughout the poem, including in the above-quoted couplet. The leading “S” sound is repeated 3 times in the stanza’s second line, and five times in the next couplet:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;

The alliterative sound is not necessarily in consecutive words, which is actually the correct way to write alliteration. As least where poetry is concerned, alliteration is not, as it’s commonly defined the repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word, it’s actually the repetition of that sound on the stressed syllable.

One of my favorite examples comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

The repeated S sound occurs at the beginning of “silken” and “sad,” but in the middle of “uncertain” and “rustling.” But read the line out loud. Notice how the S sound falls on the stressed syllable, whether it comes at the beginning of the word or not:

AND the SILken, SAD, unCERtain RUStling

If you transpose “silken” and “sad”, the alliteration won’t read as well, first, because of the meter, and secondly, because the alliteration won’t sound as natural.

The reason Poe’s line works so well is that the sound does, indeed, echo the sense. Not only is there an onomatopoeia in the “s” sound, which mimics the curtains rustling in the wind, but the hypnotic use of alliteration combines with the trochaic meter–the opposite of iambic, which is the most common English language meter–highlights the dream-like quality of the encounter (“while I nodded nearly napping”; the nightmarish Raven perched atop the bust of Athena, a symbol of rationality)–to “shush” the reader to that dream state with the repeated, soporific “s” sound.

When I wrote my poem, The Widow’s Walk which was recently published, fittingly, in Love Letters to Poe, I attempted to emulate Poe’s alliterative style. The opening line of the poem reads:

She wends her way around her walk
And round and round she goes.

Scanning the opening line, we get:

she WENDS her WAY aROUND her WALK

The alliterative “w” sound is used on the stressed syllable (although I use iambic rather than trochaic meter in this poem.)

Some might say that alliteration is an antiquated device found mostly in older poems (and poems like mine which pay homage to them), but modern poets use alliteration prominently as well.

In her poem, Fugue, from her new book, Call Us What We Carry, superstar inaugural poet Amanda Gorman writes:

excerpt from “Fugue” by Amanda Gorman

The first line of the excerpt employs alliteration in the same manner as Poe. The D sound is repeated on the stressed syllable. Later in the excerpt, Gorman uses alliteration in a similar manner to an anglo-saxon poet, as she moves the “f” sound around to different places in her lines.

Later in the collection, Gorman highlights alliteration as an essential literary technique, one which defines the poet, and speaks to the power of poetry. In her poem “Memorial”, Gorman writes:

But why alliteration?
Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables?
It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.

Thus, arguably the biggest contemporary superstar in poetry (is that even arguable at this point?) uses alliteration in her poetry.

Gorman, Poe, Pope, and the Beowulf poet refuse to avoid alliteration; the rest of us should follow their example.

***

Alliteration works in non-poetic writing as well. One of my favorite examples of alliteration in prose writing comes from Charles Dickens’ description of the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities:

Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke — in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier — Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.

Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils — which you prefer — work!”Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long grown hot.

In the first line of each of the two excerpted paragraphs, Dickens uses similar phrases which feature alliteration. In each example, Dickens’ uses the repeated hard “d” sound to represent the thud of the cannons against the walls of The Bastille. Like Poe’s, Dickens’ alliteration is also onomatopoeia, and, therefore, as Pope advises, even in prose, the sound echoes the sense. Moreover, the missing “d” in the second paragraph highlights the fact that one of the two drawbridges has been taken out by the rebels’ cannons. The missing “d” sound highlights the missing drawbridge.

Another more modern example is found in the film V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue. In one of the most popular scenes from the film, V, played by Hugo Weaving, gives a speech in which nearly every word begins with the letter “v,” in tribute to the Alan Moore’s comic which inspired the movie, in which each chapter title is a “v” word (in fact, many of the “v” words used in the speech are taken directly from those chapter titles).

V for Vendetta “V” speech

When I watched the movie in the theater, this speech drew appreciative applause from the audience, who seemed thrilled by the alliteration as the speech built to a crescendo–take that, Frank L. Visco!

Of course V for Vendetta followed a long tradition of comic book alliteration. The great Stan Lee loved alliteration, especially when naming characters: Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Read Richards, Matt Murdock, The Fantastic Four, the list goes on.

I could go on as well, but I think I’ve made my point.

Analysis

So, why is alliteration looked down upon? It seems that it’s because people misinterpreted a joke. Visco, who ironically uses alliteration to criticize its use, was clearly writing tongue-in-cheek. One could even say that the fact he opens with the alliteration “rule” shows he recognizes its power. Meme culture has contributed to the proliferation of Visco’s rules, and, as with so many other things, its has stripped the the original article of its context.

While it is true that alliteration can take a reader out of the story or be distracting if its used poorly, the same could be said for any literary technique. A bad simile or metaphor will take the reader out of the writing just as quickly; poor rhythm in poetry will do the same. Any device can be overused, and the writer must strive use them all judiciously. That is true about alliteration, but it is not unique to alliteration.

The fact is that proper alliteration makes writing memorable, which is why it often used in marketing. It is a signature device of writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, to Stan Lee, Charles Dickens, to Amanda Gorman.

Avoid it at your peril.


Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Rules, What Rules: Eliminating Adverbs

Salman Rushdie signing a book

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

The Rule: Eliminate All Adverbs

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions—Stephen King

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to eliminate all—or at least most—of the adverbs from your writing. Adverbs, especially those common ones that end in “ly”—and especially when they are used to modify dialogue tags are considered lazy writing. Better writing would describe the action conveyed by the verb interestingly and correctly (get it) rather than using a vague modifier as crutch to “tell” rather than “show” the reader the way in which the action occurs, or the dialogue is said.

Adverbs, and to a lesser extent adjectives, have been railed against (famously) by such writers as Stephen King (See the quote that kicks off this section), Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway, and virtually every writing class, blog, website and workshop.

Case Study: Salman Rushdie

By any measure, Salman Rushdie is one of the most decorated writers of contemporary literature. His lists of awards, which includes the Booker, two Whitbread prizes, and a plethora of others takes up a good 6 inches on his official about the author page. He has been knighted by the queen of England, is a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature, and was the subject of a prominent subplot on a (really) famous Seinfeld episode (let’s just say the episode is real and it’s spectacular). He is famous for writing magical realism, blending Eastern and Western literary traditions, and remains one of the most popular serious literary writers among the general public.

And yet…

In Midnight’s Children, arguably his most famous and decorated novel, he uses adverbs liberally. For example, in the opening paragraph of the chapter Alpha and Omega (which is one of my favorite passages in the novel), he uses multiple “ly” adverbs.

Alpha and Omega page

Later on in the same chapter, he uses more “ly” adverbs, this time (gasp!) to describe a character’s actions (first line of final paragraph.

Alpha and Omega page

When I reread these passages for this blog, I wondered if Rushdie’s use of adverbs was specific to Midnight’s Children, or if it was typical of his style, so I pulled The Satanic Verses off my shelf and took a look. I flipped through the book randomly (had enough yet?) and quickly (ok, I’ll stop now) came across this passage.

As you can see, Rushdie uses “ly” adverbs to modify here as well, this time to modify dialogue.

How could this be?

Analysis

Midnight’s Children is one of the most decorated books in recent literary history. Not only did it win a Booker, it was voted The Best of Booker—the best book among the winners in the 40 year history of the award. Clearly, Rushdie’s use of adjectives has not kept the novel from literary acclaim. So, why does Rushdie’s use of adverbs work here, when according to every piece of advice an aspiring writer is likely to receive, adverbs are bad?

Reread that first paragraph of Alpha and Omega again. Read it out loud. Listen to the rhythm. It is a beautiful paragraph, it has pace; it flows. Has Rushdie rewritten the paragraph to replace the modifiers with more descriptive language, the rhythm would not have worked as well (unless he came up with one word descriptions with the same metrical properties (syllables and stresses), he would have sacrificed the flow for the sake of so-called “better description.” Rushdie is one of the most lyrical and readable literary writers, and this paragraphs—complete with the its two prominent adverbs—is a perfect example.

Moreover, the sound in this case is, indeed, an echo to the sense. The paragraph describes uncertainty on the part of the narrator, and the ambiguity of “oddly” and “badly“ as opposed to a more specific, concrete description fits the content as well.

Additionally, the point of view is key. Rushdie, here, writes from a first-person narrative perspective. Think of the way people you know speak. They probably do not use innovative and unexpected descriptions as a regular feature of their speech. They probably do use adverbs, and one that end in “ly” at that. Thus, the narrator’s use of vague modifiers makes characterization more realistic.

All right, you say, but what about the other examples, the ones where Rushdie uses adverbs to modify his dialogue tags?

The simple answer would be to refer you back to the first blog in this series, in which I stated my belief that any style of dialogue tags—from the traditional invisible “said” tags, to the contemporary literary counter-cultural convention of not using quotation marks, to using adverbs to modify dialogue tags, becomes invisible over the course of a novel if used consistently. I would, however, be remiss is I didn’t mention Matthew Salesses, who in his book Craft in the Real World discusses how Rushdie is influenced by different, non-western literary traditions than certain other well-respected writers. I do not know enough about the eastern tradition to say for certain, but this stylistic convention may come from that source as well.

Speaking of literary traditions, Rushdie mentions Dickens and Austen as two of his major western influences. Dickens and Austen are considered, perhaps, the two greatest novelists in the history of English literature, but their writings are often used as examples of old (read outmoded) style. Modern writers tend toward a sparser, Hemingway-esque style. King’s book on writing is very (sorry, couldn’t resist) influential as well, especially among authors who aspire to write popular fiction. While there are certainly writers like Rushdie who go against the grain, their voices are often lost beneath the groupthink that Salesses derides in his book about writing instruction.

Personally, I prefer Rushdie and Dickens to King and Twain. I like a more verbose narrator, one with a real personality. You may not, and that’s a perfectly legitimate opinion. That is a matter of opinion, however, just as most of the so-called writing rules are really matters of style and trends rather than evaluations of quality.

One additional note: Even if you buy into the idea that adverbs are bad writing and that they should be replaced by better description, just replacing the adverbs does not solve the problem. When researching this blog, I did a google search for eliminating adverbs. In one of the first blogs that comes up on google, the writer suggests replacing “flirtatiously” with “she batted her eyelashes. If one is going to use cliched descriptions instead of adverbs, one weakens one’s writing by making it cumbersome and verbose. Any lengthy description can slow down pace and rhythm, an empty cliche even more so. I would focus on writing a few exciting and original descriptions and using them judiciously, at important points in the text.


Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Rules, What Rules: Dialogue Tags

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

The Rule: Invisible Dialogue Tags

One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to try to make your dialogue tags invisible. Write “said” rather than a more descriptive tag such as “exclaimed,” “lamented,” “cried,” etc. Theoretically, the word “said” is invisible; the reader does not notice it because it is so common. Moreover, the content of the dialogue should be sufficient, along with your descriptions of your characters’ actions and facial expressions, to “show” the emotion inherent in the statement. You should not have to “tell” the reader how your character feels.

Case Study: Timothy Zahn

By any measure, Timothy Zahn is a successful science fiction author. His Stars Wars novels created the Extended Universe, and his most famous character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is one of the few characters to survive Disney’s recent retcon. Zahn also won the Hugo award, the most prestigious award in the science fiction field, long before he started writing his Star Wars books. On a personal note, I have read and enjoyed Zahn’s books since high school. I have probably read more pages by him than any author except for Terry Pratchett.

And yet…

Zahn has achieved this success despite not following the convention of invisible dialogue tags. As you will see from the examples below, he uses descriptive tags regularly, and even—and this so-called rule will be the subject of the next post in this series—the dreaded adverb.

Here is a page from early in his latest book, Greater Good, which is part of the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy. The relevant dialogue tags are highlighted.

Page from thrawn Ascendency, by Timothy Zahn

The dialogue on this page includes “growled” (twice), “countered” and “said stiffly.” Although it does include a few traditional “said” tags as well. It would seem that Zahn does not always use “said,” and he certainly does not use the extent recommended by the “writing experts.”

Perhaps, you may be thinking, that as a best-selling, famous author, Zahn can get away with things that you or I can’t. I thought that might be the case as well, so I took a look at some of his earlier works. As it turns out, the dialogue tags on the above page are fairly typical of his writing.

Consider this page from Heir to the Empire, Zahn’s first Star Wars book:

page from Heir To The Empire, by Timothy Zahn

If anything, the dialogue tags are more varied. Zahn uses “asked,” “reminded him,” “insisted,” “snorted,” and “agreed.”

You can see the same style in the following page, from Zahn’s 1984 novel Spinneret, which features tags like “frowned,” “groweled” (again), “interrupted suddenly,” and “agreed.”

Page from Spinneret

Clearly, Zahn has been using varied dialogue tags throughout his career, and clearly it has not affected his ability to get published or his book sales.

Analysis

Why is Zahn able to write successfully despite flouting the conventions of dialogue tags? I think the answer is pretty simple: He writes great characters and great stories. The fact that he created a lasting, memorable character like Thrawn is way more important to his success than whether or not he follows some minor craft convention, such as sing invisible dialogue tags.

As a community, I think we have become too obsessed with the minutiae of craft, fueled by the cottage industry of writing advice. It is much easier to critique someone’s dialogue tags after a superficial read than to get into the weeds and examine why the storytelling and characterization work or don’t work. I also believe that as a community, we discuss craft on a sentence and technique level to a far greater extent than we discuss basic storytelling and characterization. Like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I blame the modernists, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

To this point, I never noticed that Zahn broke convention when I read him in high school. I only began to notice it when I became a “writer” and began to be inundated with advice proclaiming conventional writing rules. It is important to realize that the majority of readers are not writers and do not read with an eye for such things.

Moreover, in doing this analysis, I realized that I tend to notice these breaks in conventions early on in a novel. The first example I chose was page 11 of a 400+ page book. This caused me to think of other unconventional dialogue techniques, such as the decision of certain “literary” writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz not to use quotation marks. Like Zhan’s descriptive dialogue tags, the unconventional use of dialogue trips me up toward the beginning of the novel, but I tend not to notice it as the work goes on.

It is my contentions that, with consistent usage, most styles of writing dialogue become invisible over the course of a longer work.


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On the Useful and the Useless

I’ve often written in this space about the influence that Bruce Lee has had on me, both in my life, and on the way I approach writing. As I think about the reality of the world in which we have lived for the past year, a Bruce Lee quote is, once again, at the forefront of my mind:” Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” I’ve written about this quote in the past, but recently I’ve been considering it in a new light.

Bruce Lee, famously, discarded much of the classical teaching he had learned about martial arts when he invented his system, Jeet Kune Do. He took concepts and techniques he found to be successful in other styles and synthesized them with his own martial knowledge to create a new system that he felt was superior to any of those from which he drew its various parts.

He also discarded many of the traditional practices associated with these older systems, which included set forms, or kata, and structured drills, which he felt restricted a martial artist’s growth and ability to express themselves fully. Pattens were prisons which shackled the mind to the styles of the old masters, and which hindered an artist’s growth. Students should do their own research, he thought, and critically evaluate the traditional approaches so that they could grow, reach their full potential, and express themselves fully.

I have long valued this critical approach, and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, I hope that my readers will follow my example and evaluate the plethora of writing advice out there—including my own—critically. Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and make something truly your own.

And yet…

As I evaluate my martial practice during this time of pandemic, I question the wisdom of the second part of that tripartite advice. During the pandemic, I have been unable to attend martial arts classes. Social distancing requirements have kept my school closed for much of the last year, and, even if it were to reopen for some form of modified, in person training, I would, most likely, hesitate longer than most before returning, as I have a number of health issues that put me at a higher risk for Covid 19. As such, I have needed to modify my training. My mook jong (wing chun wooden dummy) and vo-ball have become primary training tools for me to continue my practice, and I have begun taking online classes and participating in video lessons with a range of instructors from various styles.

One of the online classes I have been taking is in sword technique and choreography with Adrian Paul (of Highlander fame. Through his Sword Experience company, Mr. Paul has been teaching via video lesson, and has been offering personalized feedback where once-a-month, patrons can upload videos for him to critique. The instruction, thus far, has been excellent, and the critiques thorough.

One thing I did notice, however, is that Paul is teaching a kata. It is a kata he designed, but it is a kata nonetheless. My Jeet Kune Do-trained brain rebelled against the idea at first. This was an idea which I was supposed to discard. I hadn’t practice kata in many years (since I began studying JKD 10 years ago), and I struggled with learning this new one. Even when I took a martial art that focused more heavily on forms as a youth, patterns were never my strong suit. I was always much better in a “live” drill or sparring.

In the absence of a training partner, however, what other choice was there? Through sending videos of the kata, and receiving critiques about them, I improved my sword work in very real and noticeable ways. I began to feel more comfortable in the system, and, clearly, I was making progress in the art. Now, of course, to become truly proficient, I would need to do partner drills, work in a less structured way, and eventually actually spar or fence with an opponent, but that just isn’t an option right now. Given the circumstances, kata became not only useful, but necessary.

This experience has caused me to think back to the traditional forms against which Lee rebelled. Many of these forms come from styles that were outlawed throughout history, either by the Qing dynasty or by the modern Communist Chinese government. (Many of the Chinese systems use Ming symbolism in their salute/bow, and have historical connections to Ming patriots and rebels), and therefore, they had to be practiced in secret. Students may have had to practice alone for much of the time, apart from their masters, and the forms provided a catalogue of techniques in a way that was easy to remember and systematic to practice. Of course, the forms had to be supplemented by live training when possible, but I imagine that for many, it was not often possible to find a training partner.

Bruce Lee, in America, had the freedom and platform to test his system against martial artists from a variety of schools. During his life, there was no shortage of people who wished to train with him. Many of his students—and their students—have had similar luxuries. And yet, today, in the middle of the pandemic, we find ourselves isolated, training on our own, often without the guidance of a teacher or master. We need our kata. What was discarded has become useful again.

Thus, utility is not a fixed state. Our situation constantly changes as we go through life, and we must decide what is useful to us in each moment. We should be careful of what we outright discard lest we need it at some point in the future.

Rather than discard, we should store—put away for later. We never know when something we discarded might become useful again.

This advice applies not only to martial arts, but to writing as well. From time to time, we should revisit older exercises and techniques, even those we had previously discarded. When we perform our critical analysis, we should consider not only whether we feel an exercise is useful to us in our present situation, but why another teacher or author might have found it useful in the first place. What was their situation, and could we envision a time when we, too, may face a parallel situation. Don’t discard, store. You never know when life will throw you a curveball and you’ll need to dig deep into the files of your mind and dust off some nearly forgotten bit of knowledge.

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In Honor Of Bruce Lee’s 80th Birthday, My Jeet Kune Do Black Sash Essay: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

Today would have been Bruce Lee’s 80th birthday. In honor if that occassion, I present the essay I wrote as part of my Black Sash test in Jeet Kune Do, the martial art Lee founded. It is tradional for the candidate who is testing for a black sash or black belt to write an essay in many martial arts. I wrote this one in 2012, and present it without edits.

A Finger Pointing Away to the Moon

Like most people, I saw Bruce Lee for the first time in the movie Enter The Dragon. My Taekwondo instructor recommended the movie to the class because he wanted to show Lee’s non-telegraphic movement in the famous fight scene between Lee’s character and O’Hara. As a 12-year-old, I was (predictably) blown away by the experience. Bruce Lee’s style was more intense and realistic than anything I had previously seen on film. He looked dangerous; he looked like a fighter. That movie inspired my love for kung fu movies in general, and for Bruce Lee in particular. I would often re-enact scenes from that movie with my friends and training brothers and incorporate lines from the movie, such as “boards don’t hit back”, “you have offended me, and you have offended a Shao Lin temple” and “you’re like something out of a comic book” into my games and banter. While there are many martial benefits one can gain from watching Enter the Dragon—not the least of which is the lesson about non-telegraphic movement that my instructor pointed out—there is one scene in the movie that has influenced my development as a martial artist more than any other:

            Bruce Lee’s character is teaching a young student. During the lesson, Mr. Lee tries to get his student to understand the concept of “real emotional content”. When the student finally does the technique properly, Lee describes the feeling that is supposed to be present in the true martial artist. “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon,” he says. “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

            This quote has stuck with me, and, today, it is the first thing that I think about when I remember Enter the Dragon. While it is one of Bruce Lee’s most famous and often quoted sayings, I feel that it is often misinterpreted by the general public.  As a teacher, I have used the quote as an introduction to a lesson on literary elements and devices. I start the lesson by writing the quote on the board and asking students to interpret it. Most students say that Lee does not want us to get bogged down in the details-represented by the finger—but rather, he wants us to see the bigger picture, which is represented by the phrase “heavenly glory”. Many adults have given similar explanations of the quote, essentially reducing Lee’s statement to the cliché “don’t lose the forest for the trees.” I feel that this is an unfair reduction of the quote, and that those who interpret it in this way miss the more important implications of the quote.

            I have also spoken to many martial artists about this quote. Most people with a cursory knowledge of Jeet Kune Do say that the line from Enter the Dragon speaks to Bruce Lee’s wish to dispense with form and set movements. It is not the technique that’s important, they say, but rather the ability to express oneself and one’s “emotional content”. According to these people, Lee says that one must be free of tradition and system, which are represented by the finger, in order to be able to freely express themselves and achieve “heavenly glory”. I believe that these people, too, are mistaken.

            I prefer to take the quote in the context of the scene. Lee’s character is a sifu training a young apprentice. While Lee wants the student to understand the greater truth that he is pointing toward, the student would be unable to grasp that truth without his sifu’s guidance. The “finger” in this case represents the guidance that martial training provides. Without the finger, the student would be lost. The finger is “pointing a way”. Yes, one should not concentrate on the finger exclusively, thereby getting bogged down in minutia, but the finger is necessary in order for the student to find his way. The finger points specifically “to the moon”, not at the ground, which would be mundane, or the sun, which while brilliant, would be blinding. There is a specific thing that the Lee wants the student to see, and only with proper guidance can enlightenment be achieved. The need for guidance is further emphasized by the fact that in the scene, the concept needs to be articulate by Lee—and not by his student—thus emphasizing structure inherent in the pedagogical process.

            Moreover, the quote emphasizes the steps necessary to become a self-fulfilled martial artist. There is a multi-level progression described in the quote: Finger—then moon—then heavenly glory. At first the student needs to understand the basics, represented by the finger, before he can shoot for the moon. The student, with the help of the teacher, can see the path from the earth to the moon, and through hard work and training—which are the essence of the Chinese words gung fu—travel the path and rise toward the moon. The moon itself is not the goal either, however, rather by traveling along the “way” to the moon, one realizes the moon’s position in the cosmos; it is part of the “heavenly glory” described in the last part of the quote. The moon, then becomes a sign post along the way, a representation of the possibilities of heavenly glory. Lee, as a modern man who based his art around both science and tradition, would have know about the infinite nature of space in the universe (where the moon resides). By continuing along the path, the “way” pointed out by that original finger of the sifu, the student can achieve the limitless possibilities of self-actualization that Lee believed was primary benefit of self-expression though the martial arts.

            Thus, the quote actually refers to the Tao, the “way” in Chinese philosophy, and the “do” in Jeet Kune Do. Lee states that the finger points “a way to the moon” indicating that martial arts training involves “a way”—a path or journey. The practitioner moves from the earth toward the moon, and ultimately into the heavenly glory. The movement described here reflects Lee’s Taoist philosophy. In The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study of Chinese Martial Art (Tuttle, 1997, John Little ed.), Bruce Lee has three distinct essays relating his martial arts philosophy to Taoism, and the ideas of these essays are reflected in the simile of the quote. A central philosophy of Taoism is that the practitioner, by following the Tao, ultimately becomes one with the universe. Though the Taoist begins, like every other human bound to the earth, by becoming one with the tao, and by embracing the harmonious balance of the universe symbolized by the yin-yang, the Taoist practitioner is able to achieve enlightenment by becoming one with the universe. The “finger”, like the Taoist sage, points the way for the student, who through the development of his martial arts, moves toward heavenly glory, which represents the “harmonious way of the universe.” Each individual student’s journey is different, and many need the help of the guiding “finger” in order to find the Tao or the “way.”

            Sifu Richard Garcia has provided the finger that that has pointed me toward the way of my own journey in the martial arts. His style of teaching truly embodies the yin-yang concept about which Mr. Lee writes. Sifu Garcia’s Jeet Kune Do is traditional, yet progressive, it is both hard and soft, internal and external. It is grounded in basics, yet allows for creativity. It relies on the hard work and training that is at the heart of the definition of gung-fu, yet it develops the kind of spontaneous thought and action described by the concepts of wu wei and wu shin. In Sifu’s own words, it has “old school values and new school innovations” (www.jkdgungfu.com/curriculum.htm).

            Under Sifu’s guidance, I have developed as a martial artist. I have learned to develop my yin energy (throughout my martial journey, I have had an over-abundance of yang energy). I have become more proficient in my technique, especially at trapping and grappling range, and through my training I have become a more well-rounded fighter. I have continued to develop my strategic and tactical proficiencies and have come to a deeper understanding of the philosophy and concepts behind the art. JKD has helped me stay in shape physically and mentally, and it has improved my overall health as well. It has allowed me stay competitive when sparring students half my age, and given me a more practical, useable skillset for personal self-defense. It is an art that I enjoy practicing now, and it is adaptable enough that it will continue to be an art that I can practice as I continue to grow older.

            As I approach my black-sash test, I find myself thinking about the quote from Enter the Dragon once again. I can relate the quote to my own journey in JKD. Phase one of my training, which involved learning and practicing the basics of JKD involved being guided by Sifu’s finger. Metaphorically this phase of training involves seeing where the finger is pointing and identifying the “Tao” or the “Way”. In my mind, being asked to test for black sash is an acknowledgement that while I certainly have not reached the goal to which “the finger” is “pointing”, I have at least comprehended the direction of the path. My eyes are fixed on not only on the “moon”, but also on the “heavenly glory” which lies beyond. I am ready to embrace the “way” and to paraphrase a man who actually walked on the moon, take both “small step[s]” and hopefully “giant leaps” toward that “heavenly glory.”

            I hope to continue to follow the “way” suggested by Sifu’s guidance to eventually “unlock [my] true potential and become the very best that [I] can be.” With my Sifu who will continue to be the “pointer toward the truth” I hope to enter the next phase of my training where I can “find a path to my own freedom” (www.jkdgungfu.com/philosophy.htm).


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