It’s always a projection back into the past

“It’s always a projection back into the past, the idea that there was a single moment when you decided to become a writer, or the idea that a writer is in a position to know how or why she became a writer, if it makes sense to think of it as a decision at all, but that’s why the question can be interesting, because it’s a way of asking a writer to write the fiction of her origins, of asking the poet to sing the song of the origins of song, which is one of the poet’s oldest tasks. The first poet in English whose name is known learned the art of song in a dream: Bede says that a god appeared to Caedmon and told him to sing ‘the beginning of created things.’ So while I assume I was asked to talk about how I became a writer with the idea that my experience might be of some practical use to the students here, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer in that regard. But I can tell you how, from my current vantage, I have constructed the fiction about the origins of my writing, such as it is.

—Ben Lerner, 10:04

Joan Didion’s packing list

To Pack and Wear

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pairs of shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with:
shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap
razor, deodorant
aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax
face cream, powder, baby oil

To Carry:

mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those yeats when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.

It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative. There is on this list one significant omission, the one article I needed and never had: a watch. I needed a watch not during the day, when I could turn on the car radio or ask someone, but at night, in the motel. Quite often I would ask the desk for the time every half hour or so, until finally, embarrassed to ask again, I would call Los Angeles and ask my husband. In other words I had skirts, jerseys, leotards, pullover sweater, shoes, stockings, bra, nightgown, robe, slippers, cigarettes, bourbon, shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil, mohair throw, typewriter, legal pads, pens, files and a house key, but I didn’t know what time it was. This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself.
The White Album, by Joan Didion (1979).

The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs

Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

—“Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

—‘Politics and the English Language,’ George Orwell.

We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary

“We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary. It is a matter of huge regret that Peter Oborne, for nearly five years a contributor to the Telegraph, should have launched such an astonishing and unfounded attack, full of inaccuracy and innuendo, on his own paper (my italics).”

—A spokesman for the Daily Telegraph.

Refute is not synonymous with rebut or deny. That is, it doesn’t mean merely “to counter an argument,” but to “disprove beyond doubt; to prove a statement false.” Yet the word is commonly misused for rebut—e.g.:“Ontario Hydro strongly refuted [read denied or rebutted] the charges, saying none of its actions violate the Power Corporations Act.” Tom Blackwell, “Local Power Utilities Sue Ontario Hydro Over Pricing,” Ottawa Citizen, 25 Apr. 1997, at D16. See rebut.

Sometimes the word is misused for reject—e.g.: “Two-thirds of the people refuted [read rejected] [Nicholas Ridley’s] belief the European Monetary Union is a ‘German racket to take over the whole of Europe’…” Toby Helm, “Majority Back Euro Deals,” Sunday Telegraph 15 July 1990, at 1.

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner

Run-on sentences, the “comma splice”

With a comma splice, two independent clauses have merely a comma between them, again without a conjunction—e.g.: “I need to go to the store, the baby needs some diapers.”

The presence or absence of a comma—and therefore the distinction between a run-on sentence and a comma splice—isn’t usually noteworthy. So most writers class the two problems together as run-on sentences.

But the distinction can be helpful in differentiating between the wholly unacceptable (true run-on sentences) and the usually-but-not-always unacceptable (comma splices). That is, most usage authorities accept comma splices when (1) the clauses are short and closely related, (2) there is no danger of a MISCUE, and (3) the context is informal. Thus: “Jane likes him, I don’t.” But even when all three criteria are met, some readers are likely to object. And in any event a dash seems preferable to a comma in a sentence like that one.

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner.