Unpossible Words

The Romans were never able to conquer Germany, but they certainly stole English from the Germans. Originally a first cousin of German, English has acquired so many words from other languages, mainly Latin, that they now outnumber the Germanic roots four to one.

The resulting language is is a strange, hybrid monster.

Since English isn’t picky about how it creates new words, we’re always adding vocabulary. When students complain about how many words Latin has, I remind them that by some counts, English has over a million words. The Oxford Latin Dictionary has only about 40,000.

Prefixes are one way we add words in English, and many of these are stuck to Latin words. Because English draws both from Latin and German there are many redundancies: in– (along with its clones ir-, im-, and il-) and un– mean the same thing. Both turn a word into its opposite: necessary, unnecessary; sincere, insincere.

What’s sort of strange is that there are tacit rules about which prefix is used. We don’t have inhappy or unpossible. Who decides these things? In– is usually preferred with Latin roots, but necessary, a Latin word, has unnecessary as its opposite.

Further confusing things is the other prefix in- that means ‘into’: influence, induction, influx.

When we see a word like inflammable, how do we know whether it means ‘not flammable’ or ‘able to burst into flames’? It means the latter, but most trucks carrying combustible material use flammable, just so there’s no confusion.

And then there’s anti-, contra– (counter-), non-, dis– and a-, all used in much the same way: matter / antimatter, clockwise / counter-clockwise, advantage / disadvantage, sense / nonsense, symmetrical / asymmetrical.

When my students complain that Latin doesn’t make sense, these are the examples I pull out and ramble about for twenty minutes or so. By then, they’re all saying, “Can we just get back to Latin?” Mission accomplished.


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Grading a Short Story

Round three has just ended. On Monday my Creative Writing students turned in their third short story. You would think that by this time I would not be daunted by a pile of student writing.

Wrong. I approach that pile with great reluctance.

Writing critiques is not hard for me. If I have any gift as a literary critic, it is to see the potential in any story. I’m not a negative person; I see a glass half empty and order another pitcher. Drinks all around.

Critiquing a story is not the same as grading a story. The comments I write on students’ papers are kind. I point out problems, but I am always encouraging. I see what the story could be, and offer some guidance.

But comments are not what students look at; they scan the paper for the only thing that really matters: the grade.  The story that earns an A will not be revised in any way — what would be the point? There is no higher grade than an A. Even a B will satisfy most students.

The story that earns a D will be crumbled up and tossed in the trash. The idea may be good, but unrealized, mainly summary without a resolution. It may even be a more interesting idea than the story that got a B. It doesn’t matter. A D is a D. That’s all they see.

The only story that might get revised is the one that gets a C. I give a lot of those.

Even the neediest story on Scribophile is in a different universe from most of the stories in my grading folder. More

Bad Habits

My father had a heart attack when he was thirty-six. I don’t remember this; I was born a month later.

He didn’t die, but my life was changed as a result. Until I went away to college, I had never eaten pork, only tasted butter in restaurants, and didn’t know that ice cream was supposed to have cream in it.

My father was a formula for sudden death: he was a heavy smoker, overweight, with a stressful job.

My own habits are exemplary. My blood is not. The same sludge that stopped my father’s heart is traveling through my vessels.

When oatmeal became the magic food, I’d already been keeping the Quaker guy in business for years. My MBT’s have been resoled five times. I’ve never smoked. My blood pressure is low. I wear a size six and can outrun some of my students. And I take statins.

My numbers are still high.

How is this fair? More

By Heart

I’m sure that one day we’ll all get brain implants that will whisper in our ears all the things we want to remember. As it is, we’re stuck with unimproved gray matter.

Fortunately, memorization seems to be getting less important these days, if you believe educational progressives. Today we don’t need to actually remember anything. We have Google.

The sum of all knowledge can be found on the internet — if you know what to look for. Teaching kids how to make good searches is worthwhile; teaching them to evaluate information is even better.

A few years ago I would have replied, “Yeah, but we don’t carry the internet around with us all the time. What happens when you’re away from the computer?” That argument is dead; now we all carry phones that can Google.

Unfortunately, Google can’t think for us.

In my classroom, I’m asking when Julius Caesar was murdered. Twenty kids whip out phones and start touching tiny keyboards. The one with the quickest connection wins.

Now I’m asking, ‘What would be different if he hadn’t been murdered?’ Twenty blank looks. How do we Google that?

Rote memorization is on the educational blacklist, and has been for some time. I teach Latin, which gives me an excuse to be medieval. I would feel comfortable in the 5th century, huddling over a desk, copying manuscripts. I can make my students memorize things because “that’s the way Latin has always been taught.” Since Latin is already considered ‘dead wood’ by many educators, using obsolete methods to teach it doesn’t really annoy them.

The students who arrive in my classroom have never had to memorize anything – not even their own phone numbers. More

Training Wheels

Not everyone is born to be a writer, but everyone has a story to tell.

I have to believe this in order to teach writing. Otherwise, it’s all commas and run-on sentences.

My students’ stories are often full of cliche, reflecting what they watch on television and see in movies. Their characters talk in one liners or meaningless banter. They wear the best designer clothes, drive expensive cars, have high IQ’s and well-paying jobs. Their problems are either romantic misunderstandings or ‘the big game/race.’ There are a lot of unexpected pregnancies, lottery tickets, and vampires.

When I was their age, most of my stories sounded like episodes of Star Trek. Even before I had heard the term “space opera,” I was writing my three-volume epic set in the twenty-third century. There were a lot of star-vessels shooting at one another, a lot of jaded war heroes and naive young commanders.

But I knew that a novel needs more than explosions and tactical maneuvers. A novel needs lots of description.

So there were also lips twisting into icy, malevolent smiles and characters radiating restless energy that made everyone think of a bomb about to go off. Characters gave one another tight smiles and spoke with forceful intensity, their voices often full of disdain. There were long pauses while words sank in for maximum effect. Scenery was chewed, passions were ignited.

Whew. I got a polite note from some under-editor whose job it was to read the first page. The manuscript box still sits on my shelf. It took me years to fully understand why it was rejected, but I learned the lessons well: no info-dump, no adverbs, no telling. Just get to the goddam explosions.

Cliches are like training wheels. I think it’s normal for beginning writers to imitate what they love — it’s how we learn. Gradually I realized how awful my stories were and turned to writing more original ideas.

Eventually my students will lose the training wheels and find a story that’s worth telling. I could mark everything wrong with their stories, but I have faith that if they want to write, in time they will learn these lessons. Right now, they have to understand the story that’s worth telling.

That story doesn’t involve beautifully dressed lawyers who date handsome doctors, or football players who make it to the pros and get the girl too, or young, pregnant girls who win the lottery.

It’s their story, their experience that will interest us one day; if they have the desire to tell it, they’ll learn how.

Vox Populi

Vox populi, vox dei — the voice of the people is the voice of God.

One of the things I love about teaching is that while coming up with new ways to explain things to my students, I accidentally learn a lot of stuff. One of my recent “aha” moments was when we were discussing point of view.

My students struggle with point of view. They can tell the difference between first and third persons, but still make slips in their stories.

Then it came to me: It’s not just a point of view problem, it’s a voice problem. If they can get the voice of their narrator right, point of view comes naturally.

I was thinking of my own novel-in-progress during this discussion. The main character is an exceptionally intelligent eleven-year-old boy. The first draft was written in third person, limited to his point of view.

When I started to revise, I decided to switch to first person. One of my reasons was that the narrative was starting to feel very boring to me. When I wrote it in third person, I started out with a sort of wryly amused narrative voice, but by the time I got a few chapters done, it began to sound flat. I was just reporting what the characters did and said. Boring.

I’ve written in both first and third, but never changed my mind after writing an entire draft. As soon as I started my revision, I saw that it wasn’t simply a matter of turning ‘he’ into ‘I.’ I had to completely rewrite the story in my character’s voice.

I should have realized this long ago: every sentence of a narrative must be suffused with voice. More

Breathe In

“I have ideas, but I don’t have the time to turn them into stories. Then, when I finally have time, my mind is a blank.” This was me complaining to another writer about my lack of progress. “What do you do when you’re not inspired to write?”

Her reply took me by surprise: “Inspiration is only a small part of writing. Time multiplied by Focus equals manuscript. If you’ve got a little time, you need a lot of focus. If you don’t have much focus, you’re going to need a lot of time to produce something. So which do you have more of — time or focus?”

My math brain thought about this for a long time, but this equation did little to get my book written. I knew I didn’t have many hours to write, and apparently I had little focus, either. Women are naturally better at multi-tasking, I decided. I have no talent for it.

My own experiences finally taught me the truth in her advice. My first novel took me only a few months because a) I had a lot of time to work on it; and b) it sucked when I was finished. I’ve written two more since then, have three more in various stages of incompletion, and more failed attempts than I care to count.

So, how do I manufacture inspiration? Here’s my list: More

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