You may take great pleasure in knowing that this may be my shortest blog post ever. The operative word here is may. I won’t know how short this post will be until I reach the end. That, I suppose, is my first writerly eccentricity. My writing–very much like Robert Frost’s–rides along on its own melting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove. It goes where it wants to go, and it moves where it wants to move.
But I suspect this post may be my shortest because I will be sharing my eccentricities. Goodness, no. Not those. How on earth did you know about those, anyway? They’re far too personal to share with the world at large. Besides, a post focusing on them would take years and years to share. Not really. But, on the other hand, maybe.
But since I have slid off course already, let me go ahead and share one–just one–of my personal eccentricities before attempting to get back into the flow of writing about my writing eccentricities.
Here it is. I have a tremendous fascination with numbers. Doesn’t that strike you as odd, especially since I am an English professor? It does me. Maybe it will strike you as less odd when I tell you that my fascination is limited to certain types of numbers. Like palindromes. You know. The ones that read the same, forward and backward. 11, 22, 101, 111, 666, 999. I don’t have anything against palindromes, mind you, especially if I only see one every now and then as I go about my day. But some days it seems they won’t go away, especially when they take up residence in my digital clocks and glare at me. 1:11. 3:13. 3:33. 7:07. (Thankfully, they never take up residence in my Grandfather Clock. Palindromes are as much visual as they are numerical.)
What’s even more fascinating are mirror hours. 10:10. 11:11. 12:12. You see them, right? Well, if you don’t, from this point forward, you will. And when you do, you will sit up and take notice, just as I do.
Depending on the combinations and the frequencies, I tend to believe–as many people do–that palindromic numbers and mirror hours signal the presence of messenger angels. I do my best to be attentive to their messages, too, especially if I see the same number repeatedly in the course of a day. A few days ago, for example, I couldn’t escape 555. It was everywhere. I even saw it on my Fitbit. After doing a timed, 6-minute morning meditation, my Fitbit showed that the session fell 5 seconds short, coming in at 5:55 minutes. But I didn’t mind. 555 is an intriguing Angel number heralding adventure, change, liberation, and intensity. Bring it all on. I’m revved. I’m ready.
But this is neither the time nor the place for me to discuss my personal eccentricities. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t have any more, just as you would be lying if you told me that you weren’t dying to know what they are. Forget it. I’m not telling. (Well, maybe a double Martini–extra dry, up, with a twist of lemon–could encourage me to tell a thing or three. Maybe.)
Let’s see. Let me do my best to slip-and-slide my way back a little closer to the melting ice cube of my original intent: my eccentricities as a writer. It occurs to me that this might be the perfect place to thank one of my faithful followers who, after reading my “Living with a Writer,” commented: “You are a published author that continues to educate and amuse us on a weekly basis. I’m sure we would all love to know what your quirks and eccentricities are when it comes to writing?”
I hope that you love what you have read so far so much that you will continue reading to the end as I continue to put into full public view my writerly quirks.
My second eccentricity as a writer bears close kinship to the first. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe who needed to know the last line of what he was writing before he put his pen to page, I need to know the first line of what I’m writing before I touch the first letter on my smartphone. (Yes. I write my blog posts on my smart phone. See my “Spaces and Habits of Famous–and Not-so-Famous–Writers.”) Once I get that first line, the rest melts along all on its own.
My third eccentricity as a writer relates to the first two. With the first line that I write, I like to get a rhythm going, usually a slow and easy one. It’s the sort of rhythm that gospel singer Rev. F. C. Barnes gets going in his “He Was There Just in Time to Rescue Me.” He opens his rendition by saying, “You know. This song is kinda like me: slow. But ya’ll don’t mind, do you?” Then he continues by working the title line and one or two other lines, over and over and over again, for a soothingly rhythmic song stretching out for 8:18 minutes. It’s much the same thing that the Barrett Sisters do in their “Jesus Loves Me” as they milk the rhythm and richness of just three words for a commanding 5:15 minutes. It’s the same thing that Lucille Clifton does in her “won’t you celebrate with me” as she rocks us in a world that has tried to kill her every day but has failed. Those rhythms–and other similar ones–bounce around and around and around in my head and sometimes carry more meaning than the actual words that I spit out. Frost would call it the sound of sense. In my own writing, I am never quite sure what the rhythm is or whether I am achieving it. Often it is more felt than seen, but it pulls my thoughts forward and piles them, like little pillows one atop another, and I like to think that it has the soft sound of sense.
My next eccentricity as a writer–my fourth–is one that I outgrew a long time ago, but it has such quirky quirks that I will memorialize it here for the record.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was working on my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, I drafted the general introduction and the introductions to each of the five sections in longhand.
But wait. It gets better.
I wrote them on a note pad. Not just any note pad. It had to be a yellow, legal notepad.
And it gets even better, if such be possible. I had to write using #2, yellow pencils. No erasers. Read on. Discover why.
If I made a mistake on a page, I could not erase. I could not scratch through and move on. I was compelled to rip out the blemished page and start over on a brand-new page, proving my mastery of ideas if not my mastery of time well spent.
I continued that approach to writing for a long, long time.
When PCs came along, however, I shifted with great joy because I discovered that I didn’t need to throw any of my drafts away. I could keep them all, simply by giving each a unique revision number. Keeping all of my drafts, I suppose, is my fifth eccentricity as a writer. I enjoy going back to see how an essay changed over time, from start to finish. More often than not, I will revise anything that I write a dozen or more times. (Let me add here that I love–absolutely love–preparing my posts in WordPress. It automatically tracks and keeps all the changes that I make for each and every post. Right now, for this post, WordPress has captured 22 revisions. I work hard for the money. Thank you very much.)
At this point, I have a huge decision to make. It involves an eccentricity that is personal, but it will have an impact on the writerly eccentricities that I do or do not share with you from this point forward. It, too, has to do with numbers. I do things in odd numbers only. For example, when I’m gardening, plants get planted as single plants or in groupings of 3, 5, 7, 9 and so on. I just don’t do even numbers. Right now, then, I have two choices, and choices are always good. I can stop my post here with five writing eccentricities. Or I can give you a sixth one and then be forced to end with a seventh.
Well, bless you, for shouting out that you want more. I am glad to continue, especially since 7 is one of my favorite numbers. Think about it for a minute. 7 Days. 7 Seas. 7 Brides. 7 Sisters. 7 Dwarfs. 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. And 7 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Without further rhythmic delay, let’s start exploring my sixth eccentricity.
Those who know me, know that I do not like being told what to do (well, that’s generally true) especially when it comes to writing (and that’s always true). But I love telling others what to do, especially when it comes to writing. Here’s the backstory. It all started on a wordy, wordy day when I was a sophomore in high school. My teacher Anna Mae Collins would march into our classroom, always wearing prim and proper dresses that generally looked like a nurse’s uniform regardless of the color or the fabric. But that didn’t matter. Mrs. Collins loved the parts of speech and sentence diagramming, and since I loved both as well, I loved her all the more. For a typical writing assignment–given usually on a Friday–she would provide the topic and the word length for the essay. She had lots of topics–so many that I don’t remember any. But I remember that she loved essays that were 1,200 words long. More, she loved giving us a structural formula that we had to follow. Here’s how it might go. 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence. We had to underline each of those various types of sentences and identify them in the margin.
We would work our proverbial little butts off all weekend. Well, that’s rather presumptuous of me, isn’t it? Let me revise that claim. I would work my proverbial little butt off all weekend. Ms. Collins would march into class on Monday. I’d be sitting right up front, all smiles because I had met all of her requirements, each and every one of them. I was pumped with pride. She would clomp up and down the aisles, collecting our essays one by one, sizing them up as she clomped.
With measured tread, she would advance to the front. “Class, I am fully confident that your essays are excellent. But you can make them better. Take them home tonight and cut out all the huff and puff and fluff. Watch out for those nasty prepositional phrases. Adjectives will work just as well. You must keep the content of your original essay. However, your revised essay can only be 700 words long. Exactly 700 words. Also, you must use the same formula that I gave you on Friday: 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence.”
Folks. Folks. Folks. We’re talking the Dark Ages of the 1960s. We had to handwrite those essays on lined paper. We had to count the words, word by word. And here we were having to go home and do it all over again. The moans and groans were loud enough to be heard in the principal’s office which is precisely where Mrs. Collins would have marched us if we had challenged her assignment. The more often she gave us assignments like that, the more often I fell in love with Anna Mae because through her I fell in love with the power of revision, especially the powerful revision that takes place when writers have to follow precise guidelines, including word counts.
My sixth eccentricity as a writer, then, is my belief that less can be more. (I believe that everywhere, of course, except in my blog posts. For those, I fantasize that I am being paid by the word. For those, I fantasize that I have 1.41 million followers.)
It will come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that one of my favorite writing assignments for my students–in College Composition and in Creative Writing–is to have them write an essay that is exactly 500 words, excluding the title. Not 499. Not 501. Exactly 500. (Oh, my! I just had a wonderful idea. I can combine this quirk with my numbers quirk and change the length to exactly 555 words. It’s a done deal. Please do not tell prospective students who might have signed up for my classes this fall.)
Further, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that students never change. Mine moan and groan as much as my classmates did in 1963. Unlike them, however, my students come to class with their 500-word essays and thank me profusely. They truly do.
I’m not sure what just happened, but my sixth writerly eccentricity was remarkably longer than any of the previous ones.
I promise. My seventh will be shorter. Hopefully.
Anna Mae Collins was not my only English teacher who insisted on eliminating huff and puff and fluff through tight and rigorous revision.
In college, my freshman English professor Barbara Smith required us to analyze everything that we wrote using the Gunning Fog Index. It was developed by publisher Robert Gunning who theorized that people could not read because newspapers and periodicals encouraged writing that was far too complex. I was fascinated by the Fog Index and discovered readily that my 25-word sentences did nothing but hide the soul and spirit of my message. It was then that I started using smaller words and shorter sentences.
The Fog Index is still used, but today our computers can measure the fog level for us automatically. MS Word calls it Readability Statistics. Those metrics provide a word count, a Readability Score, a Grade Level, and more.
Here’s my seventh and final eccentricity as a writer: I run Readability Statistics on everything that I write. What’s that? You want proof? Sure. Here are the stats for this post: Readability Score: 76.4%. (The higher the percentage, the easier the read.) Grade Level: 6.1. (The lower the grade level, the easier the read.) I’m pleased with those stats. Maybe I’m slightly puffed. Maybe I’m slightly full of it. But I simply must tell you that former Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln’s best prose have comparable Readability Statistics. I cannot think of better company.
Clearly, this post did not end up as one of my shortest. It may end up as one of my longest.
What can I say? Blame it on the ice. Blame it on the hot stove. Blame it on Robert Frost. Better still: thank my faithful reader who asked me to write about my writerly quirks and eccentricities.