I have a new way of making bad writing more entertaining and keeping my own writing from being bad*.
If you see a phrase that uses the passive voice, or, heaven save you, you’re about to use the passive voice to obfuscate, add the phrase “by zombies” to the end and reconsider.
President Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union address, after Iran-Contra:
“And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.”
Improved by this technique:
“And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held by zombies in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made by zombies in trying to do so.”
Example from an article I was reading today:
“No longer deemed an exotic, esoteric or mystical activity, meditation has become a mainstream activity.”
Improved by this technique:
“No longer deemed an exotic, esoteric or mystical activity by zombies, meditation has become a mainstream activity.”
Because apparently some people are confused about this, the passive voice is when a writer hides the subject of a verb. She might do this for mendacious reasons as in the first example, or because her vision of good writing is clouded by cliche and fear of specificity, in the second.
Sometimes I use the passive voice when I’m writing to protect someone else–”The plane tickets to DC were not bought on time” or “The DNS SPF record was incorrectly modified”–but that’s a cowardly use of language, and though polite and to a certain extent kind, it is not good writing.
I am afraid of becoming a bad writer, of writing text that kills language. Toni Morrison’s calls of that kind of “statist language” in her 1993 Nobel Lecture sticks in my mind when I begin to write poorly:
[A] dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.
For my New Year’s resolution this year, I committed to writing at least 300 words every day. And I’ve done it, every day except for one, when I was awake for 36 hours flying from Beirut to Amman to Istanbul to Washington DC. But if I only count days as periods of time which end with me sleeping in a bed, and not on the surprisingly comfortable benches in the Amman airport, I’ve kept my resolution so far.
I write every day, for hours, at work and sometimes I write well. But I realized when I was visiting family in California before the New Year that I was not getting better at the kind of enlivening language I believe Dr Morrison would want to constrain and combat and perhaps conquer that writing which “actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.”
So I write on my own, for myself and some of my friends. Because I’m afraid of being a bad writer.
Afraid enough to insert random zombies into my proof-reading habits.
*ht to the tumblr followers who put @johnsonr‘s tweet from last fall on my radar.
“She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise.”–Dr. Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture
We just opened up applications for our Summer 2013 fellowship and it got me thinking about what questions I found useful when I was applying for the 15+ jobs, internships and volunteer positions* I’ve had in the past 9 years.
I’ve heard other hiring managers say that they can tell if an applicant is a good fit within the first sentence of the cover letter and the first 30 seconds of an interview. I’ve also heard them say they can make their hiring decisions based on the last 5 minutes of the interview, when an applicant is asking her or his questions. These two statements run against each other, but let’s focus on the last 30 seconds, since fantastic resources exist for prepping for usual internship interview questions.
These are the 7 questions which I wish applicants for the fellowship for which I’m the hiring manager would ask:
- What is the best project you’ve seen an intern complete?
- How are conflicts resolved on your team?
- What is the approval process for new ideas?
- What are last term’s interns doing now?
- What skills do you expect me to have coming in?
- What skills could I expect to leave with?
- What project do you think I would spend my most time on?
Hopefully most of these questions will be answered as part of the interviewer’s introduction of the internship, so you would only have to ask 2-3 of them. I think it would be a bit tiresome to work through all 7 in one interview, but if I left an internship interview not knowing what skills I could leave the internship with (stronger writing, HTML, campaign planning, fundraising, technical knowledge of the issue area and knowledge of how our policy team works are some of the ones I try to ensure my fellows get), I would be worried.
Have any great questions you like to ask? Please share them in the comments.
*Here are the first 15 jobs, internships, and volunteer positions which came to mind, all of which required some kind of interview. This is not a comprehensive list:
- Babysitter, self-employed,
- Intern, Electronic Frontier Foundation,
- Interning Developer, Stanford University
- Volunteer escort, Planned Parenthood of Western PA
- Intern, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco district office,
- Greeter, Revolution Cycles,
- Web Content Management Intern, World Organization for Human Rights USA,
- Posner Intern, Carnegie Mellon University,
- English composition tutor, Carnegie Mellon University, Qatar campus,
- Social media consultant, self-employed,
- New Media Fellow, Polaris Project,
- Communication manager, CareerImp,
- Student employee, Carnegie Mellon University Career and Professional Development Center,
- Intern, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University,
- Online Outreach Specialist, Polaris Project,
These don’t include the grants I received or made it to the interview stage for, including Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate research award, 5th year Scholarship and IMPAQT student ambassadors to Qatar program, Humanity in Action’s summer fellows program (Interviewed), and the State Department’s Fulbright award (Recommended Applicant). It also doesn’t include things I auditioned for, or positions I won through elections, though elections are a form of job interview.
“My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather.”–Terri Guillemets
If you haven’t listened to oral arguments in the Prop 8 or DOMA Supreme Court cases, you must. The issue of standing is important, particularly to Californians but to anyone from any state which doesn’t enforce all of its laws. They are also wonderfully funny in places. They are also profoundly clear sighted:
It’s worth saying that the caption for the above video when I found it on Tumblr was “One minute. That’s all it takes for a Supreme Court Judge to destroy your argument against gay marriage.” And here are the artist’s sketches of the face she made at his response.
But maybe while right now your Facebook feed looks something like this:
All of our Facebook statuses are belong to freedom.
And maybe you find the rows and rows and rows of equal signs and Rothko paintings and Mario simulations and Christian statements of support and other Christian statements of support and parellel flower arrangements and Constitutional graphics and Dalek shrieks and Lady Justice/Lady Liberty slash and Yoda’s face and Carry On memes and Wonder Woman pics and grouchy cat stares and Star Trek Badges and Corgie puppies all declaring a commitment to marriage equality thrilling.
Maybe it made you feel like this?
But maybe, during any other given week, you don’t connect with the gay rights movement very much. If you live in a liberal state, or in a liberal city, or a liberal family, or you’re straight or pass as straight, it is not a part of your daily life.
That’s where fiction comes in. Fantasy allows us to sensitive ourselves to things we don’t come into daily contact with. I know a lot more about heraldry than I do about road sign design, though I have seen more road signs in my real life than I have ever seen knight’s shields because I have spend hours and hours and hours of my life living within a world where whether someone’s lion is rampant or passant makes a big difference.
Living in fictional worlds, even if only during my commute or during-dinner reading, is a chance to sensitize myself to experiences I might not have. Fantasy can be an escape, but it is also a journey inwards. And those inner learnings sometimes have real-world consequences.
There are significant debates about whether writing or reading slash fiction can, cannot, or sometime does qualify as engaging in a social justice work. I think that engaging opening and honestly with characters who push my boundaries or shore up my bulwarks against an often unequal and unfree world, visiting upon me a more accepting and enlightened world is the work of social justice.
I’ve seen this work play out in this week’s Supreme Court marriage equality cases, particularly in the signs people carry. To me, more than being funny and shareable and quirky, these signs tell the story that our culture’s bearers–fiction and its writers–are informing how people access the conversation about political and social rights for all people.
More simply: I think it’s harder to disagree with marriage equality when you know gay people, and knowing fictional gay people is better than knowing none at all. And for the slash shippers? I think it’s harder to disagree with marriage equality when you wish Dumbledore and Grindelwald had had just one good honeymoon.
Without further ado, my two favorite fandom pro-marriage equality signs of the week:
And it’s not just slash shippers who used fictional characters as their voices:
PS: Fandoms being politically active on QUILTBAG* rights isn’t new–here’s my anti-Prop 8 Supernatural shirt, originally designed I believe during that campaign (you can buy other fandom’s shirts against Prop 8 here at Fandoms for Fck H8):
*Queer, Intersex, Lesbian, Tran*, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay. I’m trying this out, though I still can’t say it outloud with a straight (hah!) face. LGBTQPIA just takes a long time to say, is all I’m saying.
ht to tumblr, my Facebook feed, and this post.
“No, really, because if the couple — I can just assure you, if both the woman and the man are over the age of 55, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage. (Laughter.)”–Justice Kagan
I got interviewed last summer by a reporter working on an article for Newsweek and the article just came out. I’m not ok with everything in the article (and I did not say anything ominously) but it’s nice to be considered a valuable source of information on living in the Middle East.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”–James Michener
This weekend I hosted an Ikea furniture-building party. A friend and I went to Ikea in the afternoon to buy the table, chairs, lights, and bed I’ll need in my new place and then other friends came over to help build it. Every other place I’ve lived since leaving California has been furnished, or I just slept on an air-bed and stacked my books along a wall for a summer.
I wanted more this time.
Here are the before and after pictures:
One of my favorite pieces I grabbed this weekend is this globular floor lamp, who to me looks like nothing more than a happy alien from Doctor Who. My entire apartment has a rough theme–somewhere between camping and a cloud, between the location of the TARDIS in this year’s Christmas episode and the apartment in this short story. When I sit at my table, I want to feel like I’m out camping with my friends, the wood a little rough and just as brown as the standard-issue California Park Service picnic tables. When I lie on my off-white carpet and look up I want to feel like I feel when I wake up in my tent, the sunlight diffusing through the walls so they seem to glow. And at night, I want stars:
And, most importantly, I want to give my Paul D. Goodman original the space and recognition it deserves:
One of the things I love about my new place’s location and decoration is the feeling of compression and release. When I visited Falling Water, the tour guide mentioned that one of the themes of that house was compression and release. You walk through a narrow, dark-wooded corridor without much light into a dark paneled room, full of a bed and some small, bright textiles or baskets. Then step onto the outdoor deck and feel the release, the springing up and out of internalized worries.
My entire morning commute is a balance between use feeling of compression and release. I start my morning with a 13 minute walk to the metro station through a big open park on the top of a hill and then a short walk through some wild and border woods. When I get on the metro, I got over inlets and rivers, with the open sky above me. The closer to work I get, the more time I spend underground. This focuses me, gets me going in the direction of the mindset I work best in.
And then on my way back from work, the further I get from the DC the more open the sky is, the more freedom my mind has to just wander, just bouncing around all of the things that bother me and that I want to make.
Whether this apartment is “home” depends on where Matthew is and where my other family is. Somewhere in the decade I spent moving between houses every 3-4 days I discovered that home was where my family was, and it wasn’t a house, or houses, or a room, or rooms, but wherever my family was. (And sometimes where my books are.)
At work, a colleague asked how the move was going and whether I was “living out of boxes.” And I was surprised that she thought that that might be hard for me. Of course I could live out of boxes and be normal. Of course I could live out of a backpack or a dresser drawer. I visited Matthew in DC for years and found home was whatever hotel or motel we had a room in that night.
So, as has been true for most of my life, I have many homes. I have one in Seattle where Matthew is. I have one in the Bay Area where my family lives. I have one spread across the Middle East, where my mind drifts during those long, open sky parts of the daily journeys. I have one here, in DC, where I decorated with rocks from Petra and the Sierras and the Pacific ocean and the Dead Sea and a small piece of sea glass from where the Mediterranean kisses the shore in Lebanon. Where I can hang a picture my brother drew for me and where four of my friends came last night, to eat chips and complain about Ikea instructions and fill this new space with home.
“Where thou art – that – is Home.”–Emily Dickinson