Sunday, April 4, 2010

Homeless Words


...somebody left a comment here a while ago complaining about my use of ellipses instead of standard punctuation...to which I say..........................wha?......................................

...recently started teaching creative writing at a homeless shelter...(a couple blocks from the mural above)...a gig which is turning out to be loaded with challenges...like getting people to show up...and to write once they’re there...though, as with addicts and prisoners I’ve worked with* before, the biggest issue seems not so much an unwillingness to use the written word to express themselves as a deep-seated sense that they can’t...because they lack sufficient vocabulary, can’t spell, don’t know the rules...or aren’t good at following the rules they do know...

...most of us, in learning to read and write, are presented, right from the start, with rules and lists of words...language in the abstract...with little smiley faces for following the rules correctly and red marks for not following the rules correctly...long before we have so much as a chance to think about writing love letters or protest songs...

...rules and vocabulary come to be seen as valuable in themselves...inherently more important than whatever they might be used to express...locked gates guarded by language fundamentalists....sometimes built intentionally, to exclude and look down on the masses who lack our particular language skills...but, as often, built around ourselves...college students so proud they’ve mastered standard essay forms, like lions or eagles unable to move beyond their gilded cages...

...though these rules, like the vast lexicon of the English language...(lacking the musicality of Spanish or Italian, precision and logic of German or Latin, or inherent poetry of Chinese or Arabic, an unruly lingo which contains more words than any other)...should exist only to help us express ourselves more effectively...to serve as tools...open doorways to creation and possibility...

...to put ideas down so we can look at them, play with them...make them travel far beyond where we physically are...

...Yoga for Cynics is on the mike!...hello, Cleveland!...is Brooklyn in the house?...Chicago in the house?...Mumbai in the house?...

...ahem...even live on beyond us...though that’s exactly when they start getting dangerous...

...Paul of Tarsus wrote the letter killeth...and a number of letters he wrote...like those written by just about every other major religious and spiritual leader... have been be implicated in killething and oppressething quite a few people...precisely because the words themselves came to be carved in stone...and those stones used to build walls**...

...then, stones can also be thrown at walls...and would you really want all your words to be harmless and impotent?...Dylan Thomas...using a poetic form with rules like you wouldn’t believe...said...

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

...and, really, what I’d most like to get across to the guys at the homeless shelter is this...make your words catch fire and glow across the night sky and nobody’s gonna care if they’re spelled correctly***...


* which sounds a lot better than "with whom I’ve worked"...believe me...I tried both...

** this and other parts of the post partially inspired by Brenda’s blog...


*** Ancient and Revered Yoga Cynic Sutra 323:11

19 comments:

Aviva DV said...

This is why I favor French philosophers like Roland Barthes and, perhaps, just French writing conventions generally (or the translations of French writing, since my French is not good enough to read them fluently in the original). Fragments and ellipses and dropped words and a plethora of puns. Why wouldn't they let me write my dissertation in fragments?

I always thought you had to be somebody to break all the rules, but perhaps you become by breaking them.

Bob Weisenberg said...

Well done, Jay.

I admire the work you're doing in teaching writing in challenging settings. I would love to hear more about your experiences in future blogs, if you're willing.

This is a subject I get almost daily reports on, as my wife Jane is an education consultant who's mission in life is to improve the reading and writing skills of students, especially in inner city schools. She runs workshops for teachers, who often have their own writing problems, but she also often goes into the classrooms to coach the teachers one-on-one and "model" great teaching for them. She has to overcome their skepticism that her techniques will work with their particular kids.

Jane would agree with the thinking in your excellent blog. Thanks for writing it, and please do tell us more about your work.

Bob Weisenberg
YogaDemystified.com

the walking man said...

Someone once said that you have to know the rules of language in order to break them. I figured that any grammar rules I ever needed to know I did not need to be able to define in order to break them.

Language is for communication not conformity (though it can be used to force the latter). Good language...not necessarily proper language...inspires and succors and upholds truth.

Lately though I have been forsaking the ellipses...for the -- instead. Not to be a language guerrilla; but rather simply because it looks cooler on the page.

Lumen et Aperio said...

there's some similarity between math anxiety and writing anxiety, like stage fright to write fright - I have the latter in both cases - with math I just don't care enough to learn and follow the rules, but with writing I know the rules and care too much what people think about my work.

Mark said...

Rules have a context---or rather the context gives the rules. Getting people to write at all, and to follow their natural grammar and syntax, regardless of spelling, sounds like a worthy goal. More power to you.

Maybe you'd appreciate "The 21st Century Flux”.

Eco Yogini said...

wow- that takes patience and courage, not many people would volunteer their time to offer writing classes for the homeless.

Another presentation while I was at the University was stats of Nova Scotia. 40% of the local southern shore population between 18 and 60 don't have a high school diploma....

When writing for the public we are always careful to write at a grade 6 level- reports, pamphlets etc.

on your writing style (ahem, ellipses), it took a while for me to adjust. I never took to English writing vs psychological-concise writing. Also why I'm not a fan of French writing (unlike Aviva sorry!). Such LONG sentences!! lol.

but yours, Dr. Jay, has proven to be the exception :)

Lydia said...

Wonderful new teaching project. Brenda Ueland would be behind you and your students all the way. "http://www.graywolfpress.org/component/page,shop.flypage/product_id,234/category_id,bf8108ff1901b3e2f2376627dd7f8c0d/option,com_phpshop/">If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland

earthtoholly said...

I love your photo, drjay, and I especially love how it pairs so nicely with your sutra...which reminds me of words I've been hearing lately, if I may borrow it for a moment...make your words catch fire and glow across the night sky and nobody’s gonna care...what your blog looks like.

I use ellipses, probably more than I should, probably 'cause I'm full of incomplete thoughts, so they just feel right.

* which sounds a lot better than "with whom I’ve worked"... Early on in my blogging, as I was checking the who/whom rules, someone I've talked with about this exact same thing, suggested I go the more natural route with the prepositions, however, I chose to, more often, go with the stuffy who/whom, thinking that since my writing's not that good, I'll try to be a stickler elsewhere. But I know how skewed that thinking is.

I hope your guys at the shelter come to realize what a good teacher you are. Don't ask me how I know you're a good teacher, I just know! And I bet you'd do really well with an online English website...

Brooks Hall said...

Good for you and your writing teaching! It sounds challenging. 

Should words be fire power or love bombs? (this is practically a post in itself and may end up on my blog but, anyway...)

I guess I want my words to hold the mother principal... A student explained that this is why rescued chickens when given a yard to peck around in, were able to discover and explore their environment and themselves. They had caring human handlers to help and encourage them to live and express... While the tiger (from Dr. Jay's comment on the above link at "rescued chickens"), a dangerous animal, was plunked into a larger habitat and expected to thrive, but failed to explore steps beyond the ones the animal had paced for years in that small cage... This transition was unsuccessful because the environment, as nice as it might have been, did not nurture this animal.

Blogosphere has been nurturing for me and my ideas, and my ability to express myself has evolved. Thanks to the regular practice of writing for others, and the incredible comments that regularly appear there my mind has expanded beyond what I could have understood and expressed before. My blog has been a caring house to hold my imperfections and accomplishments, and I welcome those of others, as well. And I love great ideas! I just question whether we really need to throw them at one another, like rocks. 

I do get the notion of breaking down the old paradigms to move. However, I wonder how we can best support one another for maximum growth, understanding, and cool ideas. Only when we trust one another can we really go deep, or at least the places I like to go to.  

Kim said...

don't let anyone ever tell you to stop using ellipses. that's part of your charm.

Bossy Betty said...

Teaching writing first and foremost involves getting people to know what they have to say is valuable. Once you do that then standardized rules come into play (or not) because the writer then has a reason to want to write so others understand him/her.

Keep up the great work!!

Thomas said...

I! Think! People! Should! Be! Allowed! To! Punctuate! However! They! Please!

Christine Vyrnon said...

My most humbling and eye-opening and verklemping realization in my short stint as English Teacher - the girl who had nothing who wrote so much imagination and beauty into a couple paragraphs rife with errors - in comparison to the perfect prose of a girl who had everything - and wrote nothing. To this day - I can see what the girl with nothing wrote - the description is still seared in my brain - and i can't recall what the girl who got the A wrote. Maybe teaching is about finding the middle ground, so girls and boys who have and have not can read and be read by everyone - but damn the standardization of creativity. Damn it to hades.

Brenda P. said...

Permission to write (create)...easy to grant, but very hard to follow. What a cool, exasperating challenge. Yeah, like Bob, I want to hear more.

Are you all reading anything? Poetry? Nothing too fancy pants, but I wonder if something kind of stream-of-consciousness-esque like John Ashbury would get creative juices flowing? I found him frustrating, at first, and then I stopped "listening" and let the words wash over until it started to make sense. Images instead of narrative...

Thanks for the props. I love English in all its zany irregularity (thank God it's my first language). Rules fascinate. Etymology fascinates. Ignoring rules fascinates.

And ellipses rock...

Lydia said...

Sorry to make such a mess out of that link in my earlier comment. Your post reminded me a lot of this book and I am trying the link once again:
If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit

Lana Gramlich said...

Inspirational post, hon. Best of luck with the teaching. Keep up the good work. :)

Laura Hegfield said...

I love this!!!!! Brilliant (as you know from my blog, my punctuation is pretty atrocious...and well my use of ...elipses (is that plural?) is extravagant...and um, well...that's creativity baby! I hope that at least one of your new students appreciates your gift of throwing out the damn rules and...I always felt that connecting with one student when I was a teacher was a good day.

"...to put ideas down so we can look at them, play with them...make them travel far beyond where we physically are..." BRILLIANT!

I blog, therefore I am...connected to a big beautiful world...

as for spelling...how about made up words too? like the word verification one below...SHROOTOM...

when my daughter was in the hospital last year for 10 days her best friend would call her every day and they would make up new words and definitions for their words together...they had so much fun...needless to say this was probably the highlight of her hospital stay...you could do a whole class on invented vocabulary...seriously, all words were made up by somebody...why not your students?

Kavindra said...

....got nothing to add .... except I like ellipses .... and I still am mad about you .... and your wonderful blog ... too ... think it is way beyond zebra that you ... you, Dr J .... teach writing to .... homeless men... and others .... would love to be in a class with you .... whom I so admire ... or who ... if you prefer ...

Kitty said...

...Indy in the house... I do yoga with homeless children... I dig what you're laying down...just showing up, you and them...well that's enough, isn't it? peace & namaste...kitty.