Category Archives: Quotes

Stream of unconsciousness

It’s interesting where roads lead. Sometimes a little free association can take us down an amusing path to sparkling treasure.

For me, the starting point was ballroom dancing. As a freelancer, my flavor of the week can be just about anything; this time, it’s dancing. Often when I start a new writing project, I go to sleep with ideas swirling about, in hopes a few will collide and stir creative copy. Other times, it’s just dust.

While listening to the radio on Sunday, I sang along with Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” as I had a thousand times before. It’s a beautiful song. This time, though, I wondered what in the world it meant that “We skipped the light fandango.” I thought about it. Could the phrase be a variation on “trip the light fantastic?”

I always considered trip the light fantastic to be ritzy and glitzy, from another era. I’ve never found occasion to use it in conversation, and certainly never understood where it came from or what it even meant exactly. (For you younger readers, it means to dance nimbly or lightly in a pattern.)

On Monday I woke up mulling my latest writing challenge. Might there be a place for tripping the light fantastic? I looked it up to ensure I understood the meaning and origin of the expression. Good thing too because I learned that, not only did it come from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but “tripping the light fantastic” was sixties drug lingo.

I continued searching. And I found a most delightful poem by John Milton, L’Allegro, published in 1645. It’s 150 lines long; I’ll share just the first excerpt that popped up:

Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks and wreathed smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And, if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free …

Don’t you just love it?

Later in the poem, I found bonus words I’ll tuck away, should I ever be hired to write about beer:

To many a youth and many a maid,
Dancing in the chequer’d shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a Sunshine Holyday
Till the live-long daylight fail,
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale.

So here’s to A Whiter Shade of Pale.

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Keep it short

Yesterday’s blog post was my shortest yet, a mere 72 words. Being that it was a tribute to my husband, I tried to keep it brief. He always says my best posts are the short ones.

Out of courtesy to readers, I try to keep my daily posts under 400 words in length. Sometimes a story takes more words to tell, while commentary can—and should—take fewer.

Packing more narrative into a smaller package is a challenge. It’s also what makes it fun. Often I begin by laying the raw content out on a slab. Later I go back and tidy things up. Think of a trash compactor – raw materials are deposited and fill up the bin quickly, but later become compacted into a dense package taking up less space. That’s how I look at writing.

Someone once said, “If I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Try looking that one up. Variations have been attributed to Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Blaise Pascal, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Chesterfield, Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Bernard Shaw, among others.  If even 10 of these good fellows are posers, it just shows how valid a notion it is.

I’d like to become better at keeping it brief. These writers are correct – it does take more time. Anyone can ramble on. Just tiptoe through the blogosphere and you’ll see for yourself. Writers are ever challenged to scour our text for extraneous words and phrases, and eliminate or replace them with more potent substitutes.

Educators in Virginia recently took heat for having students use Twitter for some of their assignments. I thought it was a novel idea. Having kids keep their writing to fewer than 140 characters is an exercise in brevity. Yes, one day they’ll be writing 10-page term papers, and didn’t we all perfect the art of filling blue books and typing paper with loquacious ramblings and flowery phrases?

The test is the ability to serve up meaty content in as manageable a container as even the most attention-challenged reader will digest and, perhaps more important, to know when to stop.

Yesterday, one of my favorite groups, “Fake AP Stylebook,” suggested: “Running out of space? Just end abruptly with, “Only time will tell if this development resolves the issue.”

(388 words)

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In a nutshell

If you could fit your outlook on a bumper sticker, what would it say?

That might be an unfair question, but it’s fun to think about. A living epitaph of sorts, or simply your message to the world behind you.

I enjoy reading bumper stickers. It’s fun to speed up and see how drivers match their sayings.

We spent the weekend visiting our son in Boone, North Carolina, a funky college town about which I’ve told you before. Friday we took a stroll down King Street, had lunch at Our Daily Bread and checked out some of our favorite shops.

My husband’s favorite stop-in is Dancing Moon, a 1960s-style book store, filled with incense, new age music and reading on all things spiritual and counter-cultural. Dancing Moon smells (and, to some degree, feels) just like my childhood.

During our voyages to the Dancing Moon, my husband browses the shelves and chats with the proprietor, aptly a cross between George Carlin and Jerry Garcia. I retreat to my favorite corner in the back, where the bumper stickers are displayed. I pretend I have to select one that represents who I am.

I don’t affix stickers to my bumper. The peace sign magnet I had there at one time had attracted such ire—as well as comments that it was unpatriotic—that I removed it for a while.

I can’t say I was able to select just one bumper sticker on this trip, but here are a few that struck my fancy:

“All the freaky people make beauty in the world”
“Medically speaking, what harm does medical marijuana do to terminally ill patients?”
“Imagination is more important than knowledge”
“Consciousness: that annoying time between naps”
“When in doubt, shut up”
“The truly educated never graduate”
“Peace is patriotic”

What words appear on your life’s bumper sticker?

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A place for Mrs. Prothero

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about Christmas traditions, sharing our families’ favorite movies, music and rituals.

Before we move on from Christmas, there is another ritual in my family that I am betting no one else shares.

For nearly as long as I can remember, every Christmas Eve, after dinner, while we are still at the table, my father has read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales in his best Richard Burton accent.

We and our children have learned to sit patiently and listen to the story. Joking groans sound around the table as my father pulls the weathered booklet from his vest pocket, clears his throat and begins, “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Even though the recitation comes at the very moment of the whole season when I am most apt to nod off, I find the story engaging. I imagine a cold December night, smoke swirling from the chimneys of early 20th century Wales. It is truly one of the most beautifully written pieces in modern literature.

We have come to know the characters in the story. Mrs. Prothero might as well be at the table with us, as she and the other characters have become part of our Christmas family. There are several parts where we all chime in, having memorized the lines. Here are just a few of our favorites. I defy you to not read these in your best Richard Burton accent.

About winter in Wales:

“It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.”

“I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”

“Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks”

About the Christmas presents:

“Once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles’ pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”

“Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh.”

About the family:

“There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles…Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”

“After dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine… Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.”

I wonder if Macy’s has any crocheted nose bags left.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Hearth and Home, Holidays, Quotes, Reading

Life’s lessons learned

A few days ago, I mentioned that I had received a gift subscription to Esquire magazine. By the way, the giver remains anonymous.

I also mentioned that I was looking forward to reading what various public figures said about what they’d learned about The Meaning of Life. Last Thursday, a four-hour plane ride gave me time to explore.

The public figures had plenty to say on the subject, and their comments held as much entertainment value as wisdom.

But buried within the feature were comments by private figures—regular readers of Esquire who wrote in with their pearls of wisdom about what they’d learned along life’s road. They’re my favorites in part because I can relate in some way to each one.

I’ll start by sharing the regular-Joe pearls, then give you some snip-its from the celebs.

“Being out of work for seven months in 2010 taught me character, humility, and persistence. It also really sucked.” – Yale Hollander, 42, St. Louis

“The fact that curiosity killed the cat isn’t an argument for not being curious; it’s an argument for not being a cat.”  — John Alejandro King, 40, Washington, D.C.

“Never eat at a chain restaurant while on vacation.”  — Curry Smith, 26, New Orleans

“Get in shape to play. Don’t play to get in shape.”  Russell Bryan Love, 44, Santa Cruz

“Of all the things I’ve become attached to, the ones I superglued to myself caused the greatest regret.”  — Daniel Rahe, 30, Tacoma

“Sometimes your neighborhood bar feels more like home than home.”  — Derek Gale, 30, Chicago

“I always took pride in the fact that I was not one of those guys whose ego was tied to his career. But when I lost my job, I was amazed at how much my ego was hurt.”  — Mickey Chapatte, 52, San Diego

There is a lot of wisdom among the celebrity “What I’ve Learned” entries, so pick up a copy of the magazine or go online and read them all. Here are just a few of the ones I found meaningful:

Robert Redford:  “Humor. Skill. Wit. Sex appeal. That order.”

James L. Brooks:  “Every laugh you have at the keyboard does not mean everybody else will laugh. But laughing helps sustain you to move forward.”

Fred Willard:  “Ballet I love for about five minutes. Then I want to see a comic come out.”

Ricky Gervais:  “Music is still the greatest art form. I’m in awe of it. A chord can make me feel sick.”

Danny DeVito:  “I’ve been to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s a tower and it’s leaning. You look at it, but nothing happens, so then you look for some place to get a sandwich.”

Here’s to The Meaning of Life and to getting closer to finding it in our own lives. L’chaim.

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How to write it

This is Part Three of a three-part series on writing. The series incorporates stated views of several well-known writers and their observations about the craft.

Over the last two days, we have commiserated with some of  the world’s noted writers in confronting the difficulties of writing and we have read their reasons for writing.

Today, we’ll wrap up the series by pretending to ask them for advice on what makes good writing. Here’s what they said:

Stephen King – “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.”

King also said that, “In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”

Mark Twain suggested, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” 

Twain also said word choice is critical: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Anton Chekhov  — “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

Baltasar Gracián – “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.”

Jean-Luc Godard – “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end… but not necessarily in that order.”

I find this final quote relevant to modern day writing. In the following passage, substitute the word “diaries” with “blogs” and you’ll see what I mean:

Ann Beattie — “It seems to me that the problem with diaries, and the reason that most of them are so boring, is that every day we vacillate between examining our hangnails and speculating on cosmic order.”

Once again, would you care to share writing techniques that work for you?

See you Monday.

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Why write it?

This is Part Two of a three-part series on writing. The series incorporates stated views of several well-known writers and their observations about the craft.

If yesterday’s topic piqued your interest in coaxing out your inner writer—and especially if it didn’t—you might be inspired by the words of noted writers of the last few centuries.

Given the opportunity to ask them why they write or what they get out of the writing process, this is what they would say. Perhaps at least one of these will appeal to you:

E.L. Doctorow – “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

Lord Byron – “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

Kingsley Amis – “If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.”

Jules Renard – “Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.” 

Gloria Steinem – “I do not like to write – I like to have written.”

Apparently, writing isn’t always deliberate for songwriter Joan Baez. I suspect other writers can relate to the inspiration she describes: “It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.” 

Tomorrow we will take tips from Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, Stephen King and others as they describe their techniques for producing good written works.

In the meantime, I’ll ask anyone who cares to answer:  Why do you write?

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